PopTech Blog

Video: Kyna Leski on Creative Processes

At PopTech 2009, architect and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) professor Kyna Leski spoke about the craft of architecture as an art form:

Leski encourages her students to pull away from assumptions about the creative process and instead learn to develop their own artistic sensibility by “knowing the world.” This occurs, Leski suggests, through the acts of gathering, seeing, and grasping.

During her talk, Leski spoke about an exercise she had her students do: taking a painting by Paul Klee and had them build the third dimension of the image using only white glue and white museum board. One student assigned height to the gradations of color so that his project, when held up to the light, closely resembled the work of Paul Klee.

Leski used this example to introduce her understanding of the creative process, suggesting that it relies on the process of discovery. For more on Leski’s teaching, you can check out her recent book, called The Making of Design Principles, which explores the first semester design studio at RISD.

As part of her teaching, Leski has expressed her “Ground Rules for Navigating the Creative Process.” These include:

- The creative process hold internal guides for a project’s development and guides an individual’s growth as well.
- Only by committing yourself to the authority of the work can you develop as artists.
- There is a power to limits.
- The whole cannot be seen from a single point of view.
- Words are essential to developing a consciousness of the creative process … an intimate felt experience of a “material language.”
- Everything is connected, somehow, from the astronomical to the metabolic.

These principles suggest an avenue for thinking about the impact of design throughout our lives.
What design principles do you think guide your view of the world?

The Cure for Innovation Inertia

Editor’s note: Kristina Loring manages content and community at frogdesign. Below, she responds to Kyna Leski’s 2009 PopTech talk about design and creativity, which will be released later today. For more background, see the liveblog post on Kyna’s talk, and read Kyna’s own response with notes on her talk.

Kyna Leski
cc image of Kyna Leski at PopTech 2009 by Kris Krug.

“Dwelling in uncertainty is key to growth and moving beyond the known through the imagination,” Kyna Leski told us at PopTech last fall. Leski, a principal at 3SIXØ Architecture and a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, is less concerned with what her students know than she is with their “journey towards knowing.” Leski advises her students to “reach for the ground to find that the ground isn’t there.” In that way they’ll be able to let go of their preconceptions about ways of working (or ‘knowing’).

For me, this talk was a call to action, a challenge to break out of the box in order to discover visions and solutions that exist but that are usually hidden by our own applied filters. Stepping outside of our learned systems — departing from our routines in order to enliven our perception — is the perfect prescription for activist fatigue, writer’s block, or, indeed, any kind of innovation inertia.

Leski shares her experience sketching a design for a chapel that would expand the size of an existing church and give it more light, room, and space (or as Leski says, “allow the space to breathe”). When she created the 3D model of the church she kept forgetting to add the spire because it wouldn’t work with her design. Leski began to wonder why the spire was needed at all, so she turned to a dictionary to find the original meaning of “spire” in order to gain some insight into its architectural significance. She found that it comes from the Latin word for “spirit,” and is the root of words like “inspire,” “respire,” and “spiral.” So, instead of creating the traditional spire on the church’s façade they incorporated it inside the space by interpreting the meaning of the word in the church’s walls. Leski literally shaped the interior walls into a spiral that was integral in helping the space “breathe.”

When Leski moved away from her medium of understanding (modeling and sketching) and focused on linguistics in order to understand how the notion of spire could be understood in a different context, she solved the design problem with an aesthetic solution that actually embodied the word’s original intention. It is only when our mediums are in flux that we can disrupt our routine and gain a new perspective.

Leski’s emphasis on “arriving somewhere other than where you expected” is the ultimate motivation to completely break routine in order to gain an understanding, not only of your design problem, but to engage with larger social and political challenges. Applying Leski’s mode of Material Reasoning — the process of working with material to find, form, and develop ideas — helps us prototype a new set of systems, norms, and structures instead of defaulting to old ways of thinking. Leski wants us to embrace the unknown and create a space for both receiving information and using that information to “form a concept of the world and our place in it.” In other words, just having information (which is made ever more accessible by Google and new forms of search engines like Twitter) will not be helpful in finding creative and socially impactful solutions if you aren’t able to transform that information into an action with personal resonance.

Leski’s idea has implications beyond just design. It is, in fact, related to creating social change and fostering communal and personal empowerment. It is a matter of stepping outside of the system we are working to change in order to gain an understanding of what is lacking or needed in that system. If you do that, you are able to dive back into the challenge, and contribute fresh new insights into whatever change you are trying to create in the community.

