[Photos through­out are by either David Ewald or Marcelino J. Alvarez, as not­ed, unless oth­er­wise indi­cat­ed.]

James Keller: Hey there every­body. How are you? So, here we are. My name is James Keller, and Marce and I work for a lit­tle prod­uct design stu­dio in Portland, Oregon called Uncorked Studios. And at Uncorked, we look to find the con­nec­tions between peo­ple, tech­nol­o­gy, and con­text to cre­ate change. We do that for folks like Google, Adidas, Samsung, Intel. We make every­thing from wear­ables, to inter­ac­tive full‐wall instal­la­tions, to web sites. But more than any­thing we like to build prod­ucts with pur­pose.

My role there is as—and I apol­o­gize, my title is a mouth­ful. I’m the Executive Director of Semiotics, semi­otics being the study of mean­ing. So I aim to put the work that we do in con­text. But, I was an inter­ac­tion design­er for about two decades, so I am amongst my peo­ple. So I’m very excit­ed to be here. And this is Marce.

Marcelino J. Alvarez: Hello. So, I’m Marcelino Alvarez, and I am Founder and CEO of Uncorked Studios. I come from a pro­duc­tion back­ground, actu­al­ly. I was a pro­duc­er in adver­tis­ing for a num­ber of years before start­ing Uncorked, and iron­i­cal­ly enough, this is my sec­ond time in Lyon, my first time hav­ing been for a project that real­ly inspired kind of the foun­da­tion of Uncorked Studios. It was 2009 and we were here with Nike and the Live Strong Foundation and we built a mechan­i­cal street print­er that you could send mes­sages of hope and inspi­ra­tion to. It was for Live Strong Foundation—obviously we all know how Lance’s chap­ter end­ed. But, it was a project that brought me close to the inter­sec­tion between phys­i­cal prod­ucts, soft­ware, and hard­ware tech­nol­o­gy, and a large glob­al stage to cre­ate change.

Keller: Alrighty. So, I want to talk a lit­tle bit about the ties that bind us. And when I orig­i­nal­ly set out on this, I was think­ing I just want­ed to explain how Marce and I are alike? Because at the end of the day we’re even teased around the office about being opti­mists. And who knew that that could be such an insult, but some­times it is. But at the end of the day, I actu­al­ly believe that my opti­mism is a super­pow­er. And at the risk of sound­ing like a beau­ty queen, I believe that I can make the world a bet­ter place.

And this is where I believe this is the ties that bind all of us togeth­er. Because I believe fun­da­men­tal­ly that design is an act of opti­mism. We believe that by trust­ing the process, and through our own blood, sweat, tears, effort, and anx­i­eties, we can solve a prob­lem in the world and make things a lit­tle bit bet­ter. Which is a real­ly amaz­ing thing to be able to do, to be a part of this com­mu­ni­ty that are out there cre­at­ing change.

But before I talk about how a cou­ple of crazy design­ers and tech­nol­o­gists in Portland, Oregon were flown around the world on diplo­mat­ic mis­sions, we need to start with an apol­o­gy.

Alvarez: So, like James said, I think there’s a back­drop that we need to acknowl­edge before we talk about the role of American diplo­ma­cy. And that is that we need to acknowl­edge the ele­phant in the room. And in our case it’s an orange ele­phant that has made the con­ver­sa­tion around diplo­ma­cy pret­ty com­pli­cat­ed. As we know, the con­ver­sa­tions over the last four­teen months, the dis­course in American pol­i­tics have made it very dif­fi­cult for American diplo­ma­cy to real­ly stand out, whether you are an offi­cial mem­ber of gov­ern­ment or a pri­vate non‐state actor hop­ing to impact change.

And I believe that there’s two ways of look­ing at this. I think the first is a real­ly deeply skep­ti­cal view, one that posits that American hege­mo­ny after the Cold War has been in con­stant decline. And this is a view that’s sup­port­ed by two Gulf Wars, a war in Afghanistan, failed pol­i­cy ini­tia­tives in Syria, in Myanmar, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of nuclear war in North Korea. It is a view that sug­gests that any non‐state actor try­ing to encour­age flip diplo­ma­cy, people‐to‐people con­nec­tions, faces a seri­ous cred­i­bil­i­ty chal­lenge. And this is a real­ly deeply skep­ti­cal view of the world, which may or may not be true.

However, the opti­mist take on this is a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent. And that is that this new sense of urgency that has been cre­at­ed in the pri­vate sec­tor, because of and in spite of an admin­is­tra­tion. And this view is sup­port­ed by a num­ber of fac­tors. The Women’s March in DC. The Science March. The Me Too move­ment. The 25,000 women who have decid­ed to run for pub­lic office in the United States using Emily’s List. These are all orga­ni­za­tions and mis­sions that are being dri­ven for­ward in spite of the incom­pe­tence, the malev­o­lence, the misog­y­ny, the racism, and the pos­si­ble col­lu­sion of the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion.

And it is with this opti­mist view, through this lens, that we as design­ers have an abil­i­ty to pro­vide per­spec­tive, to bring focus, and to share the tools that we use on a dai­ly basis to align a group of dis­parate voic­es for a cause that is greater than our own. And like James said, I’m an opti­mist so I pre­fer that take.

Keller: So, we’ve got our talk today, a sto­ry in three acts. So we’ve got def­i­n­i­tions, because you know, as design­ers if you ask some­one what design is you’re always going to get a dif­fer­ent take, so I always feel it’s good to sort of anchor on these things. Then we’re going to tell you a lit­tle bit about the work that we’ve been doing in diplo­mat­ic chan­nels. And then hope­ful­ly we’re going to frame for you a call to action so that you can under­stand how you too can par­tic­i­pate in bring­ing change to the world. And as I men­tioned I’m head of semi­otics, which is around mean­ing. So def­i­n­i­tions are near and dear to my heart. Before I went into design I was very much a word nerd, so I love this stuff.

Design is a plan for arrang­ing ele­ments in such a way as best to accom­plish a par­tic­u­lar pur­pose.
Charles Eames [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

So yes­ter­day I know that there was a talk about an inter­ac­tive game at the Eames offices. And I think every­one here loves Charles Eames because of the great work that he did. But this has always been my favorite def­i­n­i­tion of design. Because I feel like it’s boiled down to its most sim­ple parts. I love the fact that he talks about arrang­ing ele­ments. And ele­ments can be any­thing. They can be box­es and arrows. They can be mar­bles in a tray, right. But we do some­thing with intent to accom­plish a pur­pose. And again, that pur­pose, that goal is the thing that makes design have impact. So I love this def­i­n­i­tion.

Successful diplo­ma­cy is an align­ment of objec­tives and means.
Denis Ross [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

Now, as I was look­ing to anchor on a def­i­n­i­tion of design that was going to help us set the frame­work for this talk, I also want­ed to look at what diplo­ma­cy means. And so I came across this quote by a man named Dennis Ross. And Dennis Ross is notable because he’s actu­al­ly a very well‐known American diplo­mat in mod­ern soci­ety. He served under George Herbert Bush—the first. He worked under Bill Clinton and the Secretary of State. And then he also was an advi­sor on the Middle East to Hillary Clinton. And the way he talks about diplo­ma­cy is that suc­cess­ful diplo­ma­cy is an align­ment of objec­tives and means.

So the inter­est­ing thing when you take these two def­i­n­i­tions and you sort of pull them togeth­er, you have objec­tives and pur­pose, means and ele­ments, align­ment and plan. And boiled all the way down, design equals diplo­ma­cy. And this is some­thing that we had found, as we were doing our work, it was real­ly inter­est­ing to see that come to life in a much dif­fer­ent way.

And that just sort of grew. We real­ized that there were a lot of par­al­lels that were hard to ignore. And one of those themes is around intent. You hear the word intent” a lot with design. It’s some­thing we throw around the stu­dio a lot. And I love this pho­to. It’s from a stat­ue in Havana of a man named José Martí. And José Martí is a cel­e­brat­ed hero in Cuba. He was a rad­i­cal indi­vid­ual for Cuban inde­pen­dence. But he was also known (and you see him hold­ing a child), he was also known as sort of the grand­fa­ther of Cuba because he want­ed to bring edu­ca­tion to the mass­es, and Cuba to this day has one of the best lit­er­a­cy rates there is.

But the rea­son I love the stat­ue is that he’s point­ing, with intent. José shows the world that he has an inten­tion in what he want­ed to do. And I feel that this is some­thing that as design­ers, might not feel quite as stat­uesque, but we go at things with a very clear objec­tive.

Another theme that we saw between diplo­ma­cy and design is that you have to trust the process. And this actu­al­ly, I was think­ing about this the oth­er day. This goes real­ly deep as a design­er. Because we trust the process so much, we charge oth­er peo­ple and they don’t know what they’re going to get. We say, No, real­ly. Come along this jour­ney. We’ll have some objec­tives on the out­set but we don’t know what you’re going to get at the end. Come with us.” And so we believe in that. And that’s why I fall back on this thing of opti­mism. We trust the process enough that if we bring the right tools, the right peo­ple, and the right ener­gy to any­thing, that we are going to build some­thing from noth­ing.

And diplo­ma­cy is very much the same way. When two coun­tries are sit­ting around a diplo­mat­ic table, they both have their own objec­tives but at the end of the day they try to align to bring those objec­tives to life. And it requires a lit­tle bit of a tan­go. Very sim­i­lar to design, if you’ve ever had a con­flict with a client or an inter­nal part­ner you’ll under­stand that. But at the end of the day you work towards a greater solu­tion.

Fringe Diplomacy explores the space just beyond the bound­aries of states and gov­ern­ments’ capac­i­ty and author­i­ty in inter­na­tion­al rela­tions by focus­ing on smart, strate­gic and mean­ing­ful human inter­ac­tion and engage­ment.
[pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And so it was with that that brings you to the inter­est­ing part, where we through a bizarre kind of seem­ing­ly uncon­nect­ed peo­ple, places, and times, we got con­nect­ed with a group out of the Aspen Institute in Colorado called Fringe Diplomacy. And this is the def­i­n­i­tion of fringe diplo­ma­cy. And real­ly what it aims to do is in places where diplo­ma­cy is not ten­able for what­ev­er rea­son, or is chal­lenged because of the nature of what’s going on polit­i­cal­ly, Fringe Diplomacy wants to cre­ate deep con­nec­tions between peo­ple. So where the some­times the gov­ern­ments may fail us we still have sol­id foun­da­tions across the world. And in this, we were able to go on sev­er­al diplo­mat­ic mis­sions as a part of Fringe Diplomacy to wield our skills in a new and inter­est­ing way.

Alvarez: So in 2015, with kind of a back­drop of a rap­proche­ment between the United States and Cuba, we first joined a part­ner­ship oppor­tu­ni­ty del­e­ga­tion that con­nect­ed in emer­gent class of Cuban entre­pre­neurs with their coun­ter­parts from the US. And it was amaz­ing for a num­ber rea­sons. I think one was kind of this new­found opti­mism. But I think that it also had the com­pli­ca­tions of the his­to­ry of fifty‐five years of a failed for­eign pol­i­cy between the two nations. And so we want­ed to cre­ate a lit­tle bit more than just kind of a meet and greet. We want­ed some­thing to be a lit­tle bit more inter­ac­tive, a lit­tle bit more hands‐on, and some­thing that could pro­vide more val­ue for both sides.

And it was with that that we cre­at­ed Incúbate, which was a two‐day design thinking‐modeled work­shop between Cuban entre­pre­neurs and their coun­ter­parts in the United States. We want­ed to acknowl­edge both the com­plex­i­ty of the his­to­ry, but again, find that opti­mism as kind of a guid­ing prin­ci­ple for us.

And admit­ted­ly, when design­ing a pro­gram like this, I think we want­ed to be care­ful that it wasn’t per­ceived as a bunch of Americans show­ing up with tablets on high and say­ing, This is a design process,” or, This is how we build star­tups in the US.” We want­ed to make sure that our process was root­ed in both an under­stand­ing of the val­ues and the sys­tems and the chal­lenges that we each face as either entre­pre­neurs, as tech­nol­o­gists, as restau­ra­teurs. But also kind of hav­ing the same kind of dia­logue that you might see in kind of a healthy start­up ecosys­tem, like, Hey, did you see this tool? What do you think about this? Let’s share. Let’s remix and adapt.” And so we need­ed to find com­mon ground. We need­ed to share open­ly. And admit­ted­ly we had no idea what to expect.

