Bento-box and the arrows in-between
Friday August 30th 2013, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Some ranting

Picture 3

In the event last night, Andy talked about the classic art-school exercise where students in their first week had to draw the ‘negative’ spaces to switch their perception from looking at objects. Its similar to how I to learnt typography or composition in my first-year undergraduate,  drummed into seeing the white space in-between the letterforms to understand kerning, leading and layout.

Andy’s talk highlighted our conditioning, as industrialised cultures, that makes us focus on objects, and that it is problematic because it doesn’t make us aware of the in-between connections that are there that is almost as important, if not more. This in-betweenness is where we find things like relationships, engagement, movement, experience… Andy used, as an example, an organisational chart of a management structure in an organisation, and talked about the ‘arrows in-inbetween’ that often become neglected, or perhaps, treated as ‘objects’ in an effort to control it.

In parallel, there’s a conversation that I’ve been having recently with my colleagues in Japan, based on that works with a community in Kesennuma, devastated by the 3.11 Great Eastern Earthquake, in an attempt to catalyse empowerment and transformation through participatory social innovation. And in this conversation, we touched on the ‘bento-box‘ activity as it was one of the things that the high-school kids designed by re-discovering their traditional food cultures and to share and celebrate that within the community and beyond, and potentially re-generate local businesses again. And whilst we were talking, it was a delightful surprise when we stumbled on the ‘bento-box’ as a metaphor for the project. The culture of bento-box in Japan is creative and playful, often incorporating regional ingredients and flavours that allow its diversity. Its limitless possibilities, combination and variety are its charm. In contrast to western notions of a ‘box’ that gives it a restrictive, bounded, ‘boxed-in’ feeling, a ‘box’ (hako) in the Japanese context is almost its opposite. Here, a ‘box / hako’ is, in fact, a receptacle that has the capacity to be filled with anything. It is openness.

Relating this back to Andy’s talk about the ‘in-between spaces’, to the notion of a ‘bento-box’ as a open and limitless possibility, I was suddenly struck by its similarity. The ‘bento-box’ as a metaphor for a receptacle, suggests that the thing that is being designed is the scaffolding itself, borrowing a pedagogic terminology. So if we designed the ‘bento-box’, the in-between space inside it can become anything, supporting the ‘liquid network’ of people’s relationships, movements, experiences…

And there must be something in the universe… serendipitously, Kenya Hara is coming to Melbourne, because Muji is just about to launch its flagship store next year, and I’ve been asked to host and introduce his lecture next week at RMIT Design Hub. And his talk will be on ‘emptiness’, a classic Japanese, zen-buddhism philosophy that underlies the concept of what he does. Hara-san’s philosophy, emptiness, is empty space to attune our sensibilities towards how we ‘notice’ it but can’t ‘grab’ it, how we attempt to create it by clearing it, and by clearing it, help something enter. But its not the ‘less is more’ modernist philosophy: “The roots of expressions like … ‘less is more’ are subtly different than those that underlie emptiness. Emptiness does not merely imply simplicity of form, logical sophistication and the like. Rather, emptiness provides a space within which our imaginations can run free, vastly enriching our powers of perception and our mutual comprehension. Emptiness is this potential.” (Hara 2010). This is all tied with ancient ideas that were developed through Japanese tea-ceremony, the aesthetics of simplicity and nature, and further still, to Shinto, where gods are invited to reside – in the shrine, in the landscape, in ourselves. He talks about the Shimenawa as the lines that invoke such spaces – made of rice-stalks twisted as a rope – marking the lines where people and spirits crossed over and entered hallowed spaces. Thomas Kasulis, in his book Shinto, interestingly talks about these as ‘bookmarks’.

Returning back to Andy’s talk again, he referenced some ideas to his life in Germany and German language, and how adjectives were harder to learn because they are culturally contextualised. The example he gave was Shadenfreude, a term borrowed from Germany  because there is no English equivalent. After the talk, we briefly discussed how interesting it is that such words exists in different cultures. I related it to my own culture, where there are many words in Japanese (but not in English) that refer to people’s relationships. Japan is a small, mountainous, island country leaving little choice but to live closely with one another – so its no wonder it had to create words to consider and be more aware of the in-between spaces among people. Nonaka’s contribution to the knowledge management discourse, through Ba, is one such example, and because this word exists, in a Wittgenshtinian way, we can actively create its relevance to and meaning in our lives. Similar to how the notion of a ‘box’ connotes restrictiveness in the Western context, but in total contrast, means openness in the Japanese context, and that there is the idea+word existing in the first place can help us talk about it and consciously ‘design’ it too. Its a bookmark!

