What Does it Mean to be Human in the Digital Age?

Over the last two weeks I’ve facilitated three design thinking workshops around “what does it mean to be human in the digital age? (I would like to thank Kristen Eshleman for her time, guidance and expertise on this topic and the design thinking process). In each case the group seemed somewhat apprehensive. What is this design thinking anyway? What could we possibly learn from a question like that?

The question of “what does it mean to be human” is not a new question. A very natural part of being human is wanting to fit in, have relationships and feel connected. We try to make sense of our role within the social hierarchy, understand stereotypes and for some struggle to have our voice heard. To be human means to struggle with inequality, have a never ending desire to love and be loved, and to be recognized and valued for who we are.

PBS posed the question and collected stories back in 2010. In 2010 what were the questions posed? Concerns about texting and driving and spying on your children’s social media (sound familiar?). Read the stories here http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/participate/ . More recently Yann Arthus-Bertrand created a movie called HUMAN based on the stories of 2,000 people across 60 countries. His goal was to understand “What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery? “

The workshops I led were one hour “crash course” sessions so we moved through each stage at a rapid pace.I spent a short amount of time going over what the Design Thinking process is, instead placing most of my emphasis on the importance of listening to the story and gaining empathy.  Empathy is “…not just sympathy for someone else’s circumstances, but the deep intuition for what it feels like to live their lives”. What is the person feeling? What scares them? Frustrates them? Brings them joy? I advised people to ask “why?” a lot and think of it as a conversation. The energy in the room once people got talking was amazing. They were deeply engaged in the conversation and truly interested in the other person’s story. Yet, there were still questions and reservations as participants asked, “I don’t understand the purpose of this.” “We’re having a great conversation but what am I really learning?” Be patient, you’ll see, is all I said. When we got to the POV (point of view) step it all started to come together for people. They began to “break down their findings” and “unpack the juicy parts” of the story. What does this person need? What surprised you? What are your hunches? Crayons and pencils filled sticky notes as people made meaning of what they heard, thought about what it feels like to live this person’s life and created radical prototypes.

During the entire hour the room was filled with positive energy and you could feel how excited people were to have been given “permission” to break “the rules”. That is, space, place and time to ideate in a world with no budgets, no policies, no limitations and most importantly the lack of the word no. The majority of these people were in the technical field and problem solvers. It was initially hard to get them to shift their mindset from problem solver to explorer.  By the end of the hour they were amazed at how much they not only learned about the person next to them, but how quickly they could gain empathy and develop prototypes (four in four minutes!). In listening to their partner’s story they had gotten to know this person in a way they would not have otherwise.

It turns out what it means to be human in the digital age is, in many ways, no different than what it means to be human in any age. People value meaningful relationships, feeling connected to other people, and having opportunities to learn and share from others. What do people need?

A way to sort through all the information and find what is most important to them in an efficient and easy way (some great prototypes were developed as solutions to this).

To feel safe when sharing their opinions and ideas.

What surprised people?

That the world of social media closely replicates the face to face world:

“There are cliques online, it is just like being in high school”

The fear in having what you say be out there forever:

“How can I be sure that what I say won’t offend anyone or come out the wrong way, there are no do overs.”

How can we make the idea of design thinking a part of our daily life? Taking the time to have a conversation, truly listening to another person’s story and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are and what they value, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and sharing our story, and feeling we have a safe space to to plant our ideas, fertilize them and watch them grow.

What impact might a day of empathy have where you work? If school leaders or professors at your university walked alongside a student for the day or those in support staff positions walked alongside those who we support?

How might we reimagine a digital age where to be human means to strive to eliminate inequality; value care work, and be vulnerable without fear?

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#OLCinnovate Reflections

As I was leaving for #OLCinnovate I was feeling a bit overwhelmed as I looked at my calendar. It felt more like my work week than a conference. Almost every hour was booked and in several cases double booked.  As I reflect back on the week however, rather than feeling drained, I feel “filled up”.

The themes for me were feminism and space. As a member of the first ever SDS (solution design summit) we (Laura Pasquini, Mike Goudzwaard, Kyle Johnson, Adam Croom, Michael Atkisson) created a space for interdisciplinary teams of people to brainstorm with stakeholders  and work through the process of defining their problem and ideating a solution. The energy, engagement and enthusiasm in the room exceeded any conference space I’ve been. Beyond the SDS I attended and participated in three days of thoughtful and meaningful conversations. Finally a conference where we practiced what we preach-rather than talking at us, presenters were our guides. Why is it we can’t create that time and space in our offices? Stay tuned for the announcement of the winning #OLCinnovateSDS winning team!

I was invited to speak at the Women Leaders in Ed-tech dinner and share my story of a challenge or barrier I faced. I spent a great deal of time reflecting on what story to share. The question was not really about the story, rather how vulnerable was I willing to be? How much of myself should I share? Whenever I’m having a difficult time, when it just seems too hard and I begin to have that suffocating feeling, the story I go back to is my dissertation journey. I thought if those words inspire me and get me through a difficult time then let me share that piece of me. The reaction I received was and continues to be overwhelming. Person after person thanked me for sharing my story and letting them know they are not alone; that I restored their belief in their ability to overcome a challenge they were currently facing. Women I’ve known for years-told me that I had been their inspiration.  We frequently don’t realize the impact our actions and words can have on another and the importance of allowing ourselves to be vulnerable.

olcinnovate

The next day in our “Women Who Innovate” session (Tanya Joosten, Amy Collier, Laura Pasquini, Jess Knott, Nori Barajas-Murphy) several women shared stories of the impact words of encouragement had had on them. Similar to my story, a person had “planted the seed of an idea” by suggesting they go back for their PhD. There was no pressure just every so often a hint was dropped. I spoke of how my brother was the tipping point for me. While so many people had encouraged me to go back to school I just didn’t believe I could be successful. It was his words that were the tipping point for me. Who will you be the tipping point for?

Here’s my story:

It is hard for me to comprehend that I am at this place already and that the end of my journey is actually here (little did I know it had only begun). In the Spring of 2007 I unexpectedly found myself in a position where I was about to be a single mother of 3 children. During the next several months numerous co-workers encouraged me to get started on my PhD, yet I was not ready to make that commitment. I had heard so many stories about people not finishing and I did not want to be one of them. I questioned how I would ever be able to find the time to do my school work, whether the added pressure and time spent away would have a negative impact on my family and whether I had the intellectual capacity to be successful (I now know this is Imposter Syndrome). My children and I spent that Thanksgiving with my brother and his family. While at his house I mentioned to him I was thinking about going back to school and tried to justify why I was holding back. His response was “Just do it. I will support you and help you with whatever you need. Just take the plunge and register for classes”. This statement was the tipping point for me. I went home that night and began the process.

This was not a journey traveled alone. Without the immense encouragement and support of my children Nicholas, Anjelica and Rosalina I would not be sitting here writing this today (without the immense support of so many of you I would not be standing in front of this room today). They were and continue to be my inspiration and, on the days when it all seemed too much, what drove me to not give up. Thank you to my bother Jim, my sister-in-law Jean, my parents and my closest and dearest friends who told me “just breathe” and helped to lighten my load when I needed it the most.