Putting Character into Innovation

Students inventIf it’s true, as Alan Kay said, that “The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” then how do we do that? More importantly, how do we help our students do that?  

For many years I conducted a student workshop called Being Your Own Futurist that helped students design the future using two methods of envisioning technological innovation: the linear approach, which focused on incremental innovation; and the intersecting circles approach, which focused on how existing technologies are combined to form new tech, often with disruptive impacts. In this issue I focus on the linear approach.

The Linear Approach

The linear approach asks, “If older technology used to perform tasks in a certain way, and today’s technology performs those tasks in a new way, what innovative approaches to performing those tasks can you create that extend or expand today’s technology into the future?” The activity requires students to deconstruct current day technology to understand how it evolved. In the process, students develop an understanding of the human needs it meets and how new technology might improve or expand on meeting those needs. The workshop becomes an exploration of the history and psychology of innovation, as well as an exercise in STEAM think (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math). This activity also works well as a digital citizenship exercise because it compels students to see technology’s impacts clearly, and in detail.

Consider the Suitcase

I often began the workshop by considering the suitcase. It’s a great example of a common technology that has evolved over the years and promises to keep developing as long as human beings want to travel. 

Young people find it hard to believe that not long ago, historically speaking, we used to carry our suitcases. That is, we actually picked them up off the ground and carried them using a handle, groaning as we fought gravity every step of the way. That is the kind of suitcase that most people my age used as kids.

Many years ago, as I was lugging an old style suitcase up to an airport ticket counter, I saw something that changed me forever: a well coiffed man in a business suit rolling two large suitcases quickly and easily down a long airport hallway. This supernatural feat was made possible by the fact that each of his suitcases was supported by two wheels. I remember wondering, “Why wasn’t that version 1.0 of the suitcase?” A few years later, after I had purchased luggage with two wheels, I saw a diminutive, elderly lady effortlessly roll a huge suitcase across an expansive airport concourse. This was made possible by a suitcase design that included four spinner wheels. I had another epiphany, wondering once again, “Why wasn’t that Suitcase Version 1.0?”

The question that drives Being Your Own Futurist is, “What’s next?” Or, more importantly, what could we design today that in hindsight will seem obvious to us tomorrow? We then deconstruct the evolution of a particular technology – like a suitcase – in the order of its incremental changes. (You can go back as far as you like – to steamer trunks, knapsacks…whatever works.) This helps us see the consistent thread of human needs the technology meets throughout its evolution, which in turn helps us design the technology’s next iterations.

Students Saw It First

Many of the new approaches to luggage that we are seeing today, like the luggage scooter and the suitcase that follows you, I first heard about from middle and high school students in my workshops long before we read about them in the popular press. Students also came up with ideas for hover suitcases, GPS enabled suitcases so you would never lose your suitcase, “inventory suitcases” so you would always know what’s inside (a precursor to the Internet of Things), talking suitcases (foretelling voice activation), suitcases that had a screen on one side so users could watch movies while they were waiting in the airport, motion sensitive suitcases that kept them from bumping into things, and other brilliant ideas. 

The workshop started with the suitcase, and then went wherever students wanted it to go. I have heard new ideas for everything from intelligent eyeglasses (well in advance of Google Glass) to foreign language translators, much like those that are just now starting to emerge for smart devices. 

They had great fun thinking about the future of mobile technology. When cell phones first came out they were basically a voice technology; by the time most of us had them, the only feature that had been added was texting. I asked students to imagine what they could do, based on their ever decreasing size, and ever increasing connectivity and power. They foresaw the world of apps long before it appeared, suggesting our mobile phones would be used for home security, health monitoring, cameras (yes, there was a time when cell phones couldn’t take pictures), and many other applications. There is no shortage of inspiration. I have successfully lead this workshop with adults a number of times, but young people’s imaginations seem more agile. I’ve often wondered why think tanks don’t involve more students.

Tech Talk Debrief – It’s All About Character

The conversations about their ideas were just as important as the actual ideas themselves. As a debriefing exercise we discussed questions like: Who will benefit from the technology, and who will lose? What will the technology cost, environmentally, socially and interpersonally? Every new technology was set in a larger, community context and balanced in terms of costs and benefits. After all, the goal was for students not only to develop great ideas, but also to develop the character and insight needed to be effective stewards of their vision for the future.

Every time I conducted the workshop I was struck by a few observations. First, the students acted as if no one had ever asked them to think about the future as an innovator before. Once they trusted the opportunity I was providing, they embraced the activity with great enthusiasm and creativity. I was happy to unleash the dormant innovator within.

Second, they had great fun working collaboratively with each other as they generated new ideas. Workshops were noisy in a good way, filled with ideas flying around the room and butcher paper filled with prototype drawings. Third, students demonstrated great sensitivity to issues of technology’s impacts during follow-up conversations. They acted as though it was the first time they had been asked to consider the social impacts of technology. I couldn’t help but wonder, Why isn’t thinking about technology’s impacts a staple of their education? Doing so could be very helpful in developing their digital citizenship skills. 

In the end, the workshop produced the results I hoped for: students having fun as they worked with each other to invent the future, while being conscious of the long term effects of their ideas. 

My advice? Try the suitcase activity. It costs nothing. And your students will amaze you with their ideas. 

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jason_ohlerDr. Jason Ohler has been writing, researching, teaching and speaking about the application of character education to digital lifestyles for three decades. You can find more about him here, where you can subscribe to his newsletter, Big Ideas, and read about his latest book, 4Four Big Ideas for the Future. Currently Dr. Ohler teaches for Fielding Graduate University’s Media Psychology PhD program, and directs the University of Alaska’s Masters in Educational Technology.