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MIT Better World

By Nicole Estvanik Taylor

And yet, there are enclaves of design all over campus. Some are student clubs: from the civic-minded Design for America, to teams that construct rockets and solar cars. Others are research groups whose territories seem to have minimal overlap: synthetic biology, self-assembling materials, smart cities, educational video games, DIY health devices. “This is typical of MIT. You may think something doesn’t exist, and it turns out to exist in a hundred places,” remarks the dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, Hashim Sarkis.

Such permeation has been helped along, says Sarkis, by the gradual dissolving of traditional boundaries between “problem solving and solution improvement” that historically framed design as a late-stage step. “In the world of products, it’s become very important for design to be an integral part of the making,” he says. Not only do managers, engineers, and scientists increasingly want to have a designer in the room from the beginning—often, they want to look through the lens of design themselves. And why not? “Linear thinking and holistic thinking are not separate,” Sarkis says. “Scientific method and design method are not separate. They are enmeshed.”

Now, a collection of educational initiatives emerging from Sarkis’s school are focusing that design lens for students bound for a range of endeavors. Among these are an undergraduate Design Minor, established in Fall 2016 by the Department of Architecture, and DesignX, an entrepreneurial accelerator. Both D-Minor and DESx, as they’re known, are open to participants across MIT (DESx teams must include at least one SA+P graduate student).

According to J. Meejin Yoon, head of the Department of Architecture, the minor provides students of all majors “a methodology for processing context—both physical and cultural—and constraints, seeing the opportunities, and realizing those opportunities.” Along the way, students master creative and technical skills that are increasingly in demand throughout the job market.

Fruits of this methodology can be seen in the estimated 1,200 startups that have been launched by SA+P alumni. DESx will provide the next generation of MIT entrepreneurs the specialized resources such endeavors require, aided by research led by Andrea Chegut, the director of the MIT Real Estate Innovation Lab. Her team is studying the landscape for companies innovating in the spheres of the built environment, media, and design: “what makes them tick, and what makes them distinct from other types of businesses,” Chegut says. “We’ll apply this knowledge to DESx, to enable our entrepreneurs to understand the nuts and bolts they need to form successful organizations.” Selected DESx teams receive $15,000 in seed funding, mentorship, and specialized for-credit workshops over the Independent Activities Period and spring semester. After four months of focusing on business models and prototypes, they will be ready to pitch their ventures to funders.

Over the past decade, MIT’s integral role in the creation of the Singapore University of Technology and Design—which led to the establishment of an International Design Center based in both Cambridge and Singapore—has demonstrated the Institute’s commitment to formalizing and sharing globally what it knows about teaching and learning design. In that same spirit, SA+P announced this fall that its faculty will help to shape the curriculum of a new Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (DIDI). Expected to open in 2019, DIDI will offer the Middle East and North Africa region’s first undergraduate degree in design, which has become a major driver of economic growth in that part of the world. SA+P is also developing a new MicroMasters in Design, a semester’s worth of online courses opening a path for learners worldwide to earn an MITx digital credential for successful completion and, for some high performers, to enroll in a full master’s program on MIT’s campus.

In 4,031 Design Studio: Objects and Interaction, Wei Xun He ’18 shows TA Kathleen Hajash his prototype for a wearable motion-capturing device. Photo: M. Scott Brauer

For undergraduate and graduate students alike, the heart of SA+P’s learning model is the studio. The term evokes a small-workshop setting, where peers work elbow to elbow at tables teeming with sketches and materials; it also signifies an iterative, critique-driven learning process. Both meanings of the word were in play this fall in 4.031 Design Studio: Objects and Interaction. The foundational class brought together students majoring in architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science, among other fields. The resumes of its instructors, Marcelo Coelho SM ’08, PhD ’13, and Jessica Rosenkrantz ’05, reflect their own multidisciplinary MIT backstories. Coelho, an alumnus of the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces group, manipulates physical and computational materials in service of novel experiences. His recent work includes the design of the Rio 2016 Paralympics Opening Ceremony and an architectural-scale pavilion collaboratively assembled by humans and robots. Rosenkrantz, who double-majored at MIT in architecture and biology, is a cofounder of Nervous System, known for its intricate housewares and fashion inspired by natural phenomena such as coral reefs, and for its online applications that allow customers to co-create their purchases.

In 4.031, Rosenkrantz and Coelho challenged their students with three projects that would add up to “an overview of design as the giving of form, order, and interactivity to the objects that define our daily experience.” Students began by building their own take on a simple wooden chair (with personalized touches ranging from practical: a frame that comfortably accommodates a backpack; to whimsical: a cushion into which you can stuff your rejected brainstorming notes). Next, the students created 3-D-printed wearable textiles; their final project required them to create an interactive clock for an alternative measurement of time.

Design minor Lucia Liu ’18, a MechE major who aspires to a career in product design, says 4.031 increased her appreciation for the process that will get her there. “The path to a good design solution is almost never straightforward,” Liu observes. “It is easy to be attached to one design idea, but I have learned that it is better to value the fluidity of design.”

This fluidity, believes Sarkis, will be one of the MIT community’s greatest assets as it continues to take on the planet’s toughest challenges. “There’s never one solution to a problem. There are always many,” he says. “There isn’t one world, but many possible worlds that are imagined, invented, and created by design.”