Creative and Insightful Links

Isn’t it awesome when your regular channels of interweb surfing provide you seemingly serendipitous fodder for the problems you’re already thinking about in work-life or school-life? I don’t know if it’s some sort of collective consciousness that syncs up every once in awhile, or if you’re just viewing the world through a sort of focused and filtered lens at certain points in time. (Probably the latter.)

Regardless, here are some related links as we think about creativity, problem solving, and generating insights for Position Paper Numero Cuatro for Design Theory.

  • Limits of our scientific understanding. The last 10 minutes of this episode of RadioLab’s exploration into limits questions whether we are reaching the end of a window in human history when we could both “know” and “understand” our world. (For instance, when we talk about trillions of dollars in deficit, we can’t make sense of that number in our heads.) They also introduce us to a robot who can calculate laws of physics—Newton’s F=MA— through rote computation of observations. But then he also comes up with biological “answers” that we can’t understand yet.
  • In the comments to that episode is this post questioning some of the interview. Science is a language we create to understand the world, so without the context of a human-concerned machine as physical observer, the answers don’t mean anything. The process of coming up with the question and then looking for the answer in the context of our worldview is much more valuable.
  • Why we have A-ha! moments Skimming this one, it’s about how some problems can be solved while self-monitoring to see if the problem has been solved is turned on. But most cannot, and these are the ones that require A-ha! moments. “When you are carrying out idea-creation efforts, you are implementing some kind of program, and odds are good it may not be monitorable even in principle. And even if it is monitorable, you are likely to have little or no idea at which level to monitor it.” Correlations with Richard Buchanan’s and Herb Simon’s wicked and ill-structured problems wherein you can’t know criteria for testing proposed solutions.
  • All creativity is derivative. Compares sculptures from Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cool animation by Nina Paley, who brought us Sita Sings the Blues, if nothing else.

[lightbulb artwork by Andre Kutscherauer]

Comparing Theatre of the Oppressed's"Theatre With"with Design's new push toward"Designing With"

In recent years, the most powerful thing I’ve experienced that made me think “wow, this can actually change how people think and act” was a series of Theatre of the Oppressed performances and workshops.

One time was observing 4th graders in action during Theatre Action Project’s “Courage to Stand” (a five-day interactive performance residency that explores the role of the courageous bystander in a bullying situation). Another was a Voices Against Violence performance-workshop about how to support/help friends in abusive relationships. Finally, I participated in a one-day “Intro to Theatre of the Oppressed” facilitation workshop with Julian Boal, son of Augusto Boal, who started the whole Theatre of the Oppressed method. During the workshop, we tackled gender stereotypes.

—> Watch TAP’s intro to “Courage to Stand” video

One crucial element of why Theatre of the Oppressed is powerful is that it’s nearly impossible to remain passive during one of these “plays.” The shift from “audience member” to “actor” in a safe space for creation is what is so empowering—and unsettling because it definitely jostles your current ways of looking at the world—and difficult because taking action is so much harder than sitting back or even just thinking about an issue.

As we talk about moving toward “designing with” instead of “designing for” and co-creation with other people, the shift from “user” to “co-designer” will be parallel-lically empowering—and unsettling—and difficult.

Here’s an excerpt from my position paper about the topic of “designing with”:

What Theatre of the Oppressed Looks Like

Theatre of the Oppressed as developed by Augusto Boal typically involves a theatre troupe, a group of actor-facilitators, leading participants through a theatre experience that helps them to question their assumptions and rehearse solutions to social problems. More intensively, this would also involve the theatre troupe going into a community and working with participants to define the social issues and problems within that local context that the theatre experiences will address. The process looks something like:

  1. Theatre games to get to know each other.
  2. “Priming” activities/games to build trust.
  3. Theatre games, methods, and image-work to collaboratively define a local social justice issue.
  4. Theatre troupe creates a play or scenes that addresses the social issue that includes the roles of: oppressor, oppressed, and by-standers.
  5. Theatre troupe performs a play once, with a negative ending indicating current conditions.
  6. Actor-facilitators stop the action and discuss the scene and issues with the audience.
  7. Theatre troupe performs the scene a second time, with the added factor that at any time, an audience member (who Boal termed a “spect-actor”) can yell “stop” and take the place of an actor on stage to try to change the course of events.
  8. Continued discussion of whether interventions worked, why or why not.
  9. Repeat scenes as necessary. (Over short-term and long-term.)