Perhaps the tangent with Hara-san’s emptiness has taken me too far away from Andy’s talk on the ‘arrows in-between’, but I reckon there’s something here worth thinking about more…!

Graphic design thinking – beyond brainstorming
Tuesday July 23rd 2013, 2:13 pm
Filed under: Communication Design, Thoughts on readings

Picture 2

Jeremy had lent me this book the other day. Its one of those ‘pop’ books that Ellen Lupton is really good at  churning out these days – she’s done a suite of these among things like ‘DIY’ creativity books. Out of curiosity, I sat down and read it cover to cover (easy reading on the train) and its actually very good examples of framing problems, idea generation and creating form visually. It is solidly wedded to the ‘graphic’ form of designing as a medium and a tool. In fact, ‘design thinking’ here is done through form-making – sketching, compiling lists, diagramming relationships, mapping web of associations. Let me list what it contains in the Contents that relate to it:

• Mind Mapping - or ‘radiant thinking’ a ‘mental research’, starting with a central term or idea the designer quickly plots out associated images and concepts.
• Visual Research - a study of brand space of a client/product/ service by looking at logos, names, promotional language, colour and other aspects of a brand
• Brand Matrix – uses x-y axis to cross two values eg. rational /emotional and elite / popular to plot the brand and where it would like to be
• Brand Books – ‘a way to visualize the personality and life story of a product, company, organisation. The designer uses a selection of colors, shapes, textures, photographs, words, and photos to set a mood… as a narrative’ (p. 46)
• Visual Brain Dump - sounds like another form of mind-mapping but the process is not to stop drawing
• Forced connections – eg. visual puns like crossing iconic products with unpleasant forms
• Action verbs – visually explore applications of different verbs, eg. magnify, rearrange, alter, adapt and forces a fresh view of the idea
• Everything from everywhere – looking beyond the familiar
• Rhetorical figures - using structure of language / words as forms of inspiration
• Semiotics – this rich area of linguistics has been boiled down to the visual exploration of logo design
• Visual Diary - emphasis of this is on ‘unguided creativity’
• Concept presentations - the example they showed here was interaction and service design mock-ups and storyboards

Graphic designers seems to have cornered the market with this many repetoire of visual thinking, and the examples Lupton shows are pretty diverse. Though, given its meant to be ‘beyond brainstorming’, this book doesn’t go past the initial stages of ideation, which is a shame. I only found a couple of pages (11 pages in total) on research that aims to generate well-rounded understanding of audiences / problem context (as opposed to other forms of research they discuss that only looks at something one-dimensionally), which may give a rather poor impression for the profession.

There’s also a section on ‘collaboration’, which I thought was very odd (its a bit like ‘breathing’ or ‘eating’ – don’t we all collaborate as part of our job?). ‘Sometimes, designers let their individuality get in the way of teamwork. Effective collaboration yields something new, not a Frankensteinian mash up of parts’ (p. 92) was very reveling. Are graphic designers poor collaborators? Are they too ego-centred, and are these individuals celebrated too often in the profession?

Interestingly, there’s a section on co-design that references Liz Sander’s work. Given my lament on the lack of any kinds of research being demonstrated here, this shows promising signs of designers actually involving people in the design process. ‘Designers today have learned that users are experts in their own domains. Many designers now view themselves as not controlling an end result but as putting a process into play that actively involves an audience’ (p. 96). Despite this grand gesture of equal footing, the ‘how to co-design’ is a rather disappointing account of gleaning insights from the users through visual / tactile mediums. It actually sounds more like user-centred design rather than co-design, as the designer is still designing the final outcome on behalf of the users.

The case studies that showed signs of extending beyond the visual thinking stages of a project was the PieLab – a 48hr public event that morphed into a pop-up shop called PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama that then became a permanent storefront. This is more than baking, it brings people in the local community together to talk and share. Bielenberg says ‘Conversations leads to ideas, ideas to projects, and projects to positive change’.

