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

Jun 23 •

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#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 will be published in our next post. Stay tuned!

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