This morning at the Technological Ecosystems for Enhancing Multiculturality (TEEM’15) conference I attended a presentation by Natalia Guimaraes about the Porto Design Factory (PDF). I was truly intrigued by her presentation, particularly the set of “rules” that guide this “offshore” pedagogical experiment:
These are the principles behind the Design Factory, an experimental co-creation platform for interdisciplinary education, research and industrial collaboration. Natalia referred to PDF as an “offshore” entity because while part of the Polytechnical University of Porto (it occupies a really compelling campus building), it’s not associated with any one department. It’s a presidential project that has relative autonomy and is intentionally extra-disciplinary. It’s a space to bring students together to work on specific projects funded by business and agencies that need a particular problem solved. But those problems aren’t necessarily immediate, they’re often future-facing R&D concerns that students are given full freedom to explore. But there are conditions.There has to be a specific, real-world challenge they need to try and solve. They have to be international collaborators. And the working groups must incorporate several disciplines. That said, how they decide to solve the problem is not determined by the funding agency—it is entirely in the control of the working group. A twist I love.
Add to this the fact that there are 11 other design factories all over the world. From what I understand the concept was started in—where else!—Finland at Aalto University in Helsinki, but a federation of distinct, independent design factories has sprung up around the world, including:
- Tongji University in Shanghai, China
- Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia
- Catholic University in Santiago, Chile
- Tallinn Technology University in Tallinn, Estonia
- Riga Technical University in Riga, Latvia
- NHL in Leeuwarden, Netherlands
- Underwood College in Seoul, South Korea
- Philadelphia U in Philadelphia, USA
- Pace University in New York, USA
- CERN in Geneva, Switzerland
I was blown away by the presentation, and when they informed us it was 100 meters from the conference, I decided to visit it myself this afternoon. In fact, I am currently writing this post in the kitchen of the Porto Design Factory! It’s really a remarkable space, while rooted in the academic/pedagogical mission, it feels connected to the community as well as the business world. It feels like an academic startup of what could be, and incubator for new ways of imagining the classroom.
When I spoke with the PDF’s coordinator, Rui Coutinho, he went one step further, suggesting they aim to “kill the classroom.” The space is premised upon each person taking full responsibility for their learning, by placing it within a communal context in which the motivation and challenge is grounded in something other than a test or a paper. It’s a product of of their thinking materialized into a collaborative effort to do something. While they aren’t necessarily against theory, philosophy and critique, this is not where that happens. This is where you come when you want to make something as a result of those ideas. What’s more, this is not a place for discussions about intellectual property and monetizing what is created, it’s a laboratory for working through the creation process.
Another part of their ethic I found intriguing was the idea that everyone who spends time in the Design Factory needs to give at least 5 percent of their time back to the house. The quantify this with their own bitcoin-like system. When you help someone with something you get a coin from them, if you have no more coins you can’t ask for help until you help someone else. Give as much as you get! Another element I love is that the kitchen is in many ways the community hub. They have great espresso (some have claimed the best in Porto!) and it also serves as the umbilical cord to the other Design Factories around the world.
There is a TV in the kitchen overlooking the sprawling table that has a live feed of the kitchen of the Design Factory in Aalto University in Helsinki. It is a contact zone for the various spaces, and acts like a quotidian, collaborative portal between these creative communities.
The community and culture is built as much around coffee and food, as it is around engineering, design, tech, and business. The experience has really gotten me excited for truly different teaching and learning spaces that feel real. This goes beyond the flipped class room, this is a view into what a flipped institution might look like. Let the students work through the theory and conceptual on their own, and come back with their questions—but also prepared to try and apply what they are learning to something outside their particular discipline, not to mention comfort zone. Kill the classroom, indeed, and bring it back to a vitality that re-inspires a whole generation of learners.