Earlier this year, while leading creative workshops in the EU, I received a request from a good friend asking if I was available to help assist in a maker's week in the French Alps. Since the theme was "Make It Playful"---it was right up my ally. Selected MIT students would be spending a week in the EU reimagining everyday objects into more playful, interactive things. Needless to say, I didn't have to asked twice to be cajoled into observing and facilitating however best I could while having fun!
There was truly something uniquely untangible brewing in the air---musical wobbling pens that drew animals in the midnight sky, rocking disco chairs for relaxation, meditation sandboxes and glassroom gardens, doors that could speak, and the list goes on. Upon arrival, I was met with busy hands and minds creating sandboxes filled with led strips, balloons, arduino kits, squishy stress ball innards, everything playful under the sun. The sessions took place in a shared space with neighboring robotics Fab Lab in a room riddled with little bits unimaginable. Anything from colorful gizmos, to battery packs, to wooden block, pieces of string and paints, legos, even blinx---smart tiles that read your mind. Off to the side were one off rooms converted into hubs including a makeshift woodshop, photography room, and life-size robot smiling from ear to ear, all to the backdrop of snow-capped mountains mere ski-lifts away from the French Alps.
The week was packed with sessions on playful design, building and thinking. The event was hosted by a plush duo, one a former MIT grad and business partner who organized the breakout sessions followed by a three-day hackathon and demo day finale with champagne festivities to follow. Participants presented their once ordinary objects based on teachings around design-thinking and play engineering processes to trigger creative connections across outputs and disciplines to form new, interactive objects that delight in extraordinary ways. Unlike other events I have attended in the past, there was something different happening here. It was as if only the careful combination of the tangible objects met with software know-how and the carefully selected high caliber students, could make such a project come to life.
What set this week apart from others I have had a chance to attend was it's all-encompassing, multidisciplinary approach to an all-too-often insular software-only mentality to product teams, as if the best ideas can only result in software based solutions to problems. Rather than taking a more narrowly-focused approach of a top-down 'expert', these teams benefited from blurring the lines across disciplines and finding more creative solutions through connection and synthesis in problem solving rather than a top down approach. This resulted in more balanced talents and skillsets across teams----artists, engineers, designers, fabricators, programmers working across a unified mission in making an idea come to life. It is precisely this interdisciplinary approach that is heartily lacking in the way we teach in our schools, the way we test in our exams, and the way we celebrate those who choose not to overly-doctorate in degrees in pursuit of knowledge. In the end, the best ideas were the ones that were not executed by software alone, but only by a careful conversation, negotiation and exploration of many disciplines that synthesized a new way of thinking about an otherwise ordinary object.
In the wake of disruption across all sectors---the future of education, work and the economy, these creative forms of play and collaboration act as momentary lights in a future destined towards automation, data-mining and AI. It is not to say there is not a role or value for the educated expert narrowly siphoned to understand a piece over the whole. However, cultivating learning and opportunity only for the experts over the more non-linear, interdisciplinary thinkers of our day is like draining the last drops of joy and imagination into a desert drain. The best inventions and discoveries come from moments of joy, safe places to play, playgrounds for our daydreamers, where we allow for ourselves to be surprised, to go off path, to stumble, fail, and explore across wide swathes of fields and experiences, so we might create new fields, tools and parachutes in a rapidly changing world brimming with joy, if we let it.