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Humanizing technology: Design for social good highlighted at SXSWedu

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austin photo: news_alexa_sxswedu mar 2013
Courtesy of AC4D

Jon Kolko, creative director of myedu (the visual resume-building and jobs platform for college students) and founder of the Austin Center for Design, sees interactive, digital design — that’s apps, online schedulers, content managers, websites, you name it — as the way to solve some of the “gnarly” social problems in our world, from the challenges of elderly care to the hoops same-sex couples jump through to start a family.

Kolko’s philosophy, as you can tell from the title of his book Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving, is that you can’t have technology without the human aspect behind it, and that piece of technology should be used to create some kind of positive change. That, combined with entrepreneurial skills and business savvy, is what he and his myedu and AC4D teams are teaching to the 20-somethings studying at the school in East Austin.

“Innovation has always been sought in technology, the idea being that if I come up with this new piece of technology and I commercialize it, I’m going to get all this value out of it,” he said at Wednesday night’s Design Movement in Education party at SXSWedu. “We take the perspective that the value is going to start with the people. Starting with humanity rather than starting with technology leads you toward something of positive social value.”

Take student Willy Morgan’s idea, for example. Inspired by his relationship with his own father, Morgan and his classmate Melissa Chapman are creating an online tool that same-sex couples hoping to start families can use to navigate, and ultimately simplify, the adoption process.

“One of the things we kept coming back to from our research is that in the LGBT adoption process, starting a family doesn’t have that warm, loving, caring feeling that the normal biological family has,” he said. “It’s almost degrading and it shouldn’t be that way, and that’s what we’re here to change.”

Morgan’s online tool is called “Informed,” which he calls the “bookends of the adoption process,” would digitize the mountain of paperwork required of parents, answer questions, lay out and compare facts, collate adoption agency information, and break down the financial aspects of adoption.

Morgan, who’s gay, wants to one day start a family with his future partner and is using his opportunity at the AC4D to jumpstart the process, in a way. “I have the opportunity to start early. I’m not just going to fix [the process] for myself, I’m going to fix it for anyone that I can.”

Morgan’s project was just one of six showcased at Wednesday’s SXSWedu party, co-hosted by AC4D and myedu. Between plates of Stubb’s barbecue and sips of local Austin brews, education folks and design nerds in town for the conference meandered through the AC4D house on Chestnut Ave. surveying the student projects. (They’re all in the pilot testing and prototype stages and unfortunately unavailable to the public just yet. But you can view AC4D student profiles here and alumni work here.)

“What connects all of these things is the desire to humanize technology and use it to help people,” Kolko said.

Here’s a list of each project, its designers, and a brief description.

  • Careshare — Helping caregivers stay sane, by students Eric Boggs and Chuck Hildebrand
  • Informed — LGBT Adoption, by students Melissa Chapman and Willy Morgan
  • Spoak — Seniors, telling their stories, by students Dave Gottlieb, Eli Robinson, Callie Thompson
  • Visual Voice — Autism Emoting, by students Bethany Stolle and Jesse Jack 
  • BringUp — K-12 Connection between teachers and parents, by students Kevin McCann and Will Mederski

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