Workshop 1- Design Thinking & Civic Tech

At the beginning of this month, we partnered with University of Delaware’s Horn Program to hear a talk by Professor Tony Middlebrooks. “Design Thinking and Civic Tech” was the title, and it was our first workshop of the year. Why are we excited? Because this talk marks the first of 5 workshop partnerships leading up to the 2017 Open Data Challenge happening the first weekend in June.

Professor Middlebrooks got us thinking with a new perspective on problem solving and ideation using playing cards and the iDEA Fan Deck. How?

“You can’t get out of the box if you can’t see the box.”

Among the many quotes from the evening, this one stood out the most. His talk started with discussing the natural tendency everyone has: attacking a problem based on their personal perspective of what the problem actually is. But what if we don’t know all the facts when given the problem? What if we’re not really even 100% sure what the problem really is?

He gave a perfect real-life example for the collaborative tables to work on throughout the evening. Standing in front for the crowd he said, “Okay. Here’s the problem. My wife needs an idea. What does she get me for Valentine’s Day? Got it? Good. Now solve the problem.”

What ensued in that first round of ideating was lots of chatter, lightbulbs, riddles, and then, slowly, silence. But something more interesting: no one asked any questions of the Professor himself. He openly wandered around the room, seemingly just waiting for something…some little spark only he would recognize, but after five minutes, his hopes seemed unrealized.

Shortly thereafter he rallied the groups back together and stood in front with a smile on his face. “You can’t get out of the box if you can’t see the box,” he said. And then elaborated in quick succession: ‘How do you perceive the world? Are you stuck inside your own box? What is the biggest issue you faced with solving the problem I gave you?’

After a long late-evening pause, one UD student bravely spoke up. “We don’t know what you want.”

“Yes!” Professor Middlebrooks simply emanated with excitement. Later, he described himself as a true Professor-at-heart and he showed it the whole night. “The interesting thing is,” he started after the student mentioned their issue, “not one person asked me a single question!”

You know that face that a crowd makes when they all realize at the same moment that they’ve missed the whole point? Yeah, that happened.

Obviously noticing the frustrations, Middlebrooks broke out decks of playing cards, set one at each group’s table, and lined out a new problem.

Time for another activity. ‘Alright, your problem is to build the tallest tower you can using playing cards.”

Each group had roughly ten minutes to complete the task in anyway they saw fit. At first, groups were desperately trying to remember old videos they’d seen of grandfathers and patient kids building card-houses. One would attempt to make a card triangle; another would laugh as it fell down. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that their faces were bleak.

But then, there was a magic moment when one, two, three realized that the Professor said nothing about the cards staying intact. One group started tearing, another began bending and weaving. A third group added paper drinking cups as a building material…because he didn’t say anything about adding materials, either. Multiple groups thought to use furniture to give their otherwise short tower much height. One group even wove a honeycomb of cards together with tears and bends (and maybe a little tape) and flung it over a ceiling rafter after tying one corner to a long string of fabric.

What was Professor Middlebrooks’ reaction to these unorthodox answers to his challenge?

“If you want to get ahead, get a process,” he said with a smile. “If you want to get way ahead, acquire dispositions!” The Professor encourages all forms of creativity and community ideating. He especially loves those without the “satisficing and squelching” habit that’s so common in ideating sessions. (When one person chooses one idea over all others with a quick tongue and little thought, giving praise to one and insult to others)

As he coached the crowd in ways to approach that original problem of helping his wife finding him a Valentine’s gift, he taught principles that every one of us could take to heart. Here’s nine of them to remember:

  1. Think about problem solving as a process. “Problem solving for innovation only ever includes three steps: Understand, Imagine, Implement.”

  2. Are you stuck inside you own box? “Be an explorer. Talk to someone who has a completely different point of view than you, and then think about how their thoughts can help solve your problem.”

  3. Understand and Imagine: “We constantly underestimate how creative we are. We can generate a lot more ideas than we think we can. Sometimes not all at once, but we can.”

  4. When we generate ideas, go for quantity. Even a “kernel of amazing” can come from an idea from crazyland.

  5. “Divergent thinking is the heart of creativity.” Every one of us is raised to think convergently, but divergent thinkers can take great ideas and put them on the shelf to think of more. They do not negate any idea. When ideating to solve a problem, skip nothing and keep moving. “Don’t make the mistake of taking the first good idea as the best idea.”

  6. “Be user-centered.” It’s easy for groups to come up with answers to problems, but what about the users the problem actually applies to? Find out what the user wants.

  7. Implement: “Pilot, test, assess, and iterate on an idea before you spend a ton of resources putting your venture into full practice.”

  8. Iterate! “Iteration is like idea generating to make the one awesome idea better.”

  9. ‘What if everything we know about this problem is wrong?’ Don’t be afraid to be the unpopular one in the room. Stand up and go do research; be explorative.

In one last exercise for the evening, Middlebrooks asked the groups to take one more stab at answering his wife’s problem. With what result?

Groups talked, laughed, and cornered the Professor with as many questions as he could handle. More than once, members from each group would look over to the more outlandish card-towers for inspiration. Eventually, they produced viable, applicable options for the Professor to take home to his wife. The exercise was a success.

So. Why is Open Data Delaware so excited to have been a part of this amazing workshop? Our cause is all about solving problems in ways that everyone in our community can benefit from. Admittedly, we don’t always know all the details of who we’re actually solving these problems for, or what problems we should really be focusing on at the start. But with this first workshop, we have a list things to learn and new perspectives to take in.

Where will we be using these new points of view? In our next workshops, of course! And especially at the 2017 Idea Challenge where we’ll partner with the Technology Forum of Delaware to generate the ideas for the 2017 Open Data Challenge within the topic of “Access to Hope Through Innovation”. Check out our Meetup page today for the full list of free upcoming civic tech events and workshops! We look forward to hearing your perspective on the problems facing our community!

Written on March 2, 2017 by Aiyani Martin