Collaborating With the Future at Stanford’s Design Institute

A course for people who have the desire to change the world toward a more desirable future

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Thought piece
Natasha Mmonatau
July 30, 2017
Photo Credit: Natasha Mmonatau

This article was originally published by Natasha Mmonatau on Medium.

One Friday morning in the Bay, cars trail sleepily along the 280 highway as the sun begins to peek out from the clouds rolling over roadside mountain ranges. Light rays meet the faces of silent commuters, doomed between the hours of 7 and 11am to trawl the reaches of highways from Santa Clara to Alameda. The same morning, however, sees a group of committed Stanford students trek up the staircase of the d. school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design) to begin work on just such recalcitrant problems as traffic in the Bay Area.

By Lisafern (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

As cars snake along the peninsula, students take up their positions in the design studio. Whiteboards adorned with sticky-notes abound, and the students delve into the practice of deeply understanding their assigned problem before developing interventions. “We are working on solving the problem of Bay area transportation, which is very chaotic and very congested right now,” said Sushmitha Nannuru, a business school student who chose Stanford in part due to the presence of the d. school. Through applying a method of systems thinking developed at Changelabs, a Stanford design organization, the students begin to work through the complexities of some of the world’s greatest challenges.

“The driving purpose of the course is to attract people who have the desire to change the world toward a more desirable future.”

“The idea [was] that we could come up with a framework to tackle problems that seem impregnable,” said Will Connors, a student member of the course “Collaborating With The Future: Launching Large Scale Sustainable Transformations.” The class, currently in its sixth edition, uses experiential learning to enable the students to work closely with real world social enterprises and address tough problems that require design interventions. In daylong workshops, students receive the scaffolding to launch sustainable interventions around specific problems through working collaboratively with their partner organizations.

D. school professor ‘Banny’ Banerjee developed the class through Changelabs, an organization devoted to large scale systemic change using a methodology called System Acupuncture. “This is the sixth year that we’ve taught this class,” he said in a recent interview, “and there are some wonderful large scale transformations that have come out of it.” As founder and director of Changelabs, Professor Banerjee has worked with a team to develop new frameworks for innovation focused on initiating positive change. “The driving purpose of the course is to attract people who have the desire to change the world toward a more desirable future,” he said, “and who are willing to grapple with challenges that are massive in scale and seemingly impossible to tackle.”

Photo by: Natasha Mmonatau

Some of the major themes covered by the course include stakeholder mapping, identifying leverage points, diffusion theory, and platform architecture. “This course is equipping people to identify what changes need to be made around them in social and environmental systems,” said co-teacher Theo Gibbs, “and what course of action to take with regard to those systems.” The course is regularly offered as a workshop to executive teams and leaders around the world, such as the World Economic Forum, with the aim of establishing a global cadre of leaders equipped with the necessary toolkit to implement large scale change.

In this sense, direct impact forms a core aspect of the course model. This is reflected in student collaborations with project partners. “The role that a project- and client-based class plays,” said course instructor Theo Gibbs, “is essential — especially for students who are juniors or seniors about to graduate.” Theo took the class in 2012 in the final year of her master’s curriculum, and began co-teaching the course a few years after.

For Theo, one of the most unique aspects of Collaborating With The Future is that the students are “working on a real world project, with real world constraints, where you have a point of view and you’re going to have to advocate and justify it.” The students spend much of their time doing just that, representing their perspectives to teammates, and ultimately advocating for a specific leverage point of intervention and potential change.

“Because of the more offbeat nature of this class we attract very bright students who are genuinely motivated to change the world.”
Photo by: Natasha Mmonatau

“Because of the more offbeat nature of this class we attract very bright students who are genuinely motivated to change the world,” said Professor Banerjee. Working with the students gives him “a lot of hope and a sense of renewed belief in our ability to change things systemically.”

In the long-term, this course forms part of the foundational requirements for a new Master’s program in Sustainability Science and Practice based out of the Stanford School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. With a focus on “human well-being now and in the future,” the new program uses interdisciplinary methods to teach students how to design innovations at scale.

Photo by: Natasha Mmonatau

The class ultimately acts as an anchor for the students, providing a framework for guiding their thinking around systemic change. “There’s a lot of different [system] components that we often tend to gloss over,” said Desmond Mitchell, a student in the course. “I think this class is another reminder that instead of speeding up and running all the time, it’s almost more beneficial to slow down, take a deep breath, think about all the small elements, and integrate them moving forward.”

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