Thursday, February 24, 2011

Urban Repurposing

I got excited the other day when I heard that Kodak, the company that built Rochester's economy in the early 20th century by bringing photography to the masses, is thinking about getting in to the solar cell business. I got excited because I’m gearing up to create a “Rochester 2020” map for the Imagine RIT Festival and I’ve been making a list of organizations in town who are engaged in repurposing. (To repurpose is transform the stuff that we already have instead of replace it with new stuff.) Sadly Kodak wasn’t on my list - boo! But now they are - yay! If this deal goes through, they will be repurposing their thin-film machines to bring another game-changing technology to the masses, this time solar cells. Go Kodak. Very cool.

I’m focusing on urban repurposing projects bc they are an elegant alternative to new building projects. Even though cities have a reputation for being environmental and social wastelands (thanks Charles Dickens), they are in fact ripe with potential for being some of the greenest and socially innovative places on the planet. As half of the world population now lives in urban settings, it’s important that we design these places thoughtfully and sustainably. 

There’s a ton of repurposing going on in this city, the city of #ROC. I’ve written a bit about Foodlink on this blog as they are already knee deep in urban repurposing and redistributing. They redistribute discarded food to organizations who feed hungry people. They repurpose food-waste into fuel. They repurpose school lunch programs and kitchens so they can serve locally grown food. And just recently they began refurbishing old electronics for people who can use them.

Add to this list the Rochester Active Transport Group . They are repurposing old bikes and old train paths to create a human-powered transport system. And then there are National repurposing organizations that have local sectors like the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. The ReStore gathers, fixes up, and then sells used household parts and appliances. And my very favorite repurposing initiative is called Park[ing] Day, a day in September when artists and activists reclaim urban parking spots by transforming them into mini parks, beach chairs and all.

If you have a favorite repurposing project or an idea for one, then I’d love to hear about it. Comment or tweet me @xanthm

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Irony of Diverse Teams

I've just completed my fourth academic quarter teaching a design-thinking course in a and I'm finally able to articulate an irony that's been nagging me for quite a while. The irony is that introverted students tend to have a lot of ideas, which go unarticulated, while the extroverts’ one or two ideas get indulged. In team settings, most design students are introverted, capable of generating dozens of ideas in a short amount of time, whereas business students tend to be extroverted and generate significantly fewer ideas than the design students. In team settings the leaders that emerge are likely to be extroverts; thus, it’s the one or two ideas of the business students that get pursued. This is precisely what often happens in my classes when the students are put into teams: the extroverts push their one or two ideas forward and the many ideas of the introverts get ignored.

Generating ideas is like taking pictures. A skilled photographer shoots hundreds of shots to increase his or her chances of capturing one stunning image. We idea generators should want to follow the same practice: the more ideas we have, the more likely it is that we'll find a remarkable one. And this ability that designers have to generate ideas fluently is not only useful at the front end of the project, but at every step of the way. Yet, their introversion prevents them from sharing their ideas, especially when their team is already excited about an earlier idea, which is likely the first idea the team had come up with.

So, what to do. The spring quarter starts in two weeks and I would like to help the designers find the courage to share their ideas, and to persist in articulating those ideas. And I would like to help the business students take advantage of their own leadership talents to empower introverted designers to articulate the reservoir of ideas they have to offer.

Monday, February 14, 2011

This Answer Is Not Helpful

I had the goofiest interaction on Quora this past weekend. For those of you not in the know, Quora is a new site for Q&A. Unlike sites like, questions and answers posted on Quora are highly curated. And as we’ve become increasingly attentive to the crediblity of online information sources, curation has become a vital part of our virtual interactions.

Quora has strict rules about how to craft questions and answers and I bumped up against them over the weekend. I posted an answer to a question and the answer was almost immediately voted down and collapsed by another user and labelled "This answer is not helpful." Call me oversensitive, but being told that I wasn't being helpful made me feel really bad. My censurer pointed me to the rules on how to write a helpful answer, but I did not know which of these rules I had broken. And beyond that, I didn't agree with all of the rules.  

In contrast, something that I kind of liked about Facebook was its "like" icon. Even though several groups formed claiming to want an "unlike" icon, it never materialized. And even though you can have a pretty contentious discussion on Facebook, the architecture of the icons is pretty positive. As are the defaults they afford us.

This experience with Quora got me thinking in a broader sense about online rating systems which are also playing a major role in the quest for creating credible information sources online. 

Why do we vote instead of encourage people to articulate their responses in writing?  Because it's faster and easier. Yet sites like Quora have the potential for a real exchange of knowledge and beliefs that a rating system can never achieve.

If we really want to increase human knowledge, then why don't we create systems that enable us to help each other find the right words? IDEO has a brainstorming principle "Build on the Ideas of Others." That is, when someone says something that you may not agree with, pause for a minute, find a part of the statement that you like, and build on it until you like it. As with any consensus-building exercise, the addition of new ideas to a conversation can almost always be helpful - regardless of the idea’s direct relationship to the project’s goal. Educators don’t shut people down for writing unhelpful answers; rather, we take on the responsibility of integrating those answers into the discussion.

My Quora experience would have been great if only my censurer had provided a thoughtful and constructive response. Now how can I help him do that?

special thanks to E. K. Learnard for feedback and editing

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mapping the Future of Rochester

Innovators enjoy surveying the current landscape of a region and making predictions on what they think it will look like in future. That's why the spring section of my design-thinking class is creating a 3D map of the city of Rochester's near future called "Rochester 2020." We'll start off the project by surveying the social, technological, environmental, and economic innovations that are in infancy at present.  Then we'll visualize what we think our city will look like if these innovations take hold. The map will be on display in the Saunders College of Business for the 4th annual Imagine RIT Creativity and Innovation Festival. 

