Hourschool Podcast on the ATX Webshow!

Check out Hourschool – an AC4D startup – on the ATX webshow:

This week we sit down with Ruby Ku and Alex Pappas of Hourschool, a social app that helps you find and create informal classes. The company was born out of their time as the inaugural class of the Austin Center for Design. We talk about learning the art of interaction design at AC4D as well as the process of building a company that provides a social platform for people to share knowledge.

Teaching Social Innovation

At the recent Winterhouse Design Education Symposium, a group of educators focused on humanitarian design education gathered to discuss topics related to funding, journalism and content, and teaching pedagogy. The threads seemed to align around the topic of teaching social innovation. For clarity, two definitions of social innovation are offered:

  1. Design is a catalyzer of community engagement. Social innovation is a creative re-combination of existing assets, aimed at achieving socially-recognized goals in new ways. It’s a “participated design approach.” [Ezio Manzini‘s definition, from the DPPI conference]
  2. Social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals. [Kriss Deiglmeier]

In both definitions, the emphasis is on socially-recognized goals. What is implied in Ezio’s definition is the role of designer as synthesizer – one who does not create something new as much as leverage things that already exist, recombining them in new and creative ways. Typically, the “things that already exist” involve humans and human capabilities – knowledge, skills, tenacity, relationships, and more. In most of the social innovations Ezio has described or been involved with, a “designed platform” supports this unique recombination of human resources.

Last year, at Winterhouse, I wrote:

I’m concerned, particularly with the metric-driven emphasis on measurable outputs, measurable outcomes, and measurable impact. By definition, a measurable output is reductive, and rigorous measurement serves to separate a given phenomenon from the background of a larger context. It’s at the heart of scientific research – the idea that one can isolate a variable from all others, treat it, and measure the effectiveness of treatment (comparing that effect to a control group to help determine causality). But as Dori Turnstall (Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching at Swinburne University in Australia) commented at our symposium, an ontological view of the world doesn’t separate a person from the background, or view a figure-ground relationship between a person and a culture. Instead, it views all of these things as intimately connected, and a discussion of causality is neither appropriate nor necessary.

The conversation this year seems to have shifted, but only slightly. Our group conversation was less focused on tracking and assessing social impact, as occupied much of the conversation last year. Instead, the emphasis was now on tracking and assessing social innovation education.  There is little precedent for teaching social innovation, and the thrust of the conversation at Winterhouse was around success criteria. Simply, if we’re teaching social innovation, entrepreneurship, or enterprise, how do we know when we’ve succeeded in an educational capacity?

If a student works with an NGO, leads them completely sideways, and learns a great deal in the process – is that a success?

If a student enters a third world country, forms relationships, starts to make an impact, and then leaves and returns to the US after learning a great deal – is that a success?

And if a student forms a philosophy on entrepreneurship that focuses on a humanitarian ROI – but then joins a massive Fortune company upon graduation and ignores this value structure, is that a success?

Most schools have integrated the accreditation-driven push towards assessment and learning outcomes, where a formal criteria for success is established prior to learning, and the student’s progress – and faculty’s abilities – are judged against this criteria upon completion. The majority of design studio classes are focused on the “project.” A project is a finite course of study that brings a real or simulated situation into the school, where students work through the process of design in order to arrive at a solution. Students conduct research, synthesis, ideation, evaluation, and reflection, and then the project is over. Typically, it’s documented in a portfolio, and allows the student to say “I made this thing.” It also becomes the core item that is assessed – somewhat objective measurements can be compared to the project outcome, and a design professor (or, more likely, an administrator) can say “85% of our students satisfactorily achieved objectives A, B, and C on the project.”

Studio project-based learning is convenient. At the end of the semester, the project comes to a completion, and just as a consultant moves to the next project, so too does the student – and faculty – move on to the next design problem. The finiteness is a feature, and it allows for assessment points of evaluation. And project-based learning typically forces reflection-in-action, as it occurs in a studio environment with a teacher as informed guide, a group of people supporting one-another through critique, and all of the studio-culture that designers reflect upon as critical for their training. But project-based learning has two major flaws, when applied in the context of social innovation.

The finiteness of the studio project can force us to abdicate responsibility to those being served. When the project is over, the designers disappear, leaving “the users” in an incomplete and often frustrating state, lacking resolution and with a partial solution that may or may not have positive implications. This isn’t just socially irresponsible; it’s literally the wrong thing to be teaching students who want to focus on social innovation over the course of their design careers. It reinforces the hands-off, “not my fault/what can I do?” attitude that led us to the sustainability mess we’ve only begun to recognize. And, it continues to drive a “design for” attitude, where a designer conflates their expertise in design with expertise in a particular social problem and assumes that they know best.

Additionally, project-based learning reinforces the artificial idea that meaningful impact can occur in a tremendously short time-frame – often as little as three or four weeks. Design students don’t have the experience to doubt this, and when they encounter project after project that features such a short time-frame, they come to expect this as the norm. They’ll graduate without the patience for a longer engagement, and they literally won’t know how to stay the course.

