1. Who are you and what do you do?
Tough question. I can freely say that I have been called many things over the years. Most recently someone called me a “badass,” and I’ll accept that answer. But seriously, my name is Jonathan Rewers, and I am a recovering bureaucrat. It is my job simply to change the world. Change physical space, add new services, redesign old ones and change how people experience their daily life. I love what I do. I work day to day for the City and County of San Francisco, in the Municipal Transportation Agency. There I am the Manager of Design Strategy and Delivery. I have built things, changed things and advanced things. I love my job and what I do as a designer, and today could not imagine doing anything else.
2. What project/job/event/research are you currently working on? Please tell us a little about the impetus, content, expected impact of this work.
I have been working in the area of city innovation and my research, methods and work is something I iterate and enhance every year. I did this work at Parsons as part of SDM and continue to do so as faculty. I am currently working on a 5-year plan. Part 1 is where I embed designers in government (my team!). Last year I worked with cities large, design firms and non-profits on how to integrate design thinking to deal with their largest problems. Part 2 is creating a new non-profit called Project CityThink, it has been a 2-year labor of love and all the final pieces are coming into place. Part 3 is pretty radical, so am keeping it top secret for now. Specifically, right now, I am designing hiring processes, public engagement touchpoints, and I get to create whole new mentoring program for city officials. Oh, and I am also implementing a $1.6 billion development program, where we will complete joint-development projects that have yet to be seen in the world (let’s mix housing and transportation)! A focus of my work is the future of transportation in general. Today, I am at the Designing Cities Conference in Los Angeles, and it really made me think about mobility and what’s next. It is a global questions, and wicked problems are those I find the most fun. I wrote in my notebook: “San Francisco First —–> San Francisco Next.” Meaning, we have been the best when it comes to the technology, services and experiences around transportation…….but what’s next? I am going to explore that over the next few months.
3. In what ways did the work/research you did at parsons prepare you for that transition and the work you’re doing now (please be specific)?
Cities are in my blood and in what I do. My summer trip this year was trip around the world. In 24, days I went from Hong Kong, to Bangkok, Dubai, Athens and my favorite Copenhagen. That only names a few of the stops along the way. Parsons helped me refine my thinking on change and the future! I remember being in my second year studio, and being sure about my research, but after expressing my idea to my colleagues, it was clear that while I understood what I was thinking, no one else did. “Jonathan, you are too into this, your bias is showing.” In that moment, a light came on, and I needed to step out of me, and step into the user I was solving for. From there, I re-designed my own job, built my 5-year plan, and so far, so good. Parsons more importantly helped me sharpen my skills, made me efficient, but brought me to a place of excellence.
4. How has the MS-SDM program challenged you to grow as a strategic designer?
The program challenged me to take on all the roles of today’s design industry, whether it be project manager, interaction designer, design researcher or even graphic design. Honestly, I had gotten used to being “the boss,” and while I could be clear in my vision to my teams, I was stale in my “making” skills. Parsons definitely challenged me in that area, I could rely on no one but me to get things done. That made me better, and as I said brought me to a point of excellence. This is why I teach in the program today, to pass on what I have learned and help people take their skills to a point of excellence. Let me put it this way. Today, I have no shortage of work, oh and it is all awesome.
5. If you were to give one piece of advice to current students, what would it be?
When the program seems hard, before you react, start typing that email, setting up that meeting, just stop. Stop and think about what you want out of the program, stop and practice the skills, stop and think. I can absolutely say you get out of the program what you put into it. You are here to become strategic thinkers who have the ability to walk into any situation and solve the big problems. I promise you you’ll get that. So when it is hard, just stop, just think – then act. Plus, there is a network out there to help you. Reach out to it. Some of my best friends in the world today, I met through the SDM Program. Years later, I speak to many of them every week.
6. What book are you reading right now?
Haha. I hate to read. All I do is read, read, read! I just had to take a bunch of federal regulations and design a whole new 10-year program. But, as a hobby, I write. I’ll be in a city somewhere in the world. I’ll tuck into a Starbucks, and just spend a good 30 – 45 minutes to write. It is an awesome three part story (also top secret). I am about 30% into part 1 now. What I will say, is I take a point in history, change that point in history, and we follow a character nearly 75 years later to see the result. The story is about finding yourself, discovering others, and finding purpose. It’s always fun for me to tell parts of the story over a beer or glass of wine. I test prototypes and even get ideas on how the story should evolve with the main character. One such session happened in Dubrovnik, Croatia last year (for GOT fans, that’s King’s Landing). There was wine, we were on a beach, and one of the scenes in my book was designed right there!