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22 Mar

Designing Systems Thinking (Pt. 1)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / March 22, 2019 / 0 Comments

What if?

What if you could have a glimpse of the future just by looking around?

We love numbers. They look so concrete, so easy to understand. But they only tell one part of the story, and not necessarily the story we’ll see in our life. Truth is, when we speak about trends, we are talking of large-scale motions, like the plates drifting under the Earth, and how these motions will affect life on the surface will depend on which plates are interacting, and in which specific places. The trend is one, but its translations are many.

After all, trend researchers talk of futures thinking. They know that multiple possibilities can coexist at the same time, especially when they are just seeds. We can’t predict with absolute certainty which ones will grow and how. But what we can do is spot the sprouts near us and understand how they could interact with our life.

Look outside. How do people dress? What do they do in their free time? What do you see emerge in technology, health, values? What kind of futures are popping up in your life now – and how is your life already changing because of them?

A look into the future

As the world’s complexity grows, being able to understand systems is quickly becoming one of the key skills to thrive, both at work and in life. In a recent report on lead learners and the new work-learn paths, for example, the Institute for the Future identified sense-making as one of the five performance zones where workers will have to hone their skills. Specifically, sense-making will take different approaches: creating stories from complex data, building frameworks for activities and visualizing whole systems to coordinate, guide and support our work.

The focus moves from the elements of a system to their relationships. We already saw a glimpse of it in the rise of transdisciplinarity and new kinds of knowledge-building. In the mental health field, where I work, systemic and narrative therapy consider the context and relationships of each client as fundamental factors to address to solve the client’s issue. In the social field, activists are raising awareness of intersectionality as a better way to address social issues. As they are pointing out, classical models of oppression (based on ethnicity, gender, religion etc.) don’t act independently of each other, but interact and create systems of oppression that are different for each individual. (For example, women of color experience both race- and gender-based oppression and thus their experiences will differ from those of white women.)

Social-ecological model of community development

In natural sciences, an ecosystem always include living and non-living organisms and considers how they interact with each other. Similarly, we have to consider both physical and non-physical factors in analyzing a system. A big, growing trend such as longevity can play quite differently in a country where the average age is 30, or in a country where culture considers older people valuable experts and members of their community. Humans act not only on what they see, but also what they feel, think, believe.

Discovering environments

Elements of a system may take different shapes, but we have to look under the surface to discover what actually connects them. For example, trend researcher Els Dragt talks of “spots” – sparkles of futures, popping up in fields far from each other – that apparently are unrelated, but subtly connected by the invisible threads of the values and needs they express.

Similarly, in design thinking we take the environment (social, professional, financial etc.) into account at each step of the process. When we speak with users, we go deeper to see how other people and things may be contributing to the problems we want to solve – influences that the user themselves may not be aware of.

Even in the end, upon implementing the final result of the design process, we still have to consider the system. To put something innovative in an already stable environment is a delicate move, a play of constant adjustments and analysis of how people and environment alike are reacting to innovation. Sometimes, the original idea may not survive. But when the system is motivated from within to change, innovation can infuse new vitality and dynamic energy into everyone.

The dimensions of systems thinking

To sum up, if we want to work with a system, we have to remember that we are dealing with a living entity – living, because it’s constantly changing. This can be particularly upsetting. Why? Because it means that, whatever idea or solution we introduce into the system, it won’t last forever. Our own interventation will kickstart a change, and as a result new questions will arise.

And yet, this can be freeing. It means that there is no “one right way” to solve a challenge. It means that we don’t have to get it right the first time, or else we will have failed. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many of us learnt in school – that there is one answer, one way, one path. But the world doesn’t work with this same clarity. Again, this can prove challenging – but design thinking teaches us that adapting is essential to good design. More than skills, it’s the attitude, the mindset that counts.

For educators, youth workers, teachers – for those who want to help young people get ready for the path –, this means staying attuned to both the local community and the global context, because how changes will affect us will depend on where we live. To adapt means to keep our eyes and ears to the ground, where the seeds of the future are popping up, and find ways to nurture them, together – as it happened with an innovative school in South America.

