“The workshops are tailored to a smaller audience than the main stage talks. TED is a lot of ideas; what we focus on is people who are actively doing things.”—Tino Chow

Tino Chow + Mike Eng: RISD Co-Founders, Steve Daniels + Sharon Langevin: Brown University Co-Founders: A Better World by Design / Providence RI

“the workshops are tailored to a smaller audience than the main stage talks. tedd is a lot of ideas; what we focus on is people who are actively doing things.”—tino chow

Can you detail the conference, A Better World by Design, its organization, and your relationship to it?
Mike: Sharon Langevin and Steve Daniels were engineering students from Brown with an interest in humanitarian and sustainable design, and they reached out to Tino Chow. I was friends with Tino in the Industrial Design program at RISD, so he asked me to join. They had a list of names of people they wanted to learn from, organized in tiers of how likely they were to respond, so all together it was an ambitious list of names indicative of the areas I was interested in knowing more about.

A Better World by Design Logo

courtesy of tino chow + mike eng

Tino: We didn’t feel right about going out into the world, getting jobs in design, and making a bunch of plastic crap that goes into a landfill; I knew that I could put my talents to better use. There was a mirror of my experience in the experience of the two co-founders at Brown. We came together because we wanted to learn from the real world, because the economic world seemed too small and didn’t tackle the kinds of things that we wanted to learn. The feedback that we got from Brown was, “Show us that there is a critical mass, and then we will host those classes.” Our goal was to start a conference to show this critical mass. We just wanted to learn. We thought it was going to be a one-off event. We invited our heroes and people that we wanted to learn from. The three-day conference impacted how the schools looked at sustainable design, and sustainability in general. Seven years ago, it wasn’t as popular as it is now. There are a lot of companies, especially big ones like Apple, Nike, Google, and IBM that are all thinking about it. It is part of the core business: thinking about how sustainability impacts the triple bottom line.

Mike: Our roles did evolve over time, but all four of the founders had general areas that they took on to produce the conference. Steve was the main speaker contact and in charge of emailing the people we invited and arranging their travel. Sharon handled things on the Brown end, working with the space. Tino worked on sponsorships, and I developed partnerships with the community. I had previously established relationships with community groups in Providence while I was working with a non-profit called Recycle-A-Bike, and we knew that we wanted to include the city as a key part of the conference. Some of these partnerships have continued and evolved through the years. The conference has utilized event space at a co-working office called Anchor, and an industrial arts center called The Steel Yard.

A Better World by Design Conference

courtesy of tino chow + mike eng

Tino: Providence is one of the keystones of the collaboration. Rhode Island has the highest density of nonprofits in the US, and is a main hub for entrepreneurship and social ventures. There are a lot of opportunities, a lot of people doing interesting things here, and things that we like to highlight at the conference itself. It has become one of the main events that happens annually in Providence. The community knows about it, and we involve the community as much as we can. We have them lead our workshops, and they share their studio and office spaces.

How do you organize the student participants?
Tino: We have intentionally kept it a student-run conference. We have a group of 12–18 students, ages 18–22, running a $100,000 conference. Our cash flow is around $40,000–$60,000 at any given time, and we get the space for free in addition to donations. We’ve tried different leadership styles. In the beginning, we were active in choosing students and we tried to put them into specific roles. But later, we left that up to the students. Over time, the founders have taken steps back from having a direct influence on who to choose. We have a system where this year’s committee members get to have an influence on next year’s selection. At least two to six students stay on for next year. We vet the students and help find the topic of the year. At the heart of it is: What do we want to learn? What is something that is going to benefit us and help our friends and community move the world forward? Even seven years ago, social media wasn’t a keystone of communication or generating ideas. This was the year before the explosion of TEDx events. It is a different landscape now, in terms of community and how we can communicate ideas, so we had to reinvent ourselves, which in many ways forced us to develop a strong identity and community.

A Better World by Design Conference

courtesy of tino chow + mike eng

What did you want to learn that you were not getting in your coursework?
Tino: The attendees are 50% professionals and 50% students. The students are there because the world is limitless for them, and the professionals love that they are there, because they get to ask questions about things that they did not learn in school. We utilize talks and workshops. The workshops are tailored to a smaller audience than the main stage talks. TED is a lot of ideas; what we focus on is people who are actively doing things. We value those who contribute by making and creating things with their hands. One recent trend is entrepreneurship, which is a great idea, but it does not count for anything until you put it into action. After the conference, I realized that there is a huge opportunity for design to help solve creative problems within nonprofit realms, environmental realms, and social-good realms. That is why I started my own company, because I don’t want to design products, logos, or anything traditional.