So over the course of two days, I would say that the American entre­pre­neurs learned as much from their Cuban coun­ter­parts as vice ver­sa. I think the Cuban entre­pre­neurs were design­ing with­in con­straints and inno­vat­ing in ways that I think made it real­ly impres­sive and kind of remind­ed us how much stuff we take for grant­ed on a dai­ly basis.

And admit­ted­ly I think the Cuban entre­pre­neurs were also open and eager to shar­ing about things and kind of iter­at­ing. So one of the the moments that was kind of a high­light as we were talk­ing about org charts—which is nev­er some­thing to get excit­ed about. But we’re try­ing to map out like a sales ver­sus a mar­ket­ing sys­tem with a start­up that was build­ing a Yelp‐like prod­uct in Cuba. And so he had this aha moment where he under­stood kind of the dif­fer­ence between the two, and he was shar­ing with a CEO from New York. And they both had the equal aha moment about like, Oh. This is new to you, this is new to me, and how do we share this?”

And I think it’s worth not­ing too that the entre­pre­neurs that we were work­ing with weren’t just tech­nol­o­gy entre­pre­neurs. That we had folks who were start­ing restau­rants or build­ing sus­tain­abil­i­ty prod­ucts. And admit­ted­ly they were design­ing solu­tions for prob­lems that they saw in their own com­mu­ni­ty. And a lot of these prob­lems were things that from an outsider’s per­spec­tive might not be glam­orous. It might not be some­thing that you would want to start a busi­ness around. It might not be some­thing that an investor in Silicon Valley would say, Hey, I’ll write a million‐dollar check,” for. And that’s fine.

And that’s fine for a num­ber of rea­sons. We have a friend in Portland, Mara Zepeda, who wrote a blog post called build zebras not uni­corns.” And she’s one of the founders of the Zebras Unite move­ment. And she says you know, uni­corns are myth­i­cal crea­tures; why are we try­ing to chase after these uni­corns? But zebras are real. And zebras are black and white. You can have a bal­ance between the two. And in the case of star­tups you can put both prof­itabil­i­ty and pur­pose on an equal lev­el. She also sug­gests that zebras are kind of a flock­ing, kind of herd­ing ani­mal, and that indi­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions by one ben­e­fit the entire ecosys­tem.

And so you know, in this con­ver­sa­tion you look at the bal­ance of star­tups that maybe are per­haps zebras and not uni­corns, that they have this sense of com­mu­ni­ty. They find com­mon­al­i­ty in their shared pur­pose. But they’re also lim­it­ed by the the ecosys­tem that they’re with­in.

And so we were able in our con­ver­sa­tions with the Cuban entre­pre­neurs to real­ly look at the star­tups them­selves and kind of share in that dis­course. The ecosys­tem I think is some­thing that fell out­side of our purview.

And I would say that over the course of the next three years (we start­ed in 2015), we learned quite a bit. I think one was kind of the chang­ing tone of the dia­logue and the dis­course, depend­ing on what was hap­pen­ing out­side of kind of our purview. Certainly the nation­al dis­course; the orange ele­phant in the room, as it were.

And I think from the Cuban entrepreneur’s per­spec­tive, in a num­ber of ways they leapfrogged the tools that we were orig­i­nal­ly kind of using in the first cou­ple of work­shops. And so it became less about under­stand­ing an effort/impact matrix, or how you might pri­or­i­tize things, and more about how do we shape pol­i­cy so that it sup­ports the needs of Cuban entre­pre­neurs? How do we main­tain con­ti­nu­ity between work­shops that are held twice a year?

And so we explored a num­ber of things from what would a shared cowork­ing space look like, to what might an incu­ba­tor in Havana look like. And again, in those sit­u­a­tions we kind of ran against some kind of exter­nal hur­dles. And then the orange ele­phant hap­pened, and there’s kind of been a lit­tle bit you know…cooling of rela­tions between the two coun­tries. But we still remain in con­tact with the entre­pre­neurs and are hop­ing to kind of find our path­way for­ward as things hope­ful­ly warm again.

