Asking Out Loud @ Cannes Lions

Last week I was with colleagues from The New School Open Campus at Cannes Lions in France. We recorded a live podcast there called “Asking Out Loud.” I appeared in episode 3 to talk about design thinking and the creative process.

In Cannes Lions’ newest podcast series, academics, industry experts and visionary creative spirits unpack questions that make creative minds tick.

Collaboration brings visions to life and teaches us how to work with others to reach a common goal. This powerful process pollinates the world with more creativity while teaching skills of focus, cooperation, innovation, and compromise.

A dynamic podcast panel explore and discuss common challenges to productive teamwork and cover best practices for helping you and your teams to accomplish what may otherwise seem impossible.

This podcast is hosted by The New School’s Open Campus, and produced in partnership with Somethin’ Else.

Check out all five episodes of “Asking Out Loud” below:

I also shared some of my personal highlights from Cannes Lions on Medium.

Innovation Dynamics: Quick-Start Guide + Online Course

Foossa’s recent design collaboration with GreenHouse is now available on Amazon. Shout out to SVA Design for Social Innovation grads Martha Berry and Anna Luiza Braga for the additional design support.

How does NASA get its mojo back? What do big cities do with selfish billionaires? What’s wrong with art education? How are inner city youth the answer to urban renewal? What does the military have to do with the arts?

Innovation Dynamics is the first systematic approach to real social innovation and solving people-problems. Purchase includes a beautifully-designed, printed quick-start guide and 90-days of online access to The Short Course on Innovation Dynamics at The Academy for Social Change. The online course includes brief, animated instructional videos and an interactive workbook that can be printed for collaboration in teams. Buyers receive one unique access code to the online course with each printed guide.

The quick-start guide and multimedia introduction were developed by founders of GreenHouse, Insight Labs and UX for Good and innovators in residence at the University of Southern California. It emerged from years of work in the U.S., Europe and Africa with organizations like the U.S. State Department, NASA, Harvard Medical School, Starbucks, the Dalai Lama Center and the TED Conferences.

Users will learn how to:

  • Break problems down into their most essential parts
  • Reconcile various stories behind problems
  • Uncover hidden relationships among problems
  • See invisible rules that guide relationships and social systems
  • Leverage expectations to solve problems
  • Engineer deviance to disrupt the invisible rules

Innovation Dynamics was developed in consultation with social scientists and is a core element of the first-ever doctorate in social innovation.

Designing Public Services for a Higher Purpose

What if we could design public services that uplift and inspire the people who use them every day?

Today is International Service Design Day, the second annual celebration of the craft and profession of service design. To commemorate this day, as designers, we need to issue ourselves a challenge: to take on impossible tasks and transform them with our trade.

Like many New Yorkers, I often find pass through the city’s two main train terminals: Grand Central and Penn Station. While both buildings service the same function, they couldn’t be more different.

Historian David Cannadine has called Grand Central “one of the 20th Century’s most elaborate and majestic buildings,” and remarked that “it never fails to lift my spirits when I’m lucky enough to set foot there.”

Main hall Grand Central Terminal, New York by Aliaksei via Colourbox
Whenever I pass through, I look up at the celestial constellations painted on the ceiling, a reminder that beyond the towering buildings and human achievements of the Big Apple, there is a bigger, more awesome universe out there full of infinite possibilities.

In contrast, to say that the current Penn Station does not inspire would be an understatement. It is a drab grey subterranean purgatory that one endures en route to one’s final destination. It serves its purpose.

Penn Station by Lee-Sean Huang
Penn Station by Lee-Sean Huang

What if more public services could be more like Grand Central and less like Penn Station?

As designers, “public services” include infrastructure, both physical and intangible, for the common good of residents and visitors. The term also encompasses public-private partnerships such as LinkNYC, which provide benefit to the public but funded with corporate advertising and sponsorship money.

A service doesn’t have to be old or expensive like Grand Central in order to inspire and uplift. Take for example the “I Voted” stickers that we get on Election Day. These small symbols offer a little bit of decorative delight to complement our outfits that day, but also signal our pride in exercising our rights as citizens of a democratic society.

What if there were a way to signal that same kind of pride when we fulfill our civic obligations after jury duty or on tax day?

Or imagine if the process of getting your driver’s license at the DMV could fill you with the same exhilarating feeling of freedom as driving down an open highway on a summer’s day?

As a service designer, it is my job to work with governments, companies, and communities to ask questions like these and to design customer and citizen experiences that live up to those questions. While we must take into account financial, environmental, and bureaucratic constraints when designing public services, we also need to ask bigger and bolder questions.

Instead of simply asking, “how do we make this work?” We could ask, “how do we make this transformative or transcendent?” In addition to asking, “how do we make this service better?” We could also ask, “how can this make US better?”

In order to ask these bigger questions, funders and buyers of design projects also need to broaden the scope of their vision, instead of simply looking at the narrow requirements and specific needs a project serves.

In my own work with New York City’s Design for Financial Empowerment project, we have taken an approach that starts with a question: how might we increase client retention (and in turn, outcomes) for the City’s free financial counseling services? This service helps New Yorkers deal with everything from creating a budget and paying down debt to getting a back account or mortgage. In the end, we arrived at a design approach that would inspire community and engagement, including live events, interactive video, and a “loyalty punch card” to help clients track their progress. If we had started with the question, “how might we use a mobile app to improve financial counseling,” we would have defined our scope too narrowly.

