Bull Session

BIF2015 and Big Design Conference Wrap-Up

September 24, 2015          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life, we chat about the themes and take aways from the BIF2015 and Big Design conferences.

At BIF 2015, the Business Innovation Factory annual gathering in Providence, RI, personal stories intertwined with tales of innovation and design. One of the primary themes was innovation in education — a social design critical to the future. Storytellers included Jaime Casap, Chief Education Evangelist at Google, who spoke from his own experience about how education disrupts poverty in one generation, and Sophie Houser co-creator of Tampon Run and Girls Who Code alum discussed the power of technology to create discussion and social change.

While at Big Design, the multi-faceted conference for user experience and usability professionals, digital marketers, designers, content strategists and developers, the conversation incorporated not just the digital, but also emerging technologies like robotics.

Business Innovation Factory
Big Design


Welcome to episode 122 of the Digital Life, the show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett. With me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Hey Jon, how are you doing?

Pretty good. We both got back from some pretty great design conferences last week, so thought we’d take this episode to reflect a little bit about the themes of those conferences and some of the takeaways. I went to the Business Innovation Factory 2015 conference, which is abbreviated as BIF2015. Dirk, you were at the Big Design conference. Let’s kick things off a little bit with my take on BIF 2015. I’ve been going to BIF as you know for five years now starting with what they called BIF7, which was their seventh instantiation as probably obvious. What’s so great or what I find so great about that conference is the design and innovation get together, meetup is that they intertwined personal stories with the innovation and technology and design thinking. It is not a pure technical or design conference, but rather there is personal reflection involved in any piece that is up on the stage. Ultimately, that frames it in a very humanistic way. I find I just relate to and absorbed the story so much better when they’re framed in such a manner. It’s probably worth mentioning that they are stories. They’re personal stories that have innovation and design woven into them, so some of the human aspect is really probably one throughout.

They never have a specific theme for the conference, but certain themes tend to come out of the storytellers each year. This year, I wanted to mention the theme that really spoke to me which was the idea that education is really being disrupted and that the design of education is critical to the future of this country, of the world, and finally that educational design is really a social design as well. It’s not just designing how people learn. It’s also helping to innovate why they learn, who learns, what they’re learning, what the impact is on the future of these children who are learning or adults who are learning. Those are real primary theme, and I think maybe about 50% of the speakers had something that touched on that. I want to talk about a few those. I’m probably going to pronounce some of these names wrong. Forgive me if I pronounce these names wrong.

Jamie Casap who is the Chief Education Evangelist at Google had a really powerful story about growing up in Hell’s Kitchen. His point was that education really disrupts poverty in just one generation. He described the place where he grew up, and contrasted that with how his kids are growing up, and pointed out that it was just one person himself who had gone to college, and then excelled and become really great at what he does, and then ultimately was able to provide this opportunity, this leverage for his children as next generation.

That was a really powerful testimony. I can relate to that a bit. He also mentioned that who you are and where you come from is a competitive advantage when you’re in a scenario like that, when you really have to fight to overcome certain circumstances. He also addressed what he called low expectation syndrome. He says that lots of low-income minorities have this which is they don’t expect a lot out of life, and that holds them back because they don’t see themselves becoming president or becoming the head of a major corporation. They only see what’s around them.

He showed a picture of himself at the white house giving a talk at an educational conference, and said, “Who would have guessed?” Who would have guessed that he could have gotten there? He concluded his talk with a challenge to stop asking kids what do you want to be when you grow up. Instead to ask what problems do you want to solve. That phrase in particular appealed to me, because it is really hard. I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up frankly, but I do know what problems I want to solve and what stories I want to tell.

I found Jamie’s talk to be especially affecting to me. At the other end of the spectrum, there was a young woman who is I believe going to be in her first year at Brown University. Her name is Sophie Houser. She was a participant in Girls Who Code, which is the organization which encourages young women to go out and spend time learning how to code, coding applications, and really taking that skill set and making it a little bit more open to females.

