Atlantic Cities

Can a Single Good Idea Save Detroit?

Earlier this week, the innovation platform OpenIDEO (slogan: "where people design better, together") announced the Vibrant Cities Challenge, the latest in a series of design competitions ranging from increasing the number of bone marrow donors to using technology to help human rights workers. Its first challenge partner was celebrity chef Jamie Oliver; the group has since worked with Amnesty International, Oxfam, Nokia, and Unilever, among others. Since launching August 2010, OpenIDEO has tackled eleven challenges and involved over 20,000 participants from 170 countries.

For the Vibrant Cities Challenge, OpenIDEO has partnered with Steelcase with the goal of exploring the rather broad goal of revitalizing cities. But like many of the other prompts listed on the OpenIDEO site ("how can we better enable inclusion of everyone," for example), this urban challenge, though noble, is far more geared to what IDEO refers to as the "inspiration" end of things than the solution side. We chatted with OpenIDEO’s co-lead and co-founder Nathan Waterhouse about how the Vibrant Cities Challenge came about and how (and whether) it transforms ideas into real change.

Often the most difficult part of tackling projects like these can come with the framing of the problem. How was this particular challenge developed?

Asking the right question is probably the most overlooked, yet hardest part of open innovation. We try to frame challenges optimistically in order to help everyone think creatively, we keep the question specific enough so that we're not boiling the ocean, yet broad enough to remain inclusive to solution sets we may not have thought of yet. This challenge really comes from a passion of Jim Hackett's (chairman and CEO of Steelcase) and Steelcase. Headquartered in Michigan, they are only too aware of the challenges facing cities and regions that have lost their industry or whose economy are in decline.

In his introductory video, Hackett talks pretty specifically about Detroit but the challenge seems much more global. Can you clarify?

He does, but towards the end he hints at how this is not just about Detroit. With all our challenges we focus on global problems with a local focus. We have specific plans to try and implement some of the concepts in Michigan, but we're also trying to help the community bring to life concepts that would benefit anywhere that is struggling in a similar way: either lost its industry or is facing economic decline. That might be Madrid, Dublin, or Detroit.

Tell me a bit about what happens when people add their "inspirations" to the OpenIDEO site. How is user input implemented? 

The Inspiration phase is all about learning about the problem which entails collecting examples and stories from different regions and countries around the world to understand [such things as]: what innovation already exists? What are the needs of the people we are designing for? Also we try to enable the community to empathize with the context or problem area we're designing for and set 'missions' for them. With this challenge we're proposing, for example, one mission that tries to get people to do something that will bring vibrancy to where they live, and share the lessons they learn on the platform.

After the first phase, we take all the great inspirations that the community shares and we synthesize them into themes, which we share back on the OpenIDEO platform as opportunity areas for the real creativity [that happens] in the next phase, 'Concepting.' This helps provide jumping off points for peoples’ ideas and also enables a way of taking big problems and breaking them down into manageable pieces.

The final winning concepts (we usually have a spread of them rather than just one silver bullet) are available to the challenge sponsor to help create impact in the social issue that we're trying to make a small dent in. Increasingly, we're also seeing the community bring to life concepts themselves, either individually or by forming teams to do so.

And what happens after that?

We are still solidifying our plans for implementation, which range from how we can create impact in Michigan specifically, to leveraging some of our partners more globally. 

Fair enough. But can you give me a few concrete examples of projects that have been implemented?

Great question. The best example is the Ghana Sanitation project with Unilever and Water and Sanitation for the Poor. The pilot has been launched successfully and the business is live. Unilever and WSUP have hired a team called the Clean Team in Kumasi who have been hired locally and are operating the service. There are 25 homes with the service - check out this lovely video that Unilever made to give an update of where they are.

The Clean Team in Kumasi, Ghana

 

Easy to read user instructions for the Clean Team toilet

Another example came from the challenge we ran for SONY + the World Wildlife Fund. The end result of that is a mobile app for micro volunteering called +U.

Finally the challenge we ran for Stanford University Haas Center focussed on how to increase the number of bone marrow donors has informed the launch of a new venture called Social Change in a Box, which also produced this site.

Allison Arieff is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes a column about design and architecture for The New York Times and is editorial director of SPUR. All posts »

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