Another area where we joined the part­ner­ship oppor­tu­ni­ty del­e­ga­tion was in Beirut in Lebanon. Our chief design offi­cer David Ewald went for a one‐week‐long ses­sion focused on star­tups in the region, led a two‐day UX work­shop with a num­ber of those star­tups. And those also were from a vari­ety of indus­tries, from the non­prof­it indus­try, to tech­nol­o­gy, to fash­ion as well.

And I’ll make a quick shout‐out actu­al­ly to David. He’s also in addi­tion to being a design­er an amaz­ing pho­tog­ra­ph­er. And so any pho­to you see in this deck that’s well‐composed, he took. And any­thing that’s blur­ry is some­thing that I’m respon­si­ble for.

So, over the course of a week, he met with a num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions. So UNICEF in par­tic­u­lar had part­nered with a three‐person start­up in Lebanon, and they were look­ing to devel­op an appli­ca­tion for refugees in one of the camps. And they had basi­cal­ly a rudi­men­ta­ry InVision pro­to­type and need­ed to scale from that to about a mil­lion users in the course of a year or so. And so a part of his work­shop aimed to pro­vide focus and under­stand­ing of what an MVP prod­uct might look like that bal­ances both the needs of the ulti­mate users as well as kind of the the need for scale.

There were also a num­ber of entre­pre­neurs focused on fash­ion and kind of design­ing prod­ucts that reflect­ed their world­view, their per­spec­tives, or their kind of cre­ative goals. And again, I think in the dis­course kind of find­ing com­mon grounds, where we align, and then again, shar­ing the tools that we use to pri­or­i­tize and inform prod­uct direc­tions.

And then one of the inter­est­ing places where kind of our diplo­mat­ic con­ver­sa­tions took us towards was this con­fer­ence in New York called the Concordance Summit, which is held in NYC dur­ing the UN General Assembly week. And so you have heads of state and lead­ers from a num­ber of large orga­ni­za­tions meet­ing with pri­vate orga­ni­za­tions kind of under the guise of public/private part­ner­ships.

And so we orig­i­nal­ly were asked to lead a con­ver­sa­tion around some of our efforts in Cuba, which we took to mean let’s talk about some of the insights, much like we’re shar­ing here today. And it wasn’t till I sat down at this table and kind of looked around that I real­ized there are four for­mer pres­i­dents sit­ting at that same table from var­i­ous Latin American coun­tries and Spain, and the Organization of American States.

And then the intro­duc­tion, you know, we had writ­ten some kind of pre­pared remarks around work­shops and design think­ing. And at the begin­ning they looked around the room like, Great, we’re gonna lead this entire con­ver­sa­tion in Spanish,” which is my first lan­guage but cer­tain­ly not one that I lead diplo­mat­ic con­ver­sa­tions quite often in. And while I was feel­ing quite a bit of impos­tor syn­drome sit­ting on that stage, found my voice in kind of shar­ing the per­spec­tives that peo­ple inter­act­ing togeth­er, people‐to‐people diplo­ma­cy, can move much faster than government‐to‐government diplo­ma­cy in spite of some of the chal­lenges that we face at a nation­al lev­el.

The con­ver­sa­tion did get a lit­tle heat­ed, and I think I found myself rep­re­sent­ing both the opin­ion of the US and Cuba as the same per­son, as I was the only per­son rep­re­sent­ing both. And so I think that may or may not have been a diplo­mat­ic first. But we found our­selves there.

Keller: Because of the work that we had done in Cuba, I also had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­duct a cou­ple of work­shops at a privately‐held con­fer­ence for peo­ple in the Middle East and North Africa. Attendees includ­ed every­thing from diplo­mats, to career politi­cians, aca­d­e­mics, entre­pre­neurs, and even roy­al­ty from all over the region. So there were Israelis and Palestinians and Libyans and all fla­vors and shapes and sizes of peo­ple in the room with me. Again, I under­stand that notion of impos­tor syn­drome.

