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Putting Research into Practice: Innovation Center at Vila Nova Esperança

A few weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Mariana, who worked with me at the International Development Design Summit (IDDS), in 2012. Mariana was organizing a workshop in a community in the outskirts of São Paulo called Vila Nova Esperança. The workshop was geared toward teaching basic electronics and soldering by means of a small LED flashlight. At Porvir, I am reading and learning about all these incredible projects and education initiatives, but I was itching for some hands-on work to apply what I am learning. This opportunity came in perfect time, and I hopped on the chance to visit the innovation center.

My arrival in Vila Nova Esperança was quite a journey. First, I took a metro to the Butantã station, where I met up with Lucas, an engineering student from São Carlos, who was spending his vacation in São Paulo. Lucas had been to the center a few times and offered to accompany me there for the workshop. From Butantã, we took a bus ride through the periphery and got off in front of Jardim Amaralina, a gated community about 20 minutes outside São Paulo. From there, the bus continued on its paved route, and we turned onto a dirt road. As we walked, I began to notice the distance between concrete light posts becoming greater, until about 200 meters into the dirt road, where they stopped completely. From that point on, there were tall wooden posts with dozens of wires wrapped around each one, all guiding our way toward the community. Lucas had told me about the “gatos” (“cats”) before arriving, but when I told him not to be silly, that I wasn’t afraid of cats, he just chuckled. As soon as I arrived, I realized what he meant. In Brazil, “gatos” are a euphemism for illegitimate electrical hook-ups, on which many of these communities depend for electricity.

After about 15 minutes, we arrived at a series of brick houses stacked along the side of a hill. Lucas led me to a half-dirt, half-concrete stairway, which left us at the community’s main road. Along this trek, he told me a little bit about the community, and the people who were living there today. A majority of  the inhabitants of Vila Nova Esperança, or VNE, as it has become, came from the Northeast of Brazil, Bahia, in search of better work opportunities in São Paulo. When realizing that life in the megalopolis was quite a bit different than imagined, there were few options to settle. They began settling on this hill, neighboring an ecological reserve. The location is right on the border between two cities: São Paulo and Taboão da Serra. In Brazil, we say “Quando algo é de todo mundo, não é de ninguem,” meaning, “when something belongs to everyone it belongs to no one.” As a result, neither city takes much care for this land, and people began to settle on it. Now that the community has grown to about 3,000 people, the cities still refuse to provide amenities, as the land was originally illegally claimed. These complications make basic services such as water and electricity a serious problem at VNE, which explains the gatos we saw along the way. Another issue is the lack of bus routes that reach the community, as the roads are not paved. Again, the city refuses to pave the roads so the buses will not make it there any time soon.

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Vila Nova Esperança’s main road

The Innovation Center at VNE is currently housed in the garage of the community’s elected leader, Lia. Lia is a true matriarch, and has been democratically elected as VNE’s community leader several times in a row. While her husband runs a convenience store beneath their home on the main road, Lia is battling at the government offices for public services. The idea for the innovation center first came out of a project from the NGO Teto, which brings volunteers to communities in need and spend a few days building homes together with the people in each community. Miguel participated in a few constructions for Teto at VNE and fell in love with the community.

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The innovation center, currently inside Lia’s garage

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Here I am, inside the center!

Mariana’s workshop was scheduled to begin at 6pm, but we arrived at around 3, giving us plenty of time to prepare and gather our participants. We quickly learned that the best form of advertising was via word-of-mouth and by interacting with people who were hanging out in front of their houses or stores. In doing this, I got a great tour of the community, by a group of young girls who had spent the early part of the afternoon drawing at the center. VNE is already complete with a community garden, playground and a small soccer field at the very top—not to mention the incredible view they have of the nature reserve in their backyard. We arrived back at the innovation center at around 5:30 to prepare the materials for the workshop. At 6, we were perfectly ready to go, but no one was there. At 6:30, still no one. We decided to all go back out and call our new friends we had made during the afternoon. Miguel, who has been going to the community every day for the past year, already knows the “regulars.” With his big friendly smile and irresistible “Fala, broder!” (translated to “what’s up, brother!”) a few kids began to fill the center. Suddenly, we had a crowd of teenagers and even a few moms excited about the flashlights.


Mariana explaining circuits

Mariana began to explain the concept of basic circuitry to our crowd. We soon learned that our role as volunteers would be way more than just helping with logistics, but we had to put our high school physics memories to the test! The assembly kits, which were donated by Olin College of Engineering, required a level of detail that would be hard to explain in the two hours we had programmed for the workshop. With soldering irons sizzling, wires clipping, questions flying, the center was buzzing with activity. Needless to say, we lost track of time and before we knew it, several moms were arriving at the innovation center wondering where their kids were so late at night. When they arrived, the kids were excited to show them their new creations, which would also be used to guide their way home.

