From the category archives:



August 25, 2011

Last month I travelled to Californian summer, welcoming a brief respite from the depths of a harsh winter, to join my colleagues at IDEO. This was a momentous meeting – after many months of working intensely together on OpenIDEO from our respective locations in London, California and New Zealand, it was the first time our team of five got to be together face-to-face. A few of us even managed a board meeting of sorts – surfing the fine waves of Santa Cruz where we shacked up for a few days to brainstorm ideas on future directions for OpenIDEO.

Then it was back to IDEO HQ in Palo Alto. There’s so much that could be said about this hotbed of creative intelligence – not in the least highlighting the inspiring places to take a break while at work. A glaring feature of life at IDEO is a zeal for trying things out – within a culture which views failure as an opportunity to learn. Alongside many client focused pursuits, folks also post to IDEO Labs where “we can show bits of what we’re working on, talk about prototyping, and share our excitement over the tools that help us create.”

This iterative, explorative and hands-on approach enables future imaginings such as the much hailed Future of the Book alongside more playful one-off prototypes like the amusingly brilliant Alex Cam. Essentially it’s an active, demonstrative approach which entails much more than just coming up with ideas – rather, it’s about rolling up one’s sleeves and actually trying things out. But if you’re already a keen follower of all-things-IDEO, you know that, right? So as I poked around corners and peered over work benches, I was searching for evidence of prototyping which would keep everyone more entertained. I found it while toying round on the upper floors.

Many methods can be used to approximate human form and action in the course of designing – modelling, stand-ins and so forth. While on my wanderings I stumbled upon another popular avenue for approximation at IDEO – the Barbie. Childhood memories flooded back of how easy she was to contort and costume – which pose advantages when scoping out scenarios and personas for quick protoyping.

As with any workshop setting, laying your hands on the necessary parts and pieces assists assemblage – so I was pleased to see that orderly filing is a priority at IDEO.

 ”Experimentation is not a method – it’s a way of life, of trying things out in order to seek improvement that will be relevant. You’ll never know if it could have been better if you don’t try things out – and you broaden your perspective along the way, leading to a result that’s richer for the journey,” noted my new found IDEO-buddy who was tinkering away, mildly amused at my Barbie preoccupation. It’s obviously a significant part of his life – prior to joining IDEO he had worked in a circus for 6 years.

Back to the reason for my trip – OpenIDEO – and a more serious yet uplifting note. As I set off on my travels we received an *awesome* video from a group of Colombian students who took it upon themselves to prototype a concept which they had submitted to our Maternal Health and Mobile Technology challenge. Be sure to check out the low-down of their prototype journey and heart-warming achievements with a low-income community, further south in Argentina. There are some things a Barbie just can’t approximate.
Related posts:
OpenIDEO: Better Together
Global Challenge: Local Flavour
And if Barbie eccentricities are your thing, check out these one-off creations.


I recently hopped across the ditch to Queensland, Australia’s Sunshine State, for the Ideas Featival in Brisbane. We’ve been running a Local Food Challenge on OpenIDEO in conjunction with the festival and state government – featuring inspirations and innovative concepts from our spirited global community over the last couple of months. In Brisbane the OpenIDEO team were joined by policy-makers, food producers, farmers, retailers, researchers, educators, students, innovators and community connectors. Together, over two days of workshops, we explored behaviour change, customer journeys, environmental performance, health impact, community engagement, scalability and business models – alongside feasibility and implementation of the awesome shortlisted Local Food Challenge concepts.

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer, IDEO

It was a particularly momentous occasion for me as I met a couple of my OpenIDEO colleagues for the first time after 6 months of working together from across our globally dispersed locations. Our co-founder, Tom Hulme, presented to a full house, asking How Do You Engage Those of the Edge? – celebrating the power of participation. IDEO’s Chief Creative Officer, Paul Bennett, provoked the crowd with Global Problem Solving: Can Small x Many = Big – confronting traditional interpretations of design to reveal how design thinking could be employed to address future social, ecological and political challenges.

