By: Varun Bhave '19
During an evening workshop early in the summer, Vijay Chakravarthy, one of our design thinking coaches, asked anyone who considered themselves creative to raise their hand. I found myself uncertain about what to do.
In some sense, I’ve always been creative. For example, I enjoy writing children’s poetry and find it easy to generate a flow of original jokes during conversations. In another sense, I have rather un-creative instincts. An apparent lack of logic and method in anything, even a piece of abstract artwork or non-linear storyline, makes me uncomfortable. And one of my favorite subjects is philosophy — in which rigorously and reflexively questioning every assertion means you are moving in the right direction.
For me, Vijay’s question brought out the distinction between two kinds of creative endeavors: producing original content without constraints, and navigating a labyrinth of limitations and complications, whether real or imagined, to uncover opportunities for new design and innovation. Refining the latter skill is what Tiger Challenge involves, and over the summer I explored several methods for effectively analyzing data and creative brainstorming. The ultimate goal of our project is to devise a strategy to lower the incidence of lead poisoning caused by paint dust in Trenton, guided by mentors from the urban development nonprofit Isles and the fields of psychology and behavioral economics.
The first challenge to being creative is simply drawing and communicating meaningful insights from a boatload of raw information. Tiger Challenge is neither a journalism project nor a literature review. My team collected data predominantly comprised of scores of interviews with Trenton residents and professionals — like doctors, lawyers, government officials in health and housing, and nonprofit representatives — along with some published factual information.
We used numerous approaches to summarize and find order in the data. We designed an interactive card-sorting activity that our mentors could use to identify the most pressing lead-related problems. We mapped out the lead poisoning “journey” for residents and the city government, from initial blood lead test to lead hazard remediation. And we created, based on dozens of interviews, profiles of composite, fictional Trenton residents — including their daily routines, everyday concerns, opinions on life in their local community, sources of news and information, housing situation, sources of income or employment, and views on lead poisoning.
Once the data has been sorted, the second challenge is optimizing the generation of ideas. I learned about a few interesting tools through Tiger Challenge. Putting pressure on your brain with strict time limits during individual brainstorming is helpful. There was always time to converge together as a group and discuss all our thoughts in detail. Actually listing out as many assumptions and goals (in the form of “how might we…?” questions) as possible helped direct the flow of ideas and break down the implicit constraints that curtail outside-the-box thinking. It was constructive to seek the opinions of students outside of our team, who would bring fresh minds to our challenge.
The right attitudes are also important: we trained our minds and mouths to avoid instinctively shooting down ideas, and to aim for brevity and clarity instead of going on long-winded “filibusters.” The process of whittling down hundreds of ideas to a handful of key concepts should never begin too early.
I also became more intentional about team dynamics and presentation skills, two things I had never focused on much before. Our team allocated time for people to express how they were feeling, iron out any disagreements, and provide reassurance to those feeling nervous or overwhelmed. We developed efficient systems for interviewing, notetaking, and sharing data with the group. And I learned the importance of planning out every aspect of a meeting in advance — how to design PowerPoint slides and activities to keep the attention of our mentors, establish the ideal minute-by-minute agenda, and rehearse regaining control of a meeting no longer going according to schedule.
The summer did not only involve interviewing experts and sifting through data with a stack of Post-it notes and Sharpie in hand. The most fascinating and eye-opening part of the nine weeks was the ethnographic research involving interviews with Trenton residents at a soup kitchen and food bank. The experience was both completely engrossing and emotionally taxing.
In his book Evicted, Princeton professor Matthew Desmond writes that interviewing those battling poverty made him “feel dirty, collecting these stories and hardships like so many trophies.” While I sometimes felt similarly, resident interviews shed light upon what Trentonians needed and cared about most, and thereby what types of lead-related interventions and campaigns would likely resonate with them. Many residents seemed willing to discuss profoundly personal struggles. Perhaps we were tactful interviewers who drew honesty from our subjects. Perhaps there’s something rewarding about telling your deepest stories to a captive listener. Or perhaps when you are stressed and preoccupied, concealing the truth simply requires too much effort.
I met a diverse cast of characters. There was the mother whose child’s language development was clearly lagging due to the effects of lead poisoning. The former gravedigger on the brink of eviction. The part-time landlord who tried to convince me to try marijuana. The retired cook trying to save money to move to Florida, who held a grudge against a pair of police officers. The IHOP employee driven out of his apartment due to his landlord neglecting a growing mold problem. The woman pondering whether to leave her crack-addicted husband and finally make some money she could keep. Another who had left an abusive relationship and begun tackling her mental health issues. The men recently released from prison who had found new apartments or jobs. Several people who had lost their driver’s licenses. A number of retirees struggling to pay for expensive health problems. Homeless interviewees who drifted between shelters, food pantries, and libraries. The man who tapped me on the shoulder, gave me his phone number, and told me that he had a fantastic story to tell — but it had to wait until after his court date because his attorney told him to stay quiet about some mysterious misdeed. The asthmatic woman who was looking for a healthier home because her ancient house was filled with lead paint dust.
While my goal for the moment is to prototype and pilot a successful strategy to address our challenge, the lessons from this summer will be useful even if I’m not trying to tackle a systemic social problem. I could be designing an event, preparing a research paper, or delivering a presentation. A few years from now, as a physician, I might be trying to gain the trust of a patient from a very different background than my own.
I’m still not sure how I would answer Vijay’s question. I am proud of my work this summer, but maybe the Tiger Challenge studio — overflowing with art supplies, whiteboard tables, poster boards, and squashy beanbag chairs — was just the perfect environment to inspire creativity.