Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Local food for well-meaning skeptics

It’s winter break at RIT so I finally have a chance to write a post on what my design-thinking students are up to. This quarter, which began just after Thanksgiving, we started with a broad question: “How do we enhance the local food economy in the winter months?” There are many stakeholders to consider with this question. So we went out into the field and observed some of them, specifically farmers and customers at winter markets.

For a lot of the students, this was their first experience at a winter market, which is not surprising because there aren’t many of them to go to. And while the students can articulate many of the economic and social benefits of buying from local producers, the observations they made tell me that they aren’t quite convinced: “The market feels cliquey,” “The carrots were dirty,” “Maple syrup is way more expensive than syrup from the store,” were some of the sentiments they expressed.

Now, a foodie like me could easily feel disheartened by these comments and, in fact, if I had heard them a few years ago they would have depressed me. But today they inspire me. They inspire me to ask a new question: “How do we make local food more appealing to well-meaning skeptics?” Well-meaning skeptics. That’s who these students are and I suspect that there are many more out there in the population. They want to buy local, but they’re not too excited about shopping at obscure winter markets held in secret locations. Make it a little more familiar, they cry--make it a little easier for me and I’ll bite.

On an Diffusion of Innovation curve, the people who willingly go to the farmers markets are called “early adopters.” They are on the cutting edge, willing to bend over backwards to get their local food. The well-meaning skeptics, on the other hand, are called the “early majority.” And it’s the early majority we’re after here. If we can design for and with them, then perhaps local food sales will reach a tipping point and flow freely into the main stream.

Got an idea on how to appeal to the early majority? Come and share it at our local food potluck on 1/17. Cheers!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Is efficiency effective?

A week ago I gave a talk at TEDx Rochester about a phenomenon I'm researching: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing. Social business models adhere to a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. And distributed manufacturing, a shift powered by increased access to rapid prototyping tools, is a shift away from our current centralized manufacturing.

I was happy to receive a range of feedback. The geeks beamed: "Now I have an excuse to buy a 3D printer!" A travel agent told me how my thesis applied to her work, as did a community art-space organizer. And the skeptics? I know they were out there, but for the most part they were silent. One of them, one of my fellow speakers, pulled me aside and asked, "How can this be efficient?"

I'm not quick on my feet so I stumbled in my response to him. When he asked, "How can this be efficient?" I dodged his concern and answered with something snippy and defensive, like "Efficiency isn't the issue. I just want an alternative to foreign children making our products."
In part I stand by that snippy response. It captures the passion I feel about this shift. But now that I've had a week to think about it, a better response comes to mind; I think I would have brought it back to his own talk, in which he and a team of puppeteers made a case for transitioning from lecture teaching to guided inquiry. They based their argument not on efficiency but on effectiveness.

Efficiency is about doing things faster and cheaper, and lecturing is efficient. But effectiveness is about doing things that are rich and meaningful. What he was arguing is that guided inquiry is effective, but he didn’t compare the effectiveness against its efficiency. I want to question whether they have to be mutually exclusive. While it would be easy for me to claim that efficiency and effectiveness are opposed, I've got Roger Martin's voice in my head telling me to resolve them, to find the space where they meet, or at least complement each other. Because both of them have staying power.

I want to now address concerns about efficiency. I see three choices before us:

1. We drop efficiency as a value (not likely)
2. We make these new distributed models adhere to our current definition of efficiency
3. We redefine efficiency, factoring in externalities

We need to answer these questions not only about distributed manufacturing, but about other distributed models that are on the rise. The local food sector faces similar challenges about efficiency, as does the alternative energy sector.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Up to Some Things

