September 7: Course overview
In-class listening: “Butterflies”, Nate DiMeo
Discussion of expectations for the course
Discussion about technologies that have been positively transformational for society, Media Lab’s approach to innovation, seeking impact on a billion or more people.

Assignment: Write a reflection (~500 words) on the lesson of Thomas Midgley and post to the class blog. Due by noon on September 13.

September 14:  Levers of change
Chapter 7 from Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig
New Media, New Civics? By Ethan Zuckerman

New technologies aren’t the only way to make social change – activists have a long history of using law, norms and markets to address problems, individually and in combination. After exploring the “four levers” framework for social change, we will break into four teams and design solutions to the problem of prison overcrowding in California, using each of the four levers as a primary design inspiration.

September 21: Success and failure in technology for social change
How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix the Prison System – Shane Snow
The Perils of Using Technology to Solve Other People’s Problems – Ethan Zuckerman
Troubled Water – Amy Costello
The Solar Company Making a Profit on Poor Africans – Stephan Faris
One Laptop Per Child: The Dream is Over – Alanna Shaik

We will discuss three case studies in technology for social change: M-Kopa (low-cost solar electricity in Kenya), OLPC (computing for students throughout the world), PlayPump (playground equipment that pumps drinking water.) How do we assess the success or failure of an intervention? How do we balance informed criticism of technological interventions with optimism for the potential of technology? To practice “productive critique”, we will critique a project – Promise Tracker – the three instructors have been involved with.

Assignment: Write a reflection (~500 words) on the in-class exercise critiquing your own work. Give a brief overview of the project you selected and the question you found most helpful for critique. Due by noon on September 27.

September 28: Technology is inherently political
Where are the Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts – Bruno Latour
Do Artifacts Have Politics? – Langdon Winner
Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? – Woolgar and Cooper

Based on the readings, we will discuss the differences between technical and sociotechnical systems, examine multiple ways of considering the politics of artifacts, and questions of engineers’ responsibility for the artifacts they create. In groups, we will examine everyday artifacts and talk about their affordances and limitations, then redesign around another set of political assumptions.

Assignment: Write a brief reflection on the in-class design exercise. What are the politics you see in the artifact your group worked on (police uniform or classroom space) as it currently exists? How was the experience of explicitly translating the viewpoint you chose into an object? Include photos of your designs.

October 5: How to understand a field
Readings by Jan Chipchase:
Reflections on Google Glass
A Saudi Mobile Primer
61 Glimpses of the Future
Driver Behaviours in a World of Autonomous Mobility
Connectivity is Not Binary, The Network is Never Neutral
A Year of Reflection (sections #3-5)
Guest speaker: Jan Chipchase via skype

Deep understanding of a problem and the context that surrounds it requires years of experience and immersion in the communities and cultures that encounter a problem. How does a designer or an engineer develop limited knowledge of a field in a much shorter period of time. Using Jan Chipchase’s insights from his design practice, we will begin the process of understanding the fields in which we hope to intervene this semester.

Assignment: Identify an issue you may want to work on for the class project. Write up 2 paragraphs on the issue and 1 paragraph on the design of an ethnographic exercise that can help you learn more about the space. Spend at least 30 mins carrying out your observation and share 3 paragraphs on your takeaways. What other methods will you need to complement this with to better understand the issue?

Oct 12: Problem selection and mapping
The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s ProblemsCourtney Martin

We will share thinking to date on selected issues and discuss how to develop a map of the ecosystem in which a problem is embedded. How do we identify other partners in the field? What’s already out there and working? What are holes that need filling?

Oct 19: Design approaches / cultivating humility and listening (Part 2)
Tackling Inequities in Global Scientific Power Structures
A CEO’s tips for global health organizations to better partner with companies
Speaker: Beth Kolko

Visiting speaker Beth Kolko will lead a discussion on the impact of epistemological chasms between academia, industry, and geographies, and leveraging economic systems to bring about change.

Assignment for Nov 2 (2 weeks):
Complete at least 5 interviews from 3 different groups on your ecosystem map.

  • Write up an overview of themes that emerged to the blog
  • Email us with your raw notes

Oct 26: No class – Member meeting at Media Lab

Nov 2: Design approaches / cultivating humility and listening (Part 2)
An introduction to participatory design approaches, including human-centered design, participatory design, co-design. Workshop on problem-solving using different design methodologies.

Routledge Handbook of Participatory Design
IDEO HCD Toolkit and Method Cards
Value Sensitive Design – Envisioning Cards

Please write one paragraph THIS WEEK on who has won the election and why (an explanation of how all of the uncertainty we now feel has shaken out).  Please print out the paragraph and put it in a sealed envelope and we will all open the envelopes during the class.

Design Brief:
Review the Deep Stream design brief
Prepare the following sections for your own project brief:

  • Overview of issue (background and desk research)
  • Ecosystem map
  • Summary of ethnographic findings
  • Summary of interview findings
  • Write up from one other design research method of your choice from IDEO method cards

Nov 9: Exploring technical and non-technical solution threads
Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?
Forging a Single Proletariat in the Fight Against Property
Speakers: Dayna Cunningham

Joined by Dayna Cunningham, we’ll discuss race, politics and MIT CoLab’s work building cross-sector partnerships with community teams.


  • Finalize the problem statement / design challenge workshopped in class and add to your design brief.  An initial outline of sections for the brief can be found here and we will further elaborate on the final parts in the next weeks. (Please email us a link to a Google doc or other with your work to date so we can follow your progress.)
  • Returning to the levers of change framework, write up a few paragraphs on how the 4 levers might be applied (independently or together) to address this challenge. (Post to blog)
  • Come up with 10 one-sentence descriptions of possible interventions you could explore this semester. (Post to blog)

Nov 16: Working within established systems
Speakers: William Li, Tom Kalil

Visiting speaker William Li will share his experience developing assistive technologies and discuss partnering with users in the design process.

Tom Kalil will discuss solving complex problems with multifunctional teams including subject and market experts.

Develop a low-fidelity/paper prototype of the intervention you plan to test. It should be a physical form to communicate your idea that folks can play with, react to, and provide feedback on. Be prepared to present in class on the 30th and discuss who you plan to test with and how you’ll structure the interactions.

Nov 23: (Weds before Thanksgiving – no class)

Nov 30: (In)validating assumptions & failing fast 
The Taming of Tech Criticism – Evgeny Morozov
Speakers: Katrin Verclas (To be confirmed)

Through in class workshops we’ll explore how to identify and evaluate the assumptions being made in our projects and how to approach user testing.

Failure is inevitable. Katrin Verclas, founder of FailFaire, encourages us to celebrate and understand our failures, so we can fail fast and iterate.

Prepare final presentations of your design brief for December 7th. Presentations will be 7 minutes long and should include a 3 minute high-gloss pitch of your project, a 3-minute unvarnished window into the challenges, missteps, and invalidated assumptions, and 1 minute look at next steps for the project.

Final design briefs are due on the 7th. If you need until the 14th to submit, please send us an email.

Dec 7: Final presentations & reflections

This syllabus is subject to revision at any time. Readings will be made available online, linked to this document.