Quick Post: DIY Biology and Design Thinking

I wanted to quickly share two sources of inspiration.  I’m reading a book called Biopunk.  You are probably familiar with the stories of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates.  Brilliance disguised as uninterested students; sequestered to home garages to innovate the personal computing age.  They “hacked” a scientific revolution.  Now imagine a similar story, but instead of hacking circuit boards they are hacking their own DNA or medical devices.  This underground DIY Bio culture is happening and is the basis for Biopunk.  From the book description:

You’ll meet a new breed of hackers who aren’t afraid to get their hands wet, from entrepreneurs who aim to bring DNA-based medical tools to the poorest of the poor to a curious tinkerer who believes a tub of yogurt and a jellyfish gene could protect the world’s food supply. These biohackers include:

– A duo who started a cancer drug company in their kitchen
– A team who built an open-source DNA copy machine
– A woman who developed a genetic test in her apartment for a deadly disease that had stricken her family

It’s fascinating, check it out.  If it’s too close to the end of summer to start a new read, do yourself a favor and watch this episode of “The Next List” from CNN.  Jose Gomez-Marquez uses component parts from toy stores – legos, a motor from a toy helicopter, silly putty, and bicycle pumps – to create medical devices that are effective and affordable for the poorest and most remote areas of the world.  Jose explains that he uses smart recombination (the using existing technologies and engineering design in new ways) to innovate affordable medical options.  He “tinkered” with his ideas as a hobby, and then went on to enter and win MIT’s Idea competition 3 times.  A doctor that Jose works with says Jose moves rapidly from an idea to prototyping and has an ear for problems of third world doctors and patients.  Sound much like bias towards action and empathy?    My wheels are turning now, how might we make a lesson plan that captures the spirit of DIY Bio?

Props to Project H design/build Students!

I’ve been following the @projectHdesign feed on twitter and wanted to pass along the awesome work they are doing.  I truly believe this is one form (of many) that design thinking can take in K12 education.  In case you haven’t noticed I’m a fan of the TED and TEDx conferences (or lectures, or events, or engagements…WTH would you call it?!!).  Anyway, Emily Pilloton gave a fantastically engaging talk a year ago about her project – Project H. This thing is the manifestation of exactly what I want this blog to explore.  Project H is part shop class, part STEM, part social innovation, and lots of empathy and creativity.  In a nutshell – it’s design thinking.  In a piece written by the NY Times, Emily said they teach “design thinking, leadership skills, shop skills and citizenship” and students in the class said “Oh my God, this class is crazy awesome.”   Hallelujah!!

Please check out their website as they describe their inspirations and intended outcomes better than I.  BUT, basically, Emily teaches HS students from and an extremely rural area of N.C. all about design, modern construction techniques, some engineering and some architecture ALL within the concept of improving the local community.  Yes, these students get their hands dirty.  They build stuff.   Real stuff, like public chicken coups (told you it was rural!!!).  Their latest effort – their Pièce de résistance – is a farmer’s market building that will bring the community together in a meaningful way.  All this by high school students – barely with a driver’s license.  So inspiring!  Their project is apparently being filmed for a future documentary.

Truthfully, my short narrative cannot adequately describe the context and extent of their work.  So if you have a minute to be inspired please follow this short recipe:

1) Watch Emily’s TED talk or read this piece in the NY Times for an overview of the concept

2) Visit ProjectHdesign.org to get a sense of the scope of their work

3) Visit the Studio H student blog for pics of the new ‘market’ project

4) Applaud and spread the word!


3 Pillars of Design Thinking (and a Motown Song)

You guys remember the Tams, right?  You know…THE Tams…the matching suit-wearing, beach music sounding, motown group.  They are also from the the greatest city in America – Atlanta, GA (coincidentally my hometown).  You might remember this song as one of their biggest hits:

Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy  –  How in the world does this relate to design thinking?  Well, in my feeble mind those three phrases are a very concise and easy way to remember (or explain) a few of the major themes of design thinking.

Be Young :: Think like a child

Think creatively – The “kids say the craziest things” kind of creative.  Design Thinking usually promotes attacking a problem by first discovering the real roots of the problem.  To do this, design guru Bruce Mau suggests asking “stupid questions.”  This goes back to comments in my first post about the disadvantage that experts have when it comes to being innovative.  Experts tend to work within a set of assumptions that result from their years of experience.  I’m not discounting the value of experience or expertise, but innovation requires taking certain leaps of faith.  Outsiders (non-experts) tend to ask “stupid questions” that can challenge assumptions in a way that can glean new truths.  I found one article that called this “creating a disruptive hypothesis.”  In short, designers approach problems like children – by asking “WHY?”  Anyone with young children knows that kids tend to ask “why” A LOT…in succession….to exhaustion.  This is exactly the process that design firm IDEO goes through.  The 5 Whys Technique is a process of proposing a problem and asking 5 successive why questions that challenges assumptions and hopefully redefines and focuses the original proposition.  So, be young, think like a child, and uncover the root of the issue.

