Acting & Improv, Research & Coding, Research & Play

World Problems: Ep.1 – Global Warming and the Magic Box Designs

“Scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain – unless it is done with play, in which case, it takes between 10 – 20 repetitions.” (Dr Karin Purvis)

Motivation of World Problems Series

I’m starting Ana’s Research and Play with Episode 1 of the World Problems (WP) series. WP will have longer episodes (~15 mins) that combine ideation, design, prototyping and testing of sometimes crazy inventions. It is intended to experiment with possible solutions to help “save” the world. The approach is a playful one, rather than a worried and tense one. The reasoning is my belief that people achieve their best when fear of failure is out of the way.

The inventions that result from this series might or might not be viable. In this sense, WP presents a humble method to saving the world. My ambition is not to come up with precise inventions that will give accurate results (although they are very welcome). In my experience, having such pressures, under the constraint of limited time, leads to mediocre solutions and headaches. What I am trying to do is follow my curiosity and allowing myself to both innovate and fail (first attempt at learning).     

In the best case scenario, the world will benefit from an invention. Worse case scenario, I will have brainstormed some ideas that fill people with such indignation at my nerve, that they’ll just go and make their own creations. Empathy also motivates me and it is necessary to prevent an attitude of carelessness and lack of responsibility. It is important, however, to use empathy as a driving energy rather than an energy draining one. We should all make a contribution to saving the world we live in, but it mustn’t destroy us in the process – unless it’s a sacrifice of love, but that’s a different story. Let’s begin!  

Episode 1 Summary

In this episode I come up with a few crazy designs to help save the world from global warming, by using random household items. It all starts with choosing the problem out of a list of possible world problems. I then have a warm up (of my mind, not the world) by finding different uses for household items via lateral thinking.

The Magic Box, which is often seen in clowning exercises comes into play. This leads to shotfire brainstorms from Experimental Ana, who gives up grammar for creativity. It all ends with a set of crazy invention designs (see below). One of them or a combination of up to three of them could be prototyped in the future.

The Research

Episode 1 is linked more to brainstorming ideas, but research elements also find their way through. Please see the video description for the references used. Here are some research inspired elements from the video.

  • Choosing the problem
  • Motivation of play based approach
  • Review of a few accidental discoveries
  • Background on Lateral Thinking
  • Ideation of designs
  • Designing possible prototypes

The Play

The structure of Episode 1 is linked to an improv game called Fix it MacGyver! In this game, a character called MacGyver is given a problem and three random items. He or she has to come up with a solution to fix the problem by utilizing the given items.

For example, let’s say someone’s house is on fire. MacGyver has a cat, a sandwich and a chainsaw. One solution is of course to use the cat as a scout to check if there are any survivors. The chainsaw can be used to cut through the fallen parts of the house, so that the trapped victims can be reached. Once they are out, a sandwich is provided for nutrition, while waiting for the firemen.

The idea of the game is not to “get it right”, since there are “no mistakes, just opportunities in improv” (Tina Fey). Letting your thoughts imagine the wildest solutions is very liberating because it cuts out inner criticism. What improvisers experience with this game is also linked to Julia Cameron’s theory, described in her book The Artist’s Way. She recommends evading the inner critic by free writing three pages of whatever comes to mind every morning.

My Experimental Ana from the video uses this technique of free and spontaneous thought. Censoring of ideas is kept to a minimum, giving priority to the joy of discovering where my own thoughts take me. In the paraphrased words of Keith Johnstone, one of the pillars of improv, “You must trust that your mind, God or the giant moose will tell you what to say.”

The elements of play in Episode 1 are the following:

  • Defining the game guidelines (box of objects + find different uses for them)
  • Magic box game linked to clowning exercise
  • Lateral thinking solutions to a problem breaks patterns of thinking
  • Experimental Ana uses free and spontaneous thought
  • Experimental Ana uses jump and justify improv technique (say the word first and then justify its meaning)
  • Creating designs with commitment

Designs

After the research and play collaboration, seven designs emerged. These are not necessarily viable designs, but they open up a world of possibilities! Please have a look and tell me which of these designs you would like prototyped in the future!

