From the category archives:

Creative for a Cause

I recently hopped across the ditch to Queensland, Australia’s Sunshine State, for the Ideas Featival in Brisbane. We’ve been running a Local Food Challenge on OpenIDEO in conjunction with the festival and state government – featuring inspirations and innovative concepts from our spirited global community over the last couple of months. In Brisbane the OpenIDEO team were joined by policy-makers, food producers, farmers, retailers, researchers, educators, students, innovators and community connectors. Together, over two days of workshops, we explored behaviour change, customer journeys, environmental performance, health impact, community engagement, scalability and business models – alongside feasibility and implementation of the awesome shortlisted Local Food Challenge concepts.

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer, IDEO

It was a particularly momentous occasion for me as I met a couple of my OpenIDEO colleagues for the first time after 6 months of working together from across our globally dispersed locations. Our co-founder, Tom Hulme, presented to a full house, asking How Do You Engage Those of the Edge? – celebrating the power of participation. IDEO’s Chief Creative Officer, Paul Bennett, provoked the crowd with Global Problem Solving: Can Small x Many = Big – confronting traditional interpretations of design to reveal how design thinking could be employed to address future social, ecological and political challenges.

Attendees were enthusiastic about the cross-disciplinary nature of the workshop teams. While we’re used to working in this way – it was refreshing for others who found it perspective building and got excited at the dynamic networks which formed around specific concepts. Read more on the workshops from our festival buddy, Ben Morgan, over at And here’s an assortment of festival chit-chat:

Festival rock-star & entrepreneur, Robert Pekin, Food Connect: “Gee Whizz! Amazing to watch how local folk have applied their specialist knowledge to adapting these exciting concepts to the Australian context.”

Backyard transformer, Ben Grub, Permablitz: ”There’s been a really good cross-section of players. I don’t usually interact with government, media and farmers and it was great to thrash out ideas from an online platform in an energised offline environment.”

Ray Palmer, Queensland Farmer with Symara Farms: “It was affirming to note that there’s a growing movement of folks who want to know the story behind what’s on their plate – across various sectors and communities.”

Jakob Trischler, Shortlisted OpenIDEATOR: “Awesome to get lively insights on a hot topic from such a diverse group from different disciplines.”

Ewan McEoin, Local Food Challenge Australian Lead: “Energy Central. Folks were amped to be building off such a diverse range of concepts supporting local goodness.”

Anna Bligh, Queensland Premier: “The Local Food Challenge has just gone gangbusters. You can actually go to the world with an idea and look for answers.”

Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Officer, IDEO: “Hundreds of great builds, amazing energy, long days with crazy jetlag but really, really worth it.Our first outreach OpenIDEO workshop was amazing and was powered by all your great input. Thank you all!”

Our local challenge collaborator will continue to pursue avenues to prototype a selection of concepts together with local government and those with relevant expertise, contacts and outreach capabilities on the ground. As always we’re keen to translate the stellar skills of our growing, global OpenIDEO community into real world action and change – to enhance resilience at a local level. We’ll be celebrating impact developments over on our newly launched Realisation Phases.

On the back of the intensity of the workshops we rounded off our energetic sessions with a spot of fun. We distributed stickers to participants and dispatched them across the gorgeously sprawling riverside area surrounding the State Library, to seek inspiration. The stickers prompted folks to Stick It & Show Us. They were encouraged to photograph their sighting and email it in to a website we’d quickly cobbled together – with a prize offered for the cleverest cookie on the day. Some have continued with submissions from further afield.

Check out more highlights over at (With a hat-tip to Candy Chang, whom I’ve featured on Random Specific before, for her ever-inventive public engagement initiatives which inspired us on this.)
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Mathare’s Micro-farms and Market Gardens


Today is World Water Day and Random Specific is taking the opportunity to feature a very special clip by Andrew Hinton for Tippy Tap. I was lucky enough to meet Andrew at the UnBox Festival last month in Delhi – where he gave me an impromptu private screening. He went on to become a winner in the esteemed Do Gooder Non Profit Video Awards a few days back.

I’m not going to tell you any more than that folks.
Just watch it, dig it, share it.

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Excreta, Et Cetera I
Excreta, Et Cetera II


iPhone Wallpaper by Isaiah King

African Digital Art points us to a number of designers who are responding to the revolution which continues to unfold in Egypt. Check further down for some less graphically resolved yet more immediate and compelling responses from scenes of protest and those on the ground.