Every once in a while I like to write a little list of the stuff I'm involved with. Somehow it helps me to put it all down in one place so I can try to find a pattern or thread that runs through it all. Here we go: A STUDENT AGAIN. I'm enrolled in the Executive MBA program at RIT and I'm taking three courses at present: Leadership, Accounting, and Statistics. As you can imagine, I love my Leadership course. We have a lot of great readings and discussions about how to be more effective at work. I've been trying out the techniques as they are introduced in class and I find it really interesting. Accounting class has probably taken me the farthest from my comfort zone than I’ve ever been, but I'm okay with that. While the content is interesting on a conceptual level, like why certain firms make certain accounting decisions, I find it difficult to grasp the basics. So I've had to combine the text book with other sources and force myself to talk about accounting with experts. I think it's getting better. Statistics class is a challenge with all of those formulas, but with the help of my study group and minitab software, I'm doing all right. I look forward to integrating my design skills with our group project, in which we have to visualize some data.
STILL TEACHING. I'm in the third year of teaching Design-thinking and it continues to change and grow as we work with different clients. This quarter (which is over in four weeks!) we've got three clients: 1. Good Food Collective, 2. Mud Creek Farms/Small World Bakery and 3. FreshWise Farm-to-School Program. The students are doing relatively well. I've given them a lot of freedom to find design problems that interest them. They go out and tested their first prototypes this week and I'm sure they will learn a lot from that. Next quarter, however, I think we'll work with only one client so I can keep a closer eye on all the teams.
FOOD-SYSTEM INNOVATION. My interest in our local food system continues to grow. I've been focused on the producer side of things and will continue to follow that path as I think consumer demand for this stuff is reaching a tipping point, so much of a tipping point, in fact, that I worry about the farmers keeping up with the demand without running themselves ragged. From my field research so far, I'm finding that the farmers could use better farm tools, more opportunities for food processing, and more opportunities for sales. Additionally, I've met a few administrators at RIT who are very interested in this project, not only the business side of it, but in those aspects of it that promote food justice and that promote farming as an educational tool. So I plan to meet every few weeks with these administrators and I hope something comes from those meetings. If nothing else, we’ll exchange some knowledge.
TEDx ROCHESTER. I'll be a speaker at the third annual TEDx Rochester, which is an independently run TED event. The title of my talk is "Make Better Stuff: the rise of social business and distributed manufacturing." This title is also the title of a book I'm researching, so this event is a great opportunity for me to get some feedback on the topic. I'll post the transcript online once it's over, so you can chime in too. And I’ll post the video too, if it comes out okay (I'm a little nervous about it). SXSW. Andrea Hickerson and I submitted a proposal for SXSW Interactive (South by Southwest). I have NO idea if our proposal will be accepted, but if it is you'll be hearing more about that soon. If we do get in, I feel that my participation in SXSW combined with my TEDx talk and 2010 MakerFaire exhibit will comprise my geeked-out version of an EGOT.
EDITING AND PUBLISHING. I haven't been editing and publishing, well not much at least, but I did work with an editing and publishing course at Ithaca College last week, Professor Catherine Taylor’s course. In it, the students are writing book proposals and manifestos (so great) and, in teams, starting their own magazines. I worked with the teams on how to think of their magazines as tools for starting movements. Luckily I had a copy of MAKE with me, which is a fine example of a quarterly magazine that is just one piece of a very important maker movement. The workshop was a lot of fun and I look forward to tracking these new publications. What an empowering exercise, starting a magazine. Great.
LOCAL FOOD POTLUCKS. We had a local food potluck in the RIT Innovation Center this quarter and it went so well we've decided to host one every quarter. The next one will be on Jan. 17, 2012 from 12-2 p.m. Details are still being worked out, but we know that Nabil Nasr will be our guest speaker. Bringing a dish-to-pass will be more of an option this time and less of a requirement, and we're still thinking about how to add another "sharing-economy" activity such as a clothing swap or wisdom swap. Not sure yet.
FELTING. This one is purely for fun. I went to AmVets the other day and picked up as many wool sweaters as I could find. I've thrown them in the wash to shrink them and am now working on re-purposing them. So far I've made a hat that I really like and several neck wraps. In addition to these, I plan to make mittens, coffee cup cozies, and perhaps some toys. I don't know what it is about wool, but it's *my* material. It really speaks to me. Well that’s all for now. Still looking for that common thread. It’s probably made from wool. 
The photo above was taken on Comfort Road just outside of Ithaca, NY.

Monday, October 3, 2011

RIT Locavore Potluck

In September, the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) issued a call for "Locavore Potlucks" across New York State. Since my students and I are working with organic farmers this quarter, we rose to that challenge and hosted a local-food potluck in RIT Innovation Center on 9/29. We had a great turn out, about 30 people, and enjoyed some incredible dishes made from locally grown ingredients. We also had some great conversation with folks from the RIT community and the Rochester food economy about how best to support the people at the heart of the local food movement, our small-to-mid size organic farmers. Support them not only with consumer dollars, but with innovations like developing affordable tools for tillage and food processing and better channels for sales and distribution of their products.

