Student-Led Space Combines Tech and Design Thinking for Social Good

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Student-Designed, Student-Run

By Bridgette Austin

The Greenhouse at NYU’s MetroTech Center is an innovation space that, “aims to nurture seedlings of ideas and bring ideas to life through iteration and experimentation.” It has become a haven for students looking for co-working spaces that allow them to interact, collaborate, and exchange ideas across NYU’s numerous disciplines, schools, and departments. What makes the Greenhouse unique, however, is its original intent: to be designed by students, for students. “Our story started when two students and I decided to create a student club that was inspired by their participation on OpenIDEO, an open innovation platform used to foster and promote social innovation,” says Design Tinkering Club Advisor and NYU Associate Professor of Management Anne-Laure Fayard.

OpenIDEO encourages design thinking by harnessing ideas, research, and feedback to tackle social issues via challenges. Relying on the “wisdom of the crowd,” winning ideas are selected based on a mix of expert and community input. The first OpenIDEO student chapter at NYU was launched in September 2011, but was later renamed the “Design Tinkering Club” under the guidance of Professor Fayard.

Inspired by OpenIDEO’s “My Vibrant City” challenge and open innovation process, Design Tinkering created their own challenge, My Vibrant Campus, which invited students, faculty, and staff to collect and submit observations about the spaces where they worked and found inspiration for projects. “My Vibrant Campus was meant to get students to collaboratively design spaces and services in and around the campus with the goal of increasing collaboration, entrepreneurship, and innovation through informal interaction, co-working spaces, and events like hackathons,” states Greenhouse co-founder and School of Engineering PhD student Ashwin Gopi.

The result was the launch of the Greenhouse in January 2013, which has since hosted countless interactive workshops; expert presentations and skill shares; runs a very well-attended prototyping month; and is also collaborating with the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute on helping students prototype their ideas with the NYU Prototyping Fund. In November 2014, the Greenhouse and Design Tinkering members came together to organize Hack Ebola @NYU. The hackathon brought together students, hackers, designers and other NYU community members to brainstorm new solutions for containing the disease’s spread.

Reflecting on some of the takeaways from the hackathon, Professor Fayard says, “At Hack Ebola, we worked really hard to develop specific problem statements and involve subject matter experts. We were very lucky to have a chance to connect with There is No limit Foundation, to not only help create the problem statement, but also to provide contextual knowledge to hackathon participants–both at the beginning and throughout the entire event.”

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Turning Winning Ideas Into Social Change

One of the mains goals of Design Tinkering is to employ human-centered design and design thinking to create innovative solutions devoted to real social issues. It was precisely this mission that led to the creation of the Greenhouse and subsequently, to NYU students’ participation in several OpenIDEO challenges and submission of winning ideas for OpenIDEO’s E-waste Challenge and Women Safety Challenge.

“There is an increasing interest from students for social innovation, which is great since there are so many social issues to be solved. And while not always related, design thinking or a human-centered approach is a natural approach for developing solutions that focus on social challenges,” states Professor Fayard.

Bolstered by funding from an Amplify grant sponsored by UK development agency the Department for International Development,  Design Tinkering members are currently collaborating with the Nepal-based NGO, Women for Human Rights (WHR), to implement their winning OpenIDEO idea, the Community Concierge Program. “From the research phase, we learned that safety issues were often deeply intertwined with women’s empowerment,” says Gopi. “We also found that empowering women can come through information, connections, and a sense of community and financial independence. Working with WHR, it became clear that safety and empowerment particularly affected newcomers in a community.”

Realizing that women in low-income areas often lack basic information, which impacts everything from safety to access to transportation and housing, Design Tinkering proposed the idea of creating the Community Concierge Program, which included an associated toolkit to recruit and train concierges or “bindis.” These concierges, who are women from the community, would provide newcomers with valuable information on how to access jobs, business services, and safe transportation routes.

“Female newcomers in low-income urban areas often feel unsafe because they are isolated. Therefore, these individuals are more often at risk because they don’t understand their new environment and lack a support network,” remarks Gopi. “Bindis will be key in developing a sense of community and act as that support network. They can empower these women by helping them connect with women in outside communities.”

You can read more about Design Tinkering’s Community Concierge Program, which was selected as a funded idea under IDEO.org’s Amplify program.

The OpenIDEO website (http://openideo.com/)

How to Get Involved

The Greenhouse represents the first NYU space of its kind to bring together people with ideas, to exchange skills, to share ideas, and to get hands-on experience developing prototypes and other creative and tech-related projects. Other NYU students clubs, such as Bridge at NYU Wagner, have also employed design thinking and social entrepreneurship to introduce solutions to social problems in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

“The idea behind design thinking corresponds to the way designers think about problems and solve them, but more deeply; that is, moving towards thinking productively rather than reproductively. To reframing and redefining the problem, instead of focusing on finding the solution to the problem as it was originally defined,” says Professor Fayard. “Such an approach is key to critical thinking, creativity, and innovation, and becomes particularly crucial in today’s world where problems are global and increasingly complex.”

The Greenhouse is a workspace that is open to all students throughout NYU’s 15 schools, colleges, and institutes. Currently, Design Tinkering members are in the process of starting the first NYU chapter of Design for America, an organization that is based on the vision of developing social solutions through a network of interdisciplinary student teams and community members. If you’re a student or faculty member from one of NYU’s schools and interested in design thinking or collaborating with the Greenhouse and Design Tinkering Club, contact club members or visit the Greenhouse blog for more information.