Posters by Michael Thompson
Meanwhile, global protests spark savvy signage:

Istanbul protestor. By Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty, via Foreign Policy

Protestor in Toronto via BuzzFeed
And on the ground – the most powerful messages speak volumes from their immediacy:

Sarcasm abound: “Go Mubarak.” By Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images, via Foreign Policy

Thanking Facebook. By John Moore/Getty, via Foreign Policy

Plain and simple. By Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images, via Foreign Policy

Down but not out. By Manoocher Deghati/AP , via the Guardian

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Conflict Kitchen Serves Up Second Course
Wish List Fills Urban Gaps


Earlier this year a group of artists associated with Carnegie Mellon’s School of Art launched an experimental project to spark street-level conversations about countries in conflict with the United States. From Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighbourhood, the Conflict Kitchen is a take-out venue which engages its customers through culinary and cultural diversity. Over the course of a year it will feature four countries at odds with the US, each over four months. Last month Conflict Kitchen transitioned from its first iteration as an Iranian restaurant to its next version as an Afghani one – with a new name, a fresh menu, an updated facade and the promise of ever-evolving conversations.

“Food is such an essential part of culture that we saw it as a great way to engage the public in human-centered discussion,” notes one of the project’s founders Dawn Weleski. “In contrast to the polarising effect of broadcast media we’ve sought to create a platform which can support a more subtle exchange of culture and politics. With food as a mediator it becomes easier for customers to consider the everyday life of people – they become responsive in a different way and consider more nuanced perspectives. They start to consider the people and culture behind conflicts at a government or military level.”

The new Afghani version of Conflict Kitchen is called Bolani Pazi and offers the popular street food bolani. The stuffed flatbread comes with a choice of four fillings – pumpkin, potato and leek, spinach or lentil – topped off with a dollop of natural yoghurt. The bolani are bundled in a printed wrapper which features the viewpoints of various Afghanis on topics ranging from popular culture to politics. “This forms a starting point to conversations and we deliberately include contrasting and diverse opinions to highlight the complexity of culture,” points out Weleski. The resulting discussions at Conflict Kitchen are not always political but tend to support various kinds of cultural insight. “It get’s at the heart of daily life,” tells project partner Jon Rubin. “ I’ve watched a Japanese Buddhist and a Muslim start to chat from the takeout window. They ended up in a rich exchange of experiences and perspectives on food, spirituality, rituals and symbolism.”

Rubin’s interventionist artworks explore the social dynamics of public place. In the case of Conflict Kitchen he sought to create space for civil dialogue around both differences and similarities. “Difference doesn’t require us to be damning. We’re keen to encourage dialogue which doesn’t blame or accuse and may be driven by curiosity rather than media prescribed positions.” He goes on to observe that both food and music are significant ways in which we understand culture and tells of an upcoming idea to create an online musical archive for sharing between US and Afghani Conflict Kitchen supporters. There are also plans for a live video feed between the takeout window in Pittsburgh and a hotel lobby in Kabul. The peer-to-peer concept features across the initiative, including the partial funding of Bolani Pazi via the Kickstarer platform.

The venue is staffed by twelve people through week day lunchtime sessions and late nights on Friday and Saturdays. Weleski is responsible for training the workforce from food preparation to hosting conversations. Factual information is shared alongside tips on triggering conversations amongst customers. Handling of contentious topics and tricky questions are covered through role play. “It’s not just about inviting people to talk to us but also encouraging interaction between customers. Personal reflection can generate a range of connections. I remember one woman who had a Pennsylvanian Dutch mother and a Persian father and spoke of the cultural tension this could create,” recalls Weleski. “A migrant joined in the conversation and could empathize with that tension from a different perspective. Once these kinds of discussions start happening people begin to expand their personal insights into social ones and appreciate similarity and difference in a new way.”

During the first iteration of the venue Iranian fare was served up as the Kubideh Kitchen. A minced kebab topped with onion, mint, sumac and basil was wrapped in baked barbari bread to form the Persian kubideh. In collaboration with the local Iranian community and contacts in Iran, events were devised to support the project’s focus on social interaction. A Skype meal was held between Pittsburgh and Tehran. Over an identical Persian feast of chicken with pomergranate and walnuts plus beef with greens and dried lime, forty people on both sides spoke about subjects from employment and education to dating and rock concerts. Earlier this month Conflict Kitchen hosted a Persian festival which included a documentary film screening, a varied menu, live traditional music, a cooking show and late night Persian beats.

Transitioning into the Afghani phase brings with it a fresh set of challenges. “Local Afghani’s in Pittsburgh are few and far between,” admits Rubin. “The UN in Afghanistan have been helping us track down communities in  the US who we may be able to collaborate with and our networks are starting to present opportunities. Orgnanisations like Beyond the 11th, which was started by two American women widowed by 9/11 to empower Afghani widows, have been in touch to explore collaboration.” He goes on to note that the change in seasons will present a challenge to the nature of social exchange at the takeout window which has become a popular hang out spot during warmer months. However the evolving nature of the initiative means that new ideas are constantly on the back burner – with people frequently giving their own thoughts on new directions for the venture.

