The built environment and the natural world should go hand-in-hand. But too often, they are treated as separate. Today on our show, we’re joined by Mary Davidge, independent environmental advocate and former Director of Global Design for Real Estate and Workplace Services at Google. Mary has spent her entire career working at the intersection of health, design and nature. Listen to the podcast episode and find transcripts below. You can also find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere you listen to podcasts.
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 19: Where Health, Design and Nature Meet
Guest: Mary Davidge, Environmental Advocate
[00:09] Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood.
[00:24] Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about the relationship between the built environment and the natural world. To do this, we’re joined by Mary Davidge, independent environmental advocate and former Director of Global Design for Real Estate and Workplace Services at Google. Mary has spent her entire career working at the intersection of health, design and nature. Since recently leaving Google, she’s been dedicating her time more fully to environmental causes, and investigating ways to help communities become more resilient in a time of global climate crisis. Joining us from her home in California, she shares how nature has guided her path as a designer. Here’s Mary now.
[01:05] Mary Davidge: Earlier in my career, I remember thinking I needed to be really good at everything. In the architectural practice that I was in initially, there were nine men and me. Almost all of them were significantly older than I was and had a lot more experience. And then at some point, we had a facilitator who had us take the StrengthsFinder test. This particular facilitator looked at my profile, and he said, “Well, what you are is a walking StrengthsFinder.” And it really helped me to just look at it in a different way, and realize, oh, the best thing I can do, as a leader and a manager is to find people that are stronger than I am in all those different things that I thought that I had to be good at. And I really do think that it helped me in my career a lot. My name is Mary Davidge. And I am working as an independent advocate for environmental issues.
[02:15] Elizabeth Wood: Mary’s passion for nature started at an early age, and has long influenced her approach to design. But it hasn’t always been easy to incorporate nature into her professional life.
[02:26] Mary Davidge: I grew up in Northern California in a very remote area. I spent a lot of time in nature, and I think it was just a blending of loving design and the natural world. My father was a rancher, which again is kind of a dichotomy because often environmentalists and ranchers don’t necessarily see eye to eye, but I spent my summers really working with him on that ranch and riding day in and day out and seeing the beauty of nature. You know, it never stays the same. It is always changing. So still today, when I can get out and hike or just sit in nature, the answers come somehow to the tough problems.
[03:12] Mary Davidge: I worked in the design and architecture field for all of my 40-plus year career. And always in the Silicon Valley, always with high tech companies mainly on campus projects. I cared deeply about the environment my entire career, but infrequently did I feel like I had the opportunity to dig as deeply into it as I wanted to.
[03:38] Mary Davidge: I worked in the design and architecture field for all of my 40-plus year career, your career. And always in the Silicon Valley, always with high tech companies mainly on campus projects. I cared deeply about the environment my entire career, but infrequently did I feel like I had the opportunity to dig as deeply into it as I wanted to. In the 90s, I was fortunate enough to work on a project. It was to be a campus for Palm, which was a tech company–it made the ‘Palm,’ the first kind of phone. And our firm was doing the interiors, but William McDonough + Partners was doing the Korn Shell. The way the project was framed and the goals that were set for that project just turned my way of thinking around. I just loved it. It was aspirational in every way. And at the end, when it didn’t get built, that kind of dot.com Bubble happened. I just could not force myself to go back to projects that didn’t have a sustainability or an environmental agenda.
[04:26] Elizabeth Wood: Hearing the call to do more for the environment in her work, Mary launched her own consulting practice, quickly landing her first client: then just an ambitious little upstart called Google.
[04:39] Mary Davidge: When I started my consulting practice, I didn’t really even know about Google. It was just kind of a startup then. And when I came there and spoke with George Salah, who was then the director of real estate and realized that the founders at Google were just as adamant and concerned about the health of the Googlers as they were also very concerned about the environment. I just thought oh my gosh, they already were so aligned with those things.
[05:10] Mary Davidge: Google was my first client. And this was in 2003. Really, even though I worked for the first 10 years at Google as a consultant, kind of helping to build their real estate sustainability team, it was always with the focus of design. And with having design as a background. It was always how do we, as human beings, facilitate design in a way that’s going to be complementary to the environment, that’s going to support the environment. In 2014, I became the director of design, I became part of Google, internalized in Google, as we started to build the large campus projects. My whole career was very much related to design, and even the sustainability was to create guidelines for design firms that would end up, you know, giving Google the types of spaces that met their aspirational sustainability goals.
