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Q&A with Marc Fonteijn (31Volts) about Making Progress

Kars Alfrink – Making Progress teaser from 31Volts on Vimeo.

Not too long ago I was interviewed by Marc Fonteijn of service design studio 31Volts, about how I approach the work that I do. Marc and his colleagues have collected a number of those interviews into a documentary film titled Making Progress. I decided to turn the tables on Marc and ask him some questions about the project. You can find his answers below.1

What is Making Progress?

“Simply put, Making Progress is a documentary about the people that successfully create progress. For the documentary we interviewed 7 people ranging from Wilco van Rooijen who climbed the highest mountain on each continent in the world to Geert Kops who is a professor at the University Medical Center Utrecht doing cancer research.

For us, Making Progress was also a journey in which we stepped out of our own community of practice (service design) and went looking for other people. People who are also devoted and passionate about doing something meaningful in order to create a better world.”

Why make a documentary film about progress and innovation?

“We all know that the challenges we face are getting more complex each day. And everyone seems to be looking for new ways to approach these issues. The thing is that there are tons of (management)books about innovation and the pile is growing every day. Each book gives you even better tips and best practices on how to innovate. But if you look closely you’ll notice that somehow it’s very hard to find the people who actually innovate: the practitioners, the ‘innovation’ craftsman, call them whatever you want. It’s like having a million cooking books but there’s no one who can actually show you how to create a delicious meal.

We use design to make things happen. Design is a process that by nature is very action oriented. We actually do a lot of stuff, get feedback and then reflect on that. Do in order to think, if you will. I think design is a very attractive alternative approach to create value when the issues you’re dealing with are complex and fuzzy. But instead of looking at how (other) service designers work we got very curious about how people in completely different fields make things happen, create value… make progress.

A lot of expertise that makes a difference in practice is hard to capture in checklists and flowcharts. You won’t become a master chef by just following a recipe. We transfer this kind of knowledge by talking to each other and sharing our experience. That’s why we sat down with some people for a chat, turned on the camera and talked about how they work.

The goal of Making Progress is definitely not to find the ultimate truth about innovation. Far from that. We hope that the documentary will inspire a discussion about how we approach our current challenges. Let’s see what we can learn from each other.

And let’s be honest, you can’t read your way out of a crisis. You actually need to make things happen.”

Outtake from Making Progress

How did you approach this project? What did your process look like?

“Looking for life in outer space? Trying to find a half brother in South America? I don’t know. But we had the feeling that there must be more people that share the ideas behind the design approach. Let’s find them!

Explorers. That’s the best way to summarize the people we were looking for. People who in their own field have done something that hasn’t been done before. People who embrace uncertainty and turn that into new value. We used our networks to find these explorers. Which wasn’t easy because we weren’t interested in the position someone has (eg. it doesn’t mean a lot that you’re the chief innovation officer) but in people with a certain mindset and attitude.

Once we had some explorers we basically sat down with them and talked about the things that are important in their work. The most fun themes we talked about were related to gut feeling like “how do you know you’re on the right track”.

Oh and finally of course there was a lot of video post-processing.”

Without giving too much away, what did you learn in the making of this film?

“I’ll keep this one short. One super interesting pattern we saw in our conversations is that physical as well as mental space plays a crucial role in making progress. We seem to underestimate the value of what having room to play with/in does for our creative process.

If I look back on our process, I’m very happy that we left enough ‘blank-space’ to benefit from things we didn’t anticipate beforehand. The worst thing that can happen is, that you skip the interesting bits because you need to ‘stick to the plan’.”

What’s next for the project?

“Right now we’re working hard toward the premiere on September 12th. After that we hope that a lot of people will take the initiative to organize a screening in their own community. On December 11th (11/12/’13 @ 14:15) we’ll publish Making Progress online.

The thing also excites me is that by Making Progress we also stumbled on new questions worth exploring. Questions related to education, bottom-up vs. top-down organization and the role teams play. But I also have the feeling that we’ve just scratched the surface with the people we’ve interviewed. There must be many more people making progress out there with a story. That story deserves a stage.”

Thanks Marc!

  1. The film including the teaser above is in Dutch. But this post should give you an idea of its contents regardless. []
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