Get Ready Cherbourg
Sunday June 16th 2013, 11:43 pm
Filed under: Case study, Methods+Tools, Participation, Social design, User/Human Centred Design

welcome to cherbourg

I was met at 5.30am by Anthony, a six-foot four man from Natjul Indigenous Performing Arts, and despite only speaking briefly on the phone to arrange this lift, he gave me a bear-hug greeting. I knew then that we were off on a great 4hour car journey to Cherbourg.

Anthony has a very rich life experience which he shared through his amazing stories. He has immense wisdom in looking at the entrenched problems for indigenous peoples, from the prison system that encouraged juveniles to offend again, to the bureaucracy of government systems and the inter-generational trauma that keep spinning the negative cycle. Peppered among this was snippets of hilarious stories of his artistic life as a performer. ‘Having a Yarn’ was something he excelled at and enjoyed, allowing hours to fly by for the passengers – Martin the cameraman and myself.

Upon entering Cherbourg, we were chased by a pack of dogs that threatened to go under the wheel, which really freaked me out, and then we were greeted by loud music on outdoor speakers and a group of children in bright clothes at the Church. Its Sunday morning at 9am and a crisp, blue sky.

I was invited to Cherbourg to run a workshop on disaster preparedness. I had met Jennie Schoof, the project co-ordinator of ATSI Natural Disaster Resilience Project, at a past AEMI workshop and she thought the visual, participatory and capacity building approach could contribute to this community. She had been working for many months with the Cherbourg Aboriginal Council, SES Queensland and local Aboriginal leaders and volunteers, culminating in this weekend. This hard work has been central in building the fundamentals of trusting and respectful relationship for all, especially for this community that has experienced relentless tragedy and atrocity since its days as an Aboriginal settlement. The entrance to the town (top image) says it all. More recently, they’ve had a succession of devastating floods that had resulted in one death and widespread infrastructure damage, in January 2011 and February 2013. The state government funding came with a Disaster Management Plan handed to the Council, a very thick document that had no connection or meaning to the community. Its a familiar story but more wretched when its carried out in this town, echoing the same treatment of people as vulnerable, disempowered and unable to make their own decisions.

So instead, the Council used the funding to establish Get Ready Cherbourg. They then engaged in several months of dialogue with the community and people had put their hands up to volunteer and assist in the process of capacity building and preparedness. Jennie was the touchstone of this project, and due to prior familiarity with the methodology, she was able to inject richness, experience and knowledge into the exercise and really bring it to life. Together, we facilitated two groups of Aboriginal volunteers who were all keen to participate and develop a community action for preparedness. Jennie was fantastic, and I was really impressed with how she had made this method her own. For example, in the neighbourhood visualisation exercise on identifying those who they thought were vulnerable, she pushed what that really meant and helped people think about the difference between pension week when they had money or not having any. Seeing what she was doing enabled me to learn and realise that the real work was in how well you can connect the story of awareness and preparedness to people’s own lives and contexts. The knowledge a facilitator had of the community was central to this methodology, and her ability to listen and incorporate their personal lives enabled this exercise to be ‘real’ for them. The social network mapping exercise was an eye-opener, for me and for the participants, revealing how inter-connected and enmeshed their networks really were. The challenges they face are significant – low-socio economic background, illiteracy, alcoholism, domestic violence and absentee parents – but the bonds between people are strong here. This was voiced time and time again, especially in the ‘what if’ scenario responses where looking out for one another was common practice for this community. Having seen or spoken with other people in other towns about disconnect in their community networks, this was an invaluable asset that made them resilient against all adversity.

Cherbourg 1-6-13 for web
As the workshop progressed, Jennie facilitated the last session where they had to come up with two things that each person had to take responsibility of in their street, as many of them lived in different parts of town. This made sure that it wasn’t too complex or onerous, setting them up to fail, and instead, made it achievable. They recognised that you didn’t have be the person doing everything and other people were going to undertake other tasks and roles. This collective approach to co-creating preparedness ensures that it is decided on their own terms, in their own words and they take ownership of what happens. This will then be adopted by the Council and passed on to Emergency Management Queensland as a Cherbourg Disaster Ready Strategy. A ground-up approach that makes more sense.

