Design Challenge at the United Nations

Design Challenge at the United Nations
Ivan Cestero

Can international teams of teenagers design products or services that fulfill global sustainable development goals?

That was the challenge on January 13, when 24 Avenues Upper School* students travelled to United Nations Plaza to participate in a half-day design challenge with 25 visiting Korean high school students. The goals of the project were to work in an international setting, engage a challenging and relevant topic, develop design skills, and—in the case of Avenues students—grapple further with these issues back at school.

The unifying theme, which both contingents studied in their home schools, was the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as the UN’s global development targets. Sustainable development, a prototypical World Course topic, is a complex interdisciplinary blend of economics, history, environment, geopolitics, sociology and philosophy. In order for the students to design specific and implementable solutions, we narrowed the scope of the challenge to SDG #7—to “empower inclusive, productive and resilient cities”—and further focused on disaster relief for the next Hurricane Sandy-type catastrophe, a likely scenario in a climate-changed future.

The Design Challenge is a powerful and increasingly popular approach to project-based learning in which participants are charged with solving a problem and guided through a multi-stage design protocol in order to do so. It is an excellent vehicle to deliver the type of 21st century blended learning championed by a growing body of education leaders, including Tony Wagner, who visited with students, teachers, and parents in November.

At Avenues we have used this model in various guises to teach design thinking, make objects in iLab or science class, craft business plans and examine social innovation. Currently, ninth graders in a course called “Introduction to Process” are learning a similar approach—ideation, iteration, and implementation—to apply to their art and World Course projects.

In a Design Challenge, students follow a multi-stage design protocol in order to solve a problem.
In a Design Challenge, students follow a multi-stage design protocol in order to solve a problem.

Avenues participants for this trip included students from two World Course electives, “Food, Water, Disease,” taught by Stephanie Shore, and “Global Social Innovation,” which I taught. Members of two clubs—the Model UN Club and the Design Challenge Club—also attended, along with Tim Hudson, assistant director admissions. Along with our Korean counterparts, we spent half a day at the UN, starting with framing the challenge: highlighting the desirability of making cities social inclusive, economically productive and environmentally sustainable, as well as resilient to climate change and other risks. The UN notes, “Success will require new forms of participatory, accountable and effective city governance to support rapid and equitable urban transformation.” We discussed the case study of Hurricane Sandy, watched a brief video assessing the damage and challenged the students to develop solutions for dealing with “the next Sandy.” We then ran the group through the five-stage design protocol we would use (see below graphic).

Design Challenge at the United Nations - Diagram
 

Then the students began with 15 minutes to discuss the aftermath of Sandy and do research online. In order to develop a cohesive solution, they would have to empathize with those affected and truly understand the user—in this case victim—experience. Had we had more time, we would have sent kids out to the street to interview people directly; but for now, this research would suffice to develop a “How might we?” question, which directly framed the problem for the team in their own words. Some teams ended up focusing on safety, others food delivery, still others infrastructure. This was a challenging phase for the students, but while it is hard to narrow one’s focus, it also liberates the team to dive deep.

With their “How might we” questions in place, we began the ideation phase. This featured lots of colored post-its; personal and collaborative brainstorming; and a sorting and voting process that allowed a winning idea to emerge fairly. There was lots of talking and buzz in our conference room and, once again, the kids did not want to obey the time limits. But they had no choice!

The rapid prototyping phase took up by far the most time and was also the most fun. It is here where the students got their hands dirty and wire-framed, role played and built models with popsicle sticks and construction paper. The challenge here is to quickly build a “dirty” version of your product and then get it into a user’s hands for feedback. Teams prototyped for ten minutes, sought and provided feedback with another team, then iterated on their prototype. While this phase can normally extend to five or 50 versions—however long a team has or is willing to go to improve its product—we only had time for two iterations. This was still enough time to see some great exercises in creativity, communication and collaboration. We saw some fairly polished prototypes emerge, including a solar-powered traffic light.

Students work on a prototype for a solar-powered traffic light.
Students work on a prototype for a solar-powered traffic light.

Finally, over a working lunch, we entered the final “sharing” phase of the process and students prepared for their final pitch presentations. The restraints were simple: four minutes; an equal proportion of Avenues and non-Avenues presenters; and a balance of detail, statistics and creativity. Students frantically rehearsed while facilitators observed and advised. In the end, four teams made presentations.

A student gives a final presentation.
A student gives a final presentation.

It was gratifying to see teams overcome clear language and cultural challenges to match complex problems with sophisticated solutions. In addition to the solar traffic light, we saw a hydroelectric floodwater manager; a mobile disaster relief/recovery education platform powered by radio communication; and an emergency storage and delivery service with nodes throughout greater NYC and a dedicated volunteer staff.

Students were able to overcome language and cultural barriers to create sophisticated solutions.
Students were able to overcome language and cultural barriers to create sophisticated solutions.

Inevitably, all these “dirty prototypes” were in themselves problematic. Some seemed to ignore budget constraints; others were technologically unfeasible; still others weren’t fully baked ideas. And that’s fine. The goal of exercises like these, especially with such a limited timeframe, is to exercise soft and hard skills simultaneously; to both lead and follow; to build and learn from mistakes; and to develop creative confidence and faith in the process. Ideally, the students will employ these design skills in mixed contexts until eventually they come to see themselves as designers. We look forward to seeing what they create.

SDG 7: Empower inclusive, productive and resilient cities. The goal is to make all cities socially inclusive, economically productive, environmentally sustainable and secure and resilient to climate change and other risks. Success in SDG 7 will require new forms of participatory, accountable and effective city governance to support rapid and equitable urban transformation.

*Please note that beginning in the 2016–17 school year, Avenues moved from a four-division school structure with an Early Learning Center (N–Pre-K), Lower School, (K–4), Middle School (5–8) and Upper School (9–12) to a three-division structure with an Early Learning Center (N–K), Lower Division (1–5) and Upper Division (6–12). The Upper Division is further divided into two programs—the middle grades program (6–8) and the upper grades program (9–12).

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