[06:10] Mary Davidge: What gives me hope in the environmental work is human ingenuity. Obviously, we have created terrible, terrible problems. But the innovation and creativity of the human mind, it just never fails to fascinate me. So I think that the answers are also there in the design field.
[06:33] Elizabeth Wood: It was while at Google that Mary and her team partnered with frog to…well we can’t really say much about the work itself just now. Sorry about that–just the nature of the consulting biz. But here’s what Mary can share.
[06:47] Mary Davidge: I can’t say a lot about that, not a lot of the detail about it. But what I can say is that the work really helped the team that I was on at the time to think about a question that we had, that we were working on, in a much broader way–to look at it in a way that was not so myopic, to help us to identify edge case users that were outside of our organization that would give us perspective on the particular question that we would not have even thought about. The process was helpful and informative. I am grateful that I had that experience in working with frog. It was great.
[07:31] Mary Davidge: I often have used this exercise of forcing myself or the team I’m working with to ask 100 questions about a topic. I mean, I have next to me this book, The Book of Beautiful Questions by Warren Berger. And I really think that when you when you look at a question a lot of different ways and from a lot of different angles and force yourself to think more deeply about what the real question is, then it’s easier to think of the big picture and the long term. The projects in my past that I worked with frog on were exactly that. That’s something I learned from them: the big picture of just digging more deeply and more deeply and more deeply into the question. A lot of times even if we think we’re asking a diverse broad group of people, I think as individuals, we get myopic, and bringing someone in who can help you to think about: Who else might you ask that isn’t even in your field? Or tangentially has a relationship up to your field? Who else might you ask that would help you to look at this question differently?
[08:42] Elizabeth Wood: At Google, Mary recently worked on two very large-scale construction projects: Google’s Charleston East and Bay View campuses in California. Both are massive sites, each with canopies topped with dramatic dragonscale solar panels expected to generate 40% of the buildings’ energy needs.
[09:03] Mary Davidge: They are the culmination really of years and years of research and work that Google did. My hope for those two campuses though is that it will become clear that the kinds of aspirational goals that Google had for the projects are doable, that we can achieve at the scale of Charleston East. It took many years of research to figure out how to do that and a lot of work on Google’s part to figure out how to do that, but it just goes to show that it can be done. And the same is true of the Bay View campus on a different realm: their energy goals, their energy systems, the geothermal system, the dragonscale solar.
[09:53] Mary Davidge: Google worked with the San Francisco Estuary Institute to create habitat guidelines a couple of years before those projects, but those projects really embraced that habitat guidelines, so the use of them, that connection with nature. Bay View is on track to achieve the Living Building Challenge Water Petal, which means netzero water on the site and to do that they had to create the retention ponds, which are also a way of restoring the wetlands and giving access to the bay trail. I’m really looking forward to each of those projects being built.
[10:33] Elizabeth Wood: Taking on such a massive design challenge, like the two new Google campuses, means thinking long-term. But it also means being willing to adapt and pivot when necessary. For Mary, this always means looking to examples from nature.
[10:49] Mary Davidge: Times change. Models change for what good design is. But the thing that never changes is our connection with nature. And you can rely on it. You can rely on palettes from nature. The whole topic of biophilia has just always fascinated me, which is our innate need for and understanding of nature. We are part of it, basically. And I then also really came to understand that you have to design for the health of human beings and the environment. You just can’t prioritize.
[11:25] Mary Davidge: I also think that we are in a phase right now where there are so many unknowns about the way that we’re going to use spaces and places in the future, mainly because of the pandemic. The people who are thinking about that in really creative ways and thinking about the idea of how places will change and learn and grow to a future that we can’t even yet imagine. Those that are doing that well, and thinking about that kind of flexibility and adaptability, I think are really at the leading edge.