P.S. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

04 Mar

Designing Creativity (Pt. 2)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / March 4, 2019 / 0 Comments

To create, from *ker- "to grow", to make or bring into existence something new

In 2011, something extraordinary happened in Seattle. The Tulalip Elementary School, attended at 90% by Native children, in just one year had transformed from the worst school of their district to the top one. During that year, Tulalip member and Native education researcher Dr. Stephanie Fryberg had applied the growth mindset work of Carol Dweck. As it turned out, it changed everything.

Carol Dweck’s discovery is simple, and because of that, even more impressive. Basically, when it comes to talents and skills, people have two mindsets. One says that either you have a talent from birth or you don’t have it. Shakespeare, Mozart, Leonardo? They were born genius. But the other mindset says, “I don’t have that talent yet.” It says that talents can be developed and nurtured over time. The first one will keep us in place, but the second one will teach us how to grow.

And mistakes are the place where our mindset becomes crystal clear.

Searching for feedback

In 2010, in Massachussets, a group of PhDs of the MTI launched the NuVu Studio: an innovation school whose pedagogy rests on the Studio Model (a framework for self-organizing teams) and multi-disciplinary, collaborative projects. Concretely, every two weeks groups of 12 students move into a transdisciplinary studio, where they work on solving together a specific challenge. At the end of each studio, they add the project to their portfolio and frequent check-ins with the teachers ensure that students understand and reflect on their own development.

The Universal Arm from NuVu Studio on Vimeo.

These studios tackle complex, real-world, “messy” problems, which require students to continuously refine their prototypes according to the feedback they get from each experiment. The presence of a coach is fundamental to make sense of these observations, as well as to foster the student’s growth, and create what they call a “critique culture.” The goal is to help them see feedback as an essential part of creativity and learning, instead of a judgement of their worth.

“At first, critique felt like a personal attack. Eventually, I realized the coaches are critiquing my ideas, not me. […] At my old schools, your work was either right or wrong. There was no revision, and nothing was about the real world.”

But the real world is present in the studio, and students seek its feedback. Instead of worrying about grades, they are encouraged to stay with their mistakes and gather something useful from them. The fact that these challenges are complex, and require multiple skills to be solved, isn’t just a way to show how specific kinds of knowledge can be applied in a practical way. They also teach students to check in with the context. The real world isn’t just present – it’s always interrogated and integrated in the creative project. Their ideas interact with the world, and this interaction makes them stronger and more innovative.

The world is your teacher

The connection between schools and books is so ingrained in our minds, that we sometimes forget how people learnt in the past. In the Renaissance, for example, future craftsmen and artists learnt from the masters in their studio or bottega, proper workrooms, with few books to read and a collection of tools requiring mastery.

Schools like NuVu or the Studio Schools in the UK, but also project- and inquiry-based pedagogies, are rediscovering the value of a studio approach. The studio offered a perfect learning environment, not only because students received continuous feedback on their work, but because the studio was immersed in the city or town it was operating into.

Apprentices didn’t work on abstract projects, but on real commissions, coming from real people. Thus, the studio was connected to the real world and its needs, as well as its changes and innovations. Masters used their expertise to guide students in their learning process, but didn’t directly imbue them with their knowledge. It was the world the one to teach students, one task at a time, what their skills concretely meant.

From dreaming to making

We are now back to the initial question. How can we help students get ready for jobs (and fields!) they don’t even know yet?

This requires more than good observational skills. We can spot chances as they emerge, but if we interact with the world around us we can create opportunities for ourselves. Only from these interactions we can generate new ideas, because we will have a context to create around and into. And only by testing them in the context – only by engaging the real world, with small prototypes and experiments – we can learn if and how they work, and adjust our trajectory accordingly. This is what design thinking teaches – to replace fear of the mistake with the curiosity of experimentation.

This is how we can design creativity – by using small and smart iterations to check with the world and guide our imagination towards something that others, too, will find creative. And it’s an invitation to imagine a creativity that designs, a creativity that’s not just pure imagination but engages with the world it wants to innovate.


P.S. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.


14 Feb

Designing Creativity (Pt. 1)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / February 14, 2019 / 0 Comments

What if 65% of students will work in jobs not yet existing?

How do we get ready for an unknown job with unknow requirements and in even more unknown fields?