The following two iterations of Conflict Kitchen are pitched to include North Korea and Venezuela but an off-shoot concept around food exchange and countries involved in border conflict is also under consideration. This might feature feuding states like India and Pakistan and may manifest itself as a food truck or an attachment to an existing restaurant. “We even get emails from online followers who have created their own take on the project,” informs Rubin. “A woman from Arizona contacted us early on to let us know of her family’s intentions to hold Conflict Dinners on Monday nights – with the featured country to be selected by their eight year old child.”

Weleski admits that their initial hunch that food could deepen conversations has taken them farther than they had initially imagined. Return customers tell her about their onward discussions that have stemmed from their visit to Conflict Kitchen. It is this open-endedness that has drawn her to the role of a public practise artist. Bolani Pazi continues the mission to appease appetites and stimulate dialogue. As one customer observes – “it’s a delicious way to learn about becoming more human.”

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Fruitful Pursuits
Still Life, Smooth Moves

An edited version of this Conflict Kitchen article appears in my Change Observer Project Report on Design Observer.


Wish List Fills Urban Gaps

November 26, 2010

New Orleans remains peppered with vacant storefronts and folks who still need things. Designer, artist and urban planner, Candy Chang, created a participatory public art initiative which provided voice to residents – sharing thoughts about what they want and where they want it. I Wish This Was encourages locals to write their thoughts on fill-in-the-blank stickers and put them on abandoned buildings and beyond. A great way to spark conversations and nudge folks to imagine what their city could be.

Candy is a sassy, multi-discplinary player who has strung her projects across the globe from Nairobi to Finland, Brooklyn to Johannesburg. She’s got degrees in Architecture, Graphic Design and Urban Planning and has toiled for Nokia and the New York Times.

She’s devised some fab initiatives including a neighbourly post-it note exchange, a guide for street vendors in NYC and a spot of sidewalk psychiatry. More recently she co-founded Civic Center – a studio that creates projects which make cities more accessible and engaging.

Image (detail) of Candy by Randal Ford for Fast Company

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OpenIDEO: Better Together

November 22, 2010

“That OpenIDEO thing is great isn’t it?” My mother, approaching 80, discovered Google Buzz a few months back and has been following me on Twitter from there. Via one of my tweets, she had a look around OpenIDEO and was fascinated by the scope of inspiration and global collaboration. As a doctor she has always been somewhat in the dark about what I do for a living but from following my Twitter links she’s started to get the idea. “It’s about design and people and making the world a better place, right?” she offered as a perspective on my professional pursuits.

So it was helpful when I announced recently that I had a contract with IDEO as a Community Manager on OpenIDEO, that she already knew what it was. OpenIDEO is a place where people design better together for social good. It’s an online platform for creative thinkers: the seasoned designer and the new guy who just signed on, the art student and the MBA, the active participant and the curious lurker. This diversity makes up the creative guts of OpenIDEO. And the best part is it’s constantly in beta – so the platform continues to evolve over time.

After a challenge is posted on OpenIDEO, the three development phases – inspiration, concepting, and evaluation – are put into action. All resulting concepts generated are shareable, remix-able, and reusable in a similar way to Creative Commons. Participation is incentivised through the Design Quotient (DQ) which measures users contributions. Collaborative behaviour is encouraged through features like the Build Upon function. Challenge topics have ranged from ways in which affordable education can be delivered in the developing world to how kids’ awareness of the benefits of fresh food can be raised. Even the randomised OpenIDEO logo was designed through the challenge process.

Just now we’ve got two challenges open. The Sanitation Challenge is in conjunction with IDEO fieldwork in Ghana – and asks how human waste management and sanitation can be improved in low-income communities. The Innovation Challenge seeks to set an agenda for the upcoming i20 Summit of global innovation leaders. Come over and join us – because creativity loves company.

Selection of my OpenIDEO contributions:
Story Telling on Wheels (Winning Concept)
Innovating *With, Not For* Communities (Winning Agenda Concept)
Growing Knowledge (Concept)
Posters Made of Soap (Inspiration)
Making Policy Public (Inspiration)

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Creative Waves Through Collaboration
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Movember: ‘Stache Antics

November 13, 2010

A few years back, while living in India, I sharpened my skills in mo’-spotting and now consider myself a discerning observer of upper-lip exhibitionism. Imagine then my delight in coming across a site where the time-honoured art of the ‘stache meets the modern phenomena of Twitter. On Stache Tag guys can track the growth of their moustaches, categorize their facial hair types, and even create animations of their day-to-day growth – using the hashtag #movember with viral fervor.

