Regina Dugan … Part 2: Design Space

3 09 2016

Earlier this week, I posted my reflection to Regina Dugan’s Presidential Lecture. After a couple of days of thinking, I wanted to extend one of the ideas I discussed and connect it with my research on innovation/transformation.

In my previous post, I discussed the idea of creating sandbox spaces or studios where students from any discipline can work on ‘use-inspired’ solutions to significant problems. I wanted to extend this idea by introducing the concept of “design space.”

In 1978, Allen, Utterback, et al. of MIT introduced “design space” as a cognitive concept that refers to the dimensions along which the designers of technical systems concern themselves. The basic idea is simple. Once a problem is clearly defined (or bounded), so too is the design space within which a solution to the problem can be created. A well-defined design space opens up the creativity of an engineer, designer, etc., by clarifying the dimensions of a problem that must be solved. A poorly defined problem cannot be easily solved, if at all. While the roots of the idea stem from innovation theory, Nicholas Ashford and I have argued that the idea of “design space” can be applied in a technical and regulatory setting to advance sustainable development.

If solutions to problems are sought only along traditional engineering lines, unconventional solutions – which may or may not be high-tech – are ignored. Put differently, if the design space ignores a specific factor or dimension, the solution to a problem is also likely to ignore this factor or dimension. From an organizational perspective, organizations that limit themselves to current or traditional strategies or agendas, are likely to have a constrained use of the available design space, reducing the chance they will be able to fundamentally transform their functions. Thus, organizations can become ‘locked-in’ to their own routines and ways of thinking if they do not have a process to engage with outsiders and radically new ideas. The implications of this idea for the Beyond Boundaries process should be clear.

The Presidential Lecture series provides a good example of how Virginia Tech is trying to engage with ‘outsiders’ to expand the Beyond Boundaries design space – i.e., to help us identify important factors or dimensions that we previously had not considered.

In the context of creating sandbox spaces or problem-solving studios, it would be critical to broaden the design space to capture the full scope of issues that underlie a complex problem. For example, a design space for a sustainable development problem would be necessarily broad (or multidimensional). In this case, the design space would need to be ‘opened up’ (perhaps, through engagement with ‘outsiders’) to achieve mutually supportive social goals, co-optimizing the determinants of economic welfare, environment, consumer and public health and safety, and employment, etc. A failure to do this may result in solutions that create problems in those areas excluded from the design space. I believe that limited or single-purpose design spaces are one of the reasons progress towards sustainable development has been so slow.

Finally, the way in which Virginia Tech crafts the design spaces for the Destination Areas (DAs), is likely to be critical to the type and scope of problems that the university will be able to address. We should heed Regina Dugan’s advice and not limit the DA design spaces to what we feel comfortable doing. We need to stretch our imagination and capabilities to the point of discomfort, in search of disruptive and transformative ideas. The sandbox spaces or problem-solving studios could provide safe places where students and faculty could fantastically succeed or fail, both outcomes are part of the same transformative coin.

Reference:

Allen, T. J., J. M. Utterback, et al. (1978). “Government Influence on the Process of Innovation in Europe and Japan.” Research Policy 7(2): 124– 149.





Regina Dugan’s Presidential Lecture

1 09 2016

This evening I attended Regina Dugan’s Presidential Lecture at VT. Her remarks tracked the history of innovation and made a compelling case that innovation must be treated as a discipline. Her experience at DARPA, Google, and now Facebook have provided Dugan with a unique and broad experience in advancing innovation, which she describes as a “way of life.”

During her lecture, I tweeted the question below that I believe captures the central challenge of her remarks to the Virginia Tech community.

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Her response was that organizations are often limited not by what they can do, but by what they “believe” they can do. Thus, an important idea for the Beyond Boundaries process is to create spaces where students and faculty can make bold moves without the fear of failure. As Dugan argued, the ability to fail is a necessary part of innovation. I’ll come back to one idea for how Virginia Tech could make innovation a ‘way of life’ in a moment.

During the Q&A session, Dugan remarked that the ability of her research teams to move fast (i.e., innovate) is due to the depth of disciplinary knowledge held by team members and their broad curiosity. This comment mirrors the idea of a VT-shaped student – a student with disciplinary depth (the “I”), transdisciplinary knowledge (the “–”), and who demonstrates purpose-driven engagement (the “V”) – which is now a central part of the Beyond Boundaries vision. Dugan also highlighted the importance of having people who are willing to walk across to other disciplines to understand how they are viewing a problem and to learn from them. The idea of needing to ‘walk’ to visit another discipline feels familiar!

