“Sketch the person to your left; it’ll function as their name tag for the rest of the day.”

That immediately broke whatever ice there may have been among the twenty students who attended the five-hour Design Thinking Workshop hosted by the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the end of March. A ripple of chuckles, and “uhh, here goes nothing...” and “sorry if this turns out terrible.” But from that moment forward, we were encouraged to be unabashedly and unapologetically outgoing in our artistic endeavors for the day: design and thought.

THE GOAL: Gain firsthand experience implementing and reimplementing the design thinking process in two scenarios: by defining, ideating, prototyping, and testing with feedback from Dr. Daniela Faas, Dr. Avi Uttamchandani, the Harvard Office for Sustainability, and fellow team members.

THE CLIENT: Harvard Office for Sustainability.

THE PROMPT: Find creative ways to reduce energy usage on campus and encourage students to incorporate energy considerations into everyday actions and decisions.

Here are three student excerpts on the experience and the ideas. 


A Dummy’s Guide to Dorm Life: Emphasis on Laundry

-Christine Zhang, A.B. Candidate in Applied Mathematics, Class of 2018

Daniela Faas, the head of the design thinking workshop, had us shuffle groups in the beginning of the day. I ended up setting next to Ken, a data science Masters student, Natasha, an undergraduate interested in bioengineering, and Yiqi, a fifth year mechanical engineering student. During the ideation process, we immediately identified laundry as the issue we wanted to address since it was a lifestyle skill applicable to all students, even after graduation.

After a rapid session of brainstorming, we had three stand out ideas: AirDry, LaundryPool, and A Dummy’s Guide to Dorm Life. Yiqi, as an international student from China, shared how Chinese universities don’t have dryers but instead build rooms spanned with rows of clotheslines for students to hang dry their clothing. Air drying is better both for the environment and the article of clothing itself as it helps preserve the fabric’s fibers. However, space constraints for drying racks and a worry about theft led us to consider other ventures.

During the session, Daniela encouraged us to brainstorm fantastical ideas—just because the technology does not exist yet does not mean the idea isn’t valid. This led to our second idea, a laundry service based on the multi-billion dollar taxi provider Uber. Each load of laundry uses the same amount of water, independent of the quantity of clothing. Thus, it is optimal to wash full loads, however students may not always have enough laundry to do at one time. Ken propose creating a “LaundryPool,” where students could pair up to use washers and reduce the cost of doing laundry by 50%. I expanded on this idea with the creation of porous laundry bags, which students could store their clothes in to provide a layer of separation in the same washer. While we could see this idea implemented in a laundromat, we were not confident about its feasibility on a college campus. Thus, we turned to our final idea, "A Dummy’s Guide to Dorm Life."

In particular, our group wanted to address the excess of energy consumed by washing laundry in hot water. Laundry detergents have been so effective that current research shows no difference in the effectiveness of cold water versus hot water. Furthermore, washing on hot water uses 4.3 kW, while cold water only uses 0.3 kW, a 93 percent decrease in energy usage. We wanted all undergraduates to understand that decreasing their carbon footprint can be effortless and easy to build into habit.

We wanted all undergraduates to understand that decreasing their carbon footprint can be effortless and easy to build into habit.

We acknowledge that there needs to be better signage in laundry rooms to present a constant reminder to students to chose the “brights” (cold water) setting on washers but we also wanted to implement more systematic change through education. Since many students will be doing laundry for the first time when they arrive at college, we want to provide home economics training to students on how their choices impact the environment.

Our goal was to target pre-frosh, who are generally more receptive to official Harvard emails and eager to learn. We generated a cross-platform guide to sustainability through improved signage around campus, weekly newsletters, YouTube instructional videos, and discussions during weekly entryway meetings. We planned to also use software including AWeber to create our email templates and help track data and analytics. Education starts early and helping students become more aware when they are young, they are more likely to internalize the learning.

Power Hour: An app to manage student energy use

-Spencer Hallyburton, A.B. Candidate in Physics, Class of 2018

What is a design workshop without someone creating an app to save the world?

The group I was a part of set out to tackle the problem of excess student power consumption. The design process helped us focus the more broad topic of energy and sustainability down to one that spoke to our group’s unique set of interests and skill sets. The instructors of the course encouraged us to think non-linearlythat is, they pushed us to create fantastical solutions that ranged from incorporating Donald Trump to acting as if we lived in the Middle Ages to having only water as our mode of transportation. These wild and counterintuitive ‘constraints’ allowed us to pin down what was important in our problem and led to the creation of a plethora of ideas, both real and contrived.

These wild and counterintuitive ‘constraints’ allowed us to pin down what was important in our problem and led to the creation of a plethora of ideas, both real and contrived.

As we dove into more of the specifics of our problem by creating ‘How Might We?’ statements and grouping solution mechanisms, we ultimately landed on the topic of student consumptiona concept very close to many of us, and narrowly edging out underground fish farming.