Attendees were enthusiastic about the cross-disciplinary nature of the workshop teams. While we’re used to working in this way – it was refreshing for others who found it perspective building and got excited at the dynamic networks which formed around specific concepts. Read more on the workshops from our festival buddy, Ben Morgan, over at And here’s an assortment of festival chit-chat:

Festival rock-star & entrepreneur, Robert Pekin, Food Connect: “Gee Whizz! Amazing to watch how local folk have applied their specialist knowledge to adapting these exciting concepts to the Australian context.”

Backyard transformer, Ben Grub, Permablitz: ”There’s been a really good cross-section of players. I don’t usually interact with government, media and farmers and it was great to thrash out ideas from an online platform in an energised offline environment.”

Ray Palmer, Queensland Farmer with Symara Farms: “It was affirming to note that there’s a growing movement of folks who want to know the story behind what’s on their plate – across various sectors and communities.”

Jakob Trischler, Shortlisted OpenIDEATOR: “Awesome to get lively insights on a hot topic from such a diverse group from different disciplines.”

Ewan McEoin, Local Food Challenge Australian Lead: “Energy Central. Folks were amped to be building off such a diverse range of concepts supporting local goodness.”

Anna Bligh, Queensland Premier: “The Local Food Challenge has just gone gangbusters. You can actually go to the world with an idea and look for answers.”

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer, IDEO: “Hundreds of great builds, amazing energy, long days with crazy jetlag but really, really worth it.Our first outreach OpenIDEO workshop was amazing and was powered by all your great input. Thank you all!”

Our local challenge collaborator will continue to pursue avenues to prototype a selection of concepts together with local government and those with relevant expertise, contacts and outreach capabilities on the ground. As always we’re keen to translate the stellar skills of our growing, global OpenIDEO community into real world action and change – to enhance resilience at a local level. We’ll be celebrating impact developments over on our newly launched Realisation Phases.

On the back of the intensity of the workshops we rounded off our energetic sessions with a spot of fun. We distributed stickers to participants and dispatched them across the gorgeously sprawling riverside area surrounding the State Library, to seek inspiration. The stickers prompted folks to Stick It & Show Us. They were encouraged to photograph their sighting and email it in to a website we’d quickly cobbled together – with a prize offered for the cleverest cookie on the day. Some have continued with submissions from further afield.

Check out more highlights over at (With a hat-tip to Candy Chang, whom I’ve featured on Random Specific before, for her ever-inventive public engagement initiatives which inspired us on this.)
Related posts:
OpenIDEO: Better Together
Mathare’s Micro-farms and Market Gardens


Typocentric: Bazaar

March 12, 2011

Last month I had a blast hosting the Typocentric: Bazaar workshop at Delhi’s UnBox Festival. We had global players join local folk to construct typographic forms from objects commonly found in Indian markets – buttons, bindis, decorative mirrors, candles, textile embellishments, match-boxes and more. I had initially proposed the workshop to run over three days which somehow got condensed to three hours – but much fun emerged on this insane time frame. Having graphic designers joined by those with backgrounds in anthropology, education and finance led to a random-specific blend of capacities which kept everyone typo-ventilating throughout.

I got a particular kick out of working alongside my gifted former student and pixel-pro, Abishek Ghate, who experimented with constructing typographic forms out of various elements to devise the intense workshop format.

We started out by having small groups create Hindi words in Devanagari script out of bindis. For those of you who are in the dark, bindis are the red or coloured forehead markings worn by many South Asian women – often but not always signifying marriage.

Bram Pitoyo, Digital Strategist at Weiden + Kennedy, collaborated with others to form Usha (उषा) meaning the first ray of light from the rising sun.