If you'd like to help build "Rochester 2020," then sign up for Design-thinking at RIT, course No. 0102-421-01. Beyond signing up for the course, there are other ways to contribute to the project. Pop me a note and we'll work it out. 

Follow posts on this project by searching for the tag "ROC2020" on this blog and on twitter


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Some projects that I'm working on

It's February in Rochester, the snow is endless and the only thing that keeps me going these days is the promise of spring.  At RIT, we're already gearing up for our 4th Innovation and Creativity festival, Imagine RIT,  which happens this year on Saturday May 7.

Having participated in NYC World Maker Faire this past September, I'm a hard-core believer in the value of these types of events. They push creatives to tell rich stories about their projects and they engage the general public in colorful and creative visions of the future. Below are some projects that I'm involved with. Some of them will be featured at Imagine RIT, some not. But all of the projects I work on focus on making the world better, so listing them here helps me discover the overlaps and opportunities. If you find something that I've missed or are working on similar stuff, then please send me a message or leave a comment. 

My RIT colleagues Vic Perotti from business and Andrea Hickerson from journalism are working together on a project for the festival called "Rise Above the Crowd," and I'm honored that they invite me to chime in on the project whenever I want to. The project is still in the formative stages but I believe the questions that the project team is asking are the right ones: How does general public + mobile technology effect journalism? How can large networked displays + mobile inputs engage journalists and public in positive feedback loops? How does gaming and elements-of-play enhance the news experience? How do new technologies + conventional and unconventional content creators enrich real-time events such as Imagine RIT? Like I said, great questions. I'm excited to play with whatever they've got on festival day. The communications that will "Rise Above the Crowd" are bound to be rich ones. 

In the Saunders College of Business our freshman engage in a year long course sequence called "Biz 1-2-3" in which they create a new product or service from start to finish. In the design school, all of the design freshman engage in a year long sequence called "3D Design" in which they learn to observe the world around them and intervene with 3D artifacts. This year, we decided that at least one section of these classes should play together. It's been a learning experience, for sure. Communication across these academic silos takes practice to master, but these kids are getting  a head start and they are doing great. Some of the teams will show off their projects at the festival. 

In previous years, Saunders College has struggled a little bit with what to do for the festival. Our students don't make race cars like the engineering students do and they don't make sculpture like the art students do. So how do we exhibit our skills? This year we're going to try a mini-lecture series inspired by O'Reilly Ignite model and by the ITP Cafe that we saw at MakerFaire last fall. Our students and faculty really know how to explain the role of emerging technologies in society and economy, so we've created a space to let them shine doing just that. Additionally, the business students on the Executive Board want to host a Saunders Genius Bar - they'll staff a room with students, faculty, staff, and alums who all have social network know-how and offer free consults to festival attendees. Both the cafe and bar will be fueled by plenty of coffee and treats. 

I teach in a even though my background is in art and design, and I am incredibly grateful to my mentors, such as famed design historian R. Roger Remington, for inviting me to participate in some of the projects they work on. As you probably know, we recently opened the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT and Roger has been the champion of this project. This spring, the Vignelli Center is partnering with Fabrica, the communications think-tank for the Benetton Group, on a project called "Looking Back, Designing Forward." With this project, we'll be creating posters that celebrate positive innovations of the past ten years. And then we'll look forward to imagine and model innovations to come in the near future. Several classes are participating in this project. My class is going to focus the second half of the project on the future of the city of Rochester (see Imagine Rochester 2020 below). 

I got an invite last week to submit an entry to this competition only to find that the entry date is on Monday. But when I found out that one of the judges was Douglas Rushkoff, I just had to throw something together. So I gathered a team and very quickly we wrote a proposal for a system called "Together" (name may change again before Monday). In a nutshell, the system doesn't help people cut down on their digital intake, but instead tries to change the quality of it. We liken this change to a person replacing processed foods with whole foods. And the “whole food” of digital input is input that encourages volunteering. There is probably some overlap among this project and the Knight Foundation project, in that we're all concerned with how people consume media and what people do with media. How does it inspire action? We're seeing some pretty amazing proof of that in Egypt this past week.

We're in the winter quarter at RIT and my students are wrapping up the projects they've been working on for Foodlink. They started by simply observing volunteer culture. And I have to hand it to them, they identified some pretty incredible problem spaces to work on. Group one is working on making signage that helps developmentally disabled volunteers work more independently. Group 2 is working on a ride share system for volunteers. Group 3 is working on a beautification/farmer education installation in the warehouse where volunteers sort food. Group 4 is working on a way-finding system for volunteers. Group 5 is working on a needs/skills board that matches staff with specific needs with volunteers who have the skills to fulfill those needs. I've pushed them pretty hard this quarter, and I feel a little guilty about that, but the work that they are doing is top notch.

I've been struggling to find a way to continue my work with Foodlink and take on this fantastic project that we've got going with Fabrica. I've been incredibly impressed with the R&D that Foodlink is engaged in. Their immediate goal is to continue serving eleven counties with emergency food, but their long term vision is to transform the region so that emergency food is no longer needed. Think about that for a minute. They already have mechanisms in place that support this vision and I hope they will be mainstream ten years out. So my class will work with Foodlink and other future thinkers in Rochester to make a 3D map of the city year 2020. I am grateful to Fabrica for putting forth this brief. Ten years into the future, it turns out, is a very useful amount of time to be exploring. We don't have to invent the future from scratch. But rather, we can look at the seeds that are being planted now and imagine what cities will be like when these innovations reach a tipping point.