Dugan’s ideas point to the need to create sandbox spaces or studios where students from any discipline can work on ‘use-inspired’ solutions to significant problems. According to Dugan, challenges should stretch the imagination to the point of discomfort – i.e., there should be no known solution so students and faculty are required to work at/create the leading edge of knowledge. By making the sandbox or studio a capstone experience, students would be equipped with the disciplinary expertise needed for teams to ‘move fast’ on a problem. However, to make innovation a ‘way of life,’ we would need to find ways for students at any stage of their academic career to engage in these experiences. This challenge points to the need for an ecosystem of spaces (that includes VT’s living learning communities) where students can work in a transdisciplinary setting.

A final point I found interesting was the idea of understanding the core purpose of your actions. Dugan commented that 93% of our face-to-face time with our parents is completed by the time we leave high school. This rather alarming statistic (for parents!) reveals one frontier that Facebook is looking at – i.e., how to make family communication seamless. My second tweeted question to Dugan was inspired by her idea of “friction free communication.”

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While Dugan was not asked this question, her response to a different question provided a possible answer. The secret is to focus on the “outcomes” not the technology. Thus, a question for the Beyond Boundaries process is what are the outcomes that technology could help us realize?





“Experience” WASH in Malawi

20 07 2016

Having reached the halfway point of our time in Malawi, the students are now fully immersed in their WASH-related research projects. When we designed the course, we decided to make research a central part of the student experience. Having spent a day with each of the research groups this week I can now see how important this experiential component of the course is for building a deep understanding of the WASH challenges facing communities in Malawi. The research projects are logistically and technically challenging, which means students need to work well as a team, learn new skills and knowledge, be proactive, and manage the enviable problems that come with real-world research. This week has also been characterized by the Mzuni students rising to the occasion and taking lead roles in the research projects. Their understanding of local communities and organizations and their mastery of local dialects has proven to be critical for each project. It has also been great to see the U.S. and Malawian students unite around a common research goal and work hard to advance the data collection process.

14Over the past few days the three groups have become known as the Sanitation, Mapping, and Fish teams in relation to their research projects. I have briefly described each project below and have provided a few pictures from the work of each group.

A hygiene and sanitation assessment of public sites. The Sanitation team is testing public latrines in schools, public transportation sites, medical facilities, and markets for E. coli contamination and administering short interviews to assess the sanitary conditions and use of the public facilities. The team plans to assess ten public sites this week and process up to 150 samples taken from various pre-determined locations in and around a sanitation facility. As is typical in a low resource setting, these facilities can be unclean and in a dire state of repair. But this was not always the case. The study of these facilities is providing students with a clear sense of the public sanitation needs across the city. It is also requiring them to visit locations they would never have seen if we only spoke about public sanitation in a classroom setting.

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Mapping the water and sanitation services in a community. The Mapping team is undertaking participatory mapping to understand the water and sanitation services in a community near Mzuzu University. The students are leading these mapping exercises and collecting GPS data that will be analyzed and integrated into one or more maps. These maps can then be used to identify the “gaps” between water needs and existing services to help the community engage in the planning of future water services. During their first day of surveying, it was clear that the data collection instruments were too detailed and needed to be revised/shortened. This experience reinforced the importance of piloting instruments before the full data collection effort begins, a valuable lesson for the students to learn.

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Risk of fish contamination from the boat to the market (Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu). The Fish team is undertaking an assessment of the fish supply chain from Nkhata Bay to Mzuzu. This is perhaps the most logistically demanding project, which begins around 3am as the fishermen leave Nkhata Bay and ends at Mzuzu market some 50km away where the fish caught that morning are being sold. The students are testing the fish, the fish handlers’ hands, transport vehicles, and fish containers for E. coli, and are undertaking interviews with fish handlers along the fishing, transportation, and marketing chain. This project is characterized by intense periods of activity and periods of waiting – such as when fishermen are fishing on the lake. Perhaps, the busiest phase of the research is when the fishermen return to shore and the middle men/women rush to purchase the fisherman’s catch. The students wisely developed relationships with the fishermen to ensure that they can sample their fish when they return to shore and before the fish start their trip to Mzuzu market.

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While we intended the WASH course to be experiential, I underestimated the importance of this aspect of the course, which is where much of the learning seems to be happening. The course provides a great example of the “hands on, minds on” principle that Virginia Tech is working to integrate across the institution. My hope is that we (VT) can develop a way – through initiatives such as Beyond Boundaries, Destination Areas, and InclusiveVT – to make this type of off campus experience open to all students attending the university. There are clearly financial and resource implications to realizing this vision, but the value to students is certainly worth the effort.