Tayo Akinyemi

Creative Design for Affordability at Cornell

It has been almost two years since I first blogged about design for affordability. In July of 2007, I wrote a profile of d.light design. As many of you know, d.light emerged in the spring of 2006 from a class at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford entitled, “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.” The course assembles students from a variety of backgrounds including business, engineering and design, to tackle critical needs in the developing world.

I vividly remember the feelings of wistfulness and jealousy as I read the course description. I thought to myself, “I wish Cornell had a class like that.” Well, now we do! Thanks to the vision, determination, (and yes, creativity), of two Johnson School MBA students, Jeff Gangemi and Charles Lo, Creative Design for Affordability (CDfA) was born. As you’ll soon discover, this dynamic duo fought near misses and long odds to make their dream a reality.

But despite their slightly “odd-couple-ish” pairing—Jeff is a former journalist that embodies laidback California cool (although he’s actually from Pennsylvania) and Charles, a scientist with a PhD in immunology, is a bundle of kinetic energy—their partnership has yielded fantastic results. Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed sitting down for a chat with these guys.

With no further ado, let’s learn about Creative Design for Affordability @ Cornell!

Tayo, NextBillion.net: What prompted the creation of the class? What was your inspiration?

Jeff: Well, before business school I was a writer for Business Week covering management education and the emerging trends in the space. During that time I learned about the Stanford design school and the course, Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.

I had the opportunity to speak to Jim Patell, one of the two professors who teach the course, on two different occasions. His passion was palpable and the idea of getting one’s hands dirty and building something was inspiring. I felt that the strengths of Cornell’s business school program and the university were similar to Stanford’s, so why not improve the MBA program with a hands-on design thinking experience?

Charles: I was inspired by the screening of a video about IDEO’s creative process in my MLO (Managing and Leading in Organizations) class last summer. Literally, everything “clicked” after watching the video. Shortly afterward, I went to California to visit Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design as well as IDEO itself. Upon returning to Cornell, I recognized that the raw material to create something similar was there, but we needed to break down the walls between departments. I also started thinking about the possibility of having a design school here.

Tayo, NextBillion.net: How did your fabulous partnership evolve?

Jeff: It’s funny, I remember saying to wife, “Now that I’m in school, I’m going to bring that design class to Cornell.” I can’t believe it actually happened.

In any case, I started working on the class in January of last year. I was trying to find a professor to take ownership of it, but by June I still hadn’t found anyone. Incidentally, June was the deadline for finding a professor if I wanted to launch the class before I graduated. When I returned to school in the fall, I knew that I had to do something.

It was then that I received an email from Charles, who’s an Accelerated MBA*. I was actually ready to let the idea die at that point. Ironically, Charles had already formed an affinity group called Creative Design for Affordability to channel the energy of students interested in the space. It is being run by a committed group of first year students, who have subsequently assumed leadership. As part of that effort, he was assembling a panel entitled Creative Design for Affordability: Innovations for the World’s Biggest Challenges’ for Entrepreneurship@Cornell Celebration 2009.

Long story short, his energy and enthusiasm carried me through the doldrums. We continued to work on the class for almost five months before we found the current professor, Alan McAdams, to champion it.

*Note from the author: For those of you who don’t know, the Johnson School has a one-year program for folks who already have advanced degrees and strong quantitative skills. Additionally, Jeff is a Park Fellow and CdFA is his Park project. The Park Fellowship is “a two year full-tuition plus stipend fellowship award for up to 25 Johnson students who have demonstrated outstanding leadership potential.” As part of the Fellowship experience, each student is required to complete a service project.

Charles: When I talked to Mark Milstein, Director of the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, about my idea for a design school, he was enthusiastic and told me about Jeff’s project. I wasn’t sure about how to proceed, but I knew that the Stanford design school had a class. I also thought that the affinity group would be a great way to generate interest. That’s when I met Jeff. He’d figured the class thing out and I thought “Perfect.”

Tayo, NextBillion.net: What were your toughest challenges in bringing the course to fruition?

Jeff: As I mentioned before, we had to work really hard to find a professor willing to teach the course. We’d had several meetings with Professor McAdams about the sustainability seminar that he co-teaches with the Department of Applied Economics & Management, but we were unable to reach common ground. Finally, on January 10th, we got an email from McAdams agreeing to teach a 7-week long, 1.5 credit course.

It was also difficult to get the proposal approved by the curriculum committee. What we’d prepared raised a few red flags. However, in the final meeting I sold the concept as if my life depended on it. Two or three days later, the course was approved.

Charles: Passion drives excellence!

Tayo, NextBillion.net: How is the class set up?

Charles: It’s essentially a human-centered design course with a project component, i.e. a rapid, iterative prototyping design challenge. The 36 class participants will be divided into two groups to complete projects for our clients, Compos Mentis and Comet Skateboards.

Compos Mentis is an area non-profit farm that teaches life skills to adults with mental illnesses. We’ll be developing a bicycle-powered corn grinder for them. (Innovate or Die, anyone?) Comet Skateboards is a local start-up that builds skateboards and apparel with eco-friendly materials. We will work with Comet to create affordable protective gear for them.

Although the class isn’t exclusively focused on the BoP, many of the basic design concepts are applicable, and there will be cost constraints applied to the prototyping process. Additionally, we focus on human and needs centered design as well as sustainability.

For the classroom portion of the course, we’ve lined up 10 guest lecturers to discuss specific topics such as effective brainstorming, product development, design for customer appeal and usability, and of course, design for the base of the pyramid. We’ve recruited professors from within and outside the Johnson School, as well as practioners. In fact, last Wednesday Daniel Buchner, Vice President, Organizational Innovation and Gaurav Rohatgi, Principal, Mechanical Engineer from Design Continuum taught a 3-hour session on its design process.

Tayo, Nextbillion.net: You’re both graduating in May so what’s next for Creative Design for Affordability @ Cornell?

Jeff: Well, after emailing the engineering listserv, Charles met several passionate students working on the Solar Decathlon. They introduced us to the Design and Planning Club, which is an interdisciplinary group of 150 undergraduate and graduate students that is dedicated to architecture and design at Cornell. We’re hoping to tap their energy and leverage our business training to further the cause of Creative Design for Affordability on campus.

Charles: In the long term, I’d like to see a design school established Cornell. We want to create a shared partnership with a number of Cornell’s schools and departments so that all interested Cornellians will have access. At Hasso Plattner, people from different schools teach; there are no specific appointments. Someone has to take the lead, but it’ll be a joint effort.

At this stage, we’re actively soliciting institutional support and funders for the design school.

Tayo, Nextbillion.net: Well, there you have it—Creative Design for Affordability@Cornell!

As a member of the inaugural class, I have to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience thus far. Jeff’s unofficial motto is to “think outside the spreadsheet” and that is exactly what we’re doing. During the Design Continuum’s workshop two weeks ago, I had more fun with modeling clay and paper clips than I thought possible.

If you’d like to keep up with the goings on of the class and the design school, check out Jeff’s blog where he reports periodically on the class’s progress.