Theatre of the Oppressed Goals

The goals for the “spect-actors” are not that they will necessarily that they will also become actors (although some will be inspired to that course of action). The goal is for people to be able to practice and rehearse revolutionary actions that they can use in real life. The goal is to present scenes that have real-life correlations, so people can practice the actual words they might use or how they would actually act in a future situation. I have seen a TAP “Courage to Stand” production where fourth graders stepped up to the stage to realize that confronting a bully would only make them another target, whereas power in numbers, befriending a target, or distracting the bully might be better tactics. UT’s Voices Against Violence productions allow “spect-actors” to detect warning signs of abusive relationships, to question their own role in preventing abuse, and to rehearse methods of supporting  friends who may or may not be aware of their own abusive relationship. We can only learn these things through experience and practice.

So what does this have to do with Design?

Compare both the process and goals of Theatre of the Oppressed to Emily Pilloton’s Studio H initiative, where she is co-teaching a design studio shop class to high school students in rural North Carolina.

  • Both necessitate local investment and engagement of the facilitators with the local community in both defining the problems and working toward solutions.
  • Both shift the role of the traditionally passive observers to active participants throughout entire process.
  • Both empower participants to rehearse skills they may need later on in life: With Theatre of the Oppressed, it’s revolutionary words and actions. With Studio-H, it’s critical thinking and design thinking.
  • Both necessitate a shift in the role of the creator, a power and control shift, and a shift in mindset.

When we reach toward designing “with”, we also aim to inspire change and empowerment among the people we are collaborating with. It’s a position that humbles the designer: no you cannot solve the world’s problems, but you can collaborate with others to leverage our collective creative capital to put a dent in those same problems.

More Info?

Jana Sanskriti is a pretty good documentary that shows the work of the Theatre of the Oppressed in India.

Theatre for Community, Conflict, and Dialogue is a good resource book of theatre games to build community, resolve conflict, and foster dialogue. I think there are probably parallels to Gamestorming, a book of games for better communication and generating insights during the business and creative processes…but I haven’t read the latter yet.

My full position paper as PDF: Designing “with” to leverage collective creative capital

Process: Rain Juice Wireframes

I think going through the process was more interesting than the actual wireframes I presented yesterday in class. Hello, design. Hello, iteration. It’s really not magic. But it works. And sometimes it’s tempting to skip all the sketching and thinking (esp. as you get better at software, esp. if you’re under a time crunch). But just do it.

(This is building off my pitch from last week for “Rain Juice.”)

1: List requirements, brainstorm word associations

2: Storyboard of user experience. This step was key for me, as it made me figure out who the actual user for the site was going to be—the event organizers—and what they would need to be able to do at the site.

3: Thumbnails of hero element of the homepage. Lots, quickly. And more than you think you need. I thought I would lose steam after 2 or 3 pages. But some lightbulb moments in the last few pages. Some bad ideas, too, but it re-validated the ideas of quantity and no judgment during brainstorming. (Connection to Johnson’s Laird piece about how we solve problems.)

4: Slightly larger sketches of page wireframes. Building off hero element, after choosing it. Annotate sketches with use action items or notes about what happens when user does x. Lists are also good here. It was getting really late, so I had a hard time choosing my hero and then flushing out the wireframes in sketch form. I think if I had spent a little more time sketching this part, it would have made subsequent steps easier/quicker.

5: Slightly larger wireframe sketches with more details each time. Repeat until ready for next step. I skipped this part.

6: Move into Photoshop or Illustrator. I was a little confused about the fidelity that these needed to be. Because they needed to include real content and be presentation-worthy. But then it was late, and they were still wireframes? My full set of Rain Juice wireframes on Flickr.