Jennie gave me a lift back to Brisbane, and we talked endlessly in the car, reflecting on the day, the method, the outcome and everything in between. Though I was only in Cherbourg for a short amount of time, I felt privileged to have met such amazing people and could help in their path to preparedness. It was a gift they gave me, perhaps unknowingly, in enriching my experience, intellectually and spiritually and enabled me to weave another thread into my tapestry of stories on the strength of the human spirit.

i.club気仙沼 – i love kesennuma
Monday December 17th 2012, 10:19 pm
Filed under: Education, Sustainability, User/Human Centred Design, student activities
Boat kesennuma1-low

Having done a research trip through several cities in the US (which was all awesome), I’ve landed in Japan and travelled up to one of the towns, Kesennuma, along the northeast coast that was hit by the earthquake and tsunami last March. I went to take part in an amazing project born out of Tokyo University’s i-school initiative (Maru NPO), funded partly by SCF Japan (horrah!) and private companies.

I arrived at dusk and saw the massive vessel, eerily marooned in the middle of a highway, quite a distance from the harbour. When we re-visited it the next day, I realised that its surroundings was once peoples houses, shops, schools and businesses – though nothing remains but concrete foundations and wrangled debris. Underneath the hull were several crushed cars. Next to it, a temporary shrine of paper cranes, flowers and toys was erected to remember the family and friends who had died that day. Kesennuma had lost 1038 (+ 259 still missing) people. We then visited several homes to understand how they were getting by – some better than others. I was heartened by how welcoming and positive they all were, demonstrating their strength and resilience. Though their stories weren’t all encouraging. I felt a fresh surge of anger in discovering that the government were slow and inadequate in assisting the community on all fronts – infrastructure, services, industry and basic housing – many were going into another bitter winter in temporary fibro shacks. I was there on the last day of the national election and understood, first-hand, the apathy and lack of confidence (60% voter turn out – shocking but inevitable) – electing the least worst of all parties.

The role of non-profits and university-led projects are salient in this context. i-school’s initiative is using design and social innovation as a way to re-build Kesennuma’s devastated local seafood industry. It involves local high-school kids and their input to re-discover their native food resources and generate many ideas that could lead to new businesses. This project, ‘i-club kesennuma‘, focusses on dry foods – products that doesn’t require refrigeration so it could be made and distributed easily as well as be a nutritious provision in an emergency. Its focus is to shift the attention from raw food like sushi and sashimi (used to be its main industry) which is costly to keep and limited in what can be eaten, often resulting in a large amount of waste and high energy bills. The kids’ vigour was generating another effect – pride and hope for their town – infecting the adults with a renewed optimism to face day-to-day difficulties.

iclub kesennuma2-low

The photo above shows a scene from a workshop I took part in – the young people conducted quasi-ethnographic research and talked to local residents, later sharing interesting insights about customs and products that they discovered. There was a lot of laughter and lightness. The next workshop is in January and February that involves them making the actual dry-food products in partnership with local businesses. I won’t be able to take part but I hope to keep in touch with the researchers at i-school to see what happens. I felt that there was a huge value in this project than evaluating whether it succeeds in producing a viable product.

The trip to Kesennuma was mixed with many thoughts and it’ll take me a while to digest all of these feelings. I still feel powerless and frustrated, living so far away from home but the connection with the kids and the community was a real, tangible feeling that I’ll remember for a very very long time…

Lessons from Fukushima – a systemic organisational failure of Tokyo power company (TEPCO)
Friday December 14th 2012, 11:41 am
Filed under: Case study, on empathy and values

TEPCO is one of the largest companies in Japan, producing 30% of the country’s entire energy needs. Critical reflection on why the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster occurred has now swung its attention from the tsunami towards the internal mechanisms of the organisation. The criticisms they’re facing is similar to what the CFA had experienced.

One major failure was largely due to systemic inadequacy in the organisation. It was built on a heirarchical, pyramid structure and the nuclear energy department were perceived as the ‘elites’, immune to scrutiny and input from other departments. This led them to ignore the concerns of the public on nuclear power, which was accutely felt by the sales department, though the communication between these departments had been inadequate.

Public anxiety and outrage has now become so severe that many employees, especially the new, younger people, are leaving the company. Unable to gain back the trust of the citizens, these employees are feeling that their values for social contribution is no longer being relfected in the company. Many observed that this was having a detrimental effect on others.