What Sophie did was she created a game which she wanted to make less taboo the topic of menstruation and tampons for young women, which she thought was very strange that she could see a video game where people were getting, their heads blasting off, but somehow tampons were not a thing that could be discussed. That was very important for her demographic. She talked about the power of technology to create discussion in social change.

She created this game called Tampon Runner, where you defeat your enemies by hurling tampons at them. The game blew up. It became extremely popular. It was covered in all sorts of press. It really drew attention to this issue that she was trying to discuss. Additionally, now it’s become a mobile app. I think it really opened up for Sophie the idea that you really could affect change using this digital medium of gaming.

Two people at opposite ends of their careers, Sophie just starting and Jamie obviously at some kind of pinnacle being at Google there. Those two were extremely powerful talks to me. There are hosts of others that I could get into, but I just wanted to highlight those to start us off.

They do both sound really interesting. Education as you mentioned is right for disruptions. It’s compelling that BIF shows to have that as a key focus this time. There is a study recently that reinforces the old idea that when something is very compulsory, people resist doing it. It’s the problem with the education system is that you go in, and all of these compulsory things are very forced upon you, which are fighting off synopsis in you. They’re saying, “Don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. This sucks.”

When in fact, they’re things that if you discovered on your own, you might really enjoy them. There is modern solutions to education and schooling, but there is also older solutions. There’s type of schools call the Sudbury schools, which came around in the ’50’s and ’60’s in sort of a hippy thing. The vision there is that the children are just left to be. You have some adults who are there all day, but the children decide what they want to do all day.

They self-govern. The whole nine yards, there is not a single mandatory class. There’s not a single mandatory book, single mandatory assignment. The philosophy is that as the children need or want the information, they will request it, and they will make their way through.

In the Sudbury school if you look statistically what Sudbury schools have done, their students are far more likely to be artists, to be entrepreneurs, to be successful in the creative arts, to be successful in the things that right now are really being celebrated in technology and in the world. This method, this 50 plus years old, has been cultivating that for half a century. It’s so radical.

It’s the polar opposite.

It’s the polar opposite.

At least what I did.

I’m very much wanting my children to go that kind of school. It just makes sense to me. I know when I was in school, I love history. On the weekend if I get a history book, I’ll just get lost in it. I’d be so happy, but if it was assigned to me, I’m not going to read this. Give me a break. That same book if I came about it on my own, I would really enjoy that.

In terms of stories and personal, for me that’s very personal from an education perspective. I’m a big proponent of breaking out of the chains of not just the teach to the lowest common denominator in a horrible structured slow moving environment, but completely break off the shackles, and have people discover and develop on their own as oppose to jamming it through them for reasons of equality.

That very much is similar to my own experience. I studied piano for maybe about 10 years before I decided that I wanted to do it. The first 10 years were nothing but pain. From then on, it was still painful, but it was something that I owned and that I really wanted to do. I can recall the day that I decided I was going to own my musical endeavors playing the piano. It was when I saw a woman who was going to Julliard up on stage.

I was at this piano camp. She was playing, and I’m like, “I can compete with her. I want to compete with her.” At that moment, just saying, “Hey, this isn’t what my parents want me to do anymore. I’m here because that’s what they want me to do,” but when I got to this piano camp, suddenly I realized that was something that I was interested in doing as well. Then from there on out, it was much broader and more enjoyable. I spent more time practicing the Whole Nine Yards.

It shifted from being tortured to being a masochist.

Yes and basically torturing my mom. We would argue excessively about practicing. Enough about my piano playing. Dirk, tell me a little bit about your experience at the Big Design conference.

Big Design is a really, really interesting conference. It’s a very broad-based conference. Typically, conferences that we would … They don’t call themselves UX the top level I don’t think. What we think about in UX conferences is a fairly narrow band. The Big Design conference had talks across a lot of different tracks. Some of them you would expect. Some of them you wouldn’t.

There was a development track. There was a career development track. There was a usability track. There was a civic design track, a normal catch-all design track, SCO and social inspirational design how to track, game design how to track, tools and tactics. It was across a very broad audio design how to track, track after track after track.

