The ARkStorm Initiative: California’s Other “Big One”


This Designmatters multi-faceted collaboration with USGS engaged decision-makers in potent design-led strategy sessions and produced public awareness tools for the ARKstorm scientific scenario.

“We think this event happens once every 100 or 200 years or so, which puts it in the same category as our big San Andreas earthquakes. The ARkStorm is essentially two historic storms (January 1969 and February 1986) put back to back in a scientifically plausible way. The model is not an extremely extreme event.”

—Dr. Lucile Jones, Chief Scientist, USGS Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project and Architect of the ARkStorm Scenario

Project Overview:

Over the span of six months during fall 2010 and spring 2011, Designmatters partnered with the Multi-Hazards Demonstration Project (MHDP) of the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to help design a series of interconnected outcomes:  a communication strategy and public awareness film, a cross-sector emergency planning meeting for decision-makers, and a Summit that unveiled a scientific scenario which models a California hypothetical storm that would cause more than an initial 300 billion dollars in damage, the ARkStorm Scenario.

Background: The ARkStorm Scenario

The USGS Multi Hazards Demonstration Project’s (MHDP) second full scenario, called ARkStorm, addresses massive U.S. West Coast storms analogous to those that devastated California in 1861–62. Storms of this magnitude are projected to become more frequent and intense as a result of climate change.

The MHDP assembled experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), USGS, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the State of California, California Geological Survey, the University of Colorado, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), California Department of Water Resources, California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA) and other organizations to design the large, but scientifically plausible, hypothetical storm scenario that would provide emergency responders, resource managers, and the public a realistic assessment of what is historically possible.

To learn more about the key findings of the scenario, see here.

Phase 1: A Social Innovation Charette “DesignStorm”

Idea Generation + Synthesis + Innovative Results

Under the leadership of Product Design Department Chair Karen Hofmann, Art Center has developed a methodology for design-centric innovation workshops or charettes that are held on an ongoing basis, facilitated by the Educational Partnerships office, and engage students and faculty for short, intensive bursts of creative sessions with outside partners.  These are typically organized around a particular topic, technology or specific challenge presented by the sponsor company or organization.

With ARkStorm, Designmatters had the opportunity to partner with the Product Design Department in a social innovation focused DesignStorm that had a two-fold objective:

1. Enrich communication and collaborative processes between a key group of stakeholders and participating organizations

2. Yield tangible, action-oriented results for consensus-building in preparation of the ARkStorm Summit

The one-day DesignStorm was held in October 2010 and included a broad range of participants (emergency managers, structural engineers, meteorologists, business leaders, geologists, social scientists, and policy makers).

The day was striking for its high-intensity, and ability to convene cross-disciplinary organizations in a potent dialogue on the topic of ARkStorm strategies for preparation, mitigation, response and recovery.

Participants worked in short, concentrated sessions throughout the day, in teams with Art Center faculty and student “visualizers,” and in pre-assigned groups designed to maximize expertise on the following key issues around ARkStorm:

These faculty-led sessions used design-based methods for crafting future scenarios and possible solutions that could be driven by the stakeholders in the room. Participants were asked to arrive open-minded and ready to explore new conceptual ground, in an undistracted and highly-focused, immersive setting.

“The process was exciting.  Participants were engaged throughout the day. They were doodling and diagramming and laughing and smiling. We had moved the dial from a relatively quiet, reserved room of experts that didn’t know each other well, to a room full of potential relationships and possibilities for the future.”

—Sherry Hoffman, Faculty, Environmental Design, Co-lead Facilitator, ARkStorm DesignStorm

Six hours and over 1000 ideas later, with 100 plus critical topics identified, the Designstorm ended.  With a library of ideas created, vital connections discovered, a priority list for topics developed, momentum was strong going into the January ARkStorm.

“DesignStorms are very informative because the subject matter, the problem to be solved, if you like, is presented in a very condensed manner and there is a sense of urgency to start developing possible solutions paths.”

—Frido Beisert, Faculty, Product Design, Co-lead Facilitator, ARkStorm DesignStorm

Phase 2: ARkStorm Summit

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and California Emergency Management Agency (CalEMA) presented the ARkStorm Summit in January, 2011, a two-day event to engage stakeholders from across California to take action as a result of the USGS ARkStorm Scenario’s findings, which were officially released at the Summit.

Held at the California State University of Sacramento, the event drew 200+ participants and leaders from across the state and the country, from 65 agencies and organizations.  Emergency managers, regulatory and scientific agencies, policymakers, business leaders, and other experts from the public and private sector were engaged to address data surrounding the real potential for a massive storm, and to convene on actionable inter-agency steps moving forward.  To encourage dialogue, all participants participated in interactive breakout sessions led by an Art Center Summit team, which employed a similar methodology to the one-day charette, but on a much larger scale.

“The ARkStorm Summit was a combination of energy, expertise, and experience.  From “what if” questions to “blue sky” strategies, to rapid fire brainstorming, participants got excited about the chance to dialogue with each other.”

—Elisa Ruffino, Director, Designmatters

Leading up to the Summit, this team of Art Center faculty, students and alumni, many of whom participated in the initial charette Designstorm, was convened by Designmatters to design the key “interactive breakout” structure of the Summit sessions as well as communication methodologies and visualization tools to provoke discussion and help consensus building among stakeholders.

The resulting Summit sessions (designed to be engaging and outcome-oriented) that were facilitated by Art Center used an immersive design-centric approach that focused on enriching communication and collaboration between participants with the goal to create actionable solutions.

The break-out sessions designed had the following innovative sequence:

  1. Presentations by experts with deep- dive data sharing
  2. Simultaneous Ideation with participants based on the topics of the scenario and the presentations of experts
  3. “Big idea, small paper” modules (these allowed participants to identify and capture the most relevant information for future directions)
  4. Clustering by strategic topic (communication/policy/infrastructure/partnerships) culled from “the big idea/small paper” sessions
  5. Rapid-fire download of initial conclusions by participants
  6. “Paths to Action:” strategic /actionable next steps are identified by participants

Each day of the Summit concluded with each group of participants making presentations of their “Paths to Action” strategy for all attendees to review.


In addition to the strategy sessions represented at the charette and the Summit, the Art Center team contributed several key communication tools toward the initiative, including: