Bodies and Buildings NYU ITP Syllabus for 2014

Bodies and Buildings
Fall 2014 Syllabus
Instructor: Jen van der Meer
jd1159 at nyu dot edu
Mondays 6:30 – 9:25 PM 721 Broadway at Waverly

Generative Spiral

Why is it so hard to care for our planet and ourselves? We seem hungover from a century of prosperity and ingenuity, unable to invent economic models that create jobs, improve health, and restore the earth. Eager ITP students are better equipped than MBAs to envision and hack our way out of this trap, but often lack an understanding of the mega forces of business, regulation, and bad cultural habits that keep us from saving ourselves. But don’t despair! We’ll get busy, and make things again – but also provide you with conceptual scaffolding upon which to build your world changing ideas.

Our tools of understanding include deep design thinking, and systems thinking. By focusing on two systems in particular: human bodies, and the buildings that humans make, we will examine the environmental and social impacts of the economic systems. Bodies are in trouble right now – despite reaching the peak of productivity the US now leads the world in the rampant growth of chronic diseases that lower life expectancy, and reduced life quality. Buildings are not in enough trouble – they account for the largest source of both electricity consumption (68% of global use) and greenhouse gas emissions (48% of global emissions) in the world.

In this course we will discover what Dana Meadows calls “leverage points” as places to intervene that would transform the system as a whole.


This is a lecture course, and the syllabus is built to provide students with a systems thinking approach to problem solving. The objective for the final presentations is for students to generate a concept that can be applied to improve human health, building health, or both. The goal is for students to articulate a solution, and argue persuasively for ideas to become reality (vs. moving straight to working prototype in usual ITP fashion). Assignments will involve in person class presentation, and class participation is required. The course is structured to provide iterative opportunities to build and strengthen ideas – rooted in user-centered design, grounded in the realities of sustainable cost models and growth plans, validated by lean and iterative solution development, and strengthened by students’ ability to stand up and tell their stories.


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NYC BigApps: For Profit or Non Profit?

A strange question started popping up in my classes at SVA PoD, NYU ITP, and in various apps and tech and data competitions:

Is my concept best suited to become a company? Or a non profit?

Strange, because when I graduated in the 90’s – this question might apply to one’s career path, but it was pretty clear that non profits were for those that wanted to do good, and for profits were for those that were ambitious, and wanted to make money.

Now there are multiple, myriad ways to form an entity, and “good” is not the provenance of the mission driven 501 (c) 3.

A better way to answer this question – follow the funding sources that accelerate scale.

I’ll be speaking Saturday, June 21, at the NYC BigApps Big Build

Lean Customer Discovery Needs Design Research

When you are in a startup, under the gun, trying to execute – how do you find time for empathy?

Lean launchpad simulates entrepreneurship by requiring founders to get out of the building…and into their customer’s world.

Teams succeed when they start talking to people, and find the magic in actually validating their hypotheses with customers, potential partners, and even fellow founders who may have tried to pursue the same dream. But it’s hard to get underneath.

What we heard:

“I think I only scratched the surface, and never really got to the core problems.”

“I don’t know if my customers really understand what they need enough to articulate it to me.”

“Customers said they would pay, but then they didn’t when it came time to pay.”

The truth is that when you are just TALKING – you fail to yield anything but the obvious facts, the surface level insights. For greater learning, Ajay Revels and I reviewed all of the design research literature. Not all of ethnography or design research is relevant for a startup founder – but there are critical skills and techniques that will radically accelerate your ability to understand the pain for which you are trying to solve.

In this slideshare, we highlight the core techniques we’ve curated from D-School, Steve Portigal’s great source, Interviewing Users, Universal Methods of Design, and Ajay herself from Polite Machines.

Have you used design research techniques have you used to get to the underlying needs of your customers?

8 Principals for Designing for Dignity in Health Tech

Thanks all for the great discussion, in real time at StrataRx and on the Twittersphere.

Is it enough to design for a great patient experience, improved health outcomes, and overall cost reductions in health care? While incentives may soon change, the idea of data-driven solutions to improve health care is not a new one. Yet why have technological solutions so frequently fail on all three of the triple aims? We need to be able to ask deeper questions, and experiment with more humanistic approaches.

Looking at specific interaction examples from incumbents and startups in health tech, I will contrast the current approaches for data-driven solution development, and how they fall short at the moment of interaction. Incumbents deploy top down approaches that comply with regulation, and meet the needs of payers and providers, but famously fail to deliver engaging patient and practitioner experiences. New entrants want to disrupt the entire system, but often struggle to understand deep unmet patient needs, and how to demonstrate evidence-based outcomes.

For each solution born onto the health tech scene, can we ask: Are patient’s lives enhanced by the addition of data? Do doctors become more wise? Do nurses feel more empowered? Do spouses know how to effectively intervene? Do adult children of aging parents get more time in their overly stretched days? And do these collective interactions actually result in improved population health?

This talk will outline an approach to design for a higher aim and enhance the lives of everyone who seeks care from the health care system.


Here are the slides:


NYU ITP: Bodies and Buildings Intro Class

Class Start and Intro to Systems Thinking, Bodies, and Buildings.

Class assignment for 2/4/2013


Read ALL OF Donella Meadows:

Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

Take leverage points 9, 8, 7.

Write a 1 page or 500-6000 word essay on the following topic:

How do mobile apps try to affect leverage points 9, 8, and 7.

9- The length of delays, relative to the rate of system change

8- The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to impacts they are trying to correct against

7- The gain around driving positive feedback loops

Give one example and explain how the app is or is not designed to affect each of these leverage points. How effective do you think this app will be at changing behavior?

You will be asked to present your work, so practice rehearsing your in class presentation at least two times.

WE Festival: Way Cooler Than Davos

This was how Majora Carter started her talk at the Sustainability Panel this past weekend at the Women’s Entrepreneurship Festival at NYU ITP. Way cooler, because rather than meet with the Davos crowd and pontificate about worldchanging ideas, we were talking about how visionary women were bringing their worldchanging ideas to fruition.The conference was organized by Nancy Hechinger, an ITP professor, Joanne Wilson, the famous GothamGal of NYC, and Diana Rhoten of Startl, an education technology incubator, with the explicit intention of convincing “pre-entrepreneurial” women to make the leap and make their start-up idea happen.

Brooklyn Grange Farm

Brooklyn Grange Farm

As was typical of former female students I’ve had at ITP, and many of the women at the conference, many are uncertain if a company is something they want to start. It’s not because their visions are small and sheepish, it is because they are enormous beyond measure. Mission-driven, with a desire to bring about the change they wish to see in the world, these women are not content to force their vision into the current for-profit and not-for-profit structures we have in place today.

Let’s face it VC funding is great, tech entrepreneurs create jobs, and high growth high scale industries are exciting to invest in, and help grow (I’m in one right now, and am having a blast). However, the mechanism of VC-funded startups are not designed for solving intractable social or environmental issues that many of these women entrepreneurs want to solve.

Let’s take the case of the 5 women on the panel I had the good fortune to moderate.

Let’s start with Majora. TED video darling and MacArthur genius. Hero of the South Bronx. A “recovering Executive Director” with a business plan to launch a national, urban agriculture brand. Majora has shaped and adapted her vision to not just confront environmental justice issues of poor air quality in the South Bronx, she is solving for the most intractable challenges in a city like NYC – employing the “most expensive citizens” in jobs that provide dignity and purpose. I’m looking forward to seeing how this idea of training “urban agriculture technicians”

Gwen Schantz is an urban farmer and co-founder of Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop soil-based farm in Long Island City (”Yes it’s in Queens and it’s called Brooklyn Grange. Get over it.”) Gwen shared the entire financing and operational story for how they got the farm up and running – startup costs of approximately $200k, almost half of which went to pay for the soil, funded through friends, family, Kickstarter, and loans, creating a break-even farm within a year. The farm is operated as a for-profit enterprise because the founders wanted to demonstrate that urban farming was a financially sustainable enterprise. To serve the needs of the local schools and tour groups that want to visit the farm, the founders decided to create a separate non-profit 501C3 organization to fund educational efforts and other community outreach efforts in a manner that did not take a toll on the successful, working farm.

Sarah Beatty, the founder of Green Depot, started her company after experiencing a mold scare following the renovation of her NYC apartment a week before her first child was due. After spending substantial time trying to find replacement products and materials that were less toxic, she started Green Depot with her husband, who had been running a more traditional building supply business. Sarah still spends a great deal of time on product filtering and selection, sorting through greenwashing claims and false certifications, and creating a way for contractors and end customers to make better decisions. While Green Depot is not interesting in creating their own certification, you can see the thought and consideration put into the products on display at the company’s flagship store on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. Built inside of a converted YMCA, it was the first LEED certified Platinum-rated remodel of a landmarks building. Green Depot is doing relatively well despite the huge decline in contraction and building projects in the last two years, and Sarah is interesting in expanding her business on the web to reach the community of green customers that have greater influence over smarter renovation decisions.

Britta Riley is an ITP grad who is applying her school-acquired knowledge of communities and online participation to start an indoor farming movement. Her venture,Windowfarms, was conceived as an art project while she was an artist-in-residence at Eyebeam. “Turn our cities’ windows into vertical vegetable farms” was the rallying cry that led to raising $28k on Kickstarter and launching a community website and initial Windowfarm kit. The product of Windowfarms is less important to Britta than something she calls R&D-IY – a community of people adapting Windowfarms for their own local environments, and sharing their maker tips. Britta is tapping into “personal scale innovation” and the motivation of people to start doing something to improve their quality of life by creating a fresh food supply. She has spent a great deal of time exploring whether or not to grow as a 501c3 or as a for profit structure, and has learned that a hybrid model is necessary to generate the right level of funding for the outcomes she seeks. Underlying the entire project is a passionate commitment to open source, shared intellectual property, and a transparent policy for how ideas are commercialized within this ecosystem. When asked whether she considered financially incentivizing members of the community, Britta cited the lessons taught at ITP by community expert Clay Shirky – there is a cultural magic that goes along with a volunteer spirit and a genuine desire to participate that is broken when financial incentive structures are built in. Keeping that magic may become Britta’s secret sauce to long term success of Windowfarms.

Finally, Valerie Casey walked us through her several year journey to lead a social and sustainable design movement. Full disclosure – I consider Valerie a close friend, and am on the board of the Designers Accord, a not-for-profit organization that Valerie started to enlist the interest and curiosity of designers around the world. I’m a fan. But so are other designers and sustainability-minded people Valerie has reached along the way. Valerie spoke about deliberately choosing not-for-profit status as a way to signal her intent. To encourage collaboration and sharing among traditionally competitive designers and firms, Valerie felt it was important to show that this organization had no profit motive, and also had an end date in mind – giving the organization 5 years to accomplish its goals and become part of the way designers and design educators behave, talk, and influence decision-making. Designers Accord started as a blog post and mission statement, and today counts over 300,000 adopters worldwide. Designers, educational institutions, design firms, and corporations who all agree to the guidelines which encourage a public and active dialogue about social and sustainability impacts, and an ongoing commitment to share learning and knowledge.

I’ve been wondering about the “difference” in female vs. male entrepreneurship and I do not think there is one, there is just a strong pattern – most of the women driven to start their own mission-driven organizations approach their work differently than an entrepreneur who is more focused on personal wealth creation. In the words of Diana Rhoten as she wrapped up the day, “these women are not angling to make the system work for them,” but breaking and building a system “so that it works for everyone.” Does this distinction answer the question of why only 3% of VC tech startup funding goes to women-founded companies? Perhaps.

There IS ample room for VC, foundation, angel, and socially conscious investor funding of humanistic, sustainability focused ideas. The institutions we’ve created to house these ideas should not get in the way, and these entrepreneurs are deftly experimenting with hybrid models to attract the right kind of capital for their growth plans.

When VC funding is right, expect VCs to be looking for more women-founded companies if only to expand the breadth and diversity of the companies they fund. When “AVC” Fred Wilson, husband of conference organizer Joanne Wilson was asked about his intention to invest in female-founded companies, he answered: “i would simply say that we’d like to see more women pitching us and more women in the teams that pitch us.” So future entrepreneur women. Go forth. Pitch. Ask for what you need to have us all benefit from your giant ideas.

When Everyone Becomes a Participant Observer

Tomorrow I’m participating in a “Breaching Boundaries” conversation at the American Anthropological Association’s yearly event.

Here are my thoughts as a layperson and fan of anthropology;

I went for a whole 10 years once without anthropology.

