Gabriela Gutiérrez was kind enough to sit down and answer some questions about her experience as a student in the ITP “Design for UNICEF” course. Gabriela was a student in the second course Clay Shirky taught, however she had tried unsuccessfully to get into the first course taught. That did give her some insight into the differences in the way each class was taught in the initial stages, as she originally sat in on both. Gabriela just graduated from NYU Wagner as a master’s student in urban planning, and her academic life revolved around learning to form policy and international development. However, she was eager to “put all of this knowledge to the test,” and the UNICEF class afforded her that chance. For that reason, Gabriela lobbied to get into a popular course that was outside of her major and realm of study.
The first course, Gabriela recalled, was less structured than the second. The first couple of classes involved lectures by UNICEF collaborative advisors, and were described as “an intro to what we were going to be doing.” The next few classes were in response to the instructor Clay Shirky assigning quick design challenges, and Gabriela noticed that the exercises became more specific and constraint-heavy in the second course, perhaps reformed to help the groups focus in more quickly in preparation for the final class project. In the second course, the student groups were given areas of concern (for example: safety, health, or education), and told to generate three design proposals around any of those topics, but initially their tools in addressing their topic was restricted to only a radio or a basic cell phone, as an example. The second course had also narrowed the region of concern to Sub-Saharan Africa, which helped to ground the exercises to a place with particular concerns and challenges. Every class for the next few classes were modifications of that original challenge, and the teams were asked to provide three new proposals every week. Out of these quick proposals, a final project was intended to arise, no longer needing to adhere to earlier constrictions but with the intention of taking the practical lessons and using that as a foundation for a final prototype to be completed at the end of the semester. Gabriela said that the final half of the class revolved around building the final project. Overall, it was Gabriela’s opinion that constraints and structure were a benefit to getting the design process underway and properly oriented, so to her the second course in the Fall was an effective evolution from the first.
UNICEF advisors, the principal members being Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi, focused their commentary on keeping the project emphasis on topics that UNICEF specifically deals with. For example, if students proposed something that in practice would be impractical, UNICEF members would impart their experiential knowledge on how that would hinder its actual use. Clay Shirky and assistant John Dimatos were more integral in commenting on the progress of the design, helping to consider other directions, and in keeping those groups on task and engaged. In that way, the class was true to the academic spirit of ITP, and UNICEF acted as the expert consultants, using their broad reach of knowledgeable people to help advance the projects in valuable ways.
The finale to the course, presenting directly to UNICEF at their New York Headquarters, Gabriela says was a significant motivator and great benefit to the design students. It meant a great deal to her that UNICEF “cared about what we had to say, and about the solutions that we had to propose.” Some of the feedback that came out of that experience brought to bear issues that had never been considered, and so to the students it was a beneficial learning experience.
Gabriela has decided to continue her academic study by entering into the ITP graduate program. When asked about whether the “Design for UNICEF” class had any bearing on that decision, Gabriela replied, “Of course. It made realize that I have all this knowledge that is static… with no way of transforming it into anything else.” She feels that ITP is the key to her “being able to make things that actually have an effect.” Having come from Mexico to study in the U.S., Gabriela feels that both her experience from Wagner and her continued experience with ITP will allow her to form her knowledge about international development and be able to impact a specific place and context with what she makes.
When asked about those few students that happened to turn parts of their UNICEF prototypes into individual thesis projects, Gabriela replied that had Wagner allowed her to continue with her group project, entitled Infone, she would have done that. Infone was a prototype where local inhabitants of a region would be text messaged a survey question intended to forecast and map possible trouble areas, like revealing where there is standing water from flooding, to help prevent a malarial outbreak, etc. Those that responded would then be paid a modest sum for their participation. Gabriela also took another ITP class, recommended to her by Clay Shirky, in which she created another project with similar characteristics to the Infone project, but this time the application was a website where Mexican citizens could text message an instance of extortion taking place, as such practices are endemic there. The instance would be mapped and recorded against a backdrop of other reported instances. Gabriela’s course of study, and the projects she pursued are indicative of an aggregate of both her learning and life experience, seeming to serve as a tool of empowerment to her convictions. She adds, that in her next couple of semesters at ITP she will likely pick up her old project Infone again, to see what further results come out of it. “If there was a Design for UNICEF Part Two I would have been in it.”
On the topic of creating a template for using the ITP and UNICEF collaboration as part of a model for academic partnerships in other contexts and locations, Gabriela says something like that would be great. She caveats, “ITP is essentially a kindergarten with computers…it’s a mixture of everything, I don’t think you’ll find anything like that anywhere else. This a particularly exciting place to be doing it…and the process of collaboration is crucial.”