How Top Designers Design for Wearable Desirability (2016)

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Entrepreneurship, Digital Nomads & Sustainability in Indonesia (2015)

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Cultural Entrepreneurship in New York City (2014, 2013)

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More Field Projects, Side Projects & Experiments at Harvard (pre-2013)

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How Top Designers Design for Wearable Desirability (2016)

Course Creator/Faculty: Dr. Beth Altringer
Enrollment: The course is available to enrolled Harvard students, with preference given to engineering and design students.
Dates: Arrival 10 Jan, program runs 11-20 Jan

1793-1778-contrast-wholeplate-lowQImage: This caricature contrasts 1778 (right) & 1793 (left) styles, showing large changes in just 15 years (source)

Course Overview

We will explore (through interviews, observations, self-immersion and reflection) how top fashion, sportswear and lifestyle designers approach designing for wearable desirability, and how we might apply what we learn to design more desirable wearables and safety gear.

Beyond Fashion – Design As a Tool for Better Decision-Making?

Our immersion is part of a broader exploration of whether and how we might – through product design – learn to build products and experiences that better meet people’s existing needs (e.g. expression, identity, performance, comfort, functionality) and also to help them make more responsible decisions (e.g. wearing effective safety gear). Improving our skills in understanding and applying design to improve human comfort, expression and responsible decision-making can apply to many areas beyond fashion and industrial design – from financial planning to healthcare, education and more.

Starting with our pre-trip working hypothesis, at the end of each day we revise our hypothesis based on who we are meeting and what we are learning, and plan how to make the most of the meetings the next day. The topic will explore the intersection of two areas. Instead of digital nomads and sustainable design (2015 focus), this year we will look at: a) how top designers think about designing for desirability, and b) the inflection point at which people adopt a dramatically new design into their lifestyle. We’ll focus on top fashion (e.g. DVF, jeans designers), outdoor gear designers, and materials scientists for the ‘how designers think’ part of it, design historians, everyday people, and extreme athletes for the inflection point part of it (e.g. adoption of an entirely new type of gear).

Schedule and Outcomes

Through morning site visits and afternoon project time, students develop their ideas. Their work on site culminates in final presentations at Parson’s School of Design. Faculty and students collaborate throughout the course. Interested students continue collaborating on this project with faculty beyond the course.

New York City

Our program will be based in central NYC. In the space, students work in a creative, peaceful environment with reliable internet. Example visits include (we will not visit all of these, only one or more examples from each):

  • A mix of well-known brands: Calvin Klein, Kate Spade, DVF, Gucci, YSL, J.Crew, Levi’s
  • A mix of sport-focused brands: Puma, New Balance, Fitbit, Converse, Burton
  • A mix of brands thinking about design in new ways: 3×1 Jeans, Ministry of Supply, Mr. Porter, Mayette, Everlane, Uniform, Nervous System, BetaBrand, Alps & Meters
  • A mix of companies innovating in materials: Material Connexion, Modern Meadow (makes leather in labs instead of from animals), Decoded Fashion, The Crated
  • Example additional people: extreme users of quantified self products, stylists, tailors, fashion startups and accelerators
  • A mix of how we learn to design: e.g. Parson’s School of Design MFA in Fashion, self-experimentation

Entrepreneurship, Digital Nomads & Sustainable Design (2015)

Course Creator/Faculty: Dr. Beth Altringer
Enrollment: The course is available to enrolled Harvard students, with preference given to engineering and design students.
Dates: Arrival 3-4 Jan, program runs 5-14 Jan
IMG_8770Image: Altringer and 2015 course participants in the Hubud Co-working Space 

Course Overview

What can we learn from the growing entrepreneurial community in Ubud?

This winter term immersion course focuses on the growing brick and mortar and digital nomad startup community in Ubud, sustainable living practices, and community- and sustainability-driven startups. Students explore and develop a point of view on what we can learn from this growing phenomenon in Bali – about startups, digital nomads, sustainable communities, and working at the top of your field from anywhere in the world. They explore which ventures, organizational structures, networks and technologies are context dependent, and which are not, and why?