After a few ethnography and anthropology classes in undergrad to support a comparative religion major, I took what I needed for critical thinking skills but tucked the rest of those liberal arts away so they wouldn’t interfere with my job search.

Somehow I talked my way into Wall Street, analyzing emerging technology companies that made semiconductors, the machines that made semiconductors, the first Internet companies. There might have been anthropologists hidden away at these places I studied, but they did not push any of the levers on my Bloomberg screen, so they remained hidden from view.


The traders on the floor were hyperventilating over inventory ratios, unexpected growth trajectories, and the precise prediction of exactly how many pennies of earnings per share we expected next quarter. No time in that 5 AM to often 1 AM shift for observation, reflective thinking, or deeper rumination on the human condition. Too bad. My former boss, alleged linchpin of a massive insider trading scheme, may have benefitted from such reflection.

After the obligatory MBA in France, where they do NOT teach anthropology in the core curriculum to the future French business elite (can you believe it – neither Levi-Strauss, nor Mauss), I found myself back in NY, working at one of these internet start ups I had only seen from afar. And there, in week two, when delivering an e-commerce strategy for a computer retailer, I encountered Anthropological Thinking. An information architect, Robert Fabricant, wanted to pause for a moment. Do some research. Observe people, interacting with technology. Test out my various business strategies with prototype designs.

It was like an old friend had returned, all of these luxurious, humanistic principles, tucked away in my brain all of those years, but not forgotten.

Since then it’s been easy to keep anthropology close, and in fact I rarely encounter a project or idea that hasn’t been framed by anthropological thinking, whether or not the client or agency or designer knows it or not.  Which might be a different kind of problem. Several trajectories have brought anthropology into the mainstream of business culture.

Human Computer Interaction brought humans into the machine making process.

Design as Innovation tool leaned on ethnography for the deepest sort of market-changing insights.

Two years ago at a collaborative curriculum-building conference hosted by the Designers Accord, an organization I helped instigate and support as a founding board member, anthropological inquiry was considered a cornerstone of sustainable design thinking. Since most ecological impacts occur during the ownership phase of products, it would make sense to understand how we humans behave after the moment of purchase.

Now, social media is sucking every last inch of our distracted days, as we watch, participate, reflect, and tweak our connections, wondering if this pastime is actually just making us more disconnected. There is no barrier to entry to becoming a social media guru, and everyone of them (of us) is an armchair anthropologist, commenting on the cultural trends observed while drinking a latte, while listening to a conference call in one ear, and a TED video in another.

I teach – I’m an adjunct at NYU ITP. And I build components of anthropological thinking into a course about systems thinking, sustainable design, and life cycle assessment. I teach geeks and future geeks how to stop, pause, participate, observe and reflect before they commit to making a new thing. But I am not a scholar.

My work is seeped in anthropological thinking, but only occasionally includes verified, AAA-member anthropologists. When the budgets are plush, and we have time – these are conditions I am rarely granted these days.

Which brings me to my challenge question(s): What is the role of professional and academic anthropology to us amateur armchair anthropologists? What happens when everyone becomes a participant observer, even Wall Street stock analysts?

Thanks to Inga Treitler, PhD of Anthropology Imagination, LLC for organizing this discussion tomorrow, based on a conversation that started in an airport shuttle at last year’s Aspen Design Summit. You can observe the challenge questions and participate with the other panelists over at Breaching Boundaries. These people don’t Twitter, so it’s a rare chance to see measured, reflective thinking.


Measuring the Water Crisis – Blog Action Day

We tend to tell the story of developing world crisis in numbers:

  •  Almost 1 billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • That’s one in eight of us.
  • Every day more than 4,000 children around the world die from diseases caused by poor water sanitation
  • In Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year just walking for water.

These statistics are abominable, shocking. But do they motivate us to act, or make the right decisions about what we can do about the water crisis?

Ned Breslin, CEO of the nonprofit Water For People, argues that this metrics-focused way we tell the water crisis story tends to result in inefficient and ineffective philanthropy. Western world foundations, NGOs, and government groups, and even private citizens get excited about raising money for a well or a number of handpumps. But Breslin points out a growing catastrophe of failed water implementation efforts. In his January 2010 essay “Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy,” Breslin cites statistics of the long term failure of these efforts, and the key steps that donors, NGOs, local governments and communities should take to create long term change.