Even better – it’s supporting the Movember Foundation which raises funds and awareness for men’s health and male cancer initiatives.* Sparked in 2003, Movember challenges men to change their appearance and the state of men’s health by growing a moustache. The rules are simple, start Movember 1st  clean-shaven, then grow a moustache for the entire month.  The moustache becomes the ribbon for men’s health – the means by which awareness and money are raised to fight cancers and health issues which affect men. 

From Stache Tag’s creators Blast Radius:

“Twitter is really huge, moustaches are on trend, and Movember is a great cause,” says Sean Chambers, the executive creative director for Blast Radius in Europe. “It did feel like a really good time to pull all these things together.” The site strikes that perfect balance of worthwhile and useless. In addition to building in frivolous (read: totally awesome) features like animations for the moustache photos, Blast Radius hopes the site will increase international awareness for Movember and help participants raise more money.

And it’s not all about guys. Mo Bros have been joined by Mo Sistas too.

And I couldn’t resist adding my buddy from Mumbai.
Giving a whole new meaning to ‘letting one’s hair down’.
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* If you’re keen to donate to Movember – head over to your local division.
And if you want to parade your mo or check out the Mo Stylers – drive by Stache Tag.


Explosive Diwali Message

November 5, 2010

Indian designer Mickey Bardava proposed a playful way to highlight the dangers of open defecation, drawing on Diwali fireworks packaging. Associating the familiar perils of explosive fireworks with the health hazards of exterior excretion – the text goes on to wish you a happy Diwali while declaring that the message has been ‘issued in public interest.’ Barvada cleverly remixes a locally relevant graphic style with a potent social message.

And check out a further oddity in Diwali fireworks packaging I spotted in Mumbai this week!

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Random Specific Musings from the Ramayana


A while back I was asked to contribute ideas on spreading the smokefree message to New Zealand youth via the awesome Smoking: Not Our Future platform. Noting that they already had an active social media following and a focus on the local music scene, I threw in the idea of a Twitter rap competition to engage youth to co-create positive health messages.

Collaborating with Transmit Media-Creative, the TwitSpit Competition was devised – inviting participants to freestyle/rap their smokefree attitudes via Twitter. The 140-character constraint was reduced even further by the requirement to include the #twitspit hashtag. Judging was done by local hip-hop legend, MC Juse1, who also created the graffiti artwork which branded the competition. The winner scooped an iPhone, with a slew of music-oriented prizes also up for grabs to those willing to spill their skills.
Winning tweet:

@ohhhSunday! you’re killing yourself but it doesn’t end there/
because it also affects all the people that care #twitspit

@DropNutsDean No more banter, Listen to this stanza/
If we lose the battle against tobacco, we will lose the war against cancer #twispit

@geekyORANGEfool: pull out that smoke and will anybody kiss you?
cause when you start smoking your love life’s gonna be an issue #twitspit

@DropNutsDean to coax/all those who smoke/heres a flowed note/
i don’t care if u burn… but i mind if u smoke #twitspit
And more fresh cuts from the prolific @DropNutsDean

… the only thing I smoke is MCs who test me…
… yo smokin dont just result in coughin/it results in coffins
… quit getting thru tar… like a cement mixer
… if you don’t want your ash kicked, the butt stops here

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Lo-fi Meets Hi-fi at the Corner of Send and Receive

[Images by Transmit Media-Creative]


Veiled Paradox

March 30, 2010

New York-based photographer Kate Orne has focused her lens on Pakitsani prostitution over a number of years in an effort to expose the denial, modesty, pretense and cultural oppression which envelope it.


Young women from rural villages and refugee camps are sold to the brothels by human-traffickers, while others are born into the trade.


Prostitution is forbidden under Islamic law, but with the increasing influence of extremist groups, the women risk severe punishment under Sharia Law through beheadings and stoning to death.

The laws – both secular and sacred – seem to disregard the context in which women have entered the profession while paying negligible attention to the men who engage their services.

The women practice modesty according to Islam. For a woman not to cover her chest… is considered daring – even among prostitutes.

Proceeds from Orne’s print sales from the series May You Never Be Uncovered: The Victims of Pakistan’s Sex Trade support education of the children of Pakistani prostitutes via the Sheed Foundation – “a small but highly efficient community-based organization addressing the social problems faced in particular by the local female sex workers and their children who suffer from oppression, poverty, illiteracy and abuse.”
Orne highlights cultural complexity through her portraits and studies which are both intimate yet modest. Her images don’t provide us with answers but rather confront us to question deeper the paradoxes at play surrounding prostitution. And I’d hasten to add that they are not limited to Pakistan nor Islam.

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