Another group took a different path to create the same word. And that’s the arm of Kriti Monga from Tumeric Design – a typographic doyenne – who wears it on her sleeve. Some of you may recall her superb visual journal from Design Yatra which featured in Creative Review.

Workings + resolutions for Sakhi (सखी) – an endearing term for a girl, a friend, a confidante.

Babe (बेब) – phonetically from English and peppered through Hindi conversations when hotties are on the radar.

We then switched to a smorgasbord of elements from local bazaars. The pressure mounted and creativity escalated as teams raced against the clock to follow typographic guidelines while exploring the limits and opportunities that their designated objects presented.

Decorative mirrors, often used for textile ornamentation, were used artfully form the word Chhavi (छवि) which means reflection or image.

A team working with matchboxes experimented with multiple approaches to celebrate the name of our hosts: The UnBox Festival.

Impressive collaboration from those who worked with coloured buttons to create the name of our host city: Dilli/Delhi (दिल्ली)

Decorative flourishes from a group working with gotas – pleated fabric embellishments used to adorn sarees and other traditional clothing.

And pyromania ensued to give justice to the word Lau (लौ) or flame, built with candles.

Ghate and I were joined in energising participants by Codesign founder and UnBox spearhead, Rajesh Dahiya – who was a former colleague of mine at India’s National Institute of Design, where he continues to teach typography as adjunct faculty. My Design Observer co-contributor and by now close conference-buddy, John Thackara, had to put up with our fervored racket from his more earnest workshop which took place a just few paces away – luckily I made up for it the next day by swinging us a table at the ever popular dining spot Gunpowder. With it’s scenic view, this was a great vantage point to reflect on the UnBox Festival – where I had also presented as Community Manager on OpenIDEO. It had indeed lived up to it’s promise to encompass work and play across contexts and mediums plus “rethink and stretch design practice through imagination, provocation and stimulation for those interested in social and cultural change.” While many of the conference sessions were focused on more worthy pursuits, we’d like to think that Typocentric: Bazaar ignited a hankering for the handmade, a love of the local, a craving for collaboration – all within the alluring hype of type.
Related posts:
Typocentric Bazaar on Flickr
Overlap: Intersection of Desi & Diasporic
Viva Vernacular


Youth in the slums of Nairobi. Future readers of literature delivered by mobile phone?

Yoza publishes short, hip novels and classic literature on mobile phones for African youth. Designed to encourage reading, writing and responding, Yoza engages African youth with stories and social issues. The project, which was spearheaded by Steve Vosloo – a technology researcher in Cape Town – and financed by South Africa’s Shuttleworth Foundation, is dedicated to a participatory culture hungry for micro-doses of literature that are accessible as pixels not paper.

Officially launched last September, Yoza is based on Vosloo’s observations that African youth are book-poor yet mobile-rich. An estimated 90 percent of urban South African youth have access to cell phones and 70 percent of those phones are web-enabled. In stark contrast, more than half of South African households own no leisure books and only 7 percent of public schools have functional libraries.

Illustrations from Yoza’s premiere edition: Kontax

Yoza’s first story, Kontax, followed the adventures of a local graffiti crew around Cape Town. Its 20 pages were initially published over a month of daily dispatches via a mobisite and later on the popular MXit social network. Each episode, released in both English and isiXhosha, was around 400 words long. Prizes were offered for the best comments and sequel ideas from Kontax readers.

Via Yoza, 17,000 users accessed the full premiere Kontax series for free — well eclipsing the South African “best-seller” standard of 5,000 book sales. Each chapter costs the reader around 1 US cent to download. Explains Vosloo, “Mobile data is cheap relative to voice and SMS — and of course, books. It’s also about access.” According to Vosloo, readership exploded when Yoza was made available to MXit’s 15 million local subscribers — a share currently far greater than Facebook’s.