And You Will Hear Our Voices

Editor’s note: Teddy Ruge is the co-founder and senior project manager of Project Diaspora, an organization to energize “African’s economic, social, and cultural revitalization,” and a frequent blogger on issues of development in the African ICT sectors.

It is amazing how fast things change these days. In less than a week, a paradigm shift with the potential to affect the entire developmental aid industry occurred. In my opinion, this is probably the best thing that could have happened to the industry. The rapid-fire story goes something like this:

Successful individual wants to do something good to make the world a better place by giving back. So, after contacting some charities, said individual spends the better part of six months working out a plan to collect and send 1 million shirts to Africa. He leverages his successful business and media contacts to launch his campaign. If this were a Hollywood treatment for a movie script, the final sentence of this paragraph would be “..and then hilarity ensues.”

Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything funny about this. The individual here isn’t some fictional character, but real life Jason Sadler, founder of iwearyourshirt.com, a company whose business model is built on him wearing a client’s shirt. The natural extension for a feel-good exercise was to do some good using the one thing that he knows: t-shirts. At least, that’s what he thought he would do.

Within hours of the #1millionshirts hashtag hitting Twitter, it was the conversation of the moment. My first full tweet went up at 9:04pm on April 27th, “As an African, I beg the 1 Mil Shirts campaign dies a slow death. We don’t need another industry-crushing initiative by clueless do gooders.” Fewer than 3 days later, I was in a round table discussion with Mr. Sadler and participants from five continents representing various sectors of the aid industry. Mr. Sadler delivered a heartfelt mea culpa. In quick fashion we started trying to come up with ideas on how to turn this into a successful project. (Big thanks to Katrin Verclas at MobileActive for organizing the round table.)

For the first time in the history of development, social media, philanthropy, development, accountability, logistics, common sense, top-down solutions, and recipient voices all collided in spectacular fashion. Right out in the open. A project was launched, summarily bashed, killed and redirected in the span of 70 hours of it going public. The conversation that started with a single tweet, turned into an avalanche of blogs ripe with disdain from the aid corner for yet another ill-concieved top-down, western-driven project. The conversation migrated from 140 characters of quibbles into full analytical blog posts, rants, and well-reasoned open letters for Mr. Sadler to reconsider the ramifications of his campaign.

The repercussions of this for the aid industry are yet to be determined, but I can share with you what it means for me as an African. For the first time, the voices of individual Africans were heard.

My own blog response which went up the day after my first tweet was rife with anger and disappointment. For too long we as Africans have stood by and let the world determine how we develop, how we speak, how we interact and how we govern. For too long we’ve been sidelined while our futures were determined in boardrooms in New York, Washington, D.C., and London. For far too long we’ve been told what the solutions are to our problems should be. We have even been told that we had problems that we didn’t even consider to be problems. Collectively, the continent has sunk into recipient mode. Our governments have been trained to rule in pursuit of the proverbial carrot dangled in the form of aid. NGOs, aid organizations, charities by the bushels have made careers out of working in the aid industry on the continent. Getting a job for the World Bank is a ticket to a six-figure salary and a driver in Nairobi, Kenya. Never mind that 50 kenyans could be on salary for what the individual in that position makes in a year. 40 years on since the end of colonial rule and $700 billion later, we still can’t point to a single country on the continent that operates without the need for aid.

Is there a genuine need for aid and charitable works? Yes, there is. But there is equally, if not more room for common sense. There is much more room for dialog with Africans like Marieme Jamme, G. Kofi Annan, and a host of others. There is room for complete projects vetting and determining the nuanced difference between dire need and perceived need. Jason Sadler’s project assumed Africa had a dire need for t-shirts but ignored our fledgling textile industries, the crushing weight of the second-hand clothing industries on the continent, and altogether dismissed our dignity as recipients of someone else’s crap. Dumping a million free shirts on these fragile and often informal sectors was a recipe for disaster, not to mention the needless expense.

