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.





Textbooks Africa donates books for Mzuni

3 09 2016

I’d like to thank Textbooks Africa for their generous donation of 75 boxes(!) of books to the Mzuni Library Initiative.

The Mzuni Library Initiative

The Mzuni Library Initiative would like to extend many heartfelt thanks to Textbooks Africa for the generous donation of 75 boxes of books for the Mzuzu University Library. On August 29th, we were excited to welcome Francesco, a representative of Textbooks Africa, to Virginia Tech. Pictured below are volunteers Francesco and Kevin with the book donations.

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One of the best parts of the day was getting to show Francesco the beautiful farmlands in Blacksburg while transporting the books. I was lucky to snap this picture in a peaceful moment before the team arrived and the fun began!

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We are also grateful to Zach and Danny, engineers from the Unmanned Systems Lab, for continually being the “willing hands” of the initiative and assisting with moving heavy boxes of books. Thanks Zach and Danny!

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Blacksburg’s Sustainability Week

2 09 2016

The town of Blacksburg will be holding its 10th Sustainability Week from September 18-25. Please click here or on the image below for more information!

Virginia Tech students – please consider signing up for one of the six service-learning projects that will be happening that week. The list of projects can be found here.

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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?





UAP 5524 – International Development

22 08 2016

This semester, Bill Anderson will be teaching UAP 5524 International Development, which will replace UAP 5764G International Development Policy and Planning as the core class for the Graduate Certificate in Global Planning and International Development Studies.

The syllabus for the class can be accessed here.

UAP 5524 Course Description

Concepts and practices in the field of international development have changed dramatically over the past few decades and even the past few years. This course is designed to introduce students to the main theories, approaches, and practices in international development planning as implemented by leading actors today.

This interdisciplinary course examines the historical and contemporary practice of international development planning, especially at the strategic versus the project level. Students will consider issues and challenges facing low-income states, societies, and communities and will examine a range of different and often competing approaches to development.

Through lectures, readings, videos, discussions, written assignments, and group tasks, the course will explore international development from a range of different perspectives.

In addition to review and discussion of these topics, students will develop and practice skills in planning through the preparation of a strategic plan for a developing country in a major sector or sub sector.  During the class, students will work on, discuss with each other, present, and critique different elements of their strategic plans, which will consist of several components prepared in a series of written assignments, revised, and then knitted together in a comprehensive plan.  To complement the theoretical discussions, several experienced international development practitioners and academics will participate as guest lecturers.





Google’s Vwaza Video

9 08 2016

Google just created this movie of the trip we took to Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve during the Experience WASH in Malawi study abroad course I co-taught in July. I thought it was worth sharing.





Mzuni Library Initiative Hits Milestone

7 08 2016

In December 2016, Mzuzu University (Mzuni) experienced a tragic fire during which they lost their entire library of 45,000 titles. This was a major loss for the university and for the northern part of Malawi, where educational books are extremely scarce. I visited Mzuzu University the day before the fire and took was is probably the last photo of the library. In July of this year, I co-taught a joint WASH course for Virginia Tech, Denver University, and Mzuni students at Mzuzu University and was able to visit the library again. I was reminded of the shear scale of the destruction that is captured by the sequence of images below.

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Since January, a growing group of students and faculty at Virginia Tech and Radford University have been working to collect books for a new library. We partnered with the Malawian Education and Children’s Welfare Foundation that has been charged by Mzuni to lead the U.S. response to their library rebuilding effort. The Mzuni Library Initiative has been an intense, but highly rewarding experience for all involved and this past month we reached a milestone with the collection of 5,000 books for Mzuni.

We are now focusing our efforts on finding a way to ship these boxes to Malawi and hope to have them in route within the coming weeks.

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During my time at Mzuzu University this July, I was able to speak with the Vice Chancellor and the Chief Librarian about how Virginia Tech could continue to help their rebuilding effort. In addition securing replacement books, there is also a need to help design a new signature library building. Given Virginia Tech’s expertise in architecture, building construction, engineering, etc., my plan is to find a way for our students and faculty to work on this new phase of the Mzuni Library Initiative. Please contact me if you believe you can help.

For the next two years (or more), students at Mzuni will have access to a temproary library (see below) that is slowing beginning to expand its collection of books. While they have made some progress, they are far from having the full range of books needed to support all of their academic programs. Our hope is that the 5,000 books (~10% of the books lost in the fire) we send will significantly improve their situation.