The potluck turned out to be a great venue for knowledge sharing and it was also a lot of fun. We're planning to do it again on January 17 from 12-2 so save the date and keep your eye on the RIT events calendar for details. (Worried that you won't be able to find local food in January? Never fear, just sign up for a winter share from the Good Food Collective).

The photos above were taken by one of my very talented students, Blayke Morrow. To see more of her work, go to this link:

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Local Food Economy: A Call for Innovation

The number of farmers markets in this country has almost doubled in the last five years. From a customer's point of view, this increased access to locally produced food is fantastic. And from the producer side, the increased demand for their products feels like a good thing. However, the “tools" that these farmers depend on to grow, process, and sell their food are in dire need of a makeover.

While small scale farmers are definitely not in their business for the money, make no mistake about it, if they don't have enough money to operate and pay themselves, the small scale farm won't survive. Here are some areas in which I’ve observed that a lack of proper tools seems to be causing problems: While the farmers find the vintage tools they use charming, they are frustrated by the lack of new tools available that fit the scale of their operations. And while farmers enjoy meeting their customers at the farmers market, the farmers market as a tool-for-sales is a drain on their time. There’s a great opportunity here for entrepreneurs, especially those interested in local economic development, to create the tools that small farmers need. Here in Upstate New York, we’ve already seen some entrepreneurial efforts in local distribution and sales beyond farmers markets. Both Good Food Collective in Rochester and Garden Gate Food in Ithaca have started businesses that connect local producers with customers providing locally grown produce, dairy, meats, bread, and even soap. These entrepreneurs don’t have brick and mortar stores but have instead retro-fitted refrigerated trucks that function as mobile “pop-up shops.” 
As for farm tools and processing tools, I’ve seen many great inventions on the farms I’ve visited. But moving these inventions (technologies that work) to innovations (technologies that scale) is the challenge that I’m hoping entrepreneurs will rise to. And rather than offshore production, I hope we take advantage of local, manufacture-on-demand technology and local talent. photo: on the left, Farmer Erin with a home made tool for marking seed beds and on the right, a spring-tooth-harrow, made by Leroy Plows, that she pulled out from the woods surrounding Mud Creek Farms.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Design-thinking with Local Food Entrepreneurs

There's a movement in the Rochester metro area to transform our local food economy. Transforming the local food economy presents three major questions: 1. How do we help small and mid size farmers do what they do best - grow delicious food using sustainable farming techniques,  2. How do we help customers get that food, 3. How do we keep food dollars in our region and create food-related jobs.

This fall my design-thinking class at RIT is working with three different stakeholders in this transformation: 1. The Good Food Collective which handles sales and distribution from 8 farms to 500 members, 2. FreshWise Farms, a social enterprise of Foodlink that delivers food education and healthy locally grown food to underserved populations, and 3. Mud Creek Farm/Small World Bakery, a medium sized farm that offers CSAs and makes some great processed food like KimChi!

We're super excited about the diversity of food entrepreneurs we get to work with. Each enterprise has different problems for us to explore. For example, Good Food has an awesome distribution truck, the Green Bean Machine, but winter's coming so they need to fit it with accessories that stand up to our Western New York winters. Mud Creek Farm has a great problem too - lack of access to tools that fit their mid-sized farm. It turns out that there are many tools for serious gardeners but they're too small. And there are many tools for industrial farms but they're too big (insert Goldielocks joke here). And then FreshWise is trying to think up innovative ways to engage K-12 students with the healthy locally grown food that's finding its way into their after school meals.

The list of problems here illuminates the complexities we navigate when trying shift from a well established model to an alternative model. And it's in these kinds of spaces, working with these kinds of problems, that innovation happens. It's dirty and gritty and messy and fun.

So three cheers for our new adventure. I'll be reporting on our process as we dig deeper into the projects. Its bound to be full of surprises.

PS - Please come to our Local Food Potluck on 9/29. Details here:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Summer ends, EMBA begins

Back in June I wrote that I'd try to post a few pictures over the summer. Well, that didn't really happen. Though the summer had many lovely moments, though we picked a lot of fruit and made over a dozen cases of jam, though we got to see and spend time with our dear friends and family, there were too many difficult moments this summer. I'm happy to see the season come to an end.