Yoza content on MXit social network and on a mobisite (Image courtesy of Yoza)

The comments feature allows Vosloo to stay in touch with what readers want. “It’s become clear that youth are keen to be both educated and entertained,” he notes. “We get many requests for stories which are relevant to their lives. We’ve had requests for story lines which cover drugs and teen pregnancy, careers, money and more.” Feedback has helped to shape onwards content which includes Streetskillz, set during the football World Cup, Sisterz which explores dark family secrets and teenage life plus Confessions of a Virgin Loser which follows a boy steering his way through a complicated world of peer pressure, teenage sex and HIV/AIDS. Social issues provide a further avenue for interaction. A story which touched on domestic violence elicited a slew of comments in support of the affected character and posts of personal accounts which empathised with her situation.

South African students read and respond to Yoza content. (Image courtesy of Yoza)

Alongside popular culture content, Yoza has also been adding episodic versions of classics from Shakespeare to Wordsworth and other curriculum related texts. Feedback from teachers in low-income schools tells of class assignments given in conjunction with Yoza content and applauds the access to classic literature which the platform has provided. While some may criticise the informal use of language by readers – comments across the site also highlight an engaged audience ready to amend mistakes which have eluded Yoza’s editors. Although youthful readers may comment in text-speak, they eagerly respond with corrections on errors which creep into stories.

Looking to the future, Vosloo has been speaking with various potential sponsors who understand the bridge he has created between reading, response and social issues. One such discussion has been with a bank around the notion of a series featuring elements of financial literacy within its storyline. An aspect which is attractive to sponsors is the appetite created through releasing stories in installments but also that the entire series is then available on the Yoza site and continues to attract commentary. “It’s a bit like the transition from a box-office to DVD release,” adds Vosloo. “There’s the initial rush to devour a fresh feature yet the legacy contributes to a growing library of accessible content.”

An edited version of this article appears in my Change Observer Report on Design Observer.

Related posts:
Mathare’s Micro-farms and Market Gardens
Amplifying African Ingenuity

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Earlier this month I wrote about getting involved in the DREAM:IN initiative which is collecting India’s aspirations as a canvas for creative thinking. It intends to form a dynamic database of dreams gathered in cities, towns and villages across the country. These will be categorised, analysed and shared with business leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs, policymakers and designers to devise transformative and inclusive future scenarios. 101 student dreamcatchers were dispatched across India after training at the Bangalore headquarters. They were divided into 11 teams: Sindhoori (red), Hariyali (green), Asmani (blue), Chandni (silver), Sunheri (gold), Gulal (pink), Firozi (turquoise), Anguri (purple), Santili (orange), Kesar (saffron) and Sweth (white) who set out on colourful journeys by road and rail – capturing on video the dreams of a nation in transition.

The teams were provided with various tools to help them consider the search ahead, created by the good folk at Idiom Design. Encouragement was given to seek a range of respondents from migrants to merchants, learners to leaders, athletes to advertisers, drivers to domestic helpers. Within the teams, students were allocated with tasks of spotting, framing and writing to locate, film and record Indians reflecting on their dreams. Mitul Bhat (a usability specialist on Nokia’s MeeGo platform) and I had the task of briefing the Spotters on basic ethnographic techniques and some of the challenges of working in the field.

The journey itineraries were carefully planned to cover an expanse of rural and urban locations, covering 25, 000kms in just over a week. Army protection was sought for dreamcatchers travelling in less stable areas of the country. Accommodation was frequently in local guesthouses but also included places like a Jain ashram and sleep was often snatched on overnight train trips.

Images from the DREAM:IN blog

Alongside the footage of dreams pouring back into Bangalore, also came stories, photographs and sketches of life on the road. I was particularly excited to run into Team Gulal while they visited Ahmedabad during the Uttarayan Kite Festival. Just as they were enjoying a well deserved lunch break, I chanced upon them and dragged one team member off to the Old City to shoot photographs of her with festive kites. They spoke of capturing some great dreams during their trip – including those of a former silver smuggler who changed his ways and became a security guard. His dream: to protect and serve.