Of course, this was not all so easy. The assembly kits were quite complicated for an introductory workshop, and each participant demanded more attention than we could provide. Many of the flashlights didn’t work on the first try, and the younger kids grew frustrated with their failed attempts. This is where something I learned at a workshop back in May (mentioned earlier in this blog) kicked in: Failure is only when you quit. The kids knew this and wanted to keep on trying, but the hungry and tired volunteers needed to pack up. In sticking to my belief that you should’t quit something when you want it to work, and seeing how dedicated the workshop’s participants were about making the flashlights work, I offered to continue the workshop on a different day. We scheduled a time for the following week when I would return to VNE, on the condition that those who didn’t get a chance to finish would bring a friend or two to the second workshop. For this one, I would plan an even simpler circuit, and would play around with the workshop’s participants in assembling the LED connection. I didn’t know what I was in for.


LED flashlight assembly kit, created by Olin and assembled by Mariana and Marité



The first completed flashlight, assembled by Tempei, the innovation center’s only full-time staff

Since then I have returned to VNE about twice a week, learning so much with every visit. Right now, I am planning a new workshop which will encourage participants to draw and use visual documentation as a learning tool. Saturday is the second part of a photography workshop led by a friend of mine, and we will combine a part of her program with the drawing course. My experience at VNE so far has taught me a lot about the meaning of “innovation,” which I have been struggling to define over the past few months. An innovation is not something necessarily revolutionary or technologically advanced, but yes a new approach at an old problem. The flashlight workshop was a tool to inspire the community at VNE to use their own resources toward solutions to daily issues. Since the city doesn’t provide electricity, the streets at night are dark. With their new flashlights, the kids could have a safer walk home, and feel empowered to find resourceful solutions. Our hope is to leave a permanent stock of the tools necessary to build the flashlights, but also for those who wish to explore more electronics to play with.

Below are a few photos from the first workshop.

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Navigating physical streets and bureaucratic dialogues

After the setback of last week’s attempt at generating way finding clues within the village, we took a step back to evaluate what were the key issues important to us, the children and Adhyayan, and what strategies could we realistically implement in our limited time without unnecessarily antagonizing the community.

All these past weeks of interactions with the community and specially the kids, it’s become clear that Adhyayan, the organization and the space holds a special place for them. They like to spend their maximum time after school within its environment. With the lack of recreational public spaces in the community, this offers a safe and comfortable environment for them to hang out.
We decided to try reinforcing its presence as the ‘heart’ of the children and the community. This is also helped by its physical location, though deep within the neighborhood, but at a prominent square.

Though, being old, organically grown communities, there mostly exists a mixed land use. However there are many lanes deep within the village, which are purely residential. This led to the question of distinguishing between the public and the private, how deep within the community would they like outsiders to enter. Thus a decision to work on the movement through the streets having mostly commercial ventures and institutions was made.

We tried to delineate the streets throughout the community through color.
There are 5 different entrances into the community, each from a prominent point on the periphery of the neighborhood like a metro station, next to major city school, and near the surrounding residential communities offering a different meandering path to reach the small square “choti chawk” at which Adhyayan is situated. Some of these streets are lined with commercial ventures; another passes through the neighborhood cow stable, while the others are residential lanes. I decided to highlight these different paths with different colors to make color-coded way-finding clues. The younger kids had been feeling a big left out these past few days when we were working on the community map, and I thought it would be a good idea to get them involved in this project. We started hand printing the walls of these different streets, with each path being distinguishable by its own color.

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It was really interesting to witness the residents’ reactions to a bunch of kids parading up and down the lanes hand printing different surfaces. Even more interesting was the dialogues that this initiated. Many adults have started recognizing me as the ‘teacher’ to their children at Adhyayan or from our weekly community meeting and take whatever we seem to bring to their streetscape in a positive light. Many times we as designers come up notions of how certain things should be or how they should be read by the others without realizing that not everyone is so intuitively immersed in design thinking. It was a reading of the markers’ seeming success that most people’s immediate response to our “we’re just hand printing these streets” was “Oh! To make different lanes distinguishing by color? That would make giving directions so much easier!”

From this week, a few volunteers from the neighboring college who want to work with Adhyayan on this “art” project join us. Usually whenever an outsider comes to the NGO (including myself), one of the kids always comes out to one of the entrances to guide us in, it even took me a couple of days to find my way in one go. To test out our markers, instead of going to receive the volunteers, we’ve been telling them to follow a particular color depending on where they inform us that they’re entering from and no one seems to have got lost so far! (Or maybe most people just have a better sense of direction than me)




As a possible critique of this experiment and on further development, we’re toying with the idea of adding the NGO’s logo or something, as I’m still not convinced about its success or access to an accidental outsider or someone who isn’t invited in. I’m hoping that our next step of installing installations and murals as “attractors” in lanes that seem more narrow or unfriendly might affect the general foot traffic in the village.


