The Flint Ferris Wheel and 100K Ideas
Maggie Henderson, Senior Collaborative Design student, documented and journaled her internship with Skypoint Ventures in Flint, MI. Below is an entry describing her design experience.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the words “Flint, Michigan”? Is it lethal drinking water? “Murder Capital” of the country? Unemployment rates? Abandoned buildings?
Believe it or not the city, formerly known as Vehicle City, was once a haven to which working class families flocked, seeking better lives. The Flint of yesterday, a picture of hope, stands in stark contrast to the bleak reality and even bleaker perception that remains of the city today. About a year ago, I was given the opportunity to help change that. And in turn, that opportunity changed my own notion on the range of impact that design can have on people and communities.
After landing a summer job with Flint-based venture capital firm, Skypoint Ventures, in May of 2017, I spent the following three months working alongside 11 other college students studying business, engineering, and design at places all over the country, from the University of Michigan to Georgetown University and all the way to the University of California Berkeley.
Operating in a cardboard alcove (via our first 100K Ideas client: a modular wall system called Divide By Design) while the restoration of the building next door was underway, we were tasked with developing and testing a service model for two new initiatives—the Flint Ferris Wheel co-working space and the nonprofit startup incubator 100K Ideas—aimed at retransforming Flint into a hub for design and entrepreneurship.
The Collaborative Design program has shaped me into a strong believer in an empathic approach to design – to seek to understand the perspectives of others, to persevere in the face of ambiguity, and that collaboration leads to innovation. This same ideology informed the process my fellow students and I went through to ensure a successful launch for the Flint Ferris Wheel and 100K Ideas.
The service model for 100k Ideas works like this: during initial meetings with our potential clients (free for the first hour), they would pitch us their idea for a product, service, or software, whether it was just in their heads, sketched out, or fully prototyped. We would then sit and benchmark any other similar ideas that already existed. If we found that something strikingly similar was already on the market, we would’ve encouraged them to pursue another idea. If the client’s idea showed originality and potential, however, in a neatly packaged and branded assessment binder for a flat $200. If the client was ready to take a step further, they would be charged at an hourly rate of $40 in exchange for the thinking, making and marketing of their idea.
This service model within the context of the Ferris Wheel co-working space does a number of things. First, it offers democratized access to innovation because anyone can walk through the revolving front door with an idea they wish to bring to fruition and be treated with respect, which is, quite frankly, a revolutionary concept in the business and innovation world. Second, with the generation of new ideas comes new manufacturing opportunities, opportunities inevitably close to where those ideas happen. One of the many things that I learned from, my boss, David, is that in order to invest in design and innovation, you have to invest in manufacturing. By doing that, 100K Ideas and the Flint Ferris Wheel are paving the way for sustainable economic growth for the Flint community.
Situated right next to the very office building where, over 100 years ago, Billy Durant started General Motors, the company that built the booming, mid-century middle class and once employed half of the city, these catalysts for entrepreneurship will help reignite the spark of ingenuity and forward thinking that defined Flint during its heyday as an epicenter of automotive manufacturing.
These initiatives will also continue to augment a workforce of college students with fresh skill sets, giving them paid opportunities to supplement their educations with real world experiences and empowering them to make meaningful contributions to society. I am a testament to this one; I felt genuinely valued for my contributions to the team and humbled to see my design displayed on a building, a token of a history in the making. I am still so grateful for having had the opportunity and I was reluctant to respond when July came and passed and David looked to me and asked “when do you turn into a pumpkin?”
A few months after I left to return back to school for the fall semester, I learned from a colleague that the Ferris Wheel and 100K Ideas had been nominated for a National Development Council (NDC) Academy Award by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). The awards would take place in Washington D.C. at the end of October at their three day, biennial event. My boss, David Ollila would be in attendance and he wanted the students who worked with him over the summer to accompany him. I RSVP’d immediately.
In three weeks time, I was headed to our nation’s capital where I learned we would have to convince the other attendees to vote for our project in order to win. Equipped with branded t- shirts and chapsticks, hundreds of brochures, cases of 100 Grand bars, and about seven boxes full of caramel corn, we set out to share our story with everyone that we could. As both the largest and youngest team of nominees in attendance (colorful booth and goodies aside), we were without a doubt disruptors. With seven of us, we covered a lot of territory throughout the course of the those three days, which were filled with presentations about economic development, networking sessions, and, of course, the awards ceremony. Our competition, the glamorous King’s Theatre restoration project from Brooklyn, New York, put up a respectable fight, but in the end, our story of redemption for the city of Flint spoke volumes, melted hearts and landed us the award.
Winning meant more than just a testament to the hard work that we all put in over the course of the summer, winning meant that we were successful in starting to change the world’s perception of Flint. Or better yet, we empowered Flint to change those perceptions itself and to restore the same spirit that drove the city to be one of the top manufacturing centers in the country so many years ago. That pioneering spirit runs deep, and I don’t believe it ever went away, it was just masked by the crises that ensued and the consequent state of turmoil that was leftover.