The editing team back in Bangalore now have the Herculean task of refining footage and categorising it ahead of the DREAM:IN Conclave next month. This will be supplemented by scenario building tools to assist professionals to translate the dream database into insights which can inform their future strategies. There’s much diversity which has been captured during the Dream Journey. Here’s a few of my favourites so far:




Related posts:
Where are We Dreaming? (Flickr)
DREAM:IN – Hunt to Harvest, I


This week I find myself in Bangalore lending a hand in the flurry of activity leading up to the DREAM:IN Journey. Challenging the notion that future thinking should be informed by people’s needs – the DREAM:IN initiative seeks to explore what Indians are dreaming about. It intends to create a dynamic database of dreams gathered in cities, towns and villages across the country. These will be categorised, analysed and shared with business leaders, educators, social entrepreneurs, policymakers and designers to devise transformative and inclusive future scenarios. DREAM:IN intends to collide the dreams of a diverse India with the thoughts and actions of leaders across a range of sectors.

101 student dreamcatchers have been selected from over 20 Indian institutes of management, design, communication and film. Next week they will be dispatched in groups across 11 itineraries which traverse rural and urban India. Along the way they will be questioning locals about their dreams and aspirations – for family, work, recreation, products and services – and capturing these on video. They are expecting to collect thousands of dreams from across the country. Before heading off they will receive training from a team with various backgrounds including ethnography (I’m pitching in there), education, advertising and cinematography from across India plus Brazil, Italy and the US. This group features professionals from Nokia, Ogilvy & Mather and Parsons the New School for Design. The findings will be returned to the DREAM:IN headquarters in Bangalore to be collated and categorised.

In February the DREAM:IN Conclave is a summit which will bring together a selection of students, educators, policymakers, social entrepreneurs and professionals from sectors such as finance, IT, retail, telecommunications and energy. Participants include powerhouse retail entrepreneur, Kishore Biyani and Fast Company’s Bruce Nussbaum. Findings from the Dream Journey will be shared through a series of workshops. These will be used to inform future scenarios via a rigorous design-thinking methodology – with the view to devising concrete projects to effect fresh thinking around delivering products and services at scale.

From February onwards an open portal will be launched which allows users to upload and categorise dreams by sector – adding to those collected on the Dream Journey. These will be supplemented by scenario building tools to assist professionals to translate the dream database into insights which can inform their future strategies. Drawing on the larger canvas of dreams over needs is expected to fuel enhanced creative thinking. 

So with dreamcatchers arriving tomorrow we’re hard at work finalising itineraries, naming teams, refining methodologies and editing presentations. Ironically – there’s little time for sleep – let alone to dream.
Related posts:
One Billion and Counting
DREAM:IN – Hunt to Harvest, II


Excreta, Et Cetera II

December 19, 2010

Earlier this year I wrote about research exploring sanitation in low-income urban India that I had been involved in as an external consultant. Playfully dubbed The Potty Project, the study by Quicksand has pursued a user-centered examination of behaviours, experiences and attitudes to existing modes of sanitation in a variety of selected slums across India. Lately they’ve been posting their key takeaways from the investigation which have provided some of the comprehensive insights featured below.

Pointing to the different norms around cleanliness inside and outside the home. Noting that provision of clear identity around who owns sanitation facilities is likely to drive more responsible use. Read more.

Highlighting the failure of toilet facilities to account for issues like menstrual waste and adolescent sensitivities. Read more.

Calling attention to the factions which may exist within a community that need to be considered in inclusive mobilising of residents around improvements. Read more.

Discussing how breaking up various tasks around sanitation allows for social interaction which diminishes the sense of delay. Read more.

Noting that users of shared facilities passively co-create behaviours which are established together over time. Read more.

