We Accept Your Challenge: OpenIDEO Comes to NYU-Poly

In the fall of 2011, Alan Hyman, Ashwin Gopi and Lei Niu (left to right) were inspired by a posting on the OpenIDEO forum that suggested someone start a campus division.

How would you make NYU-Poly’s campus a more vibrant, inviting place? What inspires you? What would make it feel more like home? 

These were the seemingly simple questions posed by the first student chapter of an open innovation platform called OpenIDEO at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) when they launched their My Vibrant Campus Challenge

And the inspirations poured in. 

Some participants sent photos of their favorite Parisian cafes and shots from the top of the Tate Modern in London, while others documented places closer to campus, like a rooftop garden at Rutgers, suggesting one of its kind would be practical and inspiring on a city campus like NYU-Poly’s, where students and faculty are continuously clamoring for more space. Several focused on more specific aspects of student life at the Institute, like serving healthier food in the cafeteria and replacing existing furniture around campus with more comfortable models. 

“The OpenIDEO platform gives participants the freedom to think wildly,” says Ashwin Gopi, a second year Management of Technology (MOT) graduate student and co-founder of the NYU-Poly OpenIDEO student chapter.  

In the fall of 2011, he and two other students, Lei Niu, a second year student in the MBA program, and Alan Hyman, also a second year MOT student, were inspired by a posting on the OpenIDEO forum that suggested someone start a campus division. After several months of planning, the chapter at NYU-Poly was born and a campus-wide student challenge launched. The next phase, concepting, begins soon, and is open to all students, faculty and staff at the Institute.

According the JeanCarlo Bonilla, director of graduate enrollment at NYU-Poly, the advantages of having a student OpenIDEO chapter on campus are mutually beneficial for the institution. "Often times, higher-ed administrations relay on consultants, architects and planners to design infrastructure for students,” says Bonilla. 

“The problem with this approach is that the voice and needs of the student body are not incorporated in the design phase and these projects are usually done in closed-doors environments or meeting rooms,” he continues. “The methodology being used by the OpenIDEO student chapter truly permits the incorporation of student feedback, inspiration and energy when designing student spaces.”

Campus Connections

In the spring of 2009, Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor in the department of Technology Management who introduced the trio to OpenIDEO, saw a need for a course based on the inventive and creative processes at NYU-Poly, so she developed a class called Exploring the Creative Process, designed to nurture the creativity we all possess, whether painters, mathematicians or engineers. 

“Regularly, I have students who start the class thinking that they are not creative finishing the course realizing that they can be creative. For me, it’s a great achievement,” says Fayard.

Then, about a year and a half ago, Fayard began doing research on the open innovation platform run by IDEO, an international, multi-award-winning design and innovation consulting firm, that was called, appropriately, OpenIDEO. 

OpenIDEO offers a readymade palate for organizing ideas, making the process of turning a flash of mental inspiration into a viable solution to a problem faced by society much simpler to approach, whether large or small. The process is organized into five phases: Inspiration, Concepting, Applause, Refinement, and Evaluation—lending itself to intuition rather than intimidation. 

Users, now numbering just under 30,000 from over 175 countries, offer solutions, via an open platform during designated challenges. Some of the challenges are sponsored by nonprofits like Amnesty International, which featured Niu’s proposal “Decentralize the Network, Own and Protect Your Data” as a winning concept, and also had two NYU-Poly concepts which made it to the refinement phase. Just last summer, Gopi had a winning concept in a challenge focusing on increasing the social impact of OpenIDEO. Others are sponsored by for-profit companies like Nokia an Unilever. 

“What really makes this process unique is that it’s purely based on internal motivation,” says Fayard. “While other open innovation platforms like Innocentive or Jovoto have some prizes, the main reward here is the potential for impact,” she continues, citing a prototype based on a winning concept Unilever developed in Ghana after their challenge was complete. 

The process also offers instant feedback for users via comments, a point system and an applause button, adding to the feeling of community many users find both rewarding and addictive. Eventually, the list is narrowed down and the sponsoring body of the challenge is presented with 8 to 10 winning concepts.   

A Budding Renaissance  

“Everyone is creative. You just have to learn how.” So said David Kelley, founder of the IDEO, in a recent Wall Street Journal article.  

There’s always a slight bit of trepidation when science, math and engineering students leave the safety of equations and lab equipment to pick up new tools like Legos and colored pencils; but once the students are converted, a new way of viewing problem solving becomes an organic part of each person’s thought process. 

Niu, who has been working as a business analyst at EmblemHealth since 2008, explained, “OpenIDEO caught my eye in an email about Anne-Laure’s creativity course. I easily spent half the day exploring the platform afterward.” Soon after, he registered to become a member. When he heard about Gopi’s idea to start a student chapter, he knew he wanted to become involved. 

A native of China, Niu has been following activists on Twitter for a long time. “I have so much I want to share with people here about censorship and firewalls,” he says. 

“2011 was the year that changed everything with work, life and my future,” he continues. “The OpenIDEO challenges made me think about what I can offer. I hope I can literally do something to impact Chinese society.”

In Brooklyn and Abroad

By allowing people across the Internet and, by default, the globe to share their ideas and perspectives, OpenIDEO offers a built-in network of likeminded international activists. 

“You learn so much—what people are doing in other cities, how to share ideas with other people, and you get to brainstorm with other people who you’d never meet otherwise,” explains Gopi, about the international advantages of contributing to OpenIDEO. 

“You have the opportunity to see that your ideas mean something in the OpenIDEO community and in the real world,” continues Gopi. 

It was this sense of a call to action that formed the backbone of the student chapter.

“I see this group as a catalyst for improving the NYU-Poly experience and becoming a school-wide club that includes NYU,” says Hyman. “Diversity will help create more ideas that can benefit the University as a whole and influence how the world sees our contributions.”

Ashley Jablow, OpenIDEO Community Manager, is impressed with their efforts so far. “They have great clarity around what they’re doing with their student chapter," says Jablow, “Ashwin was very clear about what OpenIDEO principles, like entrepreneurship and social impact, can bring to campus life and it’s exciting that OpenIDEO is being used for that.”

Recently, Gopi wrote about his experience with launching the student chapter on the OpenIDEO website, during the inspiration phase for a challenge about supporting web entrepreneurs in launching and growing sustainable global businesses

He chronicled the process of developing the concept for the club, how they gained support from the students, the knowledge they’ve developed as a result, and, as if creating a perfect circle, related it to the trials entrepreneurs face, illustrating just one more way in which NYU-Poly’s students, with the help of OpenIDEO, are further connecting the local communities around them to global experiences and solutions.