Shannon Reece (MASD 2016) has learned about sustainable design by immersing himself in experiences deep in the bush of Zambia as well as immersing himself deep in MCAD’s MA in Sustainable Design program, and now he wants to share some of these learnings and experiences with you.
Next month (August 2019) Reece will be partnering with NOLS to lead the new two-week NATURE-INSPIRED DESIGN WILDERNESS EXPEDITION. As you’ll read on the course website,
“While backpacking and canoeing through New York’s Adirondack mountains, you’ll learn to progress through the stages of the biomimicry design spiral to arrive at practical solutions to real-life scenarios.”
Reece took a moment to answer some questions about the course and his journey with sustainable design.
This looks like an amazing course and personal experience. What inspired you to create it?
In 2007, I took a Wilderness First Responder course with Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI), the sister organization to NOLS. I was quite impressed with the level of professionalism of the instructors and the quality of the content. Two years later, while living in Zambia and working among remote villages deep in the bush, I had a chance to test the skills I learned in the field – about a half a dozen times in fact! I had already read that NOLS was a highly reputable organization but this experience sealed it for me. From then on I knew I wanted to work with NOLS somehow.
A few years later, during the MASD program, I was introduced to Biomimicry and it revolutionized my approach to design. Never before was I challenged or inspired to think so far outside the box. I think it also fit with my presupposition that nature follows certain patterns and that we would be much better off aligning with those patterns rather than trying to fight or dominate them.
The last piece of inspiration came from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, and the important role that nature plays in restoring cognitive function through experiences of awe. I’ve been on a few extended backcountry trips and I remember how clear and rested my mind felt, how I was able to actually think more clearly. Now I understand why. When I discovered that NOLS was offering custom-designed courses, I saw an incredible opportunity to combine the best of these experiences into one.
What do you believe participants will walk away with?
Two things in particular. First, students will walk away with deeper insights from considerable time engaging with nature. Second, NOLS has a reputation of nurturing capable leaders. Teams that face Nature’s ill-suited problems come away with the tested skill, cooperation and confidence to solve real-world design challenges.
There are other biomimicry field courses, as well as other NOLS courses, out there. What is special about this one?
Two words come to mind – volume and depth. The sheer volume of time spent unplugged from daily routine and a thousand distractions allows for devoted time and singular focus without interruption to dive deep in observation and thought.
During my first Biomimicry course I scheduled hour-long sessions (maybe longer, maybe a whole Saturday, if I could squeeze it in). I observed nature and yet remained disconnected from it. I was still in a “comfort bubble”. I suggest that even a devoted Biomimicry retreat at an ecolodge in another country will not yield the same results because at the end of the day you still go back to a comfortable bed and a hot shower.
Spending 14 days and nights out in the wilderness takes the “Nature-as-teacher” paradigm to a whole new level. You will learn nature-empathy like never before, living in the same context, exposed to the same conditions as the organisms you’re studying.
You have done so many interesting things with your career. What was your path to get to where you are today?
Probably my first foray into the world of sustainability happened when I bought a copy of The Natural House Book by David Pearson in 1991 when I was in college. Then I attended a cob building workshop during design school in Colorado. I put my industrial design skills to work in the exhibit industry and designing trade show exhibits, brand environments and pop-up brand events for roughly 15 years.
Still, my love for natural building and permaculture practice led me to more workshops and was undoubtedly part of what led me and my family to live in Zambia, Africa where we built and lived at an off-the-grid bush camp on the banks of the Zambezi River. (As you might guess, we built it using local, natural materials).
After returning to the US three years later, I wanted to combine my design experience with a new perspective on sustainability and that’s what led me to the MASD program at MCAD. Two of my favorite courses during the program were Biomimicry and Systems Thinking. I’ve also always loved outdoor adventure sports and travel but those courses changed the way I viewed the world.
What are you looking forward to doing next?
I have a job at an architectural engineering firm helping manage Fitwel certifications processes for clients and designing graphics that clarify complex information. I’m on a personal journey of discovery that’s for sure. I have several areas of interest that I’m pretty passionate about: facilitating creative ‘innovation labs’, studying and teaching biomechanics and human movement (especially as they relate to preventative health), illustration and visual problem solving, and nature travel (especially as it relates to international peace parks initiatives). I have no idea how it all those areas fit together. I’m just taking it one step at a time looking for how they might converge and combine. This custom course is one of those combinations and I would love to see it take off.
If you could share one piece of advice for people passionate about sustainability, what would it be?
If we are going to lead powerful, transformative change, we have to come at this challenge as positive peacemakers, willing to empathize with those who don’t get it yet.
People who care about the planet are generally a pretty passionate bunch! I’ve discovered along the way that when I don’t keep my zeal and idealism in check, in my mind I can vilify others who don’t share my point of view. This is especially true when the application of regenerative strategies is such a no-brainer that I’m shocked they’re not on board.
Ten years ago I worked with farmers in Western Zambia trying to gently guide them on a journey of discovery so that they would arrive at their own conclusions about the need to adopt more sustainable farming methods. When many chose to keep clear-cutting and burning their fields, wasting their top soil, and changing local weather patterns, I had to remind myself they were just people, trying to take care of their families in the best way they knew how.
Now I work in the building industry and I’ve realized that clients in the executive boardroom who demonstrate the same kind of reluctance to change are not that different from the farmers I worked with. They’re not villains and I have to try to understand what it is that they care so deeply about. Regardless of what the industry or context might be, I think we all have to try in a winsome way to use the language and context our clients relate to.
Thank you, Shannon!
If you’re interested in learning Biomimicry while on a NOLS expedition, SIGN UP NOW — REGISTRATION CLOSES SOON!
If you’re interested in combining your design experience with a new perspective on sustainability, check out our fully online MA in Sustainable Design program.