Cross-pollination of The Potty Project insights on OpenIDEO

An aspect of the project which I particularly applaud has been the open sharing of research findings as they unfolded. Co-researcher and social media manager Kassia Karr, who joined Quicksand from Boston, notes that blog posts and tweets extended the reach of observations and created new connections for the team. Senior colleague, Ayush Chauhan, adds that “these channels have been a great way to communicate, in real time, with an extremely diverse community – client, peers and related practitioners – spread across the globe. It’s also been affirming that the findings have found their way into other forums not related directly with the project but in the larger domain of sanitation discussion and have provided inspiration in those contexts.”

A further aspect I commend on the project has been the approach of working visually.

“The interpretive nature of language is often a handicap when the real information lies in the texture of observations and the nuances of behavior – both hard to capture in the written word. Good research must have the power to inspire as much as it has the mandate to inform and that’s where capturing experiences of people through visual narratives – film, photography, illustrated scenarios – opens doors for people to interpret information and bring to bear their own experience and understanding of the context.

There are three areas where visual storytelling brings value to our projects:

+ With clients who are often removed from the context, understanding user issues through the immediacy of films & photography is both informative and unambiguous. Also allowing for wider participation in the process of translating research insights into action.
+ With users especially from an unlettered or a vernacular context, visuals help researchers focus the interactions on issues that may otherwise be hard to articulate
+ As design researchers, telling a story through illustrations and scenarios is more effective in communicating key ideas and abstract concepts that don’t have a precedent.

– Ayush Chauhan, Project Lead and Quicksand Co-founder

Quicksand are committed to extending the reach of design-based approaches and with their close partners Co-Design are presenting the UnBox Festival in New Delhi, February 2011. The main event is across three days of ideas, stories, spectacles and exchange to build momentum around design thinking and inter-disciplinary collaborations. The festival will bring together designers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, activists, educators, artists and others interested in social and cultural change. UnBox intends to work and play across contexts and mediums – workshops, debates, brainstorms, picnics, literary readings and travel. “Together, we’ll rethink and stretch design practice through imagination, provocation and stimulation.” I’m certainly looking forward to joining them there.

Related posts:
Excreta, Et Cetera I
Sanitation, Simplicity & Storytelling


Earlier this month on a fleeting visit to Kenya for Nokia’s Open Innovation Africa Summit I met an array of innovative folk like venture catalyst Emeka Okafor, Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman and mobile novelist Steve Vosloo. But the most interesting person I met during the trip happened to be after the summit was over, when I went on an early morning foray in search of entrepreneurial activity in the slums of Nairobi. I came across Festus Ambche, 38, tending a flourishing half acre plot of edible produce at Mathare.

Festus arrived in Mathare from a family of farmers and saw the opportunity to put his agricultural knowledge to use. He rents his plot from the local council and sells his large variety of produce in the neighbouring slum – direct to residents and also at the local market. He’s also been experimenting with sack gardening and, noting it’s relevance for the cramped conditions of Mathare, has been sharing his learnings with others.

Sack gardening became increasingly popular during the post-election violence in 2007/08 when food prices rose by up to 50% and access from volatile sites like Mathare to regular food sources became a challenge. A number of non-profit groups, school and self-help organisations began to promote the efficient, low-maintenance and low-cost sack gardens as a way of enhancing food security. Spinach, kale, chard, peppers, spring onions and tomatoes could be grown with relative ease for household use. Some families began selling their surplus harvest to neighbours while others grouped together to create micro-enterprises around their collective crops, including nurseries to supply the growing flock of Nairobi’s sack gardeners with seedlings.