Interestingly, their past lack of awareness to public concern and arrogant attitude have also caused them to be adverse to failure, responding only to obvious risks. They had become too risk-averse to think of the worst case scenario, leading to insular thinking and making them more ill prepared. Again, this reflected the shortfalls that were observed in Black Saturday.

As a way to counteract this prevalent thinking, rhetoric on having a ‘manual’ has been raised. It is a typically safe and ‘Japanese’ response – a one-size-fits-all template – and it seemed to me that it would only compound the problem rather than breaking the negative cycle.

Same old problem… but a fresh openness?
Thursday December 13th 2012, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Methods+Tools, Participation

I was invited to take part in a workshop on Ageing, attended by several leading Japanese companies (Hitachi, NTT, Ajinomoto, Kao, Omron; Ricoh etc). The participants were either designers (working internally), or R&D people who were excited by ‘Design Thinking’ methods as a way to innovate new systems, services and products for the senior citizens thereby addressing a social issue and creating new opportunities in a ‘growing’ market.

The stage where I participated was a follow-up of several previous workshops that begun with an ethnographic study of senior citizens and followed by an introduction to Design Thinking as a method to generate new ideas. They were then asked to report what they had attempted to do subsequently in their respective departments/companies and share any problems and potential avenues they have encountered since.

Familiar problems were heard such as, lack of ownership and buy-in by fellow staff or support/endorsement from the powers at be. Many shared their attempts to involve their colleagues, inspire them with their ideas and methods, though almost all of them reported that they were unsuccessful. It seemed, from my perspective, that the emphasis they placed on the main ‘user’ (ie, the senior citizen, in this case), they forgot to think about other stakeholders, ie, internal staff, that they are also the main ‘user’ too that needed to be involved in the process of change. Other common themes were the cause and effect proof that such new ‘thing’ can create profit. Although many had agreed that the future vision of empowering senior citizen was essentially a good thing, it was hard for their fellow colleagues to translate that more practically into what they do now. It seemed that the scenarios were too future based that lacked tangibility and belief – they were forcing people to run before they could walk. A ‘buffer’ scenario was needed – perhaps, generated through co-creation from colleagues in other departments, even involving the CEO.

These were interesting observations – commonly heard in other countries – and reflected the experimental approach that the Hakuhodo innovation lab were attempting to create through such initiative. I was also struck by how non-competitive everyone was, and rather than holding on to trade secrets or censoring criticisms or internal company problems, they were all very open in sharing, empathising and, in some instances, celebrating the small success of some other team. That, I felt, was the greatest and most rewarding aspect of being part of this workshop. I wondered whether this ‘culture’ could be observed in Australia or the UK (I can say for sure, not in the US!) – and that they were all supportive, collegial and non-competitive, was a really lovely thing to experience.

Japanese universities under threat
Thursday December 13th 2012, 4:38 pm
Filed under: Education, student activities


Who would’ve thought that tertiary education in Japan would become under threat. Currently, there are 783 universities that are unable to sustain their programs, due to prolonged decline in childbirth. In a bid to make themselves more attractive, some universities are making their entrances easier, leading to poor graduate standards.

Horikoshi Gakuen University has been ordered foreclosure. Unable to sustain their staff, their 220 students will have to find another university to graduate from. Mr Harumi (anthropologist and graduate of Tokyo University) mentioned over coffee, how many university students, even at Tokyo Uni, were lazy. The pressure placed upon them prior to entering was so immense that he said that many became lazy once they started. Some lecture-based courses with few hundred students rely on final exams to pass, allowing the students to fool around most of the time…!

In contrast, I was invited to an open presentation of student projects in Shibuya last night (see photo). These students are attending i-school at Tokyo University who were carving out new business opportunities for Japanese companies (like Ajinomoto, Meiji etc) using Design Thinking in an emerging market like India. Based on an ethnographic research trip to India, their task was to create novel and unique business ventures. Echoing a similar model to our GRC, the students presented their work confidently to a panel of business people and academics, who were not shy in putting forward their sharp critique. Some of the points, particularly on the way certain assumptions, generalisations and lack of awareness of context was very insightful and hopefully help the students learn from the feedback.