Some steps can already be taken now. For example, one step is developing a T-shaped knowledge. Familiarity with different fields helps us foresee where future changes and opportunities may happen. Moreover, it gives us a headstart in case we decide (or are forced) to switch careers. In her book The Shift, professor Lynda Gratton actually describes a “carousel career” – becoming an expert in one field, then taking sabbatical time and switching to a different one – as a plausible career path.

For this reason, developing the ability to learn new things quickly will be crucial. People will be expected to become more and more self-directed learners, ready to devote up to one third of the year to study. And with tools such as OER (open educational materials), MOOCs and learning apps, learning won’t be just more accessible – it will become inevitable.

But what else do we need to imagine what is not yet existing?

A look into the future

Actually, this is what intellectuals and writers have been doing since humanity was born. Science fiction in particular has foreseen many inventions (and jobs!) of today, and scientists have taken inspiration from the strange devices described in these books and movies. For example, before the launch of Facebook&co., no one would have imagined a job like “social media manager”. But Ray Bradbury, John Brunner, Arthur C. Clarke and others had already described their versions of Google, Youtube celebrities, fake news and Tinder.

Creatives can see (and even create!) the future, even when it doesn't exist yet.

On the other side, history is full of companies who weren’t able to imagine these shifts on time, or who didn’t realise their potential until they were lagging behind. Think of Blockbuster’s lost chance to buy Netflix, Blackberry and the rise of touch screens, or Kodak’s refusal to switch to the digital.

There are a thousand reasons for each of these stories. But the connection I want to make here is that, ultimately, it was also a matter of creativity. Not all sci-fi writers are scientists, but they are able to predict our times because they have a bigger vision of the context they are writing into. They can see where gaps in knowledge and technology are – and imagine what kind of seeds they would generate. These are the two sides of true creativity.

Discovering possibilities

Research specialist for the LEGO Foundation Elisabeth McClure calls them originality and relevance, and it’s their combination that fosters creativity. But while we are all familiar with originality – and actually, we often equate it to creativity –, what we sometimes miss is that creativity is born out of a context. Creativity is understood only in the frame of the time and space it lives into.

We still consider creative the greatest artists and inventors because we understand the impact they had on their time. Einstein and Picasso were innovative, but because of their time. Not only did they had a deep knowledge of their fields, they were also deeply immersed in their contemporary world. Connected to what was happening, able to spot the edges, see where they could push for new possibilities, unafraid of making mistakes because they are opportunities to learn and discover something more.

Creativity is present at every stage of the design thinking process, but few see the connection with the prototyping phase. And yet, aside from the Empathy stage, this is the stage where we are more immersed in the context we are creating for. We actually replicate the context, allowing people to test a version of the future we are trying to implement and the designers to refine and improve the prototypes so that they can best serve the context it was created for.

The dimensions of creativity

“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison

To imagine what doesn’t exist, we have to get ready to fail. If we are learning or creating something new, we are charting new territory – and mistakes not only are inevitable, but can also lead to the most important discoveries. Edison’s story of his 10000 versions of the light bulb is world-wide famous, but the history of science is full of examples of how failures were necessary in the creative cycle.

However, how many of us are actually afraid of mistakes? If we think about how assessments are planned today, most students learn that there’s only one right answer and, if they fail to find it the first time, there won’t be recovery, just a bad grade. Numerical measures of learning and tight-packed programs with close deadlines don’t leave space for students to learn from their mistakes (and frame them in a more positive light), and teachers too lose a valuable opportunity to help their students gain deeper knowledge of their subjects.

One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is exactly fear of faliure, and that’s where the Prototype stage of design thinking can lend a hand. During this phase, it’s vital to make mistakes. Because it’s vital to iterate, experiment and explore many different solutions. Testing a prototype with the people it ought to serve can give us precious insights, and this is something that we can’t find if we don’t put ourselves out there. That’s why new educational approaches are teaching students and teachers to reframe failures as a fundamental, even playful moment on the long road to learning.

P.S. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

24 Jan

Designing Critical Thinking (Pt. 2)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / January 24, 2019 / 0 Comments

To think - to exercise the powers of judgment, conception, or inference

In the annual Wired number on future trends, UCL research associate Natalia Kucirkova defines 2019 as the year of collectivist pluralisation – societal decisions, interdependent art and crowdsourced knowledge.

