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Networks of Interdependence

Networks of Interdependence

A Post-Industrial Design School

There’s this weird and wonderful place on the Lower East-Side of New York. It’s called Orbital and bills itself as a “studio for building networks.” Part coworking space, part project incubator and part school, it’s a place to build networks and to launch projects with/within/through those same networks. It’s also home to a very original 4-week course, Orbital 1K, given by Gary Chou (who launched the space) and Christina Xu.

In an  interesting plot twist, while it’s through my interest in coworking spaces and alternative forms of learning that I initially happened upon Orbital, both the space and the course were born out of a much more “classical” environment; a semester long class called Entrepreneurial Design given at the School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design.

I’ve been following their story for a while now and asked Christina to write a piece for us about their experience teaching that class at Orbital. They eventually completely overshot my meaning (!!) and actually produced a long and very interesting conversation which they’ve recently published on their own site, explaining how the SVA class works, the process the students follow and some of their lessons learned.

The whole class is built around each student thinking up, developing and launching a Kickstarter project with the aim of making $1000 by the end of the 15-week stretch. It’s not necessarily about becoming an entrepreneur or a social network wiz but about seeing those things as potential directions and tools. The class is a context in which to arrive at the understanding that…

“They don’t ask permission or wait for approval. They collaborate and get moving. I came to understand that this class didn’t give them new skills as much as it gave them a new context—a new way to see themselves as entrepreneurs.”
Paul Ford (prologue of the conversation)

Building Networks

The course is about “confronting uncertainty, building networks, and learning to launch their own ideas.” We often talk about digital literacy, of an accelerating and complexifying world, of disappearing jobs, of having multiple careers. In such an environment, understanding some of the mechanics of entrepreneurship, of developing and launching a product, as well as the dynamics and behaviours of networks—how to grow them, participate and interact with them—are all essential skills to foster resilience.

“Technology has gotten cheaper and more powerful, and so a single individual can do a lot more than he or she could 20-30 years ago. But also, because we’re all hyperconnected by networks, we’re far more aware of all the narratives happening around us. So there’s this gravitational pull towards realizing your own aspirations, most of which don’t have anything to do with your day job.”

From Independence to Interdependence

“The course is intentionally designed to get the students to involve us (and others, including their classmates) in their process and to normalize that collaborative way of working.”


Illustration by Moonsub Shin

Orbital 1K, drawn by Moonsub Shin who launched Moon’s Diary — Adventures in Europe

Think of “accelerated serendipity,” a concept frequently referred to around coworking spaces. When you increase the possibilities of “collisions” and encounters, you increase the chances for collaborations as well as the opportunities for thinking differently on your own ideas and questions.

The simple fact of asking for input, of phrasing your questions and presenting to someone else, often directs you towards answers. In the same way, helping out, just like teaching, is a great way to learn and bring your knowledge to the surface. Some things you already know only come out as answers when solving problems with others instead of just for yourself.

Xu and Chou specifically foster this kind of communication and collaboration to create a form of positive interdependence between the students.

“The value of the cohort is that it expands the surface area of lessons to be learned. You are learning not just from your own experience, but also through observing others in the cohort.”

“Giving somebody else the advice they need may actually help unblock you.”

Know It All ≠ Do It All

“One of the most important things I’ve learned in working with creators is that even if you are capable of doing all of these things yourself, that doesn’t mean you should or can do them all at once.”

I find this to be one of the most important insights in their conversation. Throughout this magazine we write about learning—especially self-directed and collaborative learning—and often in how many people’s quest stems from an intent in progressing or redirecting one’s career. There’s the underlying assumption that you can learn the skills you need and be independent. But knowing how to do something does not always imply you should do it yourself, especially in a setting such as a product invention and launch.

“The myth that you have to know what you are doing every step of the way is something we can help people debunk, but it’s a hard mindset to change. We’ve been taught to believe it is easier just to do it yourself.

… It should be: ‘do it with a bunch of people who have your back.’”