[12:03] Mary Davidge: I think over the next three-to-five years that there will be a shift in development like none that we have seen in our lifetime. The intersection between the pandemic and climate change is going to drive design. Those that can predict how you would design developments that are going to be able to accommodate that change–I do think that really putting the brightest kind of creative minds together with technology is a trend that gives me a lot of hope. I think if we use it well, the results will be good.
[12:41] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Mary will share her advice to young designers, and her thoughts on what it means to build resilient communities.
[12:50] Hi, I’m Jeff Sharpe, Global Lead of frog’s Architecture and Places practice. The pandemic has changed our ways of working forever. Not since the integration of the personal computer have companies needed to reinvent their ways of working so completely. But by putting employee empowerment, well-being and creativity at the center, we can create a new model of work that truly drives innovation. Check today’s show notes to download our new report ‘Reshaping the Workplace.’ Learn the four key pillars forming the future of work and start defining a vision for the future of your workplace.
[13:31] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to Mary Davidge, environmental advocate.
[13:33] Mary Davidge: For some reason, just about every decade, I feel like oh, I need to change my…I need to readjust, realign to the things that I feel are important right now. When you’re starting to not be as energized by the work for some reason. And usually, what has happened to me, which I think has been a really fun part of my design life, has been that I’ve been able to build teams. It’s been a joy for me. Often you kind of like, grow out of your job. The other people become so great at what they’re doing. And I also am much better at the early thinking and kind of conceptual bringing people together. And also I have felt that environmental responsibility has just been a draw for me always. And you get kind of to a point, at least I have gotten to a point where, oh, the world changes around you too. And then there’s a calling to something that’s happening in the world that’s different than what it would have been 10 years ago.
[14:38] Mary Davidge: The advice that I would give to any young designer is to learn to quiet, the outside voices, the consensus voices that sometimes we’re all drawn to in design and make sure that you hear your own inner voice. You can tell when you’re on the right path. There’s an energy about it. There’s something that’s energizing about the work. And I think you can also tell when you’re on the wrong path. My son recently was saying, “Gosh, I just keep hitting barriers on this thing.” And I said, “Well, maybe there’s just a door in a different direction that you’re not trying. Really stop and think about that.” Mistakes give you confidence too. I think never be afraid of a big mistake. I have made many. But you know, it will teach you.
[15:36] Elizabeth Wood: While Mary has always been invested in environmental issues that affect the climate, it wasn’t until the summer of 2021 when the threats of the climate crisis hit devastatingly close to home for her and her family.
[15:48] Mary Davidge: The week in July that I left Google, my last week, I had planned to go up NEARin northern California where my family is from near Lassen Park. We have a small–had a small cabin up there. And I had planned to go up there for a few weeks just to rest kind of noodle hike, reorient myself. And what happened was the large million-acre Dixie Fire started that very week.
[16:17] Mary Davidge: My husband and my older son who was here visiting from the East Coast, we went up just like two days after I left Google. And we happened to be working on a conservation project up there. The smoke started coming our way and even though the fire was a long ways away, we said, “Oh, it’s never gonna get here. No, that’s clear on the other side of Lake Almanor. That won’t get here.” The smoke just got so bad that we left. and then we just watched it, you know, watched the CAL FIRE website and so on. It’s a very remote area. It’s totally off the grid. There’s no cell service up there, not even any electricity. So we had to wait until one of the press people went in and took pictures, and we saw the photographs of our cabin. And we knew then.
[17:07] Mary Davidge: And over the course of the next few weeks, our cabin and that area burned, which was sad in itself. But nothing compared to the people who lost their whole lives and you know, livelihood in these small communities such as Greenville. So it gave me this immediate thing to focus on, which was to better understand in the realm of climate change the lack of resilience in these small communities is really a heartbreaking thing. So I’ve spent the last few months since that time really trying to understand that better, trying to understand specifically the examples of that community there and wildfires. But it isn’t just wildfire. It’s sea level rise, coastal communities, island nations–you see it all around the world now. But I felt like I could dig into this region that I knew so well.
[18:05] Elizabeth Wood: For Mary, understanding how to better build for resilience has never been more mission-critical. And it requires leaning on new tools that can help communities better anticipate needs and prepare for the worst.