Though we’ve been working our hardest at making the streets more “navigable” the daunting problem of the excessive trash on the streets would deter anyone, outsider or otherwise to wish to traverse the lanes of the village. Though we clean all the areas where we make an intervention, its not a sustainable step as the it requires a multi-tiered addressal from concerned government departments and conscious efforts by the residents. While we are targeting the community awareness through our weekly meetings and personal interactions, we’ve been having meetings with the sub-departments of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in the past weeks. This Tuesday after weeks of attempts, we finally managed to hold a meeting with the Chancellor for the zone within which our neighborhood lies along with his officials to discuss the policy changes that need to be implemented for communities like these urban villages. Communities, whose narrow streets do not allow for larger municipal trucks to operate in and who require a greater attention by the personal working with smaller equipment and on foot. This also, allowed us to create a bridge of dialogue between the community and the authorities that had been lacking and made the residents take our work and us in their community in a more serious light.

Though seemingly a promising series of conversation, existing as a part of the (in)famous Indian bureaucracy, we will need to maintain constant pressure on the MCD, the scope of which will extend way beyond my stay with Adhyayan to see a concrete impact. However, getting the dialogue started was a huge step and I will make sure to maintain the pressure for however long I can.


– Zoya


In the apiary

This week Master Beekeeper Erin McGregor-Forbes invited me to her home to confer on the plans and details of the mobile observation hive.  The original intent had been to build the structure on the back of a small tow-a-long trailer, however, after our conversation it seems the better approach will be to construct the hive inside a larger, covered trailer.  This trailer can be outfitted as not only a place to view the bees, but also a place to sit, relax and read about them…more like a little room.  A bee room.


Honeybees, much like many social insects (ants and termites for instance) operate as a super-organism.  A super-organism is a group of individual organisms who not only could not survive without the colony but also have a complex social hierarchy with highly specialized divisions of labor working in concert for the health of the whole.  This basic recognition is an extremely important concept in understanding the workings of the colony and fits nicely in parallel with their necessity to pollinating the flora of their surrounding landscape.

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Erin also has a few queen-rearing colonies; colonies that produce queens that can be used to re-queen queen-less colonies.  Finding the queen can be a chore being that there can be 20,000 to 100,000 bees in a mature colony depending on the season.  


To make things easier, beekeepers will mark the queen with a small dot of paint.  To do this, once the queen is found, she is placed in a small plastic container with a small wooden plunger.  The plunger has a soft end and is used to push the queen gently against the screened end.  Here the queen is stuck and can be easily painted with a paint pen.

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Lemann Foundation Conference …and feedback

Today, the Porvir office had a different kind of morning. Every August, Fundação Lemann, a Brazilian organization that addresses issues in education, and is a close collaborator of Porvir, hosts a seminary on education and innovation, called the 3rd International Seminar on Entrepreneurship and Education in Brazilian Education. In addition to founding the Lemann Center at Stanford University, the Lemann foundation provides valuable learning tools such as translation of online courses, and scholarships to a Brazilian audience.

While I was very excited to hear from today’s guest speakers, whose papers I had been reading for the first half of the summer, I was also a bit apprehensive about the panels. In my own quest to define the term “innovation” (more on that later), I am coming to the conclusion that there is no definition, and that this research is almost in vain. At the start of my project this summer, I thought that in doing research about innovation in education, I had to first define the term itself. Over the past few weeks, I have realized that innovation is not a single action, event or piece of technology, but a combination of factors that make sense when applied together in a new way. With this in mind, my focus in the innova+ project has shifted toward a better understanding of what we are looking for in our publication, and thus, describing the project to our partners has become much more natural.

So, back to this morning’s event. We all met up at Espaço Manacá, on the busy Avenida 9 de julho, for a half-day conference on education reforms, the role of innovation in education, and a presentation of the results of recent policy changes in education. Among the speakers at the event were Paulo Blikstein, creator of FabLab@School, David Plank, a policy analyst and professor at Stanford, Martin Carnoy, researcher on the relationship between development and education, and Eric Bettinger, associate professor in the Stanford University School of Education and researcher in “the economics of education.” The panels were a way for each professor to share his work with a Brazilian audience, and to engage the audience in debates on the various approaches to policy changes, despite the time crunch and limited time for Q+A at the end.

What struck me most from all the panels was Professor Bettinger’s, presentation on the statistics of Brazilians studying abroad. He showed that a significant majority of Brazilian students who study abroad return to Brazil after their studies. In his discourse on the question of education across borders, he asked whether sending Brazilian students to study in other countries was a brain drain or a brain gain, to which the answer will only be determined in the next few decades, if ever. Throughout his presentation, I began to think of my own experience with studying internationally. While my entire academic life has been in the United States, I feel very much that I have been educated by my two countries: Brazil and the US. I continued to think of the challenges as well as advantages of an international education, and the new culture of “global citizens” that is beginning to form.

