Since 2008, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts has run a graduate class entitled Design for UNICEF; the course will begin its third session this upcoming fall. In this course, students examine some of the design challenges UNICEF faces, and work in groups to research and prototype possible extensions to existing efforts.

Teaching the course was Clay Shirky, with the steady collaboration of Christopher Fabian and Erica Kochi, co-leads of the UNICEF Innovation Unit. Other UNICEF staff and partners would also attend classes as guest advisors. John Dimatos, a student in the inaugural class who then became its resident research, will be taking over the role of instructor for the upcoming fall session. The close partnership with UNICEF will remain unchanged.

As John is involved with every stage of the process and all the actors, it was logical to get his feedback on the class first. In revealing how the ITP collaboration operated, the Innovation Unit hopes other divisions and field offices may do the same and can build their own networks of productive academic partnerships.

The greatest outcome for an academic collaboration, John felt, is one in which all three parties learn something new. The three parties he spoke of were the instructors, UNICEF, and the students. To achieve this, John said, a balance must be struck between (what he termed) naiveté and institution. It is important for UNICEF, he said, to resist stifling the creativity that goes into student problem-solving, especially at the very beginning of a project. John expressed that there is a refreshing galvanization of purpose that arises from students being asked to create solutions to actual and serious problems, and it is beneficial for both parties to harness that enthusiasm. However, it is also important for UNICEF to be there to point out when similar initiatives have already been attempted, or to explain why a particular proposal just wouldn’t be feasible to keep projects grounded and productive.

At NYU’s Design for UNICEF class, UNICEF staff attended every session, and John said their extensive knowledge of past and present UNICEF development projects was greatly valued. Institutional experience also gave projects a dose of reality and real-life context.

The Design for UNICEF class has three elements, John said, that work together to create the best results.

1. UNICEF Innovation Unit staff give a presentation detailing one region in the world they are focused on to provide students with a specific place and its particular set of needs. Details are provided about the level of infrastructure and amount of technological constraints for a given region, and students are shown some projects that seek to solve the difficulties faced.

2. The students form groups that feature diverse set of skills coming together to develop effective design prototypes. (The ITP program already attracts students of multidisciplinary backgrounds.) Along the way, students are advised by faculty and visiting experts, and the final phase of the  class involves soliciting user feedback and professional critique of their prototypes, culminating in final presentations to UNICEF staff.

3. The final capstone is the required documentation of each class project to be posted online, in order to better reveal the steps and accomplishments made along the way.

Some students have taken projects begun in the Design for UNICEF class and decided to further develop the concept for their individual thesis projects. In those instances, students have often branched out to utilize a wide variety of  resources along with the support of UNICEF to evolve their prototypes to a greater fruition. A select number of projects have also been selected for further development beyond academic walls, such as a family tracing and reunification project which will be tested in Haiti later this summer.

John felt that it took an academic curriculum with a certain flexibility and a culture of self-driven, creative thinkers to successfully partner with UNICEF. That said, he thought that iteration was the key to developing projects of greater sophistication and scope, and thus partnerships that extended beyond one term would produce greater benefits. Longer-term projects, John believed, would give the organizations’ differing philosophies greater opportunity to take hold of and find life in useful applications.

Some points brought up by John Dimatos will be further expounded upon in successive posts, to add clarity and specificity in gaining more insight into the academic partnership process.

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