Brainstorming like this and working through your ideas before you start working on your “final piece” has parallels in any creative process. I still remember my high school AP English teacher telling us that during our 2 hour essays that it was better to spend a large chunk of time planning and outlining the essay up front rather than to try to write the whole time. Though it’s tempting to skip the planning stages (especially under tight time constraints), those make the rest of the process easier because you’ll have worked out your big ideas. It’s much easier than realizing halfway through your “final piece” that you’ve run down the wrong path or have framed things wrong—and then have to start over.

Which is one of the main reasons for rapid prototyping, right? Figure out what’s not going to work when there is less on the line. Throw away a 2-minute sketch rather than a 2-hour Illustrator file.

5 minutes outside the classroom

In  Justin’s studio class this week we spent time working on wireframes for concept mobile applications.  The first bit was spent brainstorming and whiteboarding and post-it-noting with @s0delightful, @chapambrose , and @ryanhubbard on all kids of futuristic apps.

We finally narrowed it down a bit and started talking about building a mapping application that prompted users to take photos around a common theme – the photos would then be mapped and tagged creating brainstorming visuals around that theme.  The idea had two main components:  First, we wanted to get people to engage in their surrounding in a new way, and second provide searchable map-sets of visuals around themes that could be used as brainstorming aids.

In the spirit of Think : Make, we decided to do a quick test run.   The theme ‘dream’ was randomly picked, and we all went out to capture some pictures around that theme.  A few of mine are below.

After returning to the classroom, printing out our images, and sharing the idea, I think we all felt the implementation of our App was a little weak.  However, the general idea of getting people to engage with their surroundings in a new way is a theme I really love, and a theme that I believe has a lot of power.

In my 5 minutes outside, I engaged with the area surrounding our building in a totally new way.  The small details seemed to pop out the most, then the textures and patterns.  It felt like my mind was moving quickly, soaking in the bits all around me.

It’s interesting that this kind of activity can so quickly make you look around through a different lens.  Knowing that this is something you can so easily turn on is quite powerful – I’ll be trying it more often…  and you should too!  Pick a theme, go outside for 5 min and take a few pictures surrounding that theme.  Let me know how it goes!

The Focal Point of Technological Innovations

“The drive toward complex technical achievement offers a clue to why the U.S. is good at space gadgetry and bad at slum problems.  ~John Kenneth Galbraith”

The world as we see today has different layers in terms of technological acceptance and usage. While it is clear that technology seems to be ubiquitous in our everyday life and interactions with the society, it is still unclear how to judge the global impact that it has created. Today, when I stand (literally) in the world and look around me, I see buildings, airplanes, radio towers, automobiles, fancy gadgets, robots, highways, and several other “magical” things that have been possible by rapidly evolving technological advances. On the same breath, when I shift my stance to move to an area in Kiberia (a slum in Nairobi, Kenya) or Dharavi (largest slum in India – Mumbai), I don’t see the same technological wonders anymore. What I see is a desperate reach that current day technology is trying to make and yet falling short. On one side, I see a fully mature city absorbed in the comforts offered by the modern technology which is trying to establish itself as the face of this place, where as on the other side, there is a cry for help where the current technology is insufficient to solve fundamental problems.

Figure 1, illustrates a conceptual thought of how technology spreads across the world. If we consider any focal point where any new technology is innovated, its growth or spread can be visualized as a cloud that engulfs over increasing number of adopters. The pace at which the cloud grows mostly determines how well the technology has been adopted across the world. Growing this cloud effectively is a significant challenge for most businesses that hope to leverage the technological innovation on the basis of which their business is built upon. One method in which the cloud can be expanded is by the use of information and power. By power, I am referring to the ability of a company, organization or a government to wield financial or a massive infrastructure muscle to expand the technology adoption cloud to new areas. As the cloud starts expanding, there is an upper bound beyond which it cannot be expanded. In other words, organizations lose a big chunk of market due to this cutoff. Why is this? What causes this cutoff and puts a stop to the technology adoption?

Normally, when a technology is in initial stages of adoption, information could be a big tool to accelerate its adoption. Information about how the technology can impact and enrich the lives of people could be broadcasted to create awareness about the technology itself, which in turn could significantly increase the adoption. This “spreading of information” could be done through several mediums like advertising, word-of-mouth, marketing, etc.