So what does this really mean for us as an ever-increasing population empowered by the social media stage? It means we have the responsibility to start speaking up for our continent. We have right to say enough is enough with the hand outs, enough with the aid mentality, enough with the top-down solutions, and enough with being ignored on the global stage. Our voices count, and it would be good to partner with us—to have a conversation with us first—before any projects are started.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if every aid project started with a genuine conversation? It would be amazing how effective aid could be just by listening and paying attention to the nuances inherent in every project. I applaud Mr. Sadler’s change of heart and willingness to listen to criticism that ranged from snarky to informed to blind rage. It is my sincere hope that this triggers a paradigm shift in the aid, philanthropic, and charitable industries. It is also my sincere hope that African voices are taken into consideration. In this connected world we live in, we are just a stone’s throw away.

Reporting Pain, Consuming Water: Presentations from the SVA MFA in Interaction Design

Last night, the students of the inaugural class of the Interaction Design MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York gave final group presentations on their work to professors, peers, and a lively audience ready for Q&A; two presentations are excerpted below, tackling issues of behavior change in patient pain reporting and daily hydration, after an introduction from Program Chair Liz Danzico:

For more on the SVA MFA in Interaction Design program, follow their blog and Twitter account.

Also of note, one of the professors in this program is PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Mentor Robert Fabricant of frogdesign (see his recent talk on creativity and healthcare).

Congratulations to this first graduating class!

Plastiki Lands on Christmas Island

Yesterday, the crew of the Plastiki, a boat made out of 12,000 plastic bottles, landed on Christmas Island after being at sea for about 40 days.

From the boat at sea, expedition leader David de Rothschild sent this video:

For more, you can track the rest of their journey, find out more about the boat meant to raise awareness about the health of the ocean, and read updates on their progress on their Twitter account, @plastiki.

Plastiki expedition tracker

For further background on the issue of the gyres and powerful images of albatross affected by marine garbage, watch PopTech 2009 talk from Chris Jordan, “Polluting Plastics.”

Congrats to the Plastiki crew and fair winds for the rest of the journey!

Announcing "Social Mapping and Social Change": PopTech Salon

What is social mapping?

How can geolocative info systems and visualization tech be applied to new fields for social change?

On May 12, 2010 from 6:30 – 9:00p (CT) at at the Graham Foundation in Chicago (4 West Burton Place, Chicago, IL 60610), PopTech will bring together three speakers (and a smart audience in this city of news aggregators and social good organizations) for a special salon event on the current and future impact of these tools.

Register here; event is free, and an RSVP is required (hashtag: #socmap).

PopTech Social Mapping salon


- Gary Slutkin, Executive Director of CeaseFire,

- Katrin Verclas, Co-Founder of MobileActive,

- Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping, Ushahidi

and you, in an audience Q&A after the presentations.

Hosted by Andrew Zolli, Curator of PopTech

PopTech would like to thank the Graham Foundation for the Arts for their generous support of this program.

Note: This event will be held in the ballroom on the third floor which is only accessible by stairs. The first floor of the Madlener House is accessible via an outdoor lift. Please call 312.787.4071 to make arrangements.

Questions? Let us know in the comments. We hope you will join us on the 12th!

Make a Camera for World Pinhole Photography Day

Today is World Pinhole Photography Day, and you can learn how to make a pinhole camera in the video with Bre Pettis below. A fun way to spend what is, in New York, a rainy Sunday afternoon, projects like these also help us to see the world differently. After all, In the words attributed to Marcel Proust, “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes, but in seeing with new eyes.”

Who knows what new ideas for social good might emerge?

For more information about pinhole cameras and more ways to make them, see the World Pinhole Photography site and find other pinhole camera pictures in the image-sharing site Flickr’s pinhole photography groups.

Marketing/Partnerships PopTech Internship

What are you up to in the next few months?

Want to join the PopTech Brooklyn team and help accelerate projects and people that are changing the world?

We are looking for an incredible intern to help us support new projects and upcoming events, including the PopTech 2010 conference October 20-3 in Camden, Maine.

We are a small team (there are twelve of us in two offices—Brooklyn, NY and Camden, Maine) committed to making great things happen in social innovation.

This internship is in our open office in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, near the park, in a building full of creative people. You should be prepared to harmonize happy birthday with us, understand that we walk around the office juggling and know we do our own dishes.

In return for your hard work for three months, we will give you a ticket to our annual conference (join us and 600 amazing conference attendees—there is usually a long, long waitlist to attend).