The rea­son that I was able to be invit­ed to this spe­cial meet­ing is they had tra­di­tion­al­ly had—actually very sim­i­lar to that last slide—a bunch of peo­ple sit­ting around the table with plac­ards. And our con­tact who runs Fringe Diplomacy real­ized that that mod­el of com­mu­ni­ca­tion has its lim­its. And so he real­ly want­ed to do some sort of inter­ac­tive ses­sion in order to get these dif­fer­ent minds togeth­er work­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly in solu­tion space. So we ran one work­shop that with on how do we empow­er, and what are the chal­lenges for women entre­pre­neurs in the Middle East and North Africa. And then the sec­ond work­shop, and this is where I felt very much out of my depth, was around under­stand­ing the eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty and impact of con­flict refugees in host coun­tries.

But this is where I got to trust the process. I’ve facil­i­tat­ed all sorts of things in all sorts of places, and ulti­mate­ly this was no dif­fer­ent. If peo­ple are will­ing to come to the table and com­mu­ni­cate, even if they dis­agree that dis­agree­ment actu­al­ly pro­vides a very deep well of insight that can breed empa­thy and get you to broad­er solu­tions. So that was a real­ly incred­i­ble expe­ri­ence where I got to use my design skills.

What We Learned

Alvarez: So, one of the things that we would do at each of the the work­shops was the kind of do a quick ret­ro­spec­tive. So what would you want more of? What do you want less of? What did we learn? And that was kind of a quick way to grab a snap­shot right then and there of what people’s per­cep­tions were. And this sticky in par­tic­u­lar I think always res­onates with me. A, because of the per­son who wrote it, this woman Gretel who was basi­cal­ly kind of like our tour guide/fixer in Havana. And she had been through a num­ber of the work­shops with us, but she’s also been through a num­ber of tour groups of folks from all around the world com­ing into Cuba for var­i­ous rea­sons. And so I think she had both per­spec­tive, where she could have been a skep­tic and a pes­simist and said you know, folks are com­ing in and they’re try­ing to influ­ence the future of my place.

Or you know, the opti­mist per­spec­tive, which I think is this: it’s that we’re all very much alike, despite the dif­fer­ences on the sur­face and dif­fer­ences in pol­i­cy. And I think when you break down some of those gov­ern­men­tal and big­ger kind of pol­i­cy bar­ri­ers, you get to the fact that we have more things in com­mon than we do that are dif­fer­ent.

And so I want to talk a lit­tle bit about some of the insights that we learned, both in the the pod expe­ri­ences as well as kind of the broad­er diplo­mat­ic ones. And I think one is kind of the role that art and design have in terms of influ­enc­ing you know…as kin­da being the art of com­mu­ni­ties and kind of the focal point for both con­flict and kind of expres­sion of angst.

A Monopoly gameboard modified with "Havana Monopoly" in neon in the center, with Cuban locations and personalities in all the property areas.

And so this in par­tic­u­lar is one of my favorite pieces of art that we saw in Havana. It’s by an artist named Kadir López that restores old neon signs. So he’s got basi­cal­ly an awe­some task of restor­ing all the old neon signs in Havana but then kind of using it as an expres­sion of kind of protest art. So you can imag­ine kind of Monopoly and pre Fidel‐era Cuba, and kind of what what became of the old kind of Atlantic city vibe of Cuba.

But if you look at art as kind of a voice of kind of the resis­tance, this is some­thing that is com­mon not just in Cuba but I think uni­ver­sal­ly. That it becomes a tool to express both out dis­con­tent, our per­spec­tives in the world, and the tools that we have before us.

I think sec­ond­ly is the idea that eco­nom­ics and indus­try are tools of momen­tum. So, star­tups in Cuba are con­duct­ing where the lit­er­al phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture has failed. In many ways, they’re poised to leapfrog things that we have faced in our coun­try in terms of things like mobile pay­ment or poten­tial­ly blockchain tech­nol­o­gy, because they don’t come from like a web‐first or computer‐first mod­el. It’s sim­i­lar how in Kenya mobile pay­ments kind of leapfrogged the US as well.

But I think you know, against that opti­mism I think there’s also pol­i­tics that pro­vide con­straints which are also forc­ing func­tions for cre­ativ­i­ty. So as James said, all Cubans are design­ers, and I think one of the things that you see are that con­straints are sort of a source of inno­va­tion. And if you look at the types of things that VC’s fund, it’s peo­ple and hus­tle and those behav­iors that we look at in terms of invest­ing cap­i­tal and resources in indi­vid­u­als I think are part of the sys­tem. And I think it’s part of what Ross Baird calls single‐pocket think­ing.

