A quick story: in the early 2000’s, scientists on the Hawaiian island of Oʻahu found that Kāne‘ohe Bay was an ecosystem out of balance. Runoff and debris from the surrounding suburbs were spilling into the bay, carrying pollutants and invasive species into the tidal flats and coral reefs.
It got so bad that a kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) scientist named Koa Shultz went out to meet with kūpuna (elders) to determine the source of the imbalance. Their conclusion: the issue was the colonial system of land management.
For many centuries, Hawaiian land was organized and protected according to the indigenous practice of “ahupua‘a” — specifically, a system of communally-managed water districts that ran from mountains to sea. When outsiders arrived in the 1800’s, they brought their foreign ideas that were in direct conflict with indigenous values, including private land ownership and the concept of “watersheds”. Several generations later, the inevitable became manifest: suburban sprawl and climate change were threatening the island’s natural heritage.
The lessons learned from the Kāne‘ohe Bay saga support a movement to restore ahupua‘a — in other words, to revive traditional, indigenous conservation practices in order to preserve the ‘āina (natural environment/land). They also serve as an apt metaphor for the existential challenges facing Hawai‘i, and the important idea sparked by these challenges: how might kamaʻāina (children of the land) protect their natural resources — and rebalance their economy — by investing in local talent and wisdom?
That’s the central idea behind LUMIN/AERY, a new, experimental venture studio inspired by and designed for kamaʻāina creatives. It’s a mashup of a workforce development project for local talent; and an innovation incubator to drive big ideas with real-time solutions for Hawai‘i. And it’s all being driven by a fundamental idea: the future must be designed by kanaka maoli and kamaʻāina allies.
LUMIN/AERY was created by a team led by Sarah Van Dell and Nicole Velasco, but the real focus of the program is the creatives-in-residence. Every one of them has deep roots in their community. The inaugural cohort is comprised of:
In 2022, these four creatives brought their talent together to both train in and participate in LUMIN/AERY’s venture studio. The primary focus is to design an app that will drive visitor dollars to invest in local conservation nonprofits already stewarding ‘āina. It’s a pilot project in what will ultimately be an annual cycle to build locally-developed technology that serves both the community and the designers.
The purpose of LUMIN/AERY is trifold: education, innovation, and community empowerment. First and foremost, the project will provide training to help the creatives involved to leverage their innate talents in design and tech. Through established bootcamps, the creatives partake in an apprentice-like structure, learning best-practices of UX, UI, product, and design. The goal is to help the cohort members build skills that they can use universally.
The secondary purpose is to build upon the training and create a series of community-informed solutions to major challenges facing Hawai‘i such as climate change. In the case of the pilot program, the parameters are specific yet flexible: design and build an app that will direct visitor dollars at a large-scale to Hawai‘i-rooted conservation and climate change nonprofits.
LUMIN/AERY’s founders came across this initial project intentionally. Visitors outnumber residents in Hawai‘i by a ratio of 25 to 1; and there is a growing movement to push back against the annual wave of incoming humanity.
“This year, six billion dollars of economic value will be extracted from Hawai‘i’s natural ecosystems. For generations, Hawaiians and allies have called attention to the costs of continued colonization,” says Sarah. “ʻĀina is not in balance, with more extracted than replenished. We have the world-class creative talent to innovate a way forward.”
The creative-led solution is intended to supply new and innovative ways to fund local conservation efforts at scale: $1 billion dollars in ten years. True to LUMIN/AERY’s participatory ethos, these dollars will be dispersed to local conservation nonprofits.
This conservation app is only the first of several ideas in the LUMIN/AERY pipeline; future projects will convene creatives to build solutions around elder care and ag-tech. The team is looking forward to evolving the project into the future.
“Top-down initiatives pale in comparison to the richness of community-led projects,” says Nicole. “Our creatives bring deep lived experience and relationships. In times of flux, we need bridge builders, translators and network weavers to move us forward.”