This week I begin the orientation process for the Executive MBA (EMBA) program at RIT -- as a student! I'll continue to teach the design thinking course (sign up #0102-421-01) in Saunders College of Business and work on my research about rapid prototyping and local food economy, but this time with super EMBA knowledge informing it all. I'm excited. I expect to have many insights as I learn this new language and look forward to sharing them with you here.

pictured above: Ludlowville Falls in Lansing, NY on the left and an urban gardening scene in Ithaca, NY on the right

Friday, July 1, 2011

Printable, Readable Declaration of Independence

Every summer I make the journey back to my home town on Long Island to celebrate the Fourth of July with my dearest friends. I go back to participate in a wonderful tradition in which they gather friends and family on their lawn to read The Declaration of Independence aloud. It is a spirited reading with hoots and hollers for the patriots and boos and hisses for King George, all facilitated by lots of free-flowing American beer.

If you'd like to host your own reading, just print this document, hand out the parts to your friends (the parts are clearly marked), and read with pride.

Let freedom ring!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

First Garlic of the Year

Garlic!! by @xanthm

from Monroe Ave Farmers' Market. And mint and peas and berries and flowers. Joy!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

He rode off in many different directions

The other night we went to hear poet John Ashbery speak at the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) and were delighted by his easy sense of humor. Ashbery was born in Rochester and even took painting lessons in the basement at MAG when his high school in Sodus, NY cut their art program. He seemed very relaxed and at home in the gallery (though he's probably always like that).

The talk coincided with a beautiful piece of experimental book-making that's currently on view in the museum - a setting of Ashbery's poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. When asked about how he felt about the popularity of that poem he gave a great response that I'll try to capture here:

'It's funny how popular this poem is because it's not necessarily the direction I went in. In fact, I've tried to go in many directions, like, He saddled his horse and rode off in many directions.'

Two things I love about this statement: 1. The manner in which he delivered it, with the craft of a poet and the lightness of an improv comedian and 2. The confidence with which he is able to speak about such a non-traditional approach to life.

Everywhere we go we are told to choose one thing to do and to learn to do it well. We're discouraged from working on many things at once lest we confuse our audience with too much noise. Yet, if we are a curious about life's mysteries, then we are bound to pursue many different directions simultaneously. So thank you, John Ashbery, for spontaneously crafting this silly and meaningful line. I'm glad we were there to hear it.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Working on a book this summer

so my blog may be a little quiet. I'll try to share a picture every now and then because this is the season of beauty in upstate New York.

The book is about the value of constraints in the creative process. At least that's my jumping off point. If you would like to be interviewed on this topic, then give me a holler at xanthe [dot] matychak [at] gmail [dot] com. The more voices I can gather the better.

Enjoy yourself this summer. Be happy and healthy and let your people know how much you love them.


UPDATE: The subject of the book changed a lot as I began to write. I'll be giving a talk on it in November at TEDx Rochester. I hope you can come!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Project for 2011-12: Open Source Farm Tools

I made this video for a design competition and, even though I'm not using it for the competition (I've decided to highlight another project instead), I'd like to share it with you.

As you may already know, this past year my design-thinking class has worked with visionaries in the local food system - folks from Foodlink, FreshWise Farms, and the Good Food Collective. Recently, Chris Hartman from GFC brought a project to my attention. It's called the Global Village Construction Set. It's a project put forth by Marcin Jakubowski that offers open source plans for 50 tools that are essential to farming. The idea is that anyone who wants to farm anywhere in the world can if they are able to build these tools. Most of tools are comprised of off the shelf parts and come at a fraction of the cost of buying and maintaining similar tools from large manufacturers.

I'm just thrilled about this project. It brings together two things that I am very passionate about - the local food economy and DIY culture. So have a look at the video - make sure the captions are on and try to ignore the rough spots and anonymity at the end. Just let me know what you think. And if you are a student at RIT and want to get involved, please do sign up for my class!

Design-thinking course # 0102.421.01


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Build to Learn

There’s an important concept in design-thinking called “Build To Learn.” When we build to learn, we build stuff, quick and dirty prototypes, in order to figure out what the thing we are working on should be like. We build instead of just think about, or worry about, how the thing that we are working on might turn out. You hear writers talk about taking this leap of faith all of the time. When asked about their process, writers often reply  with something like, “I let the story take me where it wants to go.” They don’t have the story all figured out in their minds. They write, or build, to discover the story.

