Architects, engineers and designers are stepping outside of the bounds of traditional practice to make a difference in our communities and our environment. DesignIntelligence talked with Dan Watch—principal, science and technology practice leader of Perkins+Will, Atlanta—who was dissatisfied with the direction of politics in the U.S. He decided to run for a city council seat in Norcross, Georgia, where he and his family live. Norcross is in the metropolitan Atlanta area, and has an estimated population of 16,845 (2017) and occupies 4.64 square miles. Dan was elected to the council in November 2017, and sworn in on January 2, 2018 for a two-year term.

DesignIntelligence (DI): What inspired you to run for a position on the council of a small city?

Dan Watch (DW): I was and am not happy with the politics in this country. Instead of complaining, I am trying to do something positive about it (in a very small way).

DI: How would you describe the role of a councilperson?

DW: I think the person needs to be a leader, be able to make smart business decisions and be passionate about the city they represent. It is also very important to listen to all citizens, share information, collaborate and do our best to clearly communicate. We are public servants.

DI: What has the experience been like so far?

DW: Challenging. Working for a private company for 24 years that has been very successful being innovative and always thinking out of the box is much different than working within government where protocols and process are very cumbersome. The most difficult problem the government has is the obstacles and processes set up by the government. In private industry if there is an issue or idea, we simply gather the right people around the table, and we discuss and determine within an hour what we are going to do. For the government only two council members can talk to each other outside a public meeting. Many issues take much more time than public meetings allow. Many issues will take months or longer to resolve within the government while they may take hours or days within private industry.

But the experience has also been very rewarding. I know that I can have a positive impact on the city and the people who live and work here. I’ve enjoyed meeting and working with different people in the city. I’ve been very impressed and humbled by the volunteers and the quality of work they provide on their own time to the city, as well as the public works department and their ability to keep the city so clean and safe. There are many positive things we have to look forward to in the city of Norcross.

DI: How has your experience in practice informed your approach to government?

DW: Focus on quality, listening to people and looking for creative solutions in a timely manner.

DI: You’ve been a champion of sustainable and healthy design in your practice. How has your role on the council enabled you to promote a more sustainable and healthier city?

DW: This is a very good question but difficult to answer. The committee on sustainability is doing a very good job but getting their message out to the citizens and to implement their ideas can be challenging. Also, the issues for sustainability and healthy design solutions for the city are in the public spaces, where in private industry I focus more on the building design. The development of parks and focus on pedestrian and bike paths are the key issues. What is somewhat helpful is the SPLOST money is directed to parks, sidewalks and bike paths. If the SPLOST was ever voted down our community would feel the pain almost immediately. I would actually like to see the SPLOST increased to accelerate some of these projects. Over time we will get enough done to link the bike paths and sidewalks to enable people to walk more and ride bikes to adjacent neighborhoods. A key focus we have is to provide safe pedestrian crossings on busy, major roads in Norcross.

We all need to get more involved in politics to move this country forward. As citizens and as a profession, we cannot sit on the sidelines. We must understand the issues and be informed. We must get to know the candidates as well as the people who are already serving. We can be a key part of the solution to better communities and a better world.

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Dan Watch is science + technology practice leader, principal, at Perkins+Will.

This article is excerpted from the DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018 edition, where you can read more about how architects, engineers, constructors and designers are stepping outside of the bounds of traditional practice to make a difference in our environment and in our communities.