Charlie Cannon | Innovation Studio

“I teach this class every year because the problems are really hard and they’re really interesting and they need to be solved.”

A professor in the Industrial Design Department at the Rhode Island School of Design, Charlie Cannon teaches the Innovation Studio, an interdisciplinary initiative, co-sponsored by ID and Landscape Architecture, that typically tackles large scale environmental or infrastructure problems from redesigning New York City’s entire waste stream to redesigning a landfill to make an eco-industrial park for the city of Phoenix.

This studio will be the topic of Making Different, a lecture being given by Cannon on Saturday from 3:45 to 5:15pm as part of the Design4 A Healthy Planet panel. On this panel, Cannon will be unveiling several lesson gleaned from the Innovation Studio. Lessons that could potentially revolutionize the design field as we know it.

“We’ve really used the studio as kind of an incubator over the past ten years to develop either new research projects or to contribute to community conversations around sustainability, environmental, or other problems,” said Cannon.

In the studio, students are given a prompt, which they research thoroughly -- bringing in technical advisors, developers, businessmen, policy makers, and environmental and social advocates. In doing this, students can imagine what it would take to optimize for the interests of all these traditionally adversarial stakeholders at once. They then frame a problem and decide what the most comprehensive solution to that problem might be.

The prompts come in variety of shapes and sizes. In 2007, the studio explored what designers could do to keep carbon emissions down to 2015 levels, which led to an invitation to participate in a curated show for the Democratic National Convention. Cannon and students developed an exhibition for the event titled “Partly Sunny,” looking at 36 design initiatives from around the world and how they prepared for the challenges of climate change.

“Since that time, the studio moved its focus to not only include expressively environmental issues, but to look at the problems of our day, so it’s as much about sustainability as it is social innovation,” said Cannon. Such was the case with a recent prompt that looked at how to drive national design talent to work on rural problems in Alabama. AIGA is currently considering sponsoring an Alabama Design Summit this summer, possibly bringing chapter leaders to learn design-thinking techniques and test the viability of the projects developed during the course.

Two years prior, the studio worked with Earth University in Costa Rica, the foremost school for sustainable agricultural techniques for the world’s tropics, to develop recommendations for some newly acquired property. This inspired three new studios: a ubiquitous computing course investigating smart phones as field-data gatherers, a landscape architecture course master-planning the 3.700 acres, as well as a design for social entrepreneurship course currently designing sellable products from its agricultural waste.

“The challenges that we face… and that I think will define the 21st century appear to us to be intransigent, intractable. They take a long time to fix,” said Cannon. “On the positive side, the designers bring a set of tools, which are very valuable to that work, but it would be naïve to think that we could do it ourselves. The studio has seen itself as a demonstration project; If we are able to work with large teams of all different kinds of expertise in an interdisciplinary, collaborative way, the solutions that come out of that collaboration are much more diverse and richer and more vivid.

Cannon hopes that the studio will provide a model of how professions of different disciplines can work together. “We’re about everybody coming to the table, bringing their expertise, and using that to define a problem and then figuring out the solution that would best answer that,” said Cannon. By providing an alternative to the typical interdisciplinary process, Cannon hopes to transform the design field by showing students how to run these kind of teams to take that experience back into the field as alumni.

Come to the Design4 A Healthy Planet Panel to hear more on how the Innovation Studio is revolutionizing the field of design and what we can learn from it on the second day of the conference.


Carly Ayres is an undergraduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design, student representative to the Industrial Design department, and co-founder of RISD-ID.ORG. 

Image source: DayLife.