Of course to some extent we all do this occasionally. When we get lost in a car, for example, we’ll wander around aimlessly until we see something that we recognize. Or when we don’t have an ingredient for a recipe that we’re making we‘ll improvise and find something we think or hope will work as well as the ingredient in the script. We don’t know for sure that we’ll find our way in the car or that we’ll make a recipe that is tasty, but we have enough faith to keep working on it.

Yet, when it comes to work situations many of us fall into the trap of thinking that we need to figure out all of the details about how something will work without ever testing bits and pieces of it.

The picture above is of my students building an exhibit for Imagine RIT festival on May 7. As you can probably see in the photo, the students don’t know how every little detail will work out in the end. They are exploring the exhibit space by tinkering with it.  I’m happy to say that yesterday they made leaps and bounds  - more than they ever would have sitting at their desks just worrying about what might or might not be successful.

Building to learn is especially useful when we’re faced with several approaches to a problem and are having a difficult time figuring out which one is right. Instead of trying to guess which solution is the right one, we quickly build a few prototypes to help us decide. Some people resist this approach because they reason that building two or more prototypes is more work than building just one (I get this from my students a lot). But if we only build one solution to a problem and it fails, then we have to start all over again. Or even worse, we have to tolerate a poorly designed system just because we put “so much work into it” and can’t bear to throw it out and start again. Short-sightedness.

Building to learn is an aspect of a larger ethos at the core of design thinking: designers spend more time in the “fuzzy front end” of a project, building to learn, exploring many options so that we can test out a few things before we build and launch the “finished” version. It’s a difficult shift to make for some. But feel free to try it. Try it with something small like intentionally getting lost on a walk or improvising a recipe. Then see if you can apply that same way of working to a bigger project. And who knows, you may just discover something that you could have never found just sitting at your desk.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sign up for Design-thinking at RIT

Design-thinking is method for developing new products, services, and systems made popular by the Stanford The method takes cues from processes found in anthropology and fine art. We use anthropological processes to gain insights on stakeholders affected by our designs, for e.g., observing people in their natural environments.  And we use fine arts processes to develop creative prototypes, for e.g., navigating divergent and convergent thinking.

Make a bold move and join us. The course is open to all RIT students junior level and up. I haven't chosen the project for fall yet so if you have some ideas, leave a comment. (The project is different every quarter).

Course # 0102.421.01

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Divergent Thinking Isn't Enough

There’s a common misunderstanding about the creative process that keeps many of us from advancing our own creative skill. The misunderstanding is that creativity is about “following the muse,” doing whatever you want with no limits. This myth is further promoted by business magazines and television commercials that, say, celebrate everyday people covering their walls with ideas on post-its.
I teach design-thinking outside of a design school, so I get students who, on day one, don’t consider themselves creative, but because of this wide-spread conception of what creative thinking is it’s relatively easy for me to teach them how to generate a lot of ideas in one sitting. I teach students the’s guidelines for brainstorming and in a few weeks they are good at it. They’ve gone through many packs of post-its. This kind of brainstorming is called “divergent thinking,” as opposed to the more linearly-focused thinking, called “convergent thinking.”

But design is an iterative process, a constant push and pull between divergent AND convergent thinking. And teaching my students to change gears fluently is the more difficult challenge. Students who are given license to engage in divergent thinking don’t have a lot of practice transitioning back to convergent thinking. (This problem is what Jon Kolko, the director of Austin Center for Design, refers to as ‘the synthesis problem.’)

So in those cases when the instructor has taught students good divergent thinking, the problem is that students tend to either engage in it continuously (we’ve all experienced this, when the brainstorming just never ends) or they converge on the most familiar and safe idea they’ve come up with and pursue it exclusively. Either way is unproductive because the class is neglecting the potentially successful ideas they generate during the brainstorm. The real successful thinker transitions fluently from divergent to convergent thinking, to capture and pursue the best ideas.

I offer here a few tricks for navigating this transition from divergent to convergent thought.

If you have a wild idea that you want to explore, then choose a safer one and develop them both simultaneously. Similarly, if you are afraid to step out of your comfort zone, then work on a safe idea but also work on a wild one. This mode of working has at least two benefits:

1. In case your risky idea fails, you have something to fall back on.
2. Working on two ideas simultaneously will, most likely, produce a third, superior idea--a combination of the best parts from each.