What started as a way of improving food security has blossomed into a number of entrepreneurial ventures, driving an increased demand for fresh, local produce. Folks I met seemed proud of the independence that their doorstep gardens could provide. Many residents are rural migrants with roots in farming and are rekindling agricultural knowledge they had left behind, via their sack based micro-farms. Meanwhile, for Festus, business is booming – with the community showing more interest in what can be grown closer to home and from trusted sources.
Related posts:
Women Together: Incentivising Savings
Mobile Enterprise

Kibera’s Garden in a Sack: Urban Agriculture Magazine (500KB, PDF)

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Earlier this year a group of artists associated with Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art launched an experimental project to spark street-level conversations about countries in conflict with the United States. From Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighbourhood, the Conflict Kitchen is a take-out venue which engages its customers through culinary and cultural diversity. Over the course of a year it will feature four countries at odds with the US, each over four months. Last month Conflict Kitchen transitioned from its first iteration as an Iranian restaurant to its next version as an Afghani one – with a new name, a fresh menu, an updated facade and the promise of ever-evolving conversations.

“Food is such an essential part of culture that we saw it as a great way to engage the public in human-centered discussion,” notes one of the project’s founders Dawn Weleski. “In contrast to the polarising effect of broadcast media we’ve sought to create a platform which can support a more subtle exchange of culture and politics. With food as a mediator it becomes easier for customers to consider the everyday life of people – they become responsive in a different way and consider more nuanced perspectives. They start to consider the people and culture behind conflicts at a government or military level.”

The new Afghani version of Conflict Kitchen is called Bolani Pazi and offers the popular street food bolani. The stuffed flatbread comes with a choice of four fillings – pumpkin, potato and leek, spinach or lentil – topped off with a dollop of natural yoghurt. The bolani are bundled in a printed wrapper which features the viewpoints of various Afghanis on topics ranging from popular culture to politics. “This forms a starting point to conversations and we deliberately include contrasting and diverse opinions to highlight the complexity of culture,” points out Weleski. The resulting discussions at Conflict Kitchen are not always political but tend to support various kinds of cultural insight. “It get’s at the heart of daily life,” tells project partner Jon Rubin. “ I’ve watched a Japanese Buddhist and a Muslim start to chat from the takeout window. They ended up in a rich exchange of experiences and perspectives on food, spirituality, rituals and symbolism.”

Rubin’s interventionist artworks explore the social dynamics of public place. In the case of Conflict Kitchen he sought to create space for civil dialogue around both differences and similarities. “Difference doesn’t require us to be damning. We’re keen to encourage dialogue which doesn’t blame or accuse and may be driven by curiosity rather than media prescribed positions.” He goes on to observe that both food and music are significant ways in which we understand culture and tells of an upcoming idea to create an online musical archive for sharing between US and Afghani Conflict Kitchen supporters. There are also plans for a live video feed between the takeout window in Pittsburgh and a hotel lobby in Kabul. The peer-to-peer concept features across the initiative, including the partial funding of Bolani Pazi via the Kickstarer platform.

The venue is staffed by twelve people through week day lunchtime sessions and late nights on Friday and Saturdays. Weleski is responsible for training the workforce from food preparation to hosting conversations. Factual information is shared alongside tips on triggering conversations amongst customers. Handling of contentious topics and tricky questions are covered through role play. “It’s not just about inviting people to talk to us but also encouraging interaction between customers. Personal reflection can generate a range of connections. I remember one woman who had a Pennsylvanian Dutch mother and a Persian father and spoke of the cultural tension this could create,” recalls Weleski. “A migrant joined in the conversation and could empathize with that tension from a different perspective. Once these kinds of discussions start happening people begin to expand their personal insights into social ones and appreciate similarity and difference in a new way.”

During the first iteration of the venue Iranian fare was served up as the Kubideh Kitchen. A minced kebab topped with onion, mint, sumac and basil was wrapped in baked barbari bread to form the Persian kubideh. In collaboration with the local Iranian community and contacts in Iran, events were devised to support the project’s focus on social interaction. A Skype meal was held between Pittsburgh and Tehran. Over an identical Persian feast of chicken with pomergranate and walnuts plus beef with greens and dried lime, forty people on both sides spoke about subjects from employment and education to dating and rock concerts. Earlier this month Conflict Kitchen hosted a Persian festival which included a documentary film screening, a varied menu, live traditional music, a cooking show and late night Persian beats.