[18:18] Mary Davidge: I think it’s a really interesting word to try to define because people use it in a lot of different ways. But for me, I think that it has to do with not only being able to be resilient in terms of environmental events, whether it’s storm events or fire. To be able to have some level of predictive modeling to begin to understand what the climate might be in the future is really important. What I learned in the situation of the Dixie Fire, and I think this is true of many others, is that the models the firefighters had to try to deal with this fire all broke. They didn’t ever have anything this large, these forceful of winds, with these kinds of conditions. The models just weren’t there. So I do think that some kind of predictive modeling and scientific basis for what resilience means in terms of future of climate and climate events.
[19:26] Mary Davidge: But as important as that, and maybe even more important is resilience of the community. I live in the Bay Area near the South Bay near San Francisco. And my experience here is that there are, even though they kind of all blend in together because there are urban and suburban areas, they are small communities. Their approach might be community-by-community, but they really need to look at it regionally, and make the community broader in order to support everyone, not only those that have the means to protect themselves in some way, or to get out of the situation or to deal with a climate event after it happens. But to protect everyone–those who don’t have the means to do that, too. So I think it’s coming together as a community, facing the facts of where we are right now, in this climate situation.
[20:25] Mary Davidge: We are in the climate crisis. There’s no…it’s not in the future. We’re in it, we see it all around us. Whether it be a wildfire, or whether it’s storm events or coastal communities being affected, we’re in it. I really do see in movements such as, say, Architecture 2030, where they have really helped to set a goal. And I’m just using this as an example in the field of design and architecture. They’ve set a goal. They’ve asked the big firms and all the firms really for a commitment. And over the last few years, I think there’s, fortunately, we’re getting more and more of an understanding of not only what the goal is, but how some of the very forward-thinking teams and projects are starting to achieve those goals.
[21:24] Mary Davidge: So yeah, I mean, it’s a dire situation. And I fear for the generations that follow us. I am inspired by the young people that are so angry with my generation. On the other hand, I really think that there’s more creativity and innovation when people come together collaboratively and try to solve these problems. There will be some very tough choices. And we need everybody to pitch in.
[21:51] Elizabeth Wood: The situation may be dire, but Mary shared how she finds hope and strength in knowing she’s on the right path.
[21:58] Mary Davidge: I want to reference a quote that I just love. And I’ve used this quote a number of times. But whenever I’m questioning, “Are you working on the right things?” I love this quote by Gina McCarthy from the anthology, All We Can Save. “Here’s my plan. I’m going to communicate the stakes of this crisis and the opportunities that await us if we get it right. I’m going to make sure that everyone understands the connection between climate change and health. I’m going to lift up the women who are already doing this work and whose ideas and energy will be essential to building the world I want for my grandchildren.” End of quote. So if ever there’s a moment that I’m wondering, what should I be spending my time on? I think it is that. Gina McCarthy’s quote really inspired me for my next decade.
[22:52] Elizabeth Wood: For Mary, building a world that is resilient simultaneously means building a world that is undeniably beautiful.
[23:00] Mary Davidge: It’s a word that sometimes some designers shy away from, but I think that beauty in architecture and design is something that is really important. Really, the best projects that you can do are projects that are going to be well loved for decades and hopefully centuries. And I think that there are qualities in design in architecture that have a global resonance for people that bring beauty into a project.
[23:28] Mary Davidge: I think that, for designers, looking at what we have found to be historically beautiful is always a great place to start. And I think when you mix that with nature, or you blend that with nature, you can hardly go wrong. Machu Picchu is a perfect example to me of a blend of human ingenuity and the natural world, and how the two of them just met in such an amazing way. One day, my family and friends were hiking and I just spent an afternoon sitting there kind of at the rise looking down over it. And what struck me was that no matter who came up over that rise, what their language was, what their culture was, what their nationality was, everyone was awestruck. Not one person looked like they were the slightest bit disappointed. Everyone was more than excited and more than really thrilled with what they saw. And, obviously, it’s ruins. But it absolutely is beautiful. You can’t, you just can’t argue with it.
[24:50] Elizabeth Wood: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. You’ll also find a link to download frog’s new report ‘Reshaping the Workplace,’ all about designing for the future of work. We want to sincerely thank Mary Davidge, environmental advocate, for joining us to share her time, her inspiration and her wisdom with us.
[24:50] Elizabeth Wood: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.