In the broader context of understanding what we can and cannot learn from this site visit, we will consider a currently controversial sea reclamation project. This involves reclaiming land that would be used to create a Formula One facility. There are daily demonstrations against the project, and those that back it say that this type of development is important for Bali to ‘catch up’ with ‘competitive’ islands like Singapore and Macau. Those opposing the development, mainly locals, argue that they don’t want that kind of tourism, that it goes against their longstanding cultural values of living sustainably (for which they have been recognized by the United Nations). As with other places in the world, the struggle for ‘who shapes development and how’ is apparent. There are different kinds of ‘development’ developing. Kuta is becoming famous for its beaches and an even more tourism-reliant form of development. Ubud stands in contrast, representing a more location-specific, community- and sustainability-centric longer-term development horizon. Ubud is also home to a rapidly growing startup community, where our group will be based. This long-standing conflict of ‘where we want to go’ (with some believing it is better to become more like Kuta, and some that Ubud-style development is better) forms the backdrop to the program. All on the island are interested in how growth and modernization can continue in a way that provides long-term benefits to locals. This ongoing dilemma, representative of similar challenges elsewhere, combined with the site’s already-recognized leadership in bamboo design, growing reputation for sustainability education, sustainability-driven entrepreneurship and digital nomad culture, provides a rich context of our course.

Schedule and Outcomes

Through morning site visits and afternoon project time, students develop their ideas. Their work on site culminates in final presentations to the local community. Faculty and students collaborate throughout the two-week period in early January 2015. Interested students continue collaborating on this project with faculty beyond the course.


Our program will be based in the Hubud co-working space in Ubud. In the space, students work in a creative, peaceful environment with local entrepreneurs (and reliable internet). Visits will include community projects, sustainability schools, bamboo architecture, farms, factories, hospitality companies. Additional visits will be tailored to specific student interests of those on the trip. Project Visits (ongoing, final list in process):

  • Green School
  • Hubud and over 40 startups based there during our course
  • PT Bamboo
  • The Onion
  • Green Village
  • Bamboo Indah
  • Sari Organik
  • Deus Ex Machina
  • Surf Yogi
  • Kupernik
  • PKP Women’s Collaborative
  • East Bali Cashews
  • Big Tree Farms (chocolate factory and great model of sustainable local business dev)
  • Salty Volt and Little Tree Eco construction centre.
  • Trip to Nusa Penida island and The Gallery business

Cultural Entrepreneurship in New York City (2014, 2013)

Course Co-creators/Faculty: Dr. Beth Altringer, Professor Tom Eisenmann, in partnership with the Harvard Innovation Lab
Enrollment: The course is available to enrolled Harvard students.
Dates: January

iLab NYC photo 1

Below: Example companies we visited for the course in 2013 and/or 2014.

iLab NYC photo 2

Side Projects and Experiments

Outside of research, I also offer and manage a variety of projects (mostly for students but also often open to the public) that explore practical, everyday ways to help people with creative work.

Sport Better Cities

This ongoing side project is based on a long-standing interest in whether cities can effectively use the Olympic Games or the FIFA World Cup to fast-track urban and economic development. Sport Better Cities provides quick facts on the good, the bad, and the ugly – from a city perspective – of hosting the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games.

If you or someone you know is interested in collaborating on research on novel ways that FIFA and the IOC can work with hosts as peers to make the long-term urban development needs of host cities as much of a priority as hosting the games, please get in touch via the SBC site.

MacGyver (Alternating Constraints/Incubation/Execution) Immersion Experiment

This week-long immersive course took place in early 2014. Participants tested an incubation-based method to boost creative productivity in their normal daily work lives. It lasted full-time for one week, with a follow-up a month later. Participants joined from Los Angeles, Boston, London, Seattle, Chicago and Michigan. We worked with Lee Zlotoff, creator of the TV-show MacGyver (a hit TV show about a resourceful problem solving hero that ran in the ’80’s and ’90’s and still inspires fans today). Participants tried the method he used to create the series (which involves strategically switching between mindful problem definition, mindless incubation and  execution) on their own creative projects.

Will the participants continue to use this method? Mostly yes. All participants found this method useful, though in different ways. For some, particularly the writers who were able to limit distractions for extended periods of time, this approach boosted productivity. The designers and the neuroscientist who participated adapted the method to accommodate working on multiple projects with frequent distractions. This made it more difficult to tell whether or how much it boosted their productivity. However, all participants noticed a reduction in their anxiety associated with creative work, getting stuck, and feeling guilty for procrastinating.   

