Arduino, Apps and Robots: A Designer-led Learning Project at Design Society in Shenzhen

Digital Media
April 25, 2017

During March Design Society (DS) and V&A learning teams hosted the first maker in residence in Shenzhen as part of DS pre-opening activities and the British Council’s Hello Shenzhen project. We set UK based designer and engineer Ross Atkin a brief to engage students and young people with problem solving through making using objects that will feature in the opening exhibitions of DS and the V&A Gallery as inspiration. This ambitious learning project forms part of DS’s pre-opening public programme which aims to engage with the community in Shenzhen and test out approaches and pedagogies for the learning and events programme which will be launched once DS opens later this year. Here Ross shares his experience during the residency.

Ross with Mon Mon, an object that will feature in the forthcoming V&A Gallery, at Design Society

Arriving in Shenzhen I was overwhelmed by two qualities that seemed to permeate the city – speed and openness. In my first week, thanks to introductions from the brilliant people at Design Society and V&A, The British Council and my TV buddy Ryan White, it felt like the doors to a world of magic were thrown open to me and the people inside said “Come in. Look around. How can we help? Add me on WeChat!”.

Ross’s reflections on week one of the residency

Most spectacular was the Huaqiangbei electronics market which I first experienced following Ryan as expertly navigated the vast complex, picking up bluetooth chips, books of tiny surface mount components, and specialist tools from tiny tweezers to a huge microscope. (Ryan was in Shenzhen for a week building a set of prototypes for a brand new piece of assistive technology – within the week!). In tow, Ryan’s fellow Reading Hackspace founder Richard Ibbotson, explained what we were seeing: “that milling machine is for cutting the tiny RAM chips off iPad motherboards so upgraded ones can be surface mounted”; “they love analogue voltmeters here, they know exactly how the needle moves during a smartphone’s startup process so they can tell what’s wrong with the phone by watching it”; “those jigs are for pressing the various layers of all the different smartphones together”.

Huaqiangbei skyline
Ryan buys tools in the Jinlong Communications market in Huaqiangbei
Smart phone compression jigs at Huaqiangbei

In a huge office above the market I met Noel Joyce, head of design at HAX “the world’s first and largest hardware accelerator”. We toured the desks and workshops looking at late-stage prototypes of products that had raised millions of dollars on Kickstarter and met the inventors who hoped their products would be the next to. On the other side of town I attended the opening of X Factory, a vast purpose built development facility in the middle of a colossal new property development.

Microscope at X Factory
The Trouble Maker Workshop

I also met people who were making stuff without big-ticket venture funding or government grants. At Troublemaker where Henk and his colleagues teach young children proper engineering and help people launch hardware products on a shoestring, all from two tiny pods in a co-working space. Eating dim sum with Jesse Vincent who is making an “heirloom grade” wooden keyboard and artists-come-electronics-entrepreneurs Matt Mets and Honghong Lu from Blinkinlabs. At Litchee Lab, the makerspace that was kindly hosting me in collaboration with Design Society, where, by day, the founder Li Liting and her team introduce kids to both art and technology and by night, talented engineers like Janek Mann and Abed Bukhari mix client projects with work on their own inventions.

Abed Bukhari with his 3D printer in Litchee Lab
Work by students of Liting the founder of Litchee Lab in Bare Conductive Electric Paint

For the actual project, working with the Design Society and V&A learning team, we picked an ambitious challenge. We would work with design students from two Shenzhen further education institutions to create interactive toys in partnership with a school for children with autism.

It was tough and not everything worked as well as I would have liked but I’m really pleased with what everyone came away with at the end.

Reflections on the learning project by Ross

We used objects that will feature in the V&A Gallery when DS opens to introduce the students to user-centred design and how both form and technology can affect people’s responses to products. I was really impressed by the level of discussion this provoked amongst the students.

Introducing user-centred design with a discussion about tactile paving
Introducing user-centred design with a discussion about tactile paving
The students meet Mon Mon and Juicy Salif

To get the students to actually do user centred design of interactive toys we needed to do research at the school, learn how to build and program the interactive toys, test them out with the children and teachers, and digest the design insights from that testing – and we only had five sessions in just over a week.

Students are introduced to autism and the approach taken by the school, by the principle

Students interviewing teachers at the school

The design students worked incredibly hard and came to the project with really open minds. It was great to see how they connected with the children with autism when they first visited the school and built moving toy Crafty Robots together in an immersive co-creation activity. They learned about how to engage the different children, and about their sensory preferences. They came away with strong insights and clever ideas.

Crafty Robot co-creation at the school
Crafty Robot co-creation at the school
Crafty Robot co-creation at the school

Getting them building interactive toys (comprising apps and connected physical objects) themselves was always going to be tough but I am happy to have exposed them to powerful digital prototyping tools like Arduino and MIT App Inventor which I hope will become part of their practice in the future.

Learning MIT App Inventor
Interactive toy kit
Working with an app controlled digger

Closing the iterative loop and testing the interactive toy prototypes back at the school the students identified insights that could feed directly into design decisions for future iterations of the toys we were working on. Despite, or maybe because of, the sketchy nature of some of our prototypes, I think they could see the benefits of testing ideas early with end users and iterating based on what they learned.

Testing a comprehension game
Testing a colour changing ghost
Collecting and discussing insights from the testing

I think the children with autism got a lot out of their interaction with the students and some of them also really seemed to connect with some of the prototypes. It was fantastic to see how Design Society could function as a facilitator of these kinds of connections – between educational institutions like Shenzhen and Xin’an Polytechnic, design practitioners like myself and community groups like the autism centre.

The huge public robot making workshop we held in a community centre to celebrate the end of the project and showcase and share the student’s work with a broader audience was a lovely illustration of this idea.

Building at the public Crafty Robot making workshop
Building at the public Crafty Robot making workshop
Testing at the public Crafty Robot making workshop
A robot inventor at the public Crafty Robot making workshop

I’m really looking forward to seeing what connections Design Society will make next and what magic will come from it!

Staff, students and community celebrating a successful project!
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