Unfortunately, it’s not just academia that supports project-based engagements. Granting agencies traditionally offer grants only to projects – engagements with a finite timeframe, a clear set of objectives, and measurable levels of impact. That seems to make sound financial and investment sense, except that it isn’t how real life works. So we learn to craft a narrative for the granting agency, one that acts as though social impact is immediately measurable – as though poverty is an engineering problem.

The answer is an extended engagement, one that allows users to become designers and designers to become empathetic. That means we need to find new frameworks for students to learn within. At AC4D, that translates to entrepreneurship, where the focus is not on forming a project but forming a company. While the studio learning ends when class is over, the company continues to drive actual impact, and at graduation, the students transition to founders – with all of the opportunities, trials and tribulations that come with this change.

At Winterhouse, Helen Walters, a writer from Doblin (and formerly of BusinessWeek) described that design programs focused on social innovation are producing students “who are coming into a marketplace and looking for jobs. There isn’t anywhere for them to go. Corporations don’t know what to do with them. They don’t fit into the corporate structures as they exist.” She’s right, and entrepreneurship mitigates a great deal of the problems of fitting a socially minded designer into the square peg of a Fortune management hierarchy. The implications of this from a pedagogical standpoint are huge and challenging. “Designer as founder” requires a different skillset than “designer as artifact maker.” It requires soft-skills like facilitation; it requires an understanding of market dynamic and funding structures; it requires the ability to view culture as a complex system; and it requires deep, sustained passion.

In all of the discussion at Winterhouse, I found the most astute points coming from an unlikely suspect – Kevin Hicks, who is the Dean of Faculty at Hotchkiss, our host for the Symposium. Kevin – who is neither a designer nor a design educator – offered that “We [need to] teach decidedly unglamorous, small scale tools that allow people to make meaning in as significant ways possible, not only in terms of outcomes, but in terms of process.” That’s precisely the right message for design educators – to emphasize significance in process, rather than object, and focus on small-scale, deep impact. It’s a rejection of an exhausted focus on metrics, scale, and artifacts, and for many of us, it means ignoring the hype of design tourism. I’m positioning the program at AC4D on creating founders who have a sensitive, passionate, and intellectual approach to their work. And I’m thrilled to see more and more programs embracing social innovation, and re-evaluating – and in many cases, massively overhauling – tired design curricula.

This time this year: some summer reflections

Around this time last year, I was getting ready to leave Toronto to begin this new journey at AC4D. This time this year, I can definitively say that it was the best decision I’ve made.

Over the last few months, I’ve gotten emails from prospective students asking what it’s like at AC4D. I’ve tried my best to answer those questions. But as with all things, thoughts continue to evolve.

The questions I get generally fall into 3 categories:

  • Skills (ex. I don’t have a design background, or do I have to learn how to code, etc)
  • Workload (ex. can I attend AC4D and hold a full-time job at the same time?)
  • Future (ex. what can I do after AC4D?)

After having continued to work on HourSchool throughout the summer, here are some of my newest thoughts.

Re: Skills

There is really nothing you must be and there is nothing you must do. There is a curriculum, and there are a set of skills you are expected to possess by the time you graduate. However, from my experience of launching HourSchool, it’s not about the things you’re being told to learn. It’s about constantly stepping out of your comfort zone, doing whatever it takes to make the thing you’re passionate about happen – be it sketching, coding, public speaking, or accounting. There was a good discussion thread over at IxDA a couple months ago about whether interaction designer should also have “technical skills”, but it really is more than that. AC4D is about nurturing people who would just go make things happen.  Dee would say that social entrepreneurs do not let their own limited resources keep them from pursuing their visions. Daniel Burka would tell you ideas are cheap, building is hard. And we at AC4D would tell you that the things you need to do after building is even harder.

Re: Workload

A good number of us continued to work on our social ventures/projects/programs after we graduated in April (well, after some well-deserved breaks). And I think we are reaching a conclusion that AC4D, although intense, provided a structure that was necessary for us to focus, progress rapidly, and got really close as a group. Even nearly 4 months since we graduated, we are still trying to find a sense of normalcy (whatever that means in the first place) in our lives. Taking care of those relationships and our own body well-beings that have taken a back seat for the past year, while trucking along with these “side projects” without schedules, structure, and support, is very hard – crazy to say, but post-ac4d is almost as hard as the ac4d school year itself. There have been talks about forming some sort of optional part-time incubation-style studio time next summer for the students who plan to stick around in Austin. So yeah, ac4d is intense, but at least it’s structured-intenseness.

Re: Future

If you are coming to AC4D confused about what to do with your life; chances are, by the time you graduate, you’ll still be confused about what to do with your life. Seriously. You’ll have more skills, you’ll have more options, and you’ll have bigger dreams – how is that not even more confusing? On top of that, the truth about how there aren’t a ton of opportunities out there that provide both work that changes lives and a good paycheck, remains the truth. A big part of AC4D is about creating those opportunities for yourselves so you don’t rely on the job market to provide that for you. “Do I have to start a business? I don’t see myself as an entrepreneur, and I don’t want to be one”, many have asked. A bunch of us are, and a bunch of us aren’t. But when I look around my classmates, I see every single one of them embracing an entrepreneurial attitude, making an impact in the way they feel most appropriate. The best part of that is when you’re surrounded by a group of people like that, they will push you to be the best you can be every day – sometimes even yell at you for worrying and making excuses. It’s great.