For example, a designer looking to transform the airport experience wouldn’t just think about speed and efficiency. They might ask, how do we bring back the humanity and romance of air travel? How do we design airports to better remind us that travel is ultimately about fostering better human connections, whether with people across the country, or across the world?

If we are to make American infrastructure and public services transcendental, than we all, whether we be designers, public administrators, politicians, or concerned citizens, need to think bigger. We need to design for a higher purpose: civic interdependence and a more perfect Union.

Lee-Sean Huang is a designer, educator, and futurist based in New York City. He is a co-founder of Foossa, a service design and storytelling consultancy and a participant of the Allies Reaching for Community Health Equity (ARCHE) Public Voices Fellowship with The OpEd Project. He also teaches design and futures thinking at the Parsons School of Design, where he is also an affiliate of the DESIS Lab and the Design for Financial Empowerment project.


Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on June 1, 2017.

How Human Creativity Will Win The War Against Robots

May 11, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of supercomputer Deep Blue’s victory over world champion chess player Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue’s victory was the first time a computer beat a human chess master in a standard match format.

Technology has advanced dramatically since 1997,  and so have anxieties about artificial intelligence and the possibility of automated bots taking over human jobs. Some estimate that by 2025, up to 40% of jobs could go to robots. If machines can do our jobs better, what does our future at work look like?

Workers in almost every field will be affected in some way by automation. Machines are better than humans at repetitive, brute force tasks, and can now even beat humans in well-defined games like chess and Go. They could replace workers in service industries and administrative positions, and even have some management capabilities. But for innovators who are tasked with problem solving and imagining the future, human curiosity and playfulness will always have the advantage.

Robots cannot kill human ingenuity

Take this recent scene at a Fortune 500 company where I worked. Senior level executives gathered on the floor of a cleared out conference room like preschoolers at recess. Recycled cardboard boxes, colorful shards of construction paper, gnarled pipe-cleaners, scented markers, and hot glue were peppered around the room. The participants huddled with their teammates around their prototypes and put the pieces in place, building thoughtfully as they work together.

In the non-profit and public sector,  design thinking—which often looks like structured, open-ended play—has become a popular vehicle for creative problem solving and innovation.

Major corporations like Procter & Gamble have used design thinking to create new product lines that have turned around struggling brands like Mr. Clean. Design thinking is no longer considered just a marketing tool. The United Nations has also used it to redesign informal sustainable development settlements, like remaking a football pitch in Kenya. Design thinking is now taught in places like the business school at Cornell, and it even has its own department at Stanford. It allows for real-time improvisation and engagement that makes things work.

In the real-life training session I described, an internal knowledge management software project was running late and over-budget. It was not clear if the work in progress really addressed the needs of the employees who would be using the tool.

The executives hit “pause” and “reset” on the project. They started from the beginning, using empathy as a tool. Through interviews and observations, they tried to understand their colleagues’ knowledge management needs. From there, they formulated a problem statement, reframing the original problem as needed.

A playful prototype for a new corporate knowledge management system

If you look beyond the low-fidelity arts and craft aesthetics, the methodology that we teach is not that different from the scientific method: understand, hypothesize, test, rinse, and repeat until we get it right. Our approach goes beyond problem-solving and also works to cultivate a creative culture through a designer’s mindset.

This mindset begins with empathy for the needs of our fellow humans. It is open to a diversity of viewpoints and professional disciplines. It withholds judgement when it is time to ideate, and relies on evidence to make decisions about what works. This requires skilled facilitators who have built intuition through experience. This intuition helps us determine when to foster open-ended play, and when to switch to a more analytical, critical mode of thinking.

While computer artificial intelligence can help us optimize systems and processes, and even replace humans in many job functions, machines cannot yet have that intuition, nor the ability to empathize, reframe problems and truly innovate.

Technological innovation is attempting to bridge this gap.  Last year, researchers reported that Google Translate had developed its own meta language to translate between languages it had not previously been trained to engage. In other words, in a vaguely frightening, sci-fi-like development, computers can now at-least partially program themselves, and their human masters don’t fully understand what is happening. But optimization is not the same as innovation. While Google Translate can make it easier to communicate in different languages, communicating beyond the language barrier is still distinctly human. Humans will always win on gestures, making mistakes, humor, and how that all feeds into human connection.

There may be a day when robots learn to brainstorm, play, and innovate, and therefore deliver an unfair advantage to human beings. But for now, humans corner the market on playful and divergent thinking—the kind that breaks through barriers and sparks new ideas.  The robots may be coming for our jobs, but it is too early to call checkmate on human ingenuity.

Lee-Sean Huang is a designer, educator, and futurist based in New York City. He is a co-founder of Foossa, a service design and storytelling consultancy and a participant of the Allies Reaching for Community Health Equity (ARCHE) Public Voices Fellowship with The OpEd Project. He also teaches design and futures thinking at the Parsons School of Design.

The Big Data Society


ICYMI: Here is the video of my conversation at the Center for Global Policy Solutions Future of Wealth conference last week in DC. I had a conversation with Mary Madden from Data & Society Research Institute and Taylor Moore from the Center for Democracy & Technology about the opportunities and challenges of Big Data and algorithms. This is meant for a general audience, so no technical knowledge required. Our session starts at the 1 hour 53 minute mark.