Without looking into the future, collaborative practices have already been researched and experimented in education. For example, evaluations of well-designed, school-based peer education show its positive impact, both for individual knowledge and behaviour towards oneself (self-esteem, confidence, resilience) and others (collaboration, tolerance, listening).

Here in Luxembourg, we already have such an example with the Peer-Mediation program, aiming at teaching students how to mediate conflicts between their classmates. But what could happen if a whole school was based on peer learning?

How to learn how to learn

At Birmingham Covington School (US), the “help desk” is a concrete example of peer education. During a lesson, some students walk among the desks; if a classmate has a question, they clip a clothespin to their computer and one of the students will troubleshoot with you. Different grades are often mixed together, so help may actually come from younger or older fellow students.

Space itself, with big, communal tables and movable walls, is designed to foster teamwork and sharing of resources and interest. Moreover, peer-to-peer learning happens between teachers as well. In Teacher Labs, they have special time to discuss their work and get feedback from colleagues and a coach.

Groups projects often cross disciplines as well, engaging students with different interests and knowledge in collaborative research and problem solving. For example, in a project focused on bees protection, students used science, English and the arts to address bee extinction and sensitize the local population.

Everything in the school was born out of a student-centered vision. Teachers want students to be independent learners, ready to look for resources beyond their teacher. They are engaged with their own learning process, choosing projects based on their interests and creating their own goals. In the last two grades they even have an elective class, the Thinkering Studio, where they design a whole project on their own.

Together we know (and do!)

These projects build on a transdisciplinary approach and developing a T-shaped competency (deep knowledge of one subject, plus familiarity with the language of other fields). This will be crucial to address challenges that are too complex for one field alone (like, for example, the extinction of bees.) The Institute for the Future defined this as one of the key competencies for the future and one of the major challenges for higher education.

Birmingham Covington is a testament to the value of this approach: students have ranked at or above 95% in overall performance, compared to other Michigan schools. More and more schools are already experimenting with collaborative learning, integrated studies and cocreation processes, and transdisciplinary programs are on the rise in universities. (For example, think about the boom of biotechnology).

Image of people discussing in front of a bulletin board. The board is covered in written post-its, ordered according to colors.

Critical thinking and collaboration are closely intertwined in design thinking. During the design process, people of various backgrounds and functions are brought together in the same room and actively engaged for the whole duration. It’s not only about giving experts (the customers, or who we are serving with design) the possibility to share their own knowledge; it’s more than maximizing the ability to analyze and synthetize all the data collected by having more heads in your room.

“Cognition in a team situation is not the sum of knowledge or capabilities across the individual team members but rather the result of the interactions between them and how they perform in the task environment.” – ITFT, p. 17

By sharing what we know and co-creating together, we not only practice critical thinking in the sense of careful judgment and evaluation. We also do critical thinking, that is, a kind of thinking that brings our creativity to a turning point. We turn the corner of what we thought it was possible. And behind we find something new, something innovative, visionary, powerful.

From knowing to doing

Let’s go back to the beginning question of these two articles: what if we will produce 20+ trillion gigabytes of data every year?

There’s no way we can know everything that will be produced, much less make sense of it (or even manage it all) by ourselves. Even though the importance of critical thinking is recognized everywhere, there is something missing – that is, individual critical thinking won’t be enough. Unfortunately, most assessment tools in schools want exactly to measure how much a single student can know and do by themselves.

But design thinking can give students the opportunity to feel at ease with not knowing. Even more, they can experience how knowledge can be found, especially with the contribution of others. They learn to be both independent and collaborative in their thinking – independent, because they don’t trust just one source or stop at the first idea; collaborative, because they learn from each other.

This is the meaning of designing thinking – organizing your way of thinking, through a method that makes you always check your thoughts and go beyond. But it’s also an invitation to imagine a thinking that designs, a thinking able to organize chaotic information into useful insight into the world.


P.S. The next article is all about design and creativity. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.


17 Jan

Designing Critical Thinking (Pt. 1)

In Blog by Bianca Bressy / January 17, 2019 / 0 Comments

What if we will produce 20+ trillion gigabytes of data every year?

Imagine how handling so much information will be.

First of all, we’ll have to develop the skills to manage and make sense of this huge cognitive load. With so much noise in the background, both in our professional and personal life, being able to extract meaningful and valid information will become crucial. Machines can help us, but only so far. Not all of these data will be in a format a software can analyze, and computers can’t still check the validity of their source as an expert could.