Information is significant in driving technology adoption until its saturation point. It hits maxima beyond which the increasing information or awareness about a product does not determine its increased adoption in different cultures and societies. Why? In [1] Postman, argues that lack of information is not the cause for social and economic problems. Further, he correlates information and technology in an interesting manner. According to Postman, technology generates information. Let us consider this point in the context of figure 2. When technology starts expanding around the focal point of its innovation by targeting new areas for its adoption, it needs to drive in more information created because of the expanded cloud. Why should this be true? Let us consider the work of Dewey [2], where he talks about educative experiences. Dewey says that an educative experience is something that creates a desire in people to want to have more of such experiences. While Dewey talks about this in the context of education, this can be applied to the discussion we are having in this paper. Technology inevitably is a creator of experience. This might appear to be a strong statement in the first glance, but looking deeper, it is a logical conclusion. Every technological innovation has been targeted for use by people in some form or other. Hence, through the interaction a technology invokes from its user, it generates an experience. Whether the user wants to have the experience again and again would determine if the technology cloud really expanded, because these repetitive experiences from the end user are indications of sustenance. Hence, it appears that every technology growth ends up to be a cyclic process where the adoption of the technology itself creates an autonomous channel of information, which can be factored in to grow the cloud further. Naturally, it appears that the cloud should stop growing the moment the technology stops generating the desire for repetitive experiences from its users.

Let us re-visit the Maslow’s hierarchy [3], but only this time from a bird’s eye perspective. Figure 3 represents the Maslow’s Hierarchy and its bird’s eye perspective. The lower tiers of the hierarchy become the outer circles in this representation/view where as the inner circles become the higher tiers. Relating this representation to our discussion of the technology cloud, we can place the technology focal point in the innermost circle, the highest Maslow tier. This representation can reveal several interesting insights about the growth and adoption of technology among the bottom of the pyramid consumers.

The basic premise of Maslow’s hierarchy is based upon the needs of people. Needs of people would determine the experiences they want to have. For instance, if a need of a person is basic like wanting shelter, the experiences, which result from his interactions with the society, are going to be focused on satisfying his need. Unless this basic existential need is satisfied, other higher experiences are not possible. Now, let us juxtapose the technology cloud on Maslow’s hierarchy. This is shown in figure 4. If a technology innovation comes from the center of “Maslow’s circle”, then it is coming from a higher tier that is looking for an entirely different experience than lower tiers.

As the cloud expands over the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy, the technology starts touching the lives of people and cultures that have different needs and want different experiences. The experience this technology provides can quickly end up not gratifying new adopters who can lose the desire to have repetitive experiences, which would quickly stop the expansion of this cloud.

At this stage, no amount of pumping information from the inside of the cloud can increase the adoption because lack of information is no longer the problem. A parallel thought regarding information can be referenced from Postman’s work [1]. For convenience, let us consider that the technology cloud is able to cover everybody in Maslow’s hierarchy except the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) customers. Prahalad [4], in
his work, talks precisely about this population and how companies can sell to them. In [4], Prahalad argues that the dynamics of the BoP markets are significantly different than non-BoP markets. He highlights several case studies where technology made its way to the BoP customers when it empathized with their day-to-day problems. Another interesting point Prahalad makes is the need for a top-down approach. He argues that a billion dollar market exists with the world’s poor if the large corporations start treating them as consumers. Respecting the world’s poorest, according to Prahalad, would determine the technological advances in this market.

To me, it seems like a logical transition for the technology cloud to expand to the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy.  However, the dynamics of these different sectors are so radically different that target technology growths should be planned in advance. A late realization from an organization to take an existing technology and fit it into BoP markets won’t work. In such cases, the technology cloud will remain at the saturation point and will not continue to expand.


[1] Neil Postman, Informing Ourselves to Death.

[2] John Dewey, The Need of a Theory of Experience

[3] Abraham Maslow, The Theory of Human Motivation

[4] C.K. Prahalad, Selling to the Poor