I’d like to believe that Flint has hurt enough to not make the same mistakes twice. When you hit rock bottom, the only direction you can go is up. The water crisis was scraping bedrock, now the reinforcement of the entrepreneurial, innovative spirit that will emanate from the Ferris Wheel ecosystem will be the ladder toward a renewed economic prosperity, one that is deep- rooted and far-reaching. In the words of our governor (after noting the “vibrant downtown” that has become of our own Grand Rapids), “it’s Flint’s turn.”
Collaborative Design Program Chair Gayle DeBruyn likens the talents of her students to those of an orchestra conductor. Unlike virtuosos of a specific instrument, these students become fully versed in uniting different voices in harmony to solve layered, complex problems, often referred to as ‘wicked’ problems.
“Innovation doesn’t happen without cooperation,” DeBruyn says. “The design-based thinking process we teach in our program is present everywhere throughout the business world and nonprofit sector. Our students develop a unique set of skills that can bring together a diverse collection of stakeholders and break down the traditional silos that constrict creative problem solving.”
This summer, Collaborative Design students Leslie Yarhouse and Anthony Murtha each had the chance to put their skills to work in internship positions that on the surface may seem an odd fit for a design student. A closer look reveals otherwise.
In a position with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF), Yarhouse worked alongside a team of biochemists and other scientists, digging through bags of trash to gather data for a waste characterization study the WMSBF is undertaking in pursuit of grant funding from the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Collaborative Design student Leslie Yarhouse during her summer internship with the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (image courtesy of Leslie Yarhouse)
“Collaborative Design classes at KCAD are very team-oriented and involve students from all different majors, and that really helped me in my internship, because none of the other interns that worked with me were design students,” Yarhouse says.
So what role does a design student play in mulling over mounds of trash and drafting reports for the government? In addition to physically sorting through waste, Yarhouse conducted an extensive review of the methods and benchmarks other communities employ in the order to better manage waste. She then had to communicate her findings to her team members in a way that brought a broader perspective to the group’s efforts to more deeply understand the problem of waste management here in West Michigan.
“As a Collaborative Design student, you’re approaching the world as a generalist who wants to know about everything,” Yarhouse says. “In that way, you take a broad approach but then can dig deeper into specific things.”
Yarhouse has a keen interest in matters of sustainability, but her internship wasn’t only concerned with exploring different waste management techniques; she also had to help her teammates ensure that their findings were presented in a way that aligned with rigid expectations of the DEQ’s grant program. While methodology is certainly a critical tool in solving the wicked problem of waste management, Yarhouse quickly learned that funding is just as important.
“A lot of times you’re just given a problem and there is a lot of pressure to look at that problem on its own, but design thinking makes you think about the whole system that’s involved in that problem,” she says.
Yarhouse spent a good portion of her internship working alongside a team of biochemists and other scientists to gather data for a waste characterization study (image courtesy of Leslie Yarhouse)
Dan Schoonmaker, director of the WMSBF and Yarhouse’s supervisor, says the project involved much more than sifting through and analyzing trash.
“We were asking Leslie to interface with several different types of recyclers, with economists, with garbage-truck drivers and regulators, and other interns from several different majors. She went from problem solving on the face of a landfill to reviewing economic literature over the course of a week. I think that collaborative, design-based approach was essential to her success. She was able to understand the overarching goal and how all the various perspective fit into it.”
Murtha found systems-based thinking integral to landing a position as a research and strategic development intern at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). While working on a visual mapping exercise for one of his classes at KCAD, Murtha began thinking about how to improve the marketing of Michigan’s state parks to entice more visitors. To learn more about what attracts people to the state’s parks, Murtha created a survey that he disbursed on Facebook. The survey caught the attention of the DNR, which offered him an internship its marketing department.
Collaborative Design student Anthony Murtha spent his summer in an internship with the Michigan DNR (image courtesy of Anthony Murtha)
“The Collaborative Design program teaches us about systems on a large scale and how they are impacting smaller intricate parts,” Murtha says. “It made me think beyond the aesthetic aspects of design towards how design could help connect people to the bigger picture of exploring the state of Michigan.”
While the DNR has largely tasked Murtha with graphic design work, he’s incorporated systems-based thinking into his design process to not only design material that will attract people to Michigan’s state parks but also the entire state as a whole. On top of his graphic design work, Murtha has also begun to work more closely with the DNR’s marketing department to develop the organization’s larger tourism strategy.
As part of his internships, Murtha helped shape the Michigan DNR’s tourisim strategy, a task which neccessitated some on-site research (image courtesy of Anthony Murtha)
Though Murtha hasn’t been trained specifically as a marketer, he was easily able to interface with the rest of his team at the DNR because of the ways teamwork and collaboration are emphasized in the Collaborative Design Program.
“I don’t want to settle down in one specific area,” Murtha says. “The fact that I can speak the language of Industrial Designers and Graphic Designers and can understand the programs they use is huge. …The foundational classes in the Collaborative Design program set us up to be able to create individually, but also to work on a diverse team of people for a common goal.”
