A Visionary Pair Join BrainSwarm

Altaf (left) collaborates with other participants at BrainSwarm.

At this time of the year, graduating students are feted at commencement exercises, congratulated and heralded as visionaries of the future. At Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly), two students have made good on that promise: Last month Sana Altaf and Ashwin Gopi shared the stage with four collaborators to discuss what they believe the world will look like in 2030. Their ideas attacked assumptions about the so-called millennial generation — that coterie born between the early-1980s and late 1990s — and offered instead new concepts about their needs and wants in the years ahead.

The possibilities introduced by the group were the result of BrainSwarm, a project conceived and coordinated by global consultancy ?WhatIf! Innovation Partners. From inventing new products and services to training organizations on how they might better innovate, the firm’s expertise ranges across disciplines, and it insists on seeking and nurturing young talent. 

“There’s such value in being able to hear millenials say, ‘Actually, this is what I want. Here’s my issue,’” says Cara Thomas, a lead inventor at ?WhatIf! and one of the managers who oversaw BrainSwarm. In turn, the firm hoped participants would walk away with “an even deeper passion around innovation and the tools and skills able to either turn those into a career or to be even more impactful within their current jobs and trajectories.”

The project began in late winter when ?WhatIf! announced it was seeking a small group of 18- to 24-year-olds to share their insight into the civic, cultural and commercial spheres. Anne-Laure Fayard, an assistant professor in NYU-Poly’s department of technology management, noticed the announcement posted on NYU’s entrepreneurship mailing list and shared it with her students. Frank Rimalovski, the managing director of the NYU Innovation Fund, also alerted students, including Gopi. 

Altaf and Gopi, who were both in Fayard’s “Exploring the Creative Process” class at the time, were chosen for the selective, 6-week program, which included trainings on the methods used by ?WhatIf! to develop concepts and solutions. Their efforts culminated in a presentation to senior executives and producers from a top five global mass media conglomerate targeting the youth market.

“We find it fun. It’s a great experience,” said Gopi at the project’s start. “We learn a lot about things that we never thought we’d get [to experience].”

“That is payment enough within itself,” agreed Altaf at the time, but by the project’s end, the first-year graduate student of technology management was bedraggled. “I had no idea the effort that would be involved,” she said.

The students spent six to eight hours per week on BrainSwarm conducting on- and off-line research before trekking to the ?WhatIf! office on Saturdays to share their findings. There they would apply ?WhatIf!’s methods to their work, which included trying to generate as many ideas as possible across sectors, an approach that wasn’t always easy for the two. “I felt so attached to our ideas,” said Altaf. “[They] just stay with you even though your brain knows better.”

Learning to Think Laterally

Thomas has seen the reaction before. “Once you get in the solution mentality, it’s really easy to say, ‘Okay, I’m going to build the entire thing out and here’s what it looks like and here’s how it works and here’s how you make money off it,’” she explains. “That’s amazing, but one of the things we push is not to just get deep, but to think laterally as well.”

Achieving that goal means stepping back and looking at an issue from multiple angles. Let’s suspend judgment, and then let’s go look at another solution and then let’s look at it again in another way,” describes Thomas. “In the same way you can jump from one web page to another, you can jump from one idea to the next [to develop the strongest thinking]."

“Putting it into practice has a lot of challenges,” says Gopi about the approach, but the student, who received his master’s degree in management this spring, claims BrainSwarm further stoked his excitement over innovation consulting. “I took a bite out of the pie two years ago, and there’s no going back,” he says.

Altaf has been similarly transformed by the experience. Before BrainSwarm began, she was certain that she wanted to pursue a doctoral degree; now she’s undecided but feels she wants to further explore innovation consulting. “If I can get a job in that field, I’d be happy for the next five to ten years,” she says.

A Mutual Admiration 

Both credit Fayard for their development. “I know it’s corny, but I think I am who I am because of her,” says Gopi. “For the first time in my life I actually see a teacher believing in a student. She’s definitely on my Top Ten Favorite People list.”

The admiration is mutual. “Ashwin has taken many risks,” says Fayard, noting how he diverged from the more traditional role of business analyst sought by many who study management. She’s seen him grow into someone deeply “interested in experimenting with new ideas and projects, but with a true concern for human-centered approaches and creative problem-solving.”

Fayard sees the same curiosity in Altaf. “She is eager to learn [and] open to new ideas,” says Fayard.

The professor — and, indeed, all of NYU-Poly — will see more of Altaf in an innovation role next year when she and three female students take over the student chapter of OpenIDEO, the open innovation platform established by international consulting firm IDEO. Gopi, who founded the chapter with two other male students, is proud to leave behind an organization led by all women and expects many great initiatives from the group. 

“Learning from the best,” said Altaf, smiling at her collaborator.