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

Jun 29 •

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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:

1.EXPLORE
2. RESEARCH
3. NETWORK
4. SHARE
5. BE OPEN
6. THINK BIG
7. START SMALL
8. ACT NOW!
9. COMMUNICATE
10. MOVE BEYOND

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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