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Networked Urbanism: The real learning begins when things go live | part II

Category: ⚐ EN+creativity+ecosistema urbano+networked design+networkedurbanism+publications+urban social design

This is the second part (see the first part here) of our conversation with Paul Bottino, cofounder and executive director of TECH, Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard. Here you can read the first part.

BT&JLV The learning experience includes the possibility to learn from consequences, mistakes, and successes. This methodology emphasizes the value of the process itself, in contrast to a teaching approach primarily focused on the end results. How would you value the process versus the end results? Can we introduce failure/uncertainty as part of the development of the learning process?

PB You are being charitable because we people have proven ourselves pointless predictors! And our ever-growing connectedness and complexity are going to give computer power and big data analytics a long battle before we get much better. So as far as I can see, the value is in the process, and the end results are more or less kaleidoscopic: when the twirling stops for an instant, we see a pattern, rationalize how we got there, codify explanations, and issue predictions based on the code. The twirl resumes and reminds us of our folly but we can’t give up the game and our illusion of control. My response is to emphasize good practice—valuing process over results—in the hope that more often than not good results will emerge from good practice. Part of any good practice is periodic reflection intended to prolong the period where one is open to discovering the right practice for the right situation. That reflection includes looking at how the failure and uncertainty inherent in the process affects our practice; asking how we respond to and perceive failures; and how we perform and make decisions and communicate in uncertain circumstances.

BT&JLV Think Big / Start Small are two of the ten guidelines for the course, and are also key concepts for innovation in general. Do you have any advice about how to fill the gap between the “think” phase and the “start” phase? What are the most common challenges in the transition between the design phase and the actual implementation of the project in the real world?

PB Your eighth guideline for the studio is a great start, “Act Now!” (and ask questions later and along the way). Whenever possible, it’s a good idea to transform thoughts and words into actions and to test them with people. It is the formulation of something that people can see, touch, and experience that stimulates the most useful feedback. It is much easier to close this gap with virtual designs than it is with physical, but you can shrink it with models and simulations. In the virtual cases, the transition isn’t a bright line but a continual back and forth—two steps forward, one step back—of testing with people and redesigning until you realize your test subjects have become users and you feel you’ve made a phase change to implementation. With physical designs and more complicated virtual designs, there are clearer phase distinctions and cut-over moments. The real learning begins when things go live. The greatest challenge I see designers face in these moments is handling the pressure and responding to the unforeseen requirements that are now coming from stakeholders external to the design team, whereas before they were self-imposed. These events stress the entire design organism, from the belief that what you are doing is valuable to the little details that make it work. The best teams use systems thinking and parallel processing to tend to the entire organism in order to be as ready as they can be for these moments.

BT&JLV Historically, design schools have been somewhat segregated from other disciplines, and have been considered to be niche institutions. In the last decade, design has emerged as an overarching discipline, and design methods (design thinking) are strongly influencing other fields. These methods are frequently adopted by a wide range of disciplines, from scientific to humanistic ones.
How would you explain this opening? Has the role of the designer shifted from designing a building or product to “enhancing society”?

PB Design thinking fits a classic technology innovation paradigm, which is it takes on the order of 30–years to emerge from inception to widespread adoption. Ideas spread faster now but the 30 year rule still works for big changes. Design thinking is “process know-how” that fits the broad definition of technology. I would trace its origins back to 1961 and the publication of Synectics by William J. J. Gordon2. So many factors contribute to where it is today but perhaps the two main ones are increasing complexity frustrating a purely analytical approach and the shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy where the emphasis moved from labor, equipment, and capital to people, engendering a natural embrace of the human-centered precept of design thinking. The designer’s role changed right along with that. With a focus on people, the essential question is not what to make or how to make it, it is why to make it; so inexorably, designers (which includes makers by many other formal names) engage the issue of why, embody it in their designs, and find themselves working at the highest level of value creation.

BT&JLV You work as an educator with students and professionals coming from various institutions, with different backgrounds, education, and expectations.
In your experience, do designers and/or students of design have special capabilities for creative problem solving?

PB All children have the basic capabilities and unfortunately it seems mainstream schooling retrains them to concentrate on solving right-answer problems with predetermined tools. Design students seem to have either never lost or have managed to reawaken the childhood ability to see things differently, dive into open-ended challenges and try to figure things out without knowing the “right” way. That and a healthy quotient of cultivated empathy and the energy to exercise it regularly is what I see setting design students apart.

BT&JLV Networked Urbanism provides students with a toolbox of 10 guidelines to use during the research process:


Which other ingredients would you add to it?

PB This is a tremendous set to which I’d add:

11. DECLARE your ignorance: embrace what you don’t know and can’t explain and cultivate it as an energy source to ward off the tendency to believe you have an answer before you do—and the tendency not to risk losing what you think you have.
12. DEFY known authorities: their dissonance is as good an indication of value as your adopter’s resonance.
13. FOCUS on the meaning of your design: value springs from metaphorical shifts.
14. NARRATE the story of your design complete with round characters, rich settings, true heroes, and real villains.

You can access the complete publication here

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Networked Urbanism: The real learning begins when things go live | part I

Category: ⚐ EN+creativity+ecosistema urbano+networked design+networkedurbanism+publications+urban social design


#networkedurbanism is a series of studios taught in the Urban Planning and Design Department at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design between 2010 and 2014.

The #networkedurbanism studio aims to bring network-design thinking to the forefront of design disciplines and strives to solve real-world problems on the ground, providing an alternative to the traditional approach of designing urban environments from a bird’s-eye view, and a single designer’s perspective. Networked Urbanism not only examines the physical dimension of the city, but also its social processes and fluxes, developing initiatives that generate spontaneous transformations and set up conditions for change.

