Monday, January 10, 2011

Brown Engineering Students and Alumni Organize "A Better World by Design" Conference

Brown engineering alumna Sharon Langevin '09 and current senior Tim Dingman '11 help organize the "A Better World by Design" annual conference with recent Brown graduate Steve Daniels. Dingman explains, “With students behind it, it’s more about entrepreneurship, about doing things. Actually, anyone can start their own organization and get things done. ABWxD is a very bottom-up process, which is the theme of the whole conference.” Their story was recently chronicled in a Providence Journal feature story.

Julia Steiny: Students want to do real things
01:00 AM EST on Sunday, January 9, 2011

The four were Sharon Langevin and Steve Daniels, from Brown University, and Tino Chow and Mike Eng from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Together, they hatched a plan for what has since evolved into an annual conference called “A Better World by Design” (ABWxD). In the end, it changed their lives.In 2008, four hotshot college students had grown impatient with taking classes and digesting tons of information. They were itching to DO something. Somehow they wanted to get their hands dirty with changing the world, before finishing their fancy college educations.
The four wanted to hear from a cross-section of people who were solving real problems using social and environmental design ideas. With infectious idealism, they invited the coolest people they could find, from engineering, urban transportation, business, politics and so forth. With in-kind help from their respective institutions, but zero budget, they got engineers, architects and activists from all over the globe to agree to come.
To get the word out, they reached out to a local communications expert Andy Cutler. Cutler helped them think about generating free advertising, such as getting the speakers to promote the conference on their blogs, and designing communications with new media, new market strategies, new ways of getting things done.
Langevin says, “We had speakers lined up and we’d picked a weekend. But Andy got a lot more people involved, filling in workshops and panels with Brown and RISD professors.”
By the end of the summer, they had four more people working with them, but the task was monumental. Langevin shook her head and said, “We went into that weekend thinking that we would never do such a thing again. But we got such an amazing response, we came out of the weekend with: we HAVE to do this again next year.”
They did it. The confident idealists pulled off the sort of event that universities and corporations pay big bucks to professionals to pull off.
The first conference attracted 300 people. The next year it was 500. This past October it was 1,500.
I dropped in on a panel of professionals, each talking about work so mind-blowing it sounded like sci-fi. Aliza Peleg explained her company’s work designing fueling stations for electric cars that use robots to replace a spent car’s battery with a charged battery that the car owner rents.
Lisa Gansky, author of “The Mesh,” talked about moving from an ownership society to one in which more things are shared, like Zip cars, bike-share programs and apartment swaps.
Conference organizers made more effort to reach K-12 students, so Westerly middle-school kids presented their work on turning food grease into fuel.
The crowd buzzed with practical, entrepreneurial ideas. Invited speakers were found still talking together on the darkened stage where their presentation had long ago finished. Professionals from the Netherlands, Australia, India and the UK exchanged business cards and e-mails with each other and with the kids. Students from colleges as far away as Michigan found mentors to work with, summer internships and jobs, and new purpose.
Tim Dingman, one of this year’s organizers and a senior in engineering at Brown, explains, “With students behind it, it’s more about entrepreneurship, about doing things. Actually, anyone can start their own organization and get things done. ABWxD is a very bottom-up process, which is the theme of the whole conference.”
Sophia Yang from RISD, who is another current organizer, says, “When I got involved, I was transferring my interests from Furniture to Industrial Design. Furniture is an aesthetic and personal object. I wanted to do more than giving beautiful form. So the conference taught me how to use design to solve social problems. The conference itself was so powerful; I can’t say enough.”
As for Langevin, she finished her electrical engineering degree, but then went on to design a new Brown graduate program in International Development, which she is attending currently.
OK, so these are high-achieving students from top-league institutions. But if this group is impatient with abstract learning and not enough Doing, imagine how disempowered most urban students feel about their abilities to make the world a better place. Urban students, and others, are often trapped in communities that offer few opportunities and even fewer models of ordinary people using sheer will and personal charisma to tackle and solve a local problem.
Schools could be perfect places for students to connect to mentors and teachers who supervise them doing something concrete, reclaiming abandoned land or making other neighborhood improvements. As kids run into roadblocks, like advertising a conference without a budget, their mentors could help them find volunteers like Andy Cutler, who have lots of creative advice and expertise but no time to do the work for them.
It’s a different way of looking at education. Classes are not obsolete. In many ways even lecturing can be highly effective and efficient. But as the college kids found out, trying to get something done makes the learning in class much more relevant.
More importantly, though, urban kids need a far stronger sense of their own power to accomplish something they want. Given a chance, who knows what they might do.
Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults on schools and government initiatives, such as Information Works!, Rhode Island’s school-accountability project. She can be reached at, or c/o EdWatch, The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.