To what degree is collaboration involved?
Mike: Collaboration is central to the conference. The connections that people have formed through it have led to some interesting projects. For example, Sharon, one of the other co-founders, connected with Ken Banks, one of our speakers from 2008 and an entrepreneur who pioneered the application of simple mobile technology to underserved areas. Sharon went on to work as a project director for Frontline SMS Credit, a mobile payment platform with a large presence in Kenya.

A Better World by Design Conference

courtesy of tino chow + mike eng

Tino: There are a lot of success stories. We have an Expo at the conference that is open to the public; anybody can come in, participate, and look at the projects. Students say that they apply the thinking that they learn from the conference to their classes. There have been a couple of projects and companies that have come out of it. The conference creates a space to have conversations and see if there is a market and interest out there.

How are decisions made within the group?
Tino: The founders are fairly hands-off at this point. The hierarchy that we have created states that we are the board members, but we have little to do with day-to-day operations. There are always students who stay on for the next year, and usually they make up the leadership.

Mike: I definitely learned something about managing a collaboration. It was a challenge later on to determine how the founders would fit in without getting in the way. We went back and forth a lot to determine our vision statement. The students were taking over, which was always the goal, but it was tough to figure out how to help them do so without losing focus of what was important about the conference.

How important is the RISD/Brown connection?
Tino: It is extremely important. Within the schools, each student comes from a different discipline, so everyone is coming in with different perspectives. It is a collaborative multidisciplinary group. We are able to cover each other’s blind spots, but also create new opportunities by intersecting old experiences with new ideas. It is a microcosm of the conference as a whole.

A Better World by Design Conference

courtesy of tino chow + mike eng

Mike: Students at Brown and RISD were eager for more collaboration. The campuses are right across the street from each other, and their strengths complemented each other nicely. Students at RISD could take courses at Brown, and vice versa, but in practice, this was tough to realize, particularly for Brown students interested in RISD studio courses, since those courses were often filled with RISD students who required the courses to graduate. Some faculty created a few isolated courses that brought together Brown and RISD students. A dual degree program started around the time that the conference did.

RISD is great at focusing on design in its pure form, but personally, I wanted to learn more about the real-world aspects of making design happen: engineering, entrepreneurship, and political science. The engineering students wanted to learn about design and fabrication in order to get some hands-on experience. We put the pieces together to understand more about how to solve social and environmental problems by involving people of various backgrounds, and that is really the point of the conference. At Brown and RISD at large, the amount of collaboration was increasing, and the conference resonated with students who shared that interest.

Tino: The professors that we first engaged with loved the idea, but they wanted to know that there was a critical mass of interested students before they built a class. We have definitely shown that. Sometimes academia falls behind trends, but this partnership is bigger than that. It is a way of thinking collaboratively and across disciplines. We need to learn how we, as students and professionals, relate to the rest of the world. Now we have classes at RISD that address social design and design-thinking/problem-solving. There are now collaborative classes between Brown and RISD in automotive and in entrepreneurship. A lot of these classes have popped up since the conference. The conference has created a collaborative culture between the two schools.

In what ways does the experience of the conference impact students’ personal work?
Tino: Every one of us who has been a part of the conference has gone on to do less traditional jobs. These are people that I have talked to and am attracted to. A couple of people have started their own companies and studios. I myself, owe it to the conference experience for starting my own studio after school with the vision of making the world a better place. This is the same vision for A Better World by Design. I am finding other people who believe in that same thing. The students often find opportunities to collaborate with one another, and then they bring projects from the conference into their final years at school.

Mike: I took a fairly traditional career path to work full-time as a software designer, but I find other ways outside of work to engage with the community. I spent the last two years as an artist mentor at a local nonprofit called New Urban Arts, helping high school students to learn new digital tools for their creative pursuits in animation, video, and game design. It’s a challenge to throw myself into causes with full-time responsibilities now, so I value the opportunity to have been involved with starting A Better World by Design.