So Ross Baird is the CEO of Village Capital. It’s a VC firm based out of DC that is focused on invest­ing in star­tups that aren’t typ­i­cal­ly the star­tups that you might invest in. And one of his anec­dotes that he gives is the sto­ry of the first time he went to ask some­one for mon­ey to raise a fund for what basi­cal­ly are zebra com­pa­nies, com­pa­nies that bal­ance both prof­its and pur­pose.

And so he goes to a poten­tial lim­it­ed part­ner, somebody’s he’s known, and says, Look, I’m rais­ing this fund. Here’s what I hope to do with it. Here the type of com­pa­nies that I hope to invest. Here’s our the­sis.”

And the LP says to him you know, Ross, I’ve got two pock­ets. And in my left pock­et I have all the mon­ey that I’ve made in the world that I use to basi­cal­ly invest in oth­er star­tups. And in my right pock­et I have my phil­an­thropic pock­et. Which pock­et are you ask­ing for mon­ey from?”

And Ross said it doesn’t have to be left or right pock­et think­ing. It can be soul pock­et think­ing, where you can bal­ance both prof­its and pur­pose togeth­er.

We knew going into Cuba that we weren’t going to solve the chal­lenges that both Cubans and Americans faced overnight. And admit­ted­ly, I don’t think… Initially look­ing back, I don’t think we real­ized that we were the ones that were prob­a­bly going to be tak­ing a step back­wards, giv­en kind of the orange ele­phant that entered the room. And so the ques­tion became how could we as design­ers use the tools that we share both for diplo­mat­ic pur­pos­es, with col­leagues, with poten­tial clients, as a bet­ter way or mech­a­nism to under­stand our own iden­ti­ty, our own areas of focus, and how we define suc­cess?

Keller: So this is the part, now that you’ve heard a lit­tle bit about the amaz­ing work that we have been lucky enough to do, where I make a plea to you all to make this your sto­ry as well. As Marce men­tioned in the begin­ning, the time is sort of now to act. I don’t know how all of you feel, but I get real­ly tired of the news cycle these days and I find a lot that’s hap­pen­ing in the world to be over­whelm­ing. And that’s not the time to pull back and hide, it’s actu­al­ly the time to take the skills that we’ve all cul­ti­vat­ed through doing the work that we do and actu­al­ly use that. And trust our process. So I’m going to take you through a few of those skills, sort of soup to nuts. But it’s all things that we as design­ers use in our every­day work.

So, the first thing is under­stand­ing the prob­lem and real­ly being able to dig in to under­stand all of the nuance that hap­pens around a cer­tain thing. Because prob­lem def­i­n­i­tion allows us—just like we start­ed with those def­i­n­i­tions, prob­lem def­i­n­i­tion allows us to real­ly gain a shared under­stand­ing of what we’re work­ing against, and that is very very very impor­tant.

Next is con­text. So, at Uncorked, the way we talk about con­text is defin­ing the why. Why should the thing exist? Why is some­one pay­ing us to make a thing? Why would some­one care? Who— And as advo­cates for the user you all are very famil­iar with who” in doing good ethno­graph­ic research. And then we also have on the oth­er hand, we have the how. So, in our com­pa­ny we build every­thing from wear­ables to walls. So the how is not always a clear path. And so mak­ing sure that every­one has a shared under­stand­ing of those three com­po­nents is a huge part of what we do. And it’s no dif­fer­ent in diplo­ma­cy when you’re try­ing to solve a world prob­lem than it is when you’re try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with a wall.

An older man sitting in a chair on a stage looking at his phone

Next, empa­thy. A great col­league of mine, Jeannie, used to bemoan the fact that we are pro­fes­sion­al empaths. Which means some­times it’s real­ly hard to turn off the noise in our brains because we’re so good at see­ing through the eyes of oth­er peo­ple. And in diplo­ma­cy I think this is equal­ly as impor­tant. And the rea­son I actu­al­ly chose this pho­to is this gen­tle­men is amaz­ing. He is a government‐paid (because every­one in Cuba is paid by the gov­ern­ment) lounge singer in Varadero resorts on the coast. And so he comes and sings Frank Sinatra cov­ers to a karaoke machine every sin­gle night. He’s so old that he can’t stand while he sings any­more. But he does have an amaz­ing voice.