A typical story about the water crisis may also use the story one child that misses school to collect water for his family, or one mother who risks disease because her only available supply is a muddy ditch. Yet the truth is that this child and this mother are often walking by broken failed water infrastructure project attempts by government and aid agencies, poorly engineered solutions that solved an immediate need, but did not succeed in the long term. These numbers are what Breslin considers as more relevant: 50,000 rural water points broken in Africa, $215 – $360 MM of investment wasted because of poor programming and careless implementation.

Breslin proposes a shift in defining the metrics of success:

“Success will require less single-minded focus on the absolute number of people without access to water and sanitation facilities and more focus on the serious questions around long term impact and sustainability. So that years after the cameras have left, the donor reports have been filed, and the press release circulated, the community is not forgotten. A new partnership between philanthropists and development agencies would focus less on how much money the sector supposedly needs to solve the global water challenges and more on how creative philanthropic giving can be used as leverage to install financial responsibilities for improved water supply and sanitation on communities and governments in developing countries.”


So how to shift? Smart philanthropy means defining a long term, financially sustainable business model, looking at donations through the lens of long term outcomes. If you’ve ever been asked to give money to a water crisis project, it is often to cover the costs of an installation project, with money then transferred to an NGO the group themselves travels to the field to implement the project themselves. Ceremonies are launched, ribbons are cut, and the funders go home gratified. But the installation project may not last beyond six months without the proper long term model of maintenance and care.

Instead of approaching the water problem as welfare, and instead thinking of the crisis as an economic development issue, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs are likely to have a greater impact. “Paying 100% of the costs of project implementation establishes dependency from the start.” The underlying message of “free water systems” – communities are unable to organize to implement these projects themselves.

A more creative and financially sustainable approach is to co-invest with local communities and local government, focused on investment over time to match the true cost of maintaining water infrastructure systems. Funding works when used the way it is in the developed world – as leverlage for matching local investments, rather than patronizing and absolving local governments of their financial responsibilities. Projects are then owned by the local community, not branded by the NGO or philanthropist, and look to a wider range of long term transformative results.

So when sending a check to a water charity on Blog Action Day, check to see how your preferred fundraising group or NGO measures their success. What to look for:

  • How many people are helped in the years that follow the first implementation project (rather than “saved” on that first exciting day).
  • Does the quality and quality of water meet host country government standards over time (3 years, 6 years, 10 years out?
  • Is the system inoperable for no more than one day per month?
  • Does the number of users meet host country standards?
  • Most importantly: does the community have the ability to maintain and replace their water system without seeking significant additional charitable support?

The final metric is the “real measure of whether the water and sanitation poverty cycle is truly broken.”

The GDP Killers

ROIEPS, and GDP are acronyms under attack.

From big picture to smaller picture, these acronyms all give order of magnitude value to the financial return of our efforts as humans on this earth.

I’m going to start with the big picture, GDP, and look at the developing alternatives to a one number view of a country’s well being.

GDP: Gross Domestic Product which is the value of private consumption, gross investment, government spending, and total exports minus total imports. Consumers drive this measure of global growth, with 60-70% of GDP in the US made up with purchases of things and services over the past 50 years. Recent reports on sluggish GDP lament slack consumer demand, and cross fingers and hope that resurgent future consumer behavior will “save everything.”

So why is such a number so hated? GDP is under suspicion for not measuring the true standard of living of an economy, leaving out relative shifts in worker income at home and abroad, the effects of all this spending on scarce environmental resources, not to mention the relative happiness of the citizens.

A number of replacement metrics have been set forth by government groups, activist organizations, countries, and economists looking recast what economic health really means. All of them seek to develop a new metric for economic vitality, translated into a squishy, hard-to-measure value like happiness, equity, and environmental health. Always interested in the efforts of those that wish to put numerical values on the most squishy parts of life, I’ll be investigating the following GDP alternatives:

Happy Planet Index (HPI)

Human Development Index (HDI)

Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)

Gross National Happiness (GNH)

GINI Coefficient (Gini)

Which one will replace GDP headlines in the WSJ or in your future Flipbook Social News Feed?