After we pinned down our objectives, we started the ideation and prototyping process, compiling hundreds of Post-It notes, poster paper, and white boards to exhaust every ounce of our creative abilities. Our group consisted of myself, another undergraduate, and two graduate students. An interesting component of this workshop was that it brought together individuals of unique backgrounds with a diverse array of experiencesan essential component in effective designing. While many of the participants in the workshop had not previously thought critically about sustainability or energy consumption, I found that my group thrived on the aggregation of our distinct components.

An interesting component of this workshop was that it brought together individuals of unique backgrounds with a diverse array of experiencesan essential component in effective designing.

After a long iterative approach ideating, designing, and prototyping, we settled on our solution. We wanted an accessible interface for students that combined personal choices, data, and cross-student/institutional comparisons while adjusting for differences in living styles and accessibility to information.

Power Hour takes as an input a baseline survey of students’ appliances, asking them if they own a computer, fan, refrigerator, etc. and calculates a suggested power consumption value. Based on the data from students in the surrounding area, it can compare your estimated usage across students at the University. The crux of the app is its synchronicity with Apple’s energy consumption measurement technology. Over time, students can compare their energy use with their suggested value. If there is a large enough pool of respondents, there could even be a push for inter-house competition. Of course, we also incorporated an educational component, as the app would continuously suggest positive habits and lifestyle choices that could help students reduce their consumption.

Moving past the design workshop, we think that this idea is quite relevant and would fit well in the University’s sustainability prospects. The workshop gave us the bottom-line framework for incorporating design thinking into our daily lives. The next step in the process is beginning the implementation.

Powercloud heat mapping and winter energy reduction

- Aldís Elfarsdóttir, S.B. Candidate in Bioengineering, Class of 2018

Within three fueled minutes, our team zeroed in on the problem of heat distribution and winter-time window-opening in residential dorms. Upon hearing from Christopher Bitzas about the structure of the House heating systems, our problem statement developed into: “[Harvard students] need [a way to control their room temp in a way that doesn’t waste energy] because [they care about living comfortably].” It was frank and specific as prompted, generating an insight about the importance of optimal living conditions in leading a productive, happy, and energy-efficient lifestyle.

A short while into our brainstorming process, Dr. Daniela Faas prompted us: “Imagine you were in the middle ages. What would you do to solve this heating problem?” My initial response was: “You wouldn’t be able to control any of your heat: just deal with it.” We all cracked up, and Patrick added: “Just wear a sweater, layer up.” But we realized that we wanted to ideate something that would allow us to optimize heating conditions for current housing situations regardless of renovation status, so students wouldn’t have a hard time “just dealing with it.”

In our team, we had a applied math graduate student, Patrick, with experience in the army, who brought the exigence of resource efficiency to good focus in our group. A mechanical engineer in training, Connor brought ideas from his personal experience with house heating issues and estimated the net cost of implementing our design ($16/room). William, a double concentrator in history of art and architecture and social anthropology, offered propelling insight in the development of our design narrative, an aspect of engineering that connects abstract ideas to the world of people. An environmental bioengineer in training, working with the Resource Efficiency Program, I brought in my direct project experience surveying Eliot house residents for an open-source heat map during housing period for rooming considerations.

Our team’s combination of backgrounds and perspectives allowed us to evolve our ideas around our core and driving postulation that if people could choose rooms based on heating preferences, less windows would open during the winter, saving an estimated millions of BTUs of energy. It goes to show how powerful teamwork can be, that we generated a design that makes my independent project 100 times better, optimizing on cheap implementation and scalability. 

It goes to show how powerful teamwork can be, that we generated a design that makes my independent project 100 times better, optimizing on cheap implementation and scalability. 

As a group we came to a very scalable model for heat-mapping the Houses for room selection period. The design is proprietary and exciting, and we might go forward with it, but I’ll give you a rundown: powercloud. It’s a system of room-based electronically powered sensors that update an online database of room temperature, humidity (perhaps even lighting and noise, as Shuya Gong from IDEO suggested during feedback), in conjunction with a dynamically-generated heat map colored based on an individual’s heat preferences. It’s a way for students and house residents to factor energy considerations into their actions and decisions during room selection and housing period.

In conclusion

This year’s Design Thinking Workshop successfully brought together a large group of students from a diverse array of backgrounds and fields of study, enabling the brainstorming and development of working solutions to campus-wide issues under time pressure. Direct interaction with clients exposed groups to very real and motivating challenges. Meanwhile, the fusion of perspectives and personalities among team members yielded promising solutions and insights revolving around the need to target receptive audiences, design for differences in lifestyle, and make information accessible and positive change easy. High fives and clapping resounded after each team’s project pitch. This is the sort of spirit we need to innovate in teams, and it all started with an unapologetic and unabashed approach to the problem.

...the fusion of perspectives and personalities among team members yielded promising solutions and insights revolving around the need to target receptive audiences, design for differences in lifestyle, and make information accessible and positive change easy.