Murtha’s long-term goal is to eventually open his own fully collaborative design firm with specialists from a variety of disciplines able to tackle any design problem. In the meantime, he’s confident that his experience in the Collaborative Design program will translate into meaningful career opportunities.
“Even if I’m competing against more specialized designers for a position, I still feel like I have a fighting chance,” Murtha says. “Each new skill I gain is another tool in the tool box.”
The office culture at Gensler is active and community driven. There are weekly presentations by various designers, artists, and firms as well as workshops, movies, daily inspirations, parties, and many other events. The entire Gensler office meets on Friday afternoons for news, updates, to introduce new staff, and to socialize. Every other week each studio hosts its own meetings to share news and updates. Having been completely immersed in my internship, I invited people from various parts of the office out to lunch, coffee, or art/design related events. As a student, these are rare opportunity to learn, connect, and pick expert’s brains!
Gensler student interns at a farewell dinner
A one-month research program was assigned to all 17 interns this summer. There were two groups, a Commercial Office Building team and a Transit Oriented Development team. I ended up joining a third project titled “Interstitial Spaces: Researching China’s Spaces In-Between,” which was awarded the first Gensler grant in Asia. I worked with another intern named Yuan, who is in the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Michigan. We had two sponsors from the work/flex 2 architecture studio: Shamim Ahmadzadegan, design director, and Lin Jia, designer. After our initial research into history and analysis, we spent a week creating layered maps of four mixed development projects in Shanghai. Halfway through the project we had a project review, and critiques showed that although people agreed with our lack data and analysis, they weren’t convinced on the actual research itself. We needed to communicate the concept of researching interstitial spaces and explore the users of the spaces themselves.
So we set out to interview and document users of the highly successful Xintiandi development where Gensler’s office is located through video interviews, timelapses, and observations. Our last week was spent synthesizing, compiling, and editing all of our research into a final presentation that was given to the entire Shanghai office. The discussions that followed generated excitement and interest among many directors and managers, creating anticipation for the final research presentation in 2014.
Student interns present to the Shanghai office
Living in Shanghai is much like any other major city: space is limited. Many people live in very close quarters and the average apartments size is 250 sq.ft. (dorm size). I was fortunate enough that my grandfather invited me to stay at his place during my internship. This allowed me to live closer to the city and experience Chinese family culture and the relations between local people on a daily basis. I spent most of my weekdays from sunset to nighttime either at Gensler’s offices or experiencing Shanghai. Commuting is very easy with Shanghai’s amazing subway system and cheap cab fares.
If there is one thing that a foreigner needs to learn about business in China it is the concept of guanxi. Guanxi can be thought of as the system of networks and relationships in business. It’s quite important to be aware of the concept of guanxi, as there are many opportunities and connections to be made by building one’s own guanxi. For certain deals, shaking hands over drinks at a social dinner among a network of partners, family, and friends is often more powerful than inking signatures over a brief coffee.
Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai
A social issue that caught my eye was the gentrification which sits at the crossroads of ecology, architecture, and social policy. Many areas still face gentrification due to new development, and the government relocates residents or offers a housing unit and/or financial compensation if a residential building is being built nearby. It is a grey area due to many families being given housing during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), so there is no clear ownership or regulations. Some houses are in fact Art Deco, Spanish style, or traditional Chinese architecture that were divided up to house dozens of families. I hope to travel back to Shanghai in the future and see these buildings preserved or at the very least unchanged.
When it comes to food in Shanghai, you can find almost any type of cuisine or produce. To me the best food is street food and the local’s favorites or local’s cooking because it is authentic and culturally immersive. The prices are quite cheap; you can grab breakfast on the go, a set lunch, or late night dumpling soup for a few dollars. Shanghai also has many world-renowned restaurants, bars, clubs, and they even have a few microbreweries. It was memorable to experience Shou Ning Lu road, where you can find hundreds of restaurants selling all kinds of seafood (famous for their crawfish), Chinese barbecue, and even grilled snakes.
Shou Ning Lu food market in Shanghai
The nightlife in Shanghai is unimaginable on many levels. The city simply does not sleep. There are endless amounts of activities ranging from early night Tai Chi in the park to karaoke sessions that go well into the morning hours. Every weekend I set out to meet as many designers, artists, musicians, DJ’s, and people involved in all kinds of projects as I could. There are countless galleries, studios, and spaces to visit. The historical architecture in the French Concession area is astonishing. Pudong’s futuristic skyline instills feelings of a dystopian reality when you realize that the Shanghai Center topps out at 2,070 feet and 135 floors and is surrounded by many other skyscrapers.
Panoramic view of Shanghai
Leaving Shanghai after seven weeks felt like being torn out of a movie. Living among 25 million people in an urban world of metal and glass shooting towards the sky feels nothing short of dystopian. Everything in the city constantly changes and moves, fast. My mind shifted gears rapidly and changed to the Shanghai pace of life, but as the gears of the plane touched down on Michigan soil I snapped back into a familiar place with a brand new perspective.