The #networkedurbanism studio provides the framework for students to pursue their own interests, find their own means of expression, and create their own paths. They are encouraged to work with others, to create connections and to search for new problems and opportunities that underlie our society, visibly or subtly. Overall, they are expected to explore the city and design new tools to creatively improve urban life.

The following conversation with Paul Bottino is an excerpt from our publication Networked Urbanism, Design Thinking Initiatives for a Better Urban Life

Paul Bottino is cofounder and executive director of TECH, Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard.
TECH’s mission is to advance the understanding and practice of innovation and entrepreneurship through experiential education: by initiating, advancing and informing student projects. TECH helps faculty create and deliver innovation and entrepreneurship project courses, provides students with project support and sponsors and advises student groups working to build the Harvard innovation community.TECH is based on the belief that boundaries—between disciplines, people, organizations, and ideas—need to be crossed continually to create the insights that lead to innovations because socially useful and commercially viable advancements require the right mix of scientific and engineering knowledge, entrepreneurial know-how, and worldly perspective.

Belinda Tato and Jose Luis Vallejo (BT&JLV): TECH promotes experiential education, a pedagogical approach that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase their knowledge, develop their skills, clarify their values, and develop their capacity to contribute to their communities.
Networked Urbanism studio incorporates this methodology, requiring participants to leave their comfort zone in order to introduce them to realities in today’s society – outside the walls of Academia—in which designer’s skills are needed. Do you think that this non-academic, feedback-driven process should be used more often in design courses? Does it help to foster an entrepreneurial spirit among students?

Paul B. Bottino (PB): Absolutely. Though it is only non-academic in the sense of that word that means concerned solely with matters of theoretical importance. I consider it academic because it is central to learning, which is my chosen sense of the word. The kind of experiential education that my students and I practice does have practical ends as well as theoretical. But in a creative economy, where knowledge is the primary means of production, education is inextricably linked to practical ends. All of the educators and learners I know—be they at the lifelong, higher, secondary, elementary, or natural level—want to create useful knowledge for their desired ends, and those ends include everything imaginable on the spectrum of human experience. In my case, and I believe this is true of the Networked Urbanism studio, the end goal is to help build students’ innovative capacity.
In order to do that, educators and students must jointly go on an implicit knowledge exploration.

It is obvious but worth saying that knowledge about the future and the new designs that will inhabit it is not explicit, meaning you can’t enter search terms in Google and get answers, even if Google had access to every bit of knowledge available. Instead, it is a research process in which you craft a probe in the form of a design concept and take it to people to educe knowledge about it. If it is a new concept, which it must be to qualify as a potential innovation, then it is going to generate new thoughts. The designer takes those new thoughts not as answers, but rather as feedback. The endeavor of the designer is to transform concepts into value. Value is a utility function; it derives from the use of designs by some number of people. So the essential way designers create value is by engaging in a process of formulation-feedback-reformulation that transforms neurons firing into words, visuals, prototypes, and designs. In my experience, learning via this process is the only way to develop the kind of embodied knowledge that lasts and evolves. Willingly engaging in this full experience and being vulnerable to it is the essence of the entrepreneurial spirit. And, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., is quoted, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

BT&JLV Networked Urbanism encourages students to choose a topic at the intersection of their interests and society’s needs. They have to take the initiative and make decisions. Projects become unique and linked to their personal stories and many of them live beyond the term. This isn’t the traditional academic approach but it is a common entrepreneurial construct, and designers are increasingly expected to define both the problem and the solution. Do you think that “problem finding” skills have become a fundamental base for innovation?

PB Yes, most certainly. I would say those skills always have been essential to innovation, but it is probably more apt to call them something else because in many cases you don’t need to find the problem, it is in clear view. Consider certain diseases where the problems are well known—when a treatment or cure is discovered, invented, and developed, it is very likely immediately deemed an innovation. This is a process of innovation that occurs almost entirely by devising a new solution to an existing problem. I think it is fair to differentiate creative problem-solving, where the problem is given or known, from innovating, where it is not, yet still call creative solutions that are widely used, innovations. To this way of thinking, the full experience of innovating starts with some kind of finding—finding problems people don’t know they have or finding opportunities others don’t see. These kinds of findings emerge from change. Change causes uncertainty about the meaning of existing things and whether they are still useful and valuable. The designer interprets change, sees things differently, and creates new meaning and value. Because there is so much change, the possibilities are endless so it is essential to filter them through one’s values, interests, and capabilities to make a starting choice. This is wonderful for the educational experience because it supplies personal purpose, relevance, and intrinsic motivation to the exploration.

BT&JLV One of the crucial benefits during the Networked Urbanism studio has been the cross-pollination of students with many different backgrounds from all the programs within the GSD. Moreover, the collaboration with people outside of the studio enhanced the innovation of the projects exponentially, since students are required to build up connections with others, creating a network of advisors and professionals within the field, as well as existing and potential community members. Is interdisciplinary collaboration now a necessary ingredient for successful entrepreneurship and innovation?

PB It is probably too much to say that it is absolutely necessary in all cases because there will always be instances of people seeing things differently and innovating without too much assistance, but it feels like those are edge cases that are more and more extreme. More the norm is where the challenge is complex, and seeing and approaching things differently comes from a combination of perspectives and abilities. It is often hard for one person to see things differently. Some people are more agile than others at changing frames internally; most need collaboration and other inputs to do it. I think this is due to a combination of the way our neural pathways are formed and maintained and a lack of meta-thinking practice. That combined with increasingly specified knowledge domains and the training and concentration necessary to master those domains means collaborating with people from other areas, worldviews, and walks of life increases your chances of seeing things differently, getting the diversity of feedback you need and finding the knowledge resources you need to create value.

The second part of the conversation with Paul Bottino has been published in this post.