We need you to:

- write weekly copy for our e-mail newsletter (where we release new PopTech videos)

- promote our online media content in all the places it goes

- support our current media partnerships and research new partnerships

- manage metrics for online content campaigns and come up with new ways we can reach new audiences

You should be:

- an excellent writer and voracious reader

- active on social websites (we would like to see where you live online)

- happy to work independently

- keen to hone your uncanny ability to recognize patterns of success in our content and network

- know a little bit about web development and design (wireframes are your friends)

- enthused about the power of learning new concepts and radical ideas, especially where fields intersect

- able to work from our Brooklyn office twenty hours a week for three months

If this sounds like you, please send us an e-mail (jobs [at] poptech [dot] org) with the subject line INTERNSHIP and attach your resume and a cover letter.

Make sure you tell us your favorite PopTech talk, why you like social innovation, and a little about why you want to join us for a few months.

And please help us spread the word!

World People's Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia

PopTech photographer Kris Krüg documented the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth this week in Cochabamba, Bolivia:
(Click the arrow below to play the image slideshow.)

GRITtv interviewed some conference attendees at this event intended to be an alternative to the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009:

And as part of Earth Week and in support of his travel to Bolivia, Kris auctioned off a photograph donated by PopTech speaker Chris Jordan, who highlights the consequences of consumerism in his work; you can watch Chris’s 2009 PopTech talk on plastics and see the startling photographs he took in the Midway Atoll:

You can also watch Chris’s 2007 PopTech talk on his “Running the Numbers” series here.

Earth Day 2010: Living in a Material World

Earth Day can bring out the best and worst in many people – and I’ll admit to frowning on occasion at anyone wishing a happy Earth Day. There are debates around the hypocrisy or perhaps ignorance in celebrating such a day with numerous flyers and special offers to consume more green products. But despite these very valid criticisms, Earth Day does matter if only that we all need a day to stop and take stock of our life. It is a time to celebrate our accomplishments because let’s face it change is hard. We need to figure out what comes next and this may require we look at some of our less appetizing behaviors, which we often do such an excellent job of avoiding on a day to day basis.

With that said, Earth day shouldn’t be a giant guilt-fest. We need to use it to recognize our weaknesses and figure out how to move forward constructively. What are for example, the innovations needed to address issues around toxicity, resource scarcity and geographical constraints to name just a few. Or when do we rethink our current norms – like heating our houses to 80º in the winter donning short sleeved shirts and cooling them to 65º in the summer while sporting long pants? How do we find a solution that meets the cloth diaper user’s concerns around limited landfill space and the disposable user’s concerns around energy usage?

This year, I’ve had the pleasure of working on the PopTech Ecomaterials Innovation Lab, whose goal is to foster breakthroughs in next generation ecological materials, industrial processes and critically, beginning to identify the steps, from effecting a change in consumer behavior to governmental policy, necessary to accelerate their adoption. The Lab is kicking off this summer with a three day working session. In my hunt for participants, I’ve had the opportunity to interview an incredible cross section of experts in relevant fields from green chemists and materials experts to industrial ecologists, designers and behavioral scientists to name just a few.

A couple of random yet staggering facts I gleaned from my conversations and research:

- If you were to close Sweden’s borders to any new shipments of clothing, their current stock would clothe the population for approximately15 years.

- The world consumes 67 million tons of natural and synthetic fibers annually.

- 75-80% of your clothing’s lifecycle impact comes from laundering.

And here I thought I was doing so well with my ongoing moratorium on new outfits while I was chucking clothes into the wash that were essentially barely worn.

These discussions have not only taught me a tremendous amount, they have helped me think differently about the challenges at hand such as defining what is truly green, splendidly illustrated by the fact that one industrial ecologist opted for cloth diapers while the other chose disposable. They made me realize I need to reconsider what is deemed acceptable behavior and initiate these conversations with others.

We at PopTech are incredibly excited to embark on this journey and hope you will join us. To be kept informed about the Lab and its progress, please email us at labs [at] poptech [dot] org.

As I reflect on another year gone by, what I am realizing now is that Earth Day is not just about caring for the planet but those who inhabit it. The choices we make have far reaching impacts over space, time and species. As I mentioned earlier, change is one of the hardest things and personally, putting a face to who is and will be impacted is a big help. So here are a few faces worth changing for:

Mother and baby
CC image from Flickr user randomwire.

Mother and child
CC image by Flickr user Mishimoto

Mother and baby
CC image from Flickr user prolix6x.

Father and child
Image courtesy of the author.