Be Foolish ::  Stupid, Crazy, Wild Ideas

Similar to Being Young, Being Foolish has to do with taking a chance – putting yourself out there – not being afraid to ask “stupid questions.”  Have you ever been in a meeting or classroom and withheld an idea because you were scared others wouldn’t get it?  I’ve been there lots of times.  Well, being foolish is the exact opposite.  Most Design Thinking models include some sort of brainstorming or ideating phase.  In this scenario, any off the wall idea is fair game and is in fact encouraged.  This is not unlike the guy at the bar who asks out every girl he sees under the assumption that eventually one will say yes.  Eventually one idea will be the one that sparks a truly innovative project.  I must stop at this point because I’m reminded of one of my favorite TED talks from TEDxAtlanta.  Armin Vit makes the case for being foolish and thinking stupid far better than I can.  He says: “One is considered stupid until proven creative.”  Watch this one – it’s thoroughly entertaining.

Be Happy :: Empathize to find purpose

If you read my previous post (Attempting to) Define Design Thinking, you might remember that I settled on a definition that had to do with looking at problems from different perspectives in order to affect positive change.  What I was getting at, specifically, was to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.  Preferably through the eyes of the person(s) whom you are attempting to positively effect.  In a word – Empathize.  Admittedly, empathy in and of itself can be depressing.  But designers use empathy as the primary source of inspiration, and solving a problem for a group you empathize with can be immensely rewarding.  The end result can be far reaching like the work that Architecture for Humanity does.  In short someone brave enough to ask the question: “Why does temporary housing for people displaced by natural disaster (like Katrina) have to be tin can trailers?  These people deserve to live in a proper house with dignity.”  So, Architecture for Humanity designed and built small cottages that looked like proper, cozy homes and cost even less than the infamous FEMA trailer.  Brilliant.   Empathy can also uncover solutions to problems that the majority of people didn’t even know they had.  The founder of OXO kitchen utensils began his company after observing his arthritic wife having difficulty using a skinny, all metal vegetable peeler.  He designed a utensil with a large soft handle with “fins” integrated for better grip.  The result was a product that nearly everyone appreciated – not just arthritic grandmothers.  Until OXO came along no one even considered that a lowly kitchen utensil could or even should be improved.  The point is: finding solutions for someone other than oneself can be extremely rewarding whether it impacts one person or a million.

Be Young :: Be Foolish :: Be Happy is an easy way I’ve found to be mindful of some of the major tenants of the Design Thinking process.  Design Thinking is a process, however, and more steps are needed than these three.  I’ll perhaps devote a future post to the similarities and differences between some of the Design Thinking for Education models I’ve come across.  If you can’t stand to wait, check out these great resources:

d. School Bootcamp Bootleg

Design Thinking in the Middle School Classroom

IDEO’s Design Thinking for Educators Toolkit

Designing for Change – watch the bigBANG! conference live

Part of the impetus behind Design Thinking over the last decade or so has stemmed from the idea that designers can help improve – well, anything – through a sound design process.  This includes solutions for wicked problems like clean water in 3rd world countries, alternative energy, pollution, and mobility products for the physically disabled.  These sort of gorilla designers are getting noticed more and more.  Check out the Hippo Roller (a combination transport and filtering device for water) from Emily Pilloton of Project H or the Lifestraw from Vestergaard Frandsen.  These are just a few examples that I have found that really drive home the idea of Social Innovation.  Because the main focus of my Blog is to be a clearinghouse of information, I’ve added a new category of links to the right where you can read more about groups and individuals committed to innovation for common good.  (Thanks TedxSMU and bigBANG! whom I’ve shamelessly reposted their links).


Speaking of bigBANG! – they are a group in Dallas, Tx that produces annual conferences that link social innovators and non-profits with angel investors and sponsors.  This format in not uncommon to the world of venture capital and startups, but the twist here is that these business ideas seek to drive social change.  Kudos!

You can watch a live stream of the conference live TODAY from their site or right here:  http://www.ustream.tv/channel/4491062