And the thing that was inter­est­ing is when we were in work­shops with the more tra­di­tion­al entre­pre­neurs I felt very much amongst my peo­ple. But when we went and met this gen­tle­men I was shocked to real­ize how dif­fer­ent his world is. He gets paid the exact same, by the way, as doc­tors, school­bus dri­vers, teach­ers, lawyers. No mat­ter what they all make the same. But his life is singing for tourists.

So when I’m think­ing about solv­ing prob­lems for Cuba I always try to remem­ber that yes, I feel the needs of the entre­pre­neurs very eas­i­ly, but are the actions that I’m tak­ing cre­at­ing a con­text for this gen­tle­men to live his life hap­pi­ly as well, and that of his kids and his grand­kids?

Contingency plan­ning. So we talked a lot about opti­mism, right? And the thing about opti­mism as design­ers is it’s some­thing that we very much have. But pes­simism also allows us to be great con­tin­gency plan­ners. So under­stand­ing the dif­fer­ent poten­tial paths that you go through. And that’s some­thing that we all do in our day‐to‐day.

And then last­ly is facil­i­ta­tion. This is actu­al­ly the skill that got us, I think, con­nect­ed with this com­mu­ni­ty of diplo­mats and have allowed us to do that work in a mean­ing­ful way. So, you have the skills at your behest. It’s some­thing all of you do pro­fes­sion­al­ly. So, then what?

A table full of young women, some wearing safety glasses, seated before electronics testing equipment.

Alvarez: So, peo­ple often ask us why we engage on these adven­tures? Which is typ­i­cal­ly fol­lowed by, How is it that you guys make mon­ey?” Or, Do you guys make mon­ey?” And you know, I think it’s a good point to note that good does not always equal prof­it, and that’s okay. I think in the case of both the Zebra move­ment and the single‐pocket think­ing, you can bal­ance out pur­pose and prof­it with­out com­pro­mis­ing the two.

And hon­est­ly, I think that our efforts with Fringe Diplomacy kind of reflect both single‐pocket and zebra men­tal­i­ty of how we approach the world. And I think it’s real­ly sim­i­lar to the open source hard­ware move­ment, where you’re not look­ing to nec­es­sar­i­ly make mon­ey from the ini­tial effort, but you’re look­ing to build exper­tise. And orga­ni­za­tions and peo­ple who are look­ing for that exper­tise ulti­mate­ly make their way, through a con­vo­lut­ed mess of con­nec­tions, to say, Hey, we heard you were doing this thing. Could you help us with this oth­er thing?”

And in our case that’s led to any num­ber of oppor­tu­ni­ties. This was a hard­ware work­shop we did this week­end with an orga­ni­za­tion called ChickTech, where were recon­nect­ed our col­leagues to basi­cal­ly a com­mu­ni­ty of the next gen­er­a­tion of female entre­pre­neurs, hard­ware hack­ers, and tech­nol­o­gy lead­ers.

It’s also led to projects with large orga­ni­za­tions. After the hur­ri­canes in Puerto Rico I texted a friend of mine who worked at Carnival, and fast for­ward to a work­shop, then to a meet­ing in Boise and we were meet­ing with lead­ers from Puerto Rico hous­ing, bank­ing, and finance to under­stand what infra­struc­ture might look like. And so you nev­er know where it’s going to lead and I think that’s okay.

And I think ulti­mate­ly it’s about com­mu­ni­ty. And this is prob­a­bly one of my oth­er favorite pho­tos of from Cuba. This is out­side the col­lab­o­ra­tion between Google and an artist named Kcho. They have an Internet facil­i­ty, and for those who don’t read Spanish it says with the Internet I can…” And I believe that with com­mu­ni­ty we can. And as design­ers we must. We are in a world right now where we can­not rely on public/private part­ner­ships the way that they used to be run as phil­an­thropic endeav­ors. We can­not rely on gov­ern­ments in the case of the folks across the Atlantic to pro­vide the solu­tions. And we must look towards tools that we have to design the future that we want to live in. Thank you.

Further Reference

Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break, by Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz, and Aniyia Williams


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