I was pleasantly surprised by how brave the students were in entering into such ‘unknown’ territory, whether that was a foreign culture like India, having complete trust in a design and bringing that into business and to be critically evaluated in front of the public. It was a really well-attended event, and judging from the number of suits, many people were probably corporates. This framework of learning is something we take for granted in Australia, UK or the US and so its refreshing to witness it here in Tokyo.

Naked bodies, suicides and earthquakes
Friday December 07th 2012, 7:22 pm
Filed under: Some ranting

Earthquake JapanI was enjoying the rusty, salty local onsen (hot springs) with Mum yesterday. It was early afternoon with a light breeze and wonderfully sunny for a winter’s day. As we bathed in the outdoor area we saw many local women, usually in pairs, all sizes and ages. Short, fat, skinny, bow-legged, wrinkled, freckled… its actually very humbling and heart-warming seeing the diversity. It reminded me that there is no ‘normal’ person.

On the NHK Japanese news today, they reported that the number of suicides for this year has gone down for the first time in 15 years, dipping below 30,000. I know. 30,000. It’s a crazy number. The highest being Tokyo. The journalist said that the government are working out a strategy to deal with the situation. What a palarva.

7th Dec, 5:25pm, there was a mag. 4 earthquake. We were watching the telly at the time. The warning came on, and then for a full minute, the whole house shook, throwing things off the shelves. I half picked up my laptop, Mum went to clutch the porcelain doll and Dad turned the kerosene heater off. It was pretty scary – the lights swung around and the pendulum clock stopped working. Once it had passed, we contined to watch the seaside town, Kesennnuma further north evacuate to the hills – the tsunami was on its way. Since the Great Eastern Japan earthquake, the language used to warn people has shifted from ’suggesting’ to evacuate to ‘telling’ people to do so. The urgency of tone used by the news broadcasters was very persuasive. Though, it was comical to see them on the TV with hard-hats on.

I’m meant to be going there next week… with continued after-shocks, maybe I might get to experience the ‘real’ thing and add another dimension to the disaster research I’m doing…

This experience has caused many to recall the horrors of the Great Eastern Earthquake last year. Later, it was reported that many people did evacuate, but in their cars, causing heavy traffic jams on highways, despite being told to leave on foot. The authorities are re-examining their messages and strategies again.

With the general election coming up on the 19th December, many people (including my vocal parents) are angry and dispirited by all candidates and parties. The mood is incredibly dark and negative. Electroral turnout is still very low, particularly among the young generation (below 50%). This has led to interesting initiatives where schools are conducting ‘mock’ elections for highschool kids to experience what it means and feel like to take part in an election.

Some are promising to get rid of all nuclear power stations, reflecting the wishes of most Japanese citizens. Though none have come up with a viable alternative energy source, making their promises hollow and unreliable. Even a previous Prime Minister Abe (who threw in the towel before) has come back to run again, vowing to rebuild the economy, making empassioned speeches about not forgetting those affected by the disaster. Its laughable how naive and ridiculous they all sound. How will they rebuild communities, especially in Fukushima, and why would they trust the government when they’ve done so little? These residents have become immigrants in their own country, having found a temporary shelter or a relative to live with elsewhere but all desiring to return to their homeland. Some related this to purgatory, unable to start new businesses and a new life.

A broken public system
Saturday November 17th 2012, 7:25 am
Filed under: Some ranting, Sustainability

No pedestrianA week in Pittsburgh has flown by and I realise how much this place is a car-culture. Some places have a ‘prohibited’ sign of humans – we laughed at that thinking whether it meant that ‘no people are allowed’, but it’s simply a sign that means no pedestrian crossing. Sometimes, there is no traffic lights for pedestrians, and this is where it gets hairy because you have to dart across whenever there’s a gap in traffic. And there’s a crazy Pittsburgh-only rule of turning on red… I wonder what the statistics are on traffic accidents here.

