Getting Smart in the Sandpit

Outside, you could hear children laughing and screaming as they ran back and forth across the pavement in the afternoon sun. Nearby, in the shade, a circle of chairs had been set out for a group guitar lesson, the first students were tuning up their instruments. In the street, a car stopped with its bass booming, waiting for the traffic to move. Life outside Zapopan’s community center, a giant brick structure covered in colorful murals, went on as usual, while inside the cavernous hall was transformed into a workshop space, its walls peppered with colored post-it notes, and people gathered flip-chart stands working against the clock to refine their project ideas in time for a final presentation.

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Twenty-five participants from different professional perspectives and expertise had assembled for the Sandpit, a 5-day intense, immersive workshop. They’d been culled from a pool of nearly 400 applicants who responded to the call for the event, an invitation to step up to the plate on this challenge: How to transform marginalized barrios into smart ones? In other words, how to use technology to change and improve the quality of life in neighborhoods like Zapopan, one of the poorest in Guadalajara?

The workshop was organized by the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) in a partnership with the Mexican state of Jalisco, as well as the public planning agency for Guadalajara, Imeplan and the private company, Cisco. On the table, for proposals deemed most innovative on the last day: up to 3 million US$ in funding.

The Sandpit is a unique methodology, originally designed to produce innovative ideas to solve scientific problems, which, these days, are stickier and more complex than ever before. These “wicked problems” require multi-disciplinary attention and expertise, and yet the training that scientist undergo to become experts is becoming more and more specialized and narrow in focus. The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), noted this trend more than a decade ago and set out to help scientists produce collaborative research that’s innovative across disciplines. They knew they needed a different approach, one that would force the scientists out of their silos to talk to each other, and to do so with productive results. Knowinnovation was invited to help design and facilitate the Sandpits, and we’ve also worked with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to adapt the 5-day program in the US, where it’s known as an Ideas Lab.

Whether you call it a Sandpit or an Ideas Lab, the methodology does the same thing: it mixes people of different disciplines or professional perspectives in order to have provocative, compelling discussions that re-define challenges and generate new ideas. This leads to solutions that would not have emerged had the mix of intelligent and diverse minds not collided.

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Knowinnovation has been running Sandpits and Ideas Labs for a dozen years, covering topics from protecting data privacy to re-engineering photosynthesis to determining the origins of life on earth and in space. Along the way there’ve been a few opportunities to dabble in projects that related to economic development, for UN agencies and agricultural development organizations. In the back of our minds, and what prompted our new initiative of Inclusive Innovation, was this question: how might our methodology work for a development problem? Instead of different scientific disciplines, could you invite a diverse line-up of stakeholders, aide organizations, NGOs, local partners and businesses and people – why not include the people for whom the solution is meant to impact – to use our process to get to uniquely novel ideas?

It turns out you can. The MIF Sandpit produced five innovative project ideas, two of which were given a green light to develop further and are eligible for funding once a more detailed – more than you can do in a few days – proposal can be prepared. One called Ruta SOS seeks to help migrants look for and identify job opportunities by region. The other, Decentralia, aims to use affordable rainwater storage, plus a technology and financing package, to produce water, energy, and financial savings for households and cities.

But it was a different animal than the Sandpits we run for science funding organizations like the NSF, NASA and EPSRC. Here’s how:

More Inclusive
Inclusive Innovation is making a point of including people in the process of innovation, people who are normally excluded. At the Zapopan Sandpit, we piloted this idea by inviting two individuals from the community to participate in the entire workshop. We wondered if these participants would find a place in the project groups. The group found common ground with these special participants and not only were both individual fully involved in proposal groups, they also were constantly consulted in order to test and validate ideas. While it’s not uncommon for key stakeholders or users to attend a Sandpit and offer some perspectives or provocation – for instance a hotel-laundry manager to talk about the challenges of cold water wash – it doesn’t happen that this key person stays the entire week and participates, and can even be awarded funding as part of a team. Not only is this inclusive in terms of including people in the process, this is also engaged them in the solution that will impact them directly.

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More Coopertition
This is a word we made up to convey one of the principle concepts of a Sandpit. We collect people together in service to a “wicked problem,” a complex and important one, and while ultimately the project groups that form during the event are competing against each other for funding, they are cooperating the entire time, working together to define the problem, to generate ideas collectively and to enhance each other’s projects once they’ve taken shape. The Sandpit uses an iterative approach, and each time a group present its thinking, the other groups listen in and give feedback – highlighting the positive attributes and pointing out, constructively, the problems or gaps in their thinking that need to be addressed to make the project stronger. In this way every participant’s fingerprint is on every single project, and the entire group, while competing for funding on individual projects, is also working in solidarity, in service to solve the overall problem.

This is a delicate balance, and it’s worth noting that in the academic and scientific domain, the participants do cooperate, but they also compete aggressively. The group of participants at this Zapopan Sandpit – perhaps because so many came from the world of social entrepreneurship and economic development – walked the talk when it came to being inclusive, in every way. They bonded in their groups and wanted to stay there, resisting even when the mentors – a team of subject guides who’s role was to give the group advice, suggested to the groups that they split or take their projects in a different direction. This is a group that is accustomed to working inclusively, and it showed.

Language Matters
We learned it’s really important, especially when working with people who might not be accustomed to the terminology of a technically-oriented event, to define key words and phrases to check for shared understanding. At one point, a participant from the community took offense, and let the group know. It was difficult moment; we had to navigate a misunderstanding about the key terminology – smart and marginalized – that required sensitivity. But we soon realized that terms like smart and marginalized have an edge to them, and that one of the keys to being inclusive is anticipating sensitivities to the terms that we use to describe these challenges, and making sure the definitions are clear, and appropriate, from the start.

Extra Pressure
It’s not uncommon at a Sandpit for groups to work until the wee hours of the morning leading up to the final presentations on the very last day. It’s never pleasant to see the participants under stress, and yet it is often this pressure that incites them to maximize the novelty in their ideas as they develop them, even up to the last minute. The groups at the Zapopan Sandpit rose to the occasion, and put in the extra late-night thinking needed to pull of an exciting final round of presentations. But the pressure was on. Unlike typical Sandpits where the mentor team morphs from being advisors to decision makers at the end of the workshop, this Sandpit brought in outside evaluators for a final presentation. The groups had to make the case for the proposals to a panel of judges who had little context for how the projects had developed over the course of just a few days. Their proposals had to be sound, and their pitches, absolutely compelling.

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Everyone’s a Winner
Certainly the three groups that didn’t advance were disappointed, yet they expressed something we often hear at our scientific Sandpits and Ideas Labs: they’d made new connections and forged potential partnerships, and they’re still excited about their projects and hope they might be funded by other sources. They know they played a part in an event that could have an important impact on one of the poorest urban neighborhood in Guadalajara, and potentially in other urban centers around the world. That’s something smart to be proud of.

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Know Further: What does it really mean, Smart City? How the Internet of Everything will change the future of cities. Are smart cities inclusive or exclusive? See where else (here and here) the story about this Sandpit was written up.