Creative Side Project Project

This public project took place in early 2013. It explored research-based strategies to get more creative stuff done. It lasted 1-2 months and about 40 people participated from all over the world. We regularly shared research-based tips to enhance everyday creative productivity with participants. They let us know if they were working for them. Read more here…  (shortcut to group sign up here ). Participants – access the private blog here. This experiment is now finished. Here is the feature article on Dr. Altringer’s experience in Boston Magazine.

Will we do it again? No. This was a painful experience in trying lots of distracting things that made focusing even more difficult than it already is (read: fostered procrastination). It made for a humorous article, but the take-away lesson was simple: boosting creative production is often less about brainstorming or waiting for the the perfect conditions to arise, and more about focusing on ideas long enough to develop them properly.   

Our growing collection of ‘desirable’ things

I started collecting examples of cool and desirable things each week in Spring 2013 to share with my students. And soon found that other people, including my students, seem to like it too! Link to Design Survivor’s Desirability blog (if you’re just looking to browse some of the products we find interesting, look for entries labeled #WhatIveGot).

Will we do it again? Absolutely, and we do. Check back regularly.  

The Future of University Interior Space: A study of the future physical environment of the university

As part of the Task Force for Learning Environments at MIT led by Professor Sanjay Sarma, I consulted with a multi-disciplinary team of professors to investigate exceptional environments for creative work and learning. The project began with the premise that, as universities transition to more project-based classes (as opposed to lectures), we need to re-think the future of physical space in the university. Among other things, we anticipated that the physical environment will incorporate more virtual opportunities and accommodate more experiential learning. It will have more hybrid usage, flexible spaces and furniture, studio space, 24/7 libraries that check out tools and have technical supervision. Learning will become more integrated into communities and residences. And, although we set out to investigate space, we concluded by the end of the task force that we need to re-think how we design student and faculty time, focus, and scheduling.

Custom Workshops: Desirability in Design and/or Managing Team-based Innovation

I regularly build custom modules, classes and programs to teach core aspects of team-based innovation. Participants have designed exhibitions, backpacks, ways to save time, stories, the future of celebrities, and more. Design challenges usually have embedded lessons on desirability and/or how to build effective teams and how to deal with inevitable challenges. I have designed custom workshops for, among others:

  • Harvard Business School (to help design their Field Course, which is now required of all first-year MBAs)
  • Stanford Hasso Plattner Institute of Design
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology International Design Center
  • Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
  • University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC), Peru
  • New York University (NYU)
  • Yale University
  • Artscience Prize Boston
  • Artscience Prize Paris
  • Artscience Prize Singapore
  • Artscience Prize Saudi Arabia
  • Ashoka University
  • Harvard Innovation Lab
  • Harvard Kennedy School
  • Harvard Medical School

Measuring helping behavior in multi-disciplinary innovation projects

In 2011, I designed a tool to measure and make visible students’ helping behavior. The premise was that, instead of grading in a manner that trains students to perform individually (and arguably egotistically) with regard to their work, it is time to start training students to understand and improve how they work collaboratively. However, prosocial behavior on innovation projects is seldom tracked and analyzed. The tool made it possible to track who helped whom, and how often, and gave a reasonable indication of where helpful energy was spent.

Identifying team influencers by email patterns

In this 2010 project (conducted in a Fortune 50 company), I investigated whether team member influence on others could be identified solely through analyzing a project’s email corpus. A combination of software and analysis isolated key factors that had been previously linked by researchers to more (and less) successful team dynamics. Analysis provided a surprisingly lucid picture of team dynamics, and how these changed over the course of a project. Insights from this experiment proved useful for designing less intrusive methods. Team members were anonymized; however in a small team, people are still identifiable, which raises ethical questions. Further, we learned that insights about team members’ email dynamics raise issues and that these need to be compared to relative skill contributions, yet there are not yet clear ways to weigh communication issues against technical skills.

b4bi Launch and Learn Fellowship

In 2013, I explored what happens when you give college students a free summer to take their startup ideas from proof-of-concept to minimum viable product. In partnership with the Harvard Innovation Lab and the Harvard Global Health Institute, I offered five teams from ES21: The Innovators’ Practice an unbeatable summer opportunity, no strings attached: time, autonomy, access to opportunities, structure and enough funds to focus fully on their own ideas. By the end of the summer, 40% remained in active development (one launched publicly and continues to grow), 40% remained in part-time development, and 20% moved on. Of these, Musey continues growing strong. They are now based in San Francisco. Below is a snapshot of where a few of the teams were in the summer or 2013:

