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Technology Mon Jul 09 2012
Husband and wife designers George Aye and Sara Cantor Aye founded Greater Good Studio a year ago. In that time, they've worked on a variety of projects for nonprofit and academic clients, ran a successful Kickstarter project, and continued teaching -- George at the School of the Art Institute, Sara at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and elsewhere. But they're about to embark on something much bigger, and they're inviting you to help.
"We worked in the innovation sector for corporate clients working on business problems, and we wanted to do something that would engage a lot more people in their city," Sara says. "We feel that design is a pretty good way to do that because it's an accessible process that lots of people can do and lots of people are interested in right now. And we just love the CTA and want to help them out."
Tonight at a party in their Logan Square office, the Ayes will be pressing "Launch" on Designing Chicago: New Tools for Public Transit, a project to create a new CTA iPhone app that will be developed from the ground up, with the aim of going far beyond the run-of-the-mill train or bus tracker. They're funding it via Kickstarter, and are including some novel participatory contribution levels that move beyond what the crowdfunding model usually entails.
Tackling the CTA
"Public transit is something that affects everyone -- whether you take or not, it affects you," Sara says. "And we found that everyone we talked to has an opinion about it, and has an idea of something they'd like to change or augment about it. And so this is giving them an opportunity to actually do that rather than just talking about it."
"We wanted to see if there was a way to have people not only to pledge their money but also pledge their time," George continues. "If was to pledge their time for the design of an iPad cover, in that case I think very, very few people would ever get involved. But when it comes a publicly founded and publicly geared project -- we thought that this might be something people would actually volunteer to help out with, because they know every time they contribute even a minute of their time, more people than just themselves will benefit from it. And you know that inherently."
George Aye's history with the CTA goes back a few years. While working in the Chicago office of IDEO, he was involved in a pro bono consultation with the CTA examining how the transit system's signage could be improved. He ended up taking a job there, designing the interior of buses for a proposed bus rapid transit system, until Mayor Daley tapped then-CTA president Ron Huberman to head of Chicago Public Schools. George left the CTA about six weeks after Huberman did, and joined IA Collaborative, where his wife Sara already worked as research director. He soon also began teaching design at the School of the Art Institute, where he is now a tenure track professor.
Now with the Greater Good Studio, the Ayes want to apply their experiences in both the design world and teaching to the problem of helping improve the transit experience in Chicago.
"We wanted to reframe the conversation that a large public institution has with its citizenry, which is, rather than asking what do you like, what don't you like, could you rate our service on a one to ten, all that nonsense," George explains. "We want to ask the question, 'What would you fix if you could do it?' If you could change anything, what would you change about it? Would you get involved in something that actually makes you understand the difficulty of providing service at this scale? Would you like to be involved with understanding what can be done at a certain price? Working as an employee of the CTA, being employed as a public servant, I had a much greater understanding of the pros and cons, the challenges, the balancing act they're constantly doing. I think if you got even just a glimmer of it, you'd be a little more forgiving of what happens when you're standing there waiting for your bus.
"While I was at CTA, it was staring me in the face that design and public services should see each other more, not be ships in the night. And even while I was there, I found it very difficult and challenging to make that happen. What we started to realize was that if we do it from the outside, we might have more impact. We realized that once you let go of some of those things -- permission, perhaps even official endorsement -- it frees us up to do things that maybe everyeone's always wanted to do but even the CTA couldn't do from their own sort of legacy and bureaucracy issues. So where we are right now is we think we may be able to provide a public service that leverages everything that we have to offer, which is a network of people and an ability to lead large teams, in a way that now feels like an obvious outcome."
While every dollar raised helps move the project toward fruition, two pledge levels in particular are critical to its success.
"Our project has two roles for people to participate, as well as the stuff that we are giving out," Sara says. "The roles are called Urban Scout and Urban Icon. An Urban Scout pledges $25, which is a fairly reasonable, popular pledge on Kickstarter, and in return for that, not only do they get a t-shirt and get to come to a kickoff party, they get given a new training video with a new assignent each week."
The Urban Scouts will spend four weeks doing field research -- such as traveling to a part of the city they've never been to before and documenting the experience, or interviewing a bus driver -- and four weeks on design assignments such as brainstorming solutions to a particular challenge uncovered by their research. The Ayes hope to attract 500 to 1,000 people at this level, not just in Chicago but also in other large metropolitan centers where public transportation exists.
The Urban Icon level will be much smaller, just 100 or more, but more like a core team, Sara says. "They need to be in Chicago, and they should view this as a little more of an educational experience. It's more hands-on -- you'll be working with the data in the research phase, you're looking at all the stories and finding patterns, and you're coming up with insights into behavior. In some cases you're prioritizing the needs to say 'This is the most important feature we need to be working toward.' And then in the design workshop, you are brainstorming, you are clustering and determining those killer features, and then you're prototyping it and you're testing it with each other."
"This is exactly what we do in our classes," adds George. "We feel really confident that we can do these workshops with people with no experience right up to those who are in grad school already."
Once the research phase is complete and the Design Icon workshops are over, the Ayes will work with developers to turn all that work into a tangible product. They hope to have the iOS app available by April of next year, with a price of $2.25 -- the same as a CTA ride. (Kickstarter donors will of course receive the app for free.)
"If we were to do this by ourselves, without anybody else's help, I really think it would be just another transit app that you could go buy in the app store right now," George says. "It really wouldn't be much more than that. I think what we're looking for is something that hasn't been done, which is the best-in-class, better-than-anything-out-there wayfinding tool that will help you get around Chicago in a really interesting way. And because of that, it actually requires people to help. We are making a bet that somebody else, more than a few of us out there, would want to do it."
If you're among those who would want to do it, head to the Greater Good Studio, 2864 N Milwaukee Ave., at 6pm to learn more about the project and watch George and Sara launch the Kickstarter. Or just keep an eye out here; we'll add a link to it once it's live. UPDATE: The project is now live on Kickstarter.