Sunday, April 13, 2008

Designing for Olin College?

So our most recent speaker, President Miller of Olin College, was speaking to us about “Design for the Next Guy.” This actually ended up meaning “planning large organizational structures.” Planning large and flexible structures is extremely difficult. One of the things I’ve been thinking about as a result is the balance between creating a structure that maintains itself, doesn’t need much change as people come in and out, and creating a structure that changes with the people that are involved but still maintains its overall characteristics or mission.

I think the advantages to something that dynamically changes is less needs for huge improvements at once because they are made in minor amounts over time, and additionally, something that will be able to maintain itself even as context changes.

One of the things about Olin is that we’re supposed to be dynamically changing with individuals who come in and out of the school, and also in order to create a “best practices” of engineering. Yet I’ve been here for two years and feel like despite being involved I’ve only had incidental effect on the overall direction of Olin. I feel like being here without making a serious mark on the culture or educational plan means that you could’ve had a similar experience at another institution. I chose here to be part of a culture of change, and not to just learn how to be an engineer.

This got me thinking on the topic of how to actually enact change, and how to make the most of your time at a given place, or institution. For me, this is crucial for having a worthwhile experience. This is not just another lens for me- this is in a way, “my lens.” Next year I’ll be taking a Leave of Absence to refocus my direction here at Olin and enable me to find my place in the big picture of change- how to design for the next group of students who come through with different ideas about life, how to design for future faculty- be they innovative or traditional, how to design for inclusivity rather than exclusivity, and how to design to make Olin College fulfill its founding precepts.

For me as a designer, design can be more about a system and interactions and enablement, rather than just about form or aesthetics. In the scheme of engineering to art, design is in the middle, and I think closest to a type of “system engineering” than most other types.

So this doesn’t answer what I’ll be doing next year, and how I’ll be “designing for the next guy.” One thing I think is critical is a continual review of what’s going on in a big institution if you’re indeed trying to prepare for the future. I think something Leave of Absence aids is that necessary time to reflect. It also is something that is part of the institution- having a group of students outside of the framework is something that could be consistently implemented to help make change in the system. Maybe we can’t be a group that starts the concept of LOA- but we could start it as a way to reform the institution we attend, and we could institutionalize it in itself, to help document adequately, and to have enough success such that individuals continue to do it. Ways we’ve thrown around documenting it do include continuing our design notebooks (particularly as we work with businesses), and writing a blog, or a book. Writing something of this magnitude could possibly expand to encourage students at other schools to attempt similar projects, and possibly make the entire higher educational system more dependent on student reflection and review (I can dream!).

Another way I’ve always regarded being able to change an institution is to accept all types of people who arrive- there is a definite need to balance following the historical concepts and reasons for founding, but also being able to adapt to current individuals. I’ve realized my inherent bias in this area- because I want to stick to founding precepts, while at the same time ignoring those who wrote them in favor of my own specific views, within the bigger picture. It’s most definitely a careful line to walk.

I think one of the ways I have tried to impact Olin in another way is through being the Tour Coordinator this year. One of the advantages to this is that I do a substantial amount of tours myself- with my own portrayal of the benefits of Olin College. This is powerful, particularly as we have more and more external visitors to campus, looking to model off of us, or at least review how different types of engineering education are done. Having a system that is reviewed and taken on my others is another powerful type of designing for the next guy- it leads to peer institutions with similar developments that later leaders can read off of. Another benefit of tours is working with potential future students closely- determining the types of students who choose to come to Olin. These students will be helping to shape the future.

So, in all, two of the critical features for designing for the next person include sustainability and review, as well as accounting for future peers and members.

1 comment:

Mel said...

I'd point out a few things.

* Two years is not a long time! It's barely enough to start learning how a place works. You can start makigng changes immediately, but the depth and sensitivity and power of the changes you can make will increase with time, and 2 years is a blink of the eye - enough to not be a raw newbie any more, but... still, there's much to learn. (Heck, I still consider myself an Olin newbie.)

* Do you really want to make permanent, lasting changes at Olin? Will that remove the ability of future generations to change things themselves?

I'm personally of the opinion that the best legacy I could have left future Olin students was a lack of one - to get to the point where I move freely, make changes, make things happen in the school, but to not leave footsteps that others would feel obligated to follow. I'm not entirely sure if I succeeded.