Geodesign Pioneer Honored

Dr. Stephen Ervin is as vibrant as his day of birth—Mardi Gras. Like the celebratory day itself, Ervin is animated, larger than life, and full of contagious energy. He has spent two decades working at Harvard University teaching courses, speaking at conferences, and authoring books about his passion—the intersection of computing, design, and science. “Geodesign has taken over my life,” Ervin chuckles.

The Assistant Dean for Information Technology at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Director of Computer Resources, and lecturer in the Department of Landscape Architecture, Ervin still somehow manages to find time to evangelize and promote the principles of geodesign in various ways around the world.

“When I first heard the term, I thought I’d been using it all my life,” said Ervin. “But I hadn’t. There was no geodesign 50 years ago. We finally have the means to go about geodesign with all this digital technology—computers and software and satellites and collaboration tools, apps and smartphones—we have a whole new discipline on our hands.”


A Defining Moment

In Ervin’s opinion, geodesign is something that has been talked about for many years. “We called it computer-aided design,” said Ervin. “We didn’t mean CAD—we meant design aided by computation, and that’s really where we are headed.”

Stephen Ervin (right) accepts the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award at the  2012 Esri User Conference for his pioneering work integrating GIS and design.

Stephen Ervin (right) accepts the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 Esri User Conference for his pioneering work integrating GIS and design.

One of the defining moments in Ervin’s career was studying in the graduate school at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Massachusetts in the landscape architecture program, which introduced  Ervin to computer representations of the real world. “I saw this image of ski slopes cut into the hills and the forest clearing that were quite primitive graphically; at that time trees were little triangles with sticks,” said Ervin. “It probably cost days and thousands of dollars for the US Forest Service to produce back in the 1970s. I was drawn to this idea that took bits and bytes and tabular data about tree positions and species and an elevation model and turned it into a visual representation from which decisions could be made.”

The idea that data could be combined with graphical representations was inspirational to Ervin, and shortly after he was introduced to GIS at Harvard University’s Laboratory for Computer Graphics and Spatial Analysis.  In 1984, Ervin took this knowledge and began a software company to help landscape architects visualize the results of design decisions.


The Future of Geodesign

At the 2012 Esri User Conference, Esri president Jack Dangermond presented Ervin with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award for his pioneering work in melding together the disciplines of GIS and design.  In presenting the award, Dangermond noted that “lifetime” didn’t mean that Ervin’s work was done.  There is still much important work to do.

Ervin sees the marriage of science and design as the real challenge to geodesign, so interactions may be orchestrated and we can see the true impacts of design decisions. The idea that people can have visual feedback for decisions—such as with the ski slope representations—has become a fundamental driver to what Ervin finds the most exciting about geodesign. “The idea of immediate visual feedback and dashboards to display key indicators that tell us how well we’re doing, and in real time, is important,” said Ervin. “Whether measuring carbon footprint or total costs or total number of houses, cars, people, buses or even elephants—it’s important to have this kind of feedback and in real time.”

Geodesign Futures: Possibilities, Probabilities, Certainties, and WildcardsView Ervin’s presentation on the future of geodesign from the 2012 Geodesign Summit

Guest post by Karen Richardson.

Matt Artz

About Matt Artz

Matt Artz joined Esri in 1989. In his current role as GIS and Science Manager, he helps communicate the value of GIS as a tool for scientific research and understanding. He writes extensively about geospatial technologies, manages the GIS and Science blog, and is the editor of GIS.com. Prior to joining Esri he worked as an Environmental Scientist at a large science and engineering consulting company, on such diverse projects as highway noise modeling, archaeological impact assessment, and chemical weapons disposal. His educational background includes an M.S. degree in Environmental Policy and Planning and a B.S. degree in Anthropology and Geography.
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