There were a lot of options for people who came, and the ability to spread out a little more, spread out a little more broadly. It was very, very interesting in that way. I saw some good talks. I’m at a point now where I’m not enhanced on design very much anymore. In terms of making a practical difference, there weren’t necessarily things that really are going to change my life tomorrow, but there were a lot of interesting things.

One of the trends I noticed is of the talks that I was a part of, most them mentioned the merging technologies in very positive ways, robots, cyborgs, that whole Sci-Fi thing that we’ve talked about more. There were something different what they’re into it. Of course, this is a part of it.

That was a surprise, because maybe that kind of messaging has been going in UX conferences for a longer time, and I’m not aware of it. I haven’t been going to many UX conferences myself. I certainly didn’t expect to see it, but there was definitely a lot of that and really tying into a lot of he things that you, your book of course, and we as as studio have been working on as well.

I do find that interesting because I think at the very edges of this any emerging technology, there is before robotics, genomics, and [the internet 00:14:27] of things, there was of course the internet which defined a lot of our careers beginning. At a point where that was an emerging technology, I can remember the people didn’t know what to do with it, and there is lots of fighting about how design for print apply to the internet, and how information architecture affected it, and how we would port our design skills from the physical world into the digital world.

I remember a decade of arguments about these things all coupled with fast technological progress. Not to mention mobile technology is an emerging tech. I do think this next generation or this next set of emerging technologies is fundamentally different than the communication technologies that we’ve been accelerating over the past 10, 20 years. I’m very happy that it sounds like that was at least thematically somewhat included in the discussion at Big Design conference.

I do think there is an awful a lot of resistance to new technologies at the beginning especially when it comes to an established industry. Like it or not, UX and software design is an established industry now, so there will be people with certain things to protect.

I do it as well. You get rooted in a certain way of looking at things, and ultimately, you resist change. I remember thinking that, “Wow, all these print designers which I was when I saw an awful a lot of resistance to digital media come out of the print design community.”

They thought it was a fad. Lo and behold, it abandoned everything in print. I do think that emerging technologies have heck of a lot of potential to do that again. I hope that as designers, we’ll be eager to embrace that rather than resist those changes and not be able to effectively guide technologies in a human way really.

I don’t know how you are to embrace that designers are going to be. I think that emerging technologies start to raise issues of ethics that we really didn’t have as we shifted just from analog to digital. There’s a lot of scary and uncertain stuff and maybe things that are conflicting with people’s personal, moral, and or religious viewpoints. It’s a lot more naughty I think.

It is.

Also the challenges, to really be a successful creator in a world of emerging technologies, I believe it will be compulsory. You have fairly deep science and or engineering chops going on. That ain’t for all designers. I think we’ll start to see engineering and design come more together with more people who traditionally would have been just engineers being the designer creator of the future.

Some of the current designers come in and be part of that as well, but many of the people who currently identify as designers ending up doing very different things because of any one of the factors that I was talking about before.

That’s right. I agree with you. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to this show, you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to the digitalife.com. That’s just one L in the digital life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody.

It’s rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of this show, you can follow me on Twitter at Jon Follett. That’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com. That’s G-O I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter at dknemeyer. That’s @dknemeyer. You could also email me dirk@goinvo.com. Additionally, I want to give a shout out to Jon, because just last week, it was announced through Scholastic giant publishing company that a science fiction novel that he wrote of his is going to be published and produced in 2016 in both hardcover and paperbacks. That’s really an exciting announcement. I want to congratulate Jon for that.

Thank you. It’s still another year in the making, but I’m really looking forward to that. There is this project that’s been in me for the past decade. It’s finally coming to fruition. I’m very glad to see that it looks like it’s going to be available to the public. We’ll keep you in the loop as to what’s happening with it.


That’s it for episode 122 of the Digital Life. I’m Jon Follett for Dirk Knemeyer. We’ll see you next time.

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