Transitioning into the Afghani phase brings with it a fresh set of challenges. “Local Afghani’s in Pittsburgh are few and far between,” admits Rubin. “The UN in Afghanistan have been helping us track down communities in  the US who we may be able to collaborate with and our networks are starting to present opportunities. Orgnanisations like Beyond the 11th, which was started by two American women widowed by 9/11 to empower Afghani widows, have been in touch to explore collaboration.” He goes on to note that the change in seasons will present a challenge to the nature of social exchange at the takeout window which has become a popular hang out spot during warmer months. However the evolving nature of the initiative means that new ideas are constantly on the back burner – with people frequently giving their own thoughts on new directions for the venture.

The following two iterations of Conflict Kitchen are pitched to include North Korea and Venezuela but an off-shoot concept around food exchange and countries involved in border conflict is also under consideration. This might feature feuding states like India and Pakistan and may manifest itself as a food truck or an attachment to an existing restaurant. “We even get emails from online followers who have created their own take on the project,” informs Rubin. “A woman from Arizona contacted us early on to let us know of her family’s intentions to hold Conflict Dinners on Monday nights – with the featured country to be selected by their eight year old child.”

Weleski admits that their initial hunch that food could deepen conversations has taken them farther than they had initially imagined. Return customers tell her about their onward discussions that have stemmed from their visit to Conflict Kitchen. It is this open-endedness that has drawn her to the role of a public practise artist. Bolani Pazi continues the mission to appease appetites and stimulate dialogue. As one customer observes – “it’s a delicious way to learn about becoming more human.”

Related posts:
Fruitful Pursuits
Still Life, Smooth Moves

An edited version of this Conflict Kitchen article appears in my Change Observer Project Report on Design Observer.


OpenIDEO: Better Together

November 22, 2010

“That OpenIDEO thing is great isn’t it?” My mother, approaching 80, discovered Google Buzz a few months back and has been following me on Twitter from there. Via one of my tweets, she had a look around OpenIDEO and was fascinated by the scope of inspiration and global collaboration. As a doctor she has always been somewhat in the dark about what I do for a living but from following my Twitter links she’s started to get the idea. “It’s about design and people and making the world a better place, right?” she offered as a perspective on my professional pursuits.

So it was helpful when I announced recently that I had a contract with IDEO as a Community Manager on OpenIDEO, that she already knew what it was. OpenIDEO is a place where people design better together for social good. It’s an online platform for creative thinkers: the seasoned designer and the new guy who just signed on, the art student and the MBA, the active participant and the curious lurker. This diversity makes up the creative guts of OpenIDEO. And the best part is it’s constantly in beta – so the platform continues to evolve over time.

After a challenge is posted on OpenIDEO, the three development phases – inspiration, concepting, and evaluation – are put into action. All resulting concepts generated are shareable, remix-able, and reusable in a similar way to Creative Commons. Participation is incentivised through the Design Quotient (DQ) which measures users contributions. Collaborative behaviour is encouraged through features like the Build Upon function. Challenge topics have ranged from ways in which affordable education can be delivered in the developing world to how kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food can be raised. Even the randomised OpenIDEO logo was designed through the challenge process.

Just now we’ve got two challenges open. The Sanitation Challenge is in conjunction with IDEO fieldwork in Ghana – and asks how human waste management and sanitation can be improved in low-income communities. The Innovation Challenge seeks to set an agenda for the upcoming i20 Summit of global innovation leaders. Come over and join us – because creativity loves company.

Selection of my OpenIDEO contributions:
Story Telling on Wheels (Winning Concept)
Innovating *With, Not For* Communities (Winning Agenda Concept)
Growing Knowledge (Concept)
Posters Made of Soap (Inspiration)
Making Policy Public (Inspiration)

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