Which parallels the entrepreneur and network notions from earlier. Literacy in those things is important, yet it doesn’t have to mean you will make it your next job or career. In the same fashion, being able to design a website or bind a book doesn’t mean you have to do every time that skill comes up, it can also simply mean you are better equipped for finding help, for understanding the work and for effectively collaborating with the person actually handling those tasks.

Developing a Practice of Momentum

“I’ve come to really appreciate the process of review as a weapon for getting past the cycle of doubt and uncertainty.”

The teachers try to help students gain/keep momentum so they can make progress every week, keep making decisions and break through the cycle of doubt. Getting input and support from other students is very important in this quest for momentum and one of the ways to achieve that exchange is through the use of reviews by others and blogging throughout the whole process. In some fields, this is commonly referred to as as “working out loud,” sharing your work and lessons as you go. Often that practice is framed around transparency and communication within an organization, here it is used for feedback, a form of peer pressure and collaborating / getting help through the network. Although we often hear of this type of openness for the sake of productivity and avoiding roadblocks, it is interesting to see it from the more positive angle of momentum, of moving forward in a project.

As Nicole Fenton argues, these practices are “made easier the more you start with Words as Material. Whether it’s in the form of blogging, or via our more structured Working Backwards document, this is how you plant a flag and see who shows up.”

Embracing Constraints

“Time is also the element that’s missing from most speculative work. Speculative work is unbounded from real resources. You learn to dream up something big without having to think about how you will iterate your way there.”

Ring a bell? Anything you’ve been meaning to get to but never do? If “constraints breed creativity,” which specific constraints will actually get you there?

Although, initially, it may seem like the constraint is the $1000 target, students find that it’s actually more of a goal. The true constraints are of course time and, as most Kickstarters will tell you, producing the rewards. The teachers have put a number of time constraints in place, like milestones and the pressing final deadline. Christina says it well when she describes these milestones as “an obstacle course that hints towards a set of outcomes.”

The truest constraint, of course, is the need to invent something people will pay real money for! That’s what the students are tasked with designing while also letting go of some control, leaving the final decision in the hands of the project’s supporters. To be able to do that, finding an idea they really care about is a definite advantage.

“It’s hard to push through the pain and uncertainty of launching unless you are genuinely motivated. There’s just too much friction. Some of the friction is stuff like stamps and shipping labels, but the most challenging friction is the self-doubt.”

Considering The Collective

“Networks are the infrastructure for resilience—the financial and emotional, but also the creative and intellectual.”

It’s nothing new but something often forgotten; people should learn what they can do and certain basic principles of one or various domains, not usually specific finite skills. The 1K / Entrepreneurial Design class teaches specific skills not as an itemized list of things to learn (and forget) for a specific and soon disrupted role. Rather, they teach students with the intention to introduce entrepreneurial endeavours and network fluency as evolving options, collaborative opportunities and directions to be further explored and developed.

I will close with one last passage which embodies a lot of the meaning behind their classes and something very appropriate for our age. (Emphasis is mine.)

Christina: If you push that to an extreme endpoint, what that means is—and this is gonna sound a little corny—that we’re all connected, and that you can’t adopt a zero-sum mindset. If you believe that you are only as successful as your networks, then you become incentivized to help your networks, and your networks’ networks, and so on. Eventually we’re all helping each other and not trying to maintain this very individualistic version of what success looks like. It changes this idea of being an independent creator—which historically has been so dominated by an egocentric and individualistic narrative—into something that’s more about building together.
Gary: … As part of the collective, you would make very different design decisions. You would have to understand there are externalities—both positive and negative—to the decisions you make.
As designers, we’re not always conscious of the power that we wield or the position we design from. We’re sometimes so focused on optimizing a certain variable or metric—accomplishing a task that drives shareholder value. We’re not considering the collective, and you need to do that if you care about spending your time and energy on driving societal value.”

Note: Don’t forget to check out their list of resources and syllabi.


Header image:
Students from the SVA Class of 2018 go through the ideation exercise at the beginning of the semester.

Also published on Medium.

Patrick Tanguay

Editor-in-Chief for E-180 Publications. Obsessively curious transdisciplinary thinker and learner. I help connect people and ideas.