I’m really excited to meet the new students, and almost a little jealous that they are about to go through this incredible experience.

A Look at Electricity in Ecuador

During my recent trip to Ecuador, I explored the attitudes around and the uses of electricity. The goal of the research was not to come up with specific design ideas around a particular product or service, but rather to lay an ethnographic foundation which can later be built upon.

Ecuadorian street


Ecuador is an extremely diverse country, so my research took me into the homes of three different families to catch a glimpse of this diversity. These included:

  • A mixed American and Ecuadorian upper middle class family in Ecuador’s capital, Quito ( ~1,504,991 people; avg temperature between 49 – 67 F)
  • A middle class Ecuadorian family in Ecuador’s 9th largest city, Ambato (~354,095 people, 45 – 70 F)
  • An indigenous Ecuadorian family living in the Amazon ( ~3000 people, around 75 F year-round)


Family Profiles:


  • Average Electricity Cost $95-$125
  • They use electricity mostly for heating water. They keep their two water heaters on all day because it takes 4 hours to heat a full tank of water which gives a hot 20-minute shower.
  • What they thought used the most electricity: Refrigerator

“I turn off lights all the time and it makes like a $5 difference. When we have a lot of visitors in town, the bill goes up to $125 instead of $95 or $100. We leave the water heaters on 24 hrs a day because there are so many people taking showers.”



  • Avg. Electricity cost: $25, have paid as much as $35
  • What they thought thought used the most electricity: washing machine

“I try not to use electricity because of the environment. Before we wasted a lot of energy, but now we don’t. Only where you are in the house you turn on the light.”





* Avg. Electricity cost: $15 – $18
* First got electricity about 15 years ago
* Had to pay for the power transformer to their house ($1500), municipality donated three posts ($3000)

“We use it to see at night, to iron clothes, and, let me see, to put music on the radio, to see the news on TV, and also to refrigerate the beer and food that we are saving.”

Watch here: Interview in the Amazon (find a parrot at 19:32 in the movie)

English transcript and translation here


Around Ecuador:

In addition to speaking with and observing families, I photographed several places I visited and observed electricity usage, including the mayor of Ambato’s office, a roadside carnival, and a local market. This slide show captures these learnings.

See slides here: Electricity in Ecuador


Insights & Observations

1. Conservation and lip service

An attitude toward the importance of energy conservation and protecting the environment is widespread throughout Ecuador. Global warming frequently comes up in conversations as a reason for limited usage of electricity. Most buildings use energy efficient light bulbs. However, in practice, conservation is negligible as a motivating factor in electricity usage and usage decisions rely much more heavily on cost savings. I observed a public university where conscientious teachers and students left equipment and lights on long after they were being used because the government paid the electricity bill. Small businesses, on the other hand, only turned on lights between the hours of 6pm – 9pm when natural light proved insufficient.


2. In the city, electricity is directly correlated with safety.

In Ecuador, crime happens frequently. Not only does electricity power fire alarms, neighborhood criminal warning sirens, doorbells, and electric fences, but more importantly electricity powers light. People know not to walk down unlit streets. In fact, when rolling blackouts occurred in Ambato, storekeepers shut down, pulled padlocked metal doors over their storefronts, and went home. Not only was this a safety measure, but even if they stayed open few patrons dared venture out. In neighborhoods, light shows the street that a house is occupied. While similar attitudes toward light can be found in other countries like the United States, with a limited and corrupt police force in Ecuador, light carries an even greater importance to safety.


3. Paying an electric bill in Ecuador is a nightmare.

Electric bills must be paid during a neighborhood’s five-day window and usually involves long waits in line. Houses with stores and restaurants, which is common, must pay two different electric bills at two different rates, one for the business and one for the residence. While online payment is an option, hardly anyone uses this option because they must pay their water bill in person, which can be paid at the same time as their electric bill. Given Ecuadorians usage of mobile devices, there is an enormous opportunity for an electronic mobile payment system.


Congratulations to students Design Ignites Change award winners!

Congratulations to alumni Ryan Hubbard and Christina Tran, who won the Design Ignites Change 2011 award for their product Nudge! From the press release:

“Worldstudio is pleased to announce the Summer 2011 Design Ignites Change award winners. Recognized projects include innovative uses of commonplace tools and materials such as text messages and timber, demonstrating how design and architecture students are working to address social issues facing a wide range of communities.

The mission of the awards is to support the actual implementation of student led solutions to pressing social issues. This round’s top grants went to Nudge, from students at the Austin Center for Design, and Blank Plate, from students in the Transdisciplinary Design studio at Parsons The New School for Design.”

Congrats to Ryan and Christina! You can learn more about Nudge here.