Discovery and inspiration between flowers and vines

February 23, 2015
Editor-in-residence, d.school.

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Vines grow at Benziger Winery, a family owned vineyard run biodynamically. (Emi Kolawole)

Vines grow at Benziger Winery, a family owned vineyard run biodynamically. (Emi Kolawole)

Where do you retreat?

I visit the plants on my patio. There’s an orange tree (named “Apple”), a struggling rosemary bush, a hydrangea on the mend and some succulents, among other plants. I visit these plants to get away from everything. More often than not, I even abandon my phone in the house.

It’s quiet aside from the birds, a few active squirrels and the rush of water being driven from the spout into my water canteen. You can hear the occasional car rush by the house and the horn of a train in the distance. Both are nice reminders of my temporary absence from the world outside.

A view of the winery from the trolly car. (Emi Kolawole)

A view of the winery from the trolly car. (Emi Kolawole)

I check the flowers, wait to see if any hummingbirds or bees will visit, and I breathe.

I think.

This past Thursday, the media design team retreated. We too went to a garden — one far more sophisticated than the small patchwork of green on my concrete patio. En route, there was the coursing engine of the sports utility vehicle we rented. The large Suburban rumbled towards Sonoma and the Benziger Winery.

Inside the storage shed where tea is made and kept. The tea is used as a natural fertilizer. (Emi Kolawole)

Inside the storage shed where tea is made and kept. The tea is used as a natural fertilizer. (Emi Kolawole)

This trip was significant well beyond the opportunity to sip fine wine and munch on lunch. It was, in fact, a discovery mission. We wanted to learn more about how our media design team might work, how we could, as a group, grow and learn from one another in the most sustainable way possible. After all, it’s not every day a new large-scale project is planted in the d.school’s very fertile seedbed.

You’re probably thinking, “Sonoma is full of wineries, folks. Why Benziger?”

One word: Biodynamics.

A tour through the layers of earth show the ecosystem beneath the vines at Benziger. (Emi Kolawole)

A tour through the layers of earth show the ecosystem beneath the vines at Benziger. (Emi Kolawole)

Benziger, a family-owned winery, practices biodynamic viticulture. It’s an organic agriculture technique. So, for example, if a pest finds its way into the vineyard, rather than spray a bunch of harsh, soil-hardening chemicals that may end up doing more harm than good, another plant, animal or insect will be introduced to mitigate the threat to the crops. Take gophers for example — a notorious pest. Rather than plunge cyanide-laced seeds into the ground that could end up killing everything from the gopher to the family dog, the winemaker introduces owl boxes to give the gopher’s natural predator a place to set up camp.

So it goes for pest after pest and plant after plant, granted with far greater levels of complexity than I am outlining here. There’s an area at Benziger dedicated entirely to cultivating insects favorable to promoting wine growth. “Habitat highways” run throughout the vineyard — regions between rows of grape vines full of plants that promote and discourage various natural phenomena, attracting certain animals and bugs that enrich the ecosystem. There’s a natural water treatment system where dirty water flows through a marshland where it is filtered before being deposited into a clean pool.

The marshland between the pools is seen here. Plants filter dirty water from one pool, depositing clean water into another. (Emi Kolawole)

The marshland between the pools is seen here. Plants filter dirty water flowing from one pool, depositing clean water into another. (Emi Kolawole)

The winery looks more like a garden than active farmland. The sterility and silence are missing, replaced by the smell of various flowers and the conversation among the area birds.

We took a moment to process our experience over lunch at the winery, discussing how we might draw on what we have seen to incorporate the media design project into our work. Here are a few questions we considered:

  • How could we create a content stream among our projects that allowed information to flow freely from the media design project to the K12 Lab Network and on to Executive Education — and throughout the entire d.school? The more informed people are about what is happening, the more aligned they may feel.
  • We recognized that we tend to work best at the d.school when we involve a lot of people. It’s organic and produces a wonderful product. But we wondered what we could do to embrace the increased complexity and reduced efficiency necessary to remain organic and sustainable as an organization.
  • We observed that, while a winery has the luxury of focusing on a single product — wine (granted, there’s a deep complexity to that) — the d.school produces a number of different things. How do we retain our “terroir” — or “sense of place” — in the midst of all of the different ideas, activity and output?
  • In a biodynamic ecosystem, winemakers are called on to focus on the bad as well as the good. They are constantly confronting what works and what doesn’t work to achieve balance and promote strong growth. We wondered what we, as a team could do to achieve that same balance of focus between the bad actions and results as well as the good.
  • How can we turn the tell into the show? We tell students at the d.school to “show, don’t tell.” We then ask them to tell us about what they’ve shown in the form of a story. But we often miss the valuable learning from their process (like the process of the discussion we engaged in at Benziger). So, how do we make the “tell” the “show” as well, introducing new elements to encourage the growth of a regular storytelling habit?
  • There’s the challenge of balancing the push to share and inform with the need to clarify. How can we balance for both?

We don’t have answers for these questions yet, but we’re getting there. This visit was merely a first step. Somewhere among the flowers and the vines we found inspiration to begin thinking in new and different ways about growing our media design project and keeping our larger team — or d.school family — informed as to what, when and why we’re doing any particular thing. It’s a work in progress, but we’re just planting the seeds of the vine and have many more challenges to confront along the way before they bear fruit.

A row of flowers between the vines at Benziger Winery. (Emi Kolawole)

A row of flowers between the vines at Benziger Winery. (Emi Kolawole)

What have you encountered in your work around these and other questions of bringing in new projects to an established organization? Let us know in the comments and learn more about our collaboration with Knight Foundation on media design.

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1 Comment

  1. james

    I suggest having a local social media for people to interact in. Perhaps install a forum software for the d school. Try also to check out Elgg.

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