A Class as a Conversation

Chris Fabian, a co-leader of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, went over the general structure of ITP’s Design for UNICEF class, helping to form an architecture on which to apply more individualistic accounts of the class experience. Chris discussed with me the steps involved in the process of going from open-ended ideas in the beginning to student groups forming an ultimate direction for a working prototype, with an emphasis toward solutions targeting the ideal of having practical applications for UNICEF.

The class begins with an overview on UNICEF, what their mission and philosophy is, and some areas of focus with dedicated divisions and teams. In order to provide context to the student, a lecture is given about a particular region’s difficulties and challenges, how that is affecting lives, and about the practical obstructions of limited infrastructure and resources that cause these problems to persist. The next step is to get a sense of the areas students would like to address, based on the overviews given to them. They were broken into groups, and each group was given a general area of focus, like education, water, or health. Chris described the first couple days of the class as an informal “back and forth.” For example, if a student group would identify a need for textbooks in rural schools, they would be directed to a project by an organization like Save the Children that is spearheading a book distribution project, and constructing a printing press in a local school. After this sort of productive dialogue, Chris felt that students came away with, “a grounding and a sense of who’s out there.”

From that point, class instructor Clay Shirky would instruct the different groups to propose three projects that interested them. Chris pointed out that a generous amount of open-ended directives is a good opportunity to let the students interests run in unexpected directions, to promote unpredictable solutions. The purpose of class feedback however, was always to take the different project ideas and view them through the lens of what UNICEF specifically stands for and seeks to address. Oftentimes, Chris found that parts of different proposals within a group can be combined in order to patch together stronger overall project ideas, and so the students would be encouraged to whittle down and focus their attention to a single project with a particular set of component parts. The groups were then given a few weeks to develop that single project and present it back to class advisors. Chris says that it generally took a matter of 6-7 weeks before students could get to the point where they would benefit from the insights that visiting technical experts from within UNICEF could provide, where there is a valuable source of people at hand able to provide targeted expertise that related directly to the decided project directions.

Chris found parallels in the process of honing down project directives with both ITP and a separate collaboration with Columbia University’s SIPA (School of International and Public Affairs). More details on the SIPA collaboration will be forthcoming, but the relevant aspect is that while the ITP collaborations is about Design Prototyping, working with SIPA is about writing policies with the aim of standardizing new methods of information collection. These seemingly disparate goals are both about improvisation and iteration, building upon what works and discarding what is proven to be unnecessary. An important strategy in the process of research and discovery is this collaborative back-and-forth, what Chris terms “a conversation,” which is a discussion borne out of making and trying, and forging ahead despite not being sure of the right path or final product.

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