Throughout his discourse, I also thought of the work I am doing here at Porvir, and how, methodical our approach has been up to this point. We outlined our goals: to make contacts, get input, sort out the entries and publish the document. From my first day here, I was growing increasingly frustrated with the factors that were limiting our very clear outline and pushing our deadlines back each and every day. When working with partners, our dates and meeting times depend on a larger variety of factors. I had an “AHA!” moment when I realized that the solution to this was approaching the process in a different way. Understanding the obstacles of working across continents and timezones, we had to accept that our process would not be linear, but more like a series of waves, in which we have a ton of deliverables from one day to the next, and then await feedback from the other side of the Atlantic. The process is much more malleable and should have room for new input all the time. Just this notion has been a huge learning experience for working internationally, and with some of the bureaucracies of the non-profit world.

I left the conference feeling ready to take on the next stages of innova+ project, and having made many contacts to connect with for input in the next few weeks!

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Selfie with my conference nametag!


The move north

This week the colony that will occupy the observation hive was finally moved north.  The hive had been building strength and population in North Hampton, NH for the first two months of the summer and Monday night made the move to the shore of Sebago lake in Raymond, ME.


It is best to move bees after nightfall as all foraging bees have gathered back at the hive for the night.  Though they are still active, they are more tranquil than during daylight hours.


A trick I discovered during the move was to use an uncapped LED lantern.  The light attracts the bees that manage to escape while strapping the hive together and blocking the entrance with a strip of wood.  An LED bulb is cool enough for them to land on and the clear plastic lens contains them nicely.  These half dozen bees that had escaped stayed perched in the lantern for the duration of the two hour drive to the lake and were happily returned to the colony when we arrived.


Seeming to be healthy and strong, this week was about making sure the bees were settling in comfortably.  Though this is the weakest of the three colonies, it seemed the best to move as it is the smallest as the colony still filling in the bottom hive body.  In fact, the colony is much busier in their new location than they were in New Hampshire even after re-queening.  They have been foraging, coming in with red, green and yellow pollen, as well as rearing new brood.


During the hive inspections, it was clear to see the waggle dance they perform to communicate food sources.


Post World Cup, Moving Forward…!

The World Cup, Winter Break and a few other challenges have created some detours in the innova+ project, but nothing impeding us from moving forward slow and steady. We are currently past the first phase of the initiative, in which we have made contact with our partners, developed graphics and visual tools to communicate our objectives and laid down some strategic plans for how to keep moving forward.

In early July, a Spanish telecommunications company with a large branch here in Brazil released their “Top 100” project, which was a list of the best innovations in STEM education from the past year. Sound familiar? We thought so too. Check it out on this link: top100_educational_innovations

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On the same week this project was released, we had already scheduled a meeting with them about another collaboration we have going. I’ve quickly learnt that in the NGO world, partnerships are key and working together is the best (and only) way to move forward. There cannot be competition among non-profits, for the very principle of their goals: to help others. If one organization competes with another for an audience, technology or even a grant, then the effort will lose focus and goals will be pushed even further away. As with a lot of what we learn at RISD, teamwork is essential, especially for the ambitious.

So, instead of being let down by the project that seemed so similar to our initiative, we took it as an opportunity to create a new link. We also saw all of the differences between our goals and what they were proposing, and explained to them that in fact, we were not at all trying to compete with anyone but create something to supplement the existing publication. All of this meant one thing for us, though. We had to go back to the drawing board with the name of the project, which up to this point had been “100+.”

This potential challenge was actually taken as an opportunity to revisit some of our goals and actually jumpstart our initiative. Sticking to our strong belief in teamwork, I called for a brainstorming session with the journalists, administration and anyone else who was interested in racking our brains for ideas. At lunch, we shared our thoughts on the “Top 100” publication and how the information had been presented. After all, these projects are about communication and how to make information the most accessible to a large and diverse audience, which is where design plays a very important role.

Our greatest challenge with the name of the project was to create something catchy, that would be understood and recognized in many different countries. Using our best “Design Thinking” brainstorming and a mix of Portuguese, English and Latin keywords, we decided to eliminate the number “100” from the title. We felt that it was too limiting and the focus was not so much on the quantity but the quality of the content. The name we decided upon was innova+, which has Latin roots and can be interpreted in many ways. The rest of the visual language for the project was developed based on the idea that many things can come together to create a larger whole. You can find some of the graphics and communication material right here: innova+ convite para especialistas english.

Below are a few logo iterations we went over, before dedicing on the final innova+ logo in the presentation above.

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The next phase of the project will be to start collecting the content from our partners and specialists and, meanwhile think of a format to communicate all this information in the best way possible!