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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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