Musey – According to the National Endowment for the Arts, there are 2.1 million artists in America. Many of these artists produce works of art that are shared with the public in the urban or rural environment outside museum walls, for free. MUSEY believes that despite declining levels of funding at both the local and federal levels, it is vitally important that cultural events remain free and open to the public. To this end, MUSEY is an online platform and mobile app solution that utilizes geo-technology to enable users to find art in their immediate vicinity, learn more about it, and support it financially. We give audiences who are moved, touched, or provoked by art in the public domain, an online platform through which they can dialogue with creators and artists alike. MUSEY is also a system of micro-patronage that works both ways – allowing users to financially support the artists they encounter – while helping artists and arts organizations learn more about and engage their audiences. MUSEY was recently named the winner of the Harvard Dean’s Challenge for Cultural Entrepreneurship.

Postwork, run by Mia Scharpie and Jennifer Ly, is a service that helps people find local  options for creative growth outside of work hours. From gallery openings, to welding workshops to ceramics classes, and in-person meetups, Postwork connects creatively-minded individuals with after-work options for growth, and to a larger community for support and inspiration. Postwork is based on the premise that we all want to be able to get our hands dirty learning something new, get exposed to exciting ideas, and see innovative, beautiful and interesting things that inspire us. Yet making time for creative pursuits consistently outside of work is hard: After work we’re often physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. We often find ourselves looking back, realizing time has slipped away and most of our energy has been invested into our “9-5’s” (or more,) and very little of it into our own creative growth. Through weekly emails connecting users to creative local events and community building, we help people take their time after work and turn it into their own personal postwork: making something creative with their “5-9.”

THE PIXEL PARK PROJECT, led by Ryn Burns, attempts to enhance the human experience in existing urban environments.The Pixel Park Project is intended to map and ultimately solve significant urban health problems created by the physical layout of cities worldwide. Air pollution has been cited as a major health problem for cities across the globe. For example, a study at Rice University recently linked air pollution levels to those for cardiac arrest.1 Pixel Park networks will be strategically deployed to help map localized roadside air pollution in order to better understand and ultimately respond to this problem to create healthier cities. The rich data sets generated by our urban sensor networks will allow for visualization and analysis of the behavior of roadside air pollution in real-time. By mapping the problem, Pixel Parks will enable citizen alerts to change their behavior to avoid hazardous pollution and will allow urban planners and engineers to create healthier city layouts.The vertical garden aspect of Pixel Park targets health problems associated with human disconnection from nature. Providing a network of lush parks increases the direct interface between humans and nature, which has been shown to have a “cognitive relaxing effect.”2 The parks can also provide food for local fauna, reinforcing/reestablishing biological corridors in the city. Pixel Park networks will create new opportunities to engage in the practice and study of urban agro-forestry. Finally, by including “air-polishing” plants, pixel park planters can be used to improve the air pollution problem that its sensor array measuring.

Will we do it again? Absolutely. This helped some teams launch on highly favorable teams, and was a powerful learning experience for all teams. The program inspired a larger initiative with the Harvard Global Health Institute and the Harvard Innovation Lab that supports students to continue developing ideas beyond the classroom.

E-Guide: The unofficial guide to entrepreneurship and innovation resources

In 2012, together with Jackie Stenson, a former Design Preceptor at SEAS (now co-Founder of Essmart), built a central resource of entrepreneurship opportunities at Harvard, MIT, and the surrounding Boston community. We built what students said they wanted based on the questions they asked of their advisors, namely: How can I learn more about entrepreneurship? What opportunities are there to build my early-stage idea? And what resources are there to fund and support my proven idea?

What did we learn? The site collected all relevant resources for aspiring entrepreneurs and made them easily filterable. The problem was that students still wanted their advisors to curate opportunities for them. It is likely that a marketing push or significant partner could have made a big difference (a year later, there were still two unconfirmed partners). We likely made the common mistakes of assuming that if we built it, students would come, use and maintain it. It is also likely that students who are motivated enough will find their own opportunities, whether this site exists or not. 

Search for diverse models of innovation

There’s IDEO. There are advertising agencies. There are governments. Groups making movies, music, you name it. But even though we know innovative is usually collaborative and often interdisciplinary, the innovation stories we hear most often are still individual stories. I help students collect more complex stories, and think it is important for educating students and preparing ourselves for the realistic challenges of solving some of society’s toughest problems creatively.

Link to Primary Research Projects