There’s another side of the coin, too. We won’t just be the processors of these data – we’ll also be their producers. Institutions and laws can protect our privacy, but we can already see how difficult their job has been, with people freely giving up personal information to use apps and social media without necessarily realizing how much of it they’re giving.

Finally, we should consider its effects on our mental health. It’s been almost fifty years since Alvin Toffler coined the term “information overload” – how the amount of information available can actually hinder our efficiency in using it -, and yet it has never been so relevant as of today. Scientists have already noticed how information overload causes anxiety and feelings of overwhelm and loss of control over the situation.[1] Too much information isn’t just difficult to manage – it makes us feel like there is no way we can manage it at all.

A look into the future

The amount of new data to process isn’t the only problem. Consider, for example, how frustrated and anxious a university student might feel in knowing that about 50% of what they are studying in first grade will be outdated by the time they graduate. Continuous changes and updates in current subjects and technology will require much more flexibility and the ability to learn new stuff quickly, as well as to understand what one should be learning.

Whether we like it or not, more and more countries are moving towards an economy where knowledge – up-to-date, general and yet thorough knowledge – will be its main currency. The fact is, never in history before we have had so much access to knowledge. Our issues lie in moving through it. A future worker (and generally, a future citizen of this planet) will need to analyze and synthetize whatever will pass through their hands, to understand its usefulness and validity. But moreover, a future citizen will have to understand how much of this information, often unconsciously absorbed and never investigated, is influencing the way they think, feel, and act everyday.

Hans Rosling at his TED talk on global data
Since the 70s, science has been aware of how much we rely on unconscious biases when making decisions, especially if information is uncertain or not useful for some reason. Recently, in a few TED talks global health and data experts Hans and Ola Rosling demonstrated how biases affect our view of the world. Even when faced with new, valid information, we may still adhere to our old beliefs and refuse to challenge our own thoughts.

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that one of the most sought-after skills is still critical thinking. And this is where design thinking can definitely lend a hand.

Discovering patterns

But what exactly is critical thinking? We can start by saying what it’s not. If we imagine a “critical thinker,” we imagine someone who doesn’t take something at face value. They wouldn’t stop at the first idea or solution coming to their mind. They wouldn’t assume, nor would they choose the same thing just because it worked before.

A critical thinker has an inquisitive, open mind.

Then, we can explain critical thinking as both an action and a disposition. To think critically means to evaluate raw information, based on what’s needed in that moment, gather useful insights, analyze, assess. On a deeper level, though, to think critically is to be wary of your own assumptions; to be inquisitive and open, at ease with uncertainty; to be informed, without feeling to the need to immediately reach a conclusion.

In design thinking, this disposition is essential in the empathizing stage. Our beliefs and prejudices can influence the direction of the research, while consciously putting them aside can open up new paths of inquiry and make space for information or insights that we wouldn’t have found out otherwise. Afterwards, in the second step, we analyze and evaluate what was gathered to make sense of the of the bigger picture, redetermine the challenge we want to solve and plan the next steps. From discovery, we move to definition. After all, a problem well defined is a problem half solved.

The dimensions of critical thinking

Critical thinking is necessary in every field, but its efficacy depends on how much we know of the specific domain we’re working with. In our current age, this will pose even more problems as jobs become more cross-disciplinary, requiring knowledge of sometimes very different subjects. One more aspect of information overload, one more reason of anxiety and sense of no control.

What design thinking brings in, is the dimension of collaboration. During the process, the recipient of knowledge is not the designer but the people we are designing for. Knowledge comes from those who have first-hand experience of the issue we want to solve; the designer acts as a facilitator, helping people discover their own expertise.

The process of design thinking gives students a double opportunity. On one hand, they have something practical to test their own critical thinking over. On the other hand, they can learn to see knowledge as something that is actually achievable if we collaborate. Together, they can map their environment in a more efficient way, gaining empowerment, a deeper knowledge and even novel paths and directions.

[1] D. Bawden and L. Robinson, “The dark side of information: overload, anxiety and other paradoxes and pathologies”, in Journal of Information Science, XX (X) 2008, pp.1-12

P.S. Here‘s the second part of this article. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.