MinivacuumShoesFlowerShapedFlowerpotBadAirSmasherSmartRopeEDangeredSnifferFreshLifeBalancerBoaCleaner

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Research & Play

Research is not Academia

After a few years of a rather painful experience as a PhD student, or should I say Engineering Doctorate (EngD) student, which is even more demanding, I have some thoughts I’d like to share. I do not wish to be ungrateful for the experience and support I have been given, financially and on an advisory level, but there are some things that have changed my feeling towards what I though academia was.

Firstly, why do I say doing an EngD is even more demanding than doing a PhD? It’s because after one year of confusion, where you’re deciding on which topic you would like to pursue, you end up doing something marginally close to your heart. Don’t get me wrong, I have colleagues who absolutely love what they do and it is a pleasure to see their progress throughout the 4 years. But these cases are very rare and often people settle to working on a project they like, but don’t feel passionate about. One year at university, one year where you make friends and where you find out what makes you tick and then you move to a different city where you have to start over. When it works, it can be miraculous and you also get industry experience, awesome! But when it doesn’t work so well, one can feel very isolated.

I feel I’m complaining a lot these days and I do not like this sobby version of Ana, I do apologize. I wish I could restore myself to a previous version, the version that fell in love with animation after watching Finding Nemo in 2004. My life, unfortunately, does not have version control so I have to keep overriding my mind with happier experiences. If doing an EngD isn’t hard enough, try adding a broken relationship, changing supervisors 3 times and your company shutting down after 2 years on placement (for an EngD, placement lasts for 3 years).

The biggest obstacle, however, is realizing that there is a huge difference between research and academia. The word itself, “research” means to search again, to fail a lot (Thomas Edison comes to mind), to discover, to explore, to create. Academia means to publish. Research is, or at least should be, the biggest part of academic studies. Students should be encouraged and helped, especially at the beginning of their PhD to “do the scary thing, fight the monster” (Jacob Banigan) and fail happily. Linking in to the philosophy I have learnt in improvised theatre, “There are no mistakes, just opportunities.” (Tina Fey).

Constraints like time running out, feeling guilty for wasting resources, the impostor syndrome generate fear or at least stress. A mind subdued to long periods of negative emotions such as these will not be inclided to create. I am currently talking from personal experience and from what I have observed, but I am sure there are a lot of references out there, for the more scrutinous amongst us. The high level of depression in academia is very real and has been overlooked far enough.

I believe there should be a change, a revolution even, in the way academia is structured. My inspiration is improvised theatre (impro), where I have found a supportive and fun atmosphere to explore storytelling and ideas. Keith Johnstone, one of the founders of this art form introduced the notion of “happy fail”, where we actually celebrate failure. In impro, people say “yes and”, in academia people say “yes but”. In impro people collaborate, in academia people compete. In impro people actively play and interact, in academia people sit at conferences with an invisible wall between them and the presenter. Lastly, in impro, people feel happy to explore, in academia, people feel fearful to share their work.

I don’t know about you, but I am starting to see a pattern emerging. Academia should be about research and research should be about exploration, collaboration, discovery, creation and, most importantly, happy fails. Results should be just as important as failures. Ideas should be just as important as publications. Funding shouldn’t be seen as a salary, but as support towards the creative process. People shouldn’t be telling audience members what they’re doing, but should be actively showing them and bringing them into their circle.

Alas, where are the days when pubs used to be public places, where people would share their amazing discoveries informally, where the truth really comes out? Of course, some level of formality is required, we don’t want a group of drunk academics playing football with the audience, while explaining relativity. But we do need to make research fun again and only then will it become truthful, because “the truth is funny” (Del Close) and also memorable.

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