This second reason is similar to a phenomenon Roger Martin from Rotman School of Management calls “the opposable mind,” which is a version of what John Keats called ‘negative capability’: “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”

Do yourself a favor and choose a formal constraint to work with. Formal constraints are little tricks that designers use to create order from complexity. Sure, as a graduate student I railed against the grid - that comes with the graduate school territory - but in the end I came back to it with a new appreciation. The complexity of any situation is just too much to bear for an extended period. “Hire out” an organizing principle for your project - a limited color palette, a texture, a modular system, a metaphor. You can always stray from the constraint once you’ve established it; in fact, you should.

Good designers look to introduce new ideas with the intention that they will be adopted and spread. In contrast, an amateur designer will often say, “This new design is for everyone.” No, it’s not for everyone. It may be for a wide range of people, but it’s not for everyone. Good designers identify all of the people who are affected by their design and focus on those who are most likely to pick it up first. They design for those people. And when they are really good they design with them. Any successful start-up spends lots of time with early adopters until they are not only comfortable with, but enthusiastic about, your design. They will be your evangelists, your advocates, your marketers. But you have to spend some focused time with them.

I was invited to a tech-development meeting the other day because the team wanted to bring in a designer to get feedback on their mobile interface. When I got to the meeting, I was shown static wire frames of the interface and was then asked questions such as “Do you think this button would look better here or there?” I was asked these questions because people think designers are put on this earth to make stuff look cool. But they are not. They are put on this earth to make stuff work well. And stuff works well not in a static way, but over time. Any design has three time-based scenarios that the designer needs to be concerned with:
1. How do I attract  a new user to my design?
2. Once I attract her, how do I engage her with the design?
3. Once she is finished, how do I get her to come back and bring friends?

The successful designer transitions fluently from divergent to convergent thinking, to capture and pursue the best ideas. To help them do this, they can choose two ideas (one safe, one wild); choose a formal constraint; choose early adopters; or choose a time-line.


Monday, April 4, 2011

How to Design Human Centered Cities

I teach a design-thinking class at RIT and each quarter we use human-centered design principles to approach a different project. This quarter our project is focused on our city, Rochester, NY. Inspired by a design brief issued by Fabrica called "Looking Back, Designing, Forward," we are surveying the city's recent history and then engaging in what Roger Martin and Charles Sanders Pierce before him calls abductive reasoning. We are asking, “What might be?” The answer to this question will be on display at the 4th annual Imagine RIT festival in the lobby of Saunders College of Business. If you are in the area on May 7, come visit our  "Imagine Rochester 2020" exhibit and let us know what you think.

As a result of guiding my students through this project, I am thinking almost at every turn about urban design. When I was driving along Niagara Street in Buffalo a few weeks back, I was saddened that I couldn't see the Niagara River just a few meters away. What blocked my view was a wall of rusted out factories, one after the other. It was clear to me that whoever wrote the zoning for this piece of land had a technology-centered perspective and not a human-centered one. Those zoning decisions were now keeping me from seeing a beautiful river valley just a few feet to my right. If the infrastructure along the river-way had been designed with humans in mind, my view would have been very different. The emotions I would’ve experienced toward the city would have been joy and pride instead of sadness and alienation.

My students and I spent the first half of the quarter meeting with visionary systems-thinkers in the city of Rochester. We've met with farmers, educators, clean-fuel producers, green-jobs facilitators, and beyond. All of these people have a grand vision for the future of our city, and while they employ new technology to reach their goals, human interests are at the center of their thinking. Yet, when my students and I came back to the studio to synthesize the data we’d collected, tech-centered ideology showed its face. Students easily rattled off the technological innovations they had observed in the field.

For example, we started digging deeper into one student’s celebration of Rochester's technological exports. To bring into view a human-centered perspective, I asked, "What benefits do these exports provide the citizens of the city of Rochester?" The easy answer is that the exports bring more money into the city, but I wanted more, so I pushed them to dig deeper. The students quickly got to the heart of the issue, I think, when they articulated this series of claims: "Exporting brings global firms to Rochester." Good, good. "Global firms come to Rochester because they want to stay in New York State." Very good. "And if global firms are coming downtown, then more people are downtown and a demand for downtown revitalization is created." Bingo.

