20130110 Ensenada CICESE, Empathy Design Workshop with George Kembel, Fireside Chat with Tom DeBlasis

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Speed Dating Unreasonably


We started the Unreasonable at Sea program by getting to know each other in a speed dating event on the sunny deck of the ship. I got to know a little bit of everyone’s “super powers” and “kryptonite” (weak points). To me, what came out was that most of our weaknesses are – in some respect – also our strength, or at least what makes us different and potentially complementary. Good introduction, lovely smart people.

Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico


Upon debarking from the ship, the first mandatory action was “Ceviche Special“, best street food ever – as close as it gets to sushi for central american, yum !

Mexico Protei team


We met with our Mexican Protei team mate Julia Cerrud of the Amorphica Architecture Design and Research firm, based in San Diego and Tijuana. As we have in the past, we are looking forward to continue working together.

CICESE, Ensenada


Thanks to the contact of our friends, we we able to set up meetings in CICESE Ensenada, near UABC.
We spent a fair amount of time with Prof Helmut MaskeCesar Almeda Jauregui and Mary Carmen Ruiz de la Torre.
We had the chance to discuss about Ocean Research instrumentation and topics such as plastic pollutionsewage pollution, hypoxiaoxygen minimum zones and red tides that are dangerous recurrent seasonal events in the area. In several cases, Protei seemed to offer an attractive platform for surface transport of sensors.

The instrument above was invented and built by Prof Maske, it can be dragged behind a ship at depth at medium and low speed to capture samples of water through a “tunnel”.
The instrument below is a “lab-made” device to measure the  fluorescence of water samples.


The number of custom-made devices was astouding, I personally consider these scientists real DIY superheroes, capable of producing quality research with rudimentary of self-built rigs. In many ways Protei has the same mentality of hands on work.


The lab is also equipped with advanced commercial ready-made kits, like this very attractive CTD to measure temperature, salinity, and sound speed (for about 8000USD). The conversation was very constructive and we cannot wait to have enduring Protei devices to provide these scientists.

Water Samples


We have also started to collect water samples everywhere we go. This is from the beach, other samples came from industrial waters or outside of sewage outtake. We will continue collecting samples until the end of the voyage.

George Kembel, “Empathy Design workshop”


We had our first amazing workshop by George Kembel, Inc Magazine’s most creative person in education, founder of Stanford D school. The workshop was to put in practice the concept of empathy in design, and how to center our strategy of development around a narrative that privileges social impact. We looked at how our tech compagnies can have a real human discourse rather than a technical discourse, that wins people’s hearts. Kembel suggested that we stop speaking the way we think, but that we need to speak the way people hear.

To quote Kembel :

“Half of the failure is not because we cannot solve the problem. it is because we are addressing the wrong problem.”
“What is it what you are making? Is that relevant to the people we’re brining this to? Need finding is as important as problem solving.”
“The human element is as important as technology and business.”

We had Mouhsine Serrar, Ph.D. saying : “people dont buy with their wallet, they buy with their heart.”

We did the