Bus stop signs are very obscure, a medium-sized blue rectangle simply tacked on to electric poles. There’s one on the corner of Friendship and South Atlantic that we took to the strip. I wondered why were were hanging around on this corner until Laurene told me that we’re waiting for the bus. As any cities, their timetables are unreliable. $3.50 buys you a return ticket that’s only valid for the next 3hrs. That’s kinda expensive, especially for low-income families. The only thing I liked about the bus system is the rack at the front of the bus where you can load your pushbike onto. The School buses are mainly empty but for a handful of children – that must guzzle some serious amount of petrol.

disused steel works

Tom took Cameron, Sophie, Laurene and I on a tour of the steel works today. Having grown up in Pittsburgh most of his life and taking summer jobs in the steelworks, he knew a great deal about them and its history. He pointed out the  massively long ‘coke’ trains that brought the materials to the smelting factories, and the hills dotted around the place that were made from slag heaps. He took us to a neighbourhood (equivalent to our suburb) called Presston where there were factory-owned cottages  for the workers in Press Works who were paid in company credits, so they could only buy from company-run shops, trapping them in that job and life forever. The rich factory owners would live high in the hills where the air was less polluted. Basically, a tough life for the ordinary family.

He also took us through Braddock, a pretty scary suburb that partly looked like a ghost town. Houses were dilapidated and general neglect hung in the air. Though the story is fascinating – a gung-ho Mayor who looks like the Hell’s Angel gang member has adopted Braddock as his own (the word is that he tattoos the names of those who had died in Braddock on to his body) and is leading the battle on injecting some love into this neighbourhood through community projects.

Pittsburgh is a fascinating town, full of paradoxes – there is a resilient beauty in its chaos and industrial ugliness. The houses originally built by the steel works wealth is still evident in the wonderful architecture of Penn Station building, the Cathedral of Learning  and the residential houses such as those in Friendship or Oakland. And this butts against the long coal trains, the abandoned warehouses, disused steel factories and ramshackled streets. The dirty rivers (a health hazard when in rains, because of the combined sewage overflow) confluence here but the concrete and steel bridges are magnificent, often pained in light yellow and blue.

Carnegie Mellon
Friday November 16th 2012, 9:47 am
Filed under: Education, Methods+Tools, Service Design, Social design, student activities

CMU campus

It’s a beautiful autumn day outside, top of 4 degrees today and slightly overcast . I see college students (super intelligent) criss-crossing the green lawn, kicking the brownish leaves, on their way to class. An American flag gently waves in the background. This is what an American college campus feels like, and I love it!

Since arriving at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, I’ve been warmly embraced into this campus life. I’ve literally jumped into classes, often not knowing exactly what the classes are or what I was required to do, but its often (thankfully) turned out ok. The two classes I’ve been in so far has been ones where there’s a mixture of student levels – from undergrad, postgrad and research candidates. What seems like a pedagogical nightmare to me, fellow colleagues shrug and accept this as how it is here. The breadth and depth that the students are required to perform at is also very interesting. For example, I took part in a class run by Kristin Hughes, Bruce Hanington and Tim (forgot his last name). This class is called “Design and Policy for Humanitarian Impact”. It has 20 students split into 8 project teams, a mix of design grad and undergrads, and some from the Heinz school of public policy, and a few from HCI, Engineering, etc. The inter-disciplinary mix was fascinating to see, and each group had to research an issue of their choice, which was very meaty and rich. I was really impressed by the quality of their work and the insights they’ve gained already, though was concerned how they would manage such a huge task in a short timeframe. Big issues like enabling teenagers to discuss sexuality with family members; creating hands-on extra-curricula activities for high schools; combined sewage overflow; addressing cross-cultural discrimination between black African Americans and Black Africans… that the students weren’t afraid to tackle these ‘real-world’ problems was great to see.

CMU campus

I also got to see Aisling’s class on Critical Design. Students had to create a fictitious campaign on any issue of their choice. Many of these were imbued with a wicked sense of humour (’Design your ideal man’ or ‘Electric shocks from a guitar to make you practice to perfection’, ‘A mirror that records and plays back’), and produced very convincingly. Some of them sparked discussions and questions about gender, race, values, privacy, identity… it was all fascinating. I was really amazed by the way the design students weren’t pushed in providing ’solutions’, and as research, provoke questionings and open further avenues. These are great projects that I could learn from.

The presentations I did briefly in Kirstin’s class, Jodi Forlizzi’s class on Service Design, and in Laurene’s class on research methods was received well (I think). In these presentations, I had aimed to emphasise the ‘imperfection’ of methods, showing instances where things went wrong and having to improvise but what you can learn from making those mistakes. Another bug-bear of mine that I spoke about was that methods aren’t always replicable and generalisable. I feel that some of the critique I made, especially about service design had ruffled some feathers… perhaps in a good way?