Downtown revitalization. We came to it ourselves. It's one thing to read about it in the paper, it's another to start at one seemingly isolated point, exports, and arrive at downtown revitalization. As you locals know, ever since the decline and eventual demolition of Midtown Plaza, America's first urban mall c. 1962, Rochester has been struggling with the question, "What will be our new identity, the new symbol for downtown?" As we ask these big questions, we need to think beyond technology and beyond economic development, lest we line the river with more factories. Don’t get me wrong, technology and economy are essential, but we need to always remember that they are a means to an end. The end is to encourage more people, especially young talent, to stay in Rochester. Certainly creating more jobs will do that, and certainly developing new technology can create more jobs. However, anyone who works in a university incubator knows about the struggles of turning new technology into new jobs. So we need to think about human-centered innovations too, by asking questions such as “How do we engage citizens of the city of Rochester on an emotional level? How do we create emotional ties to the city? How do we engage human concerns like justice, health, equality, and the arts, not just by way of not-for-profit programs, but in plans that integrate economic and technology development?”

These questions about human-centered innovations are difficult to form, and their benefits are more difficult to measure than those of technological and economic innovations. As author Hilary Austen points out, we tend to run like hell from difficult questions like these. But to change our current urban plight, we must face these difficult questions. If we’re not exploring questions such as “How do we create an emotionally engaging Rochester,”  then we won’t change our current state.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Honoring Big Bill

Later today I'll travel downstate join my family in honoring Basil W. Matychak Sr. aka "Big Bill" who passed away on March 21. Big Bill was my grandfather, an engineer, and a farmer who inspired the maker / DIY spirit that I have today. Here he is riding around his yard with my brother Ezra, 4 years old, following close behind. Yes, he taught a 4 year old to drive a tractor. Gotta love that man. xoxoxo

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Designers Love Their Thumbnails

This past Tuesday, my class and I went on our second field trip into the city, this time to Foodlnk's R&D facility, on Joseph Avenue. It's exciting to be collecting so much great data for the ROC2020 project. However, our ultimate task is not just to collect the data, but to communicate it in an engaging way. How do we get from here to there?

Here's what we found on Tuesday. Foodlink, as you may know, is a food bank in Rochester that provides emergency food to eleven counties in the region. But their long-term goal is to transform the regional food system so that emergency food won't be needed. This means heavy investment in R&D.

We visited their Skunk Works and talked with some impressive people about the transformative work they are doing there. Previously a bottling facility for Pepsi, it holds three social business start-ups focused on the following goals: provide healthy food for school kids; train and place Rochester citizens in green jobs; and convert food waste (of which Foodlink has an endless supply) into green fuel, compost, and animal feed.

To try to make sense of all this data, on Thursday we came back to the RIT Innovation Center and started a knowledge-sharing session, in which we wrote down every current urban innovation that we had discovered through our primary and secondary research. Then we took all of these innovations - each one written on an individual post-it - and began sorting them into an affinity diagram. Then the students each chose two innovations that resonate with them. And finally, we embarked on the task of figuring out how to communicate these innovations in an engaging way.

What may separate design processes from processes in other disciplines is that it generates hundreds of ideas each step of the way. The rationale behind this process is that if we generate hundred of ideas, then we increase the chances of finding a truly innovative one. Think of a photographer and how many pictures she takes to get that perfect shot. Or a film maker and the hundreds of hours of footage she shoots toward the end of delivering a two-hour film. The same principle applies to design. Go for quantity and select the best for further development.

This is where thumbnails come in. At the beginning of a project, designers generate hundreds of little sketches, a visual brainstorm of ideas caught on paper. Thumbnails are small, no larger than one inch by one inch. Once we have enough thumbnails, the next step is to choose a few of them for further development. If the deliverable is a poster, and in this case it is, we choose three thumbs to develop into rough comprehensives. Again, we don't choose one thumbnail that we think is the best; we choose, instead, a few options that show the most potential.

If you look at the photos above, it's not clear that these designers are loving their thumbnails as I claim in the title of this post. That's because making thumbnails is hard. "Art is Work," claims one of my favorite illustrators, Milton Glaser. He is right. It is work. But while generating thumbnails can be an exhausting task, we eventually come to love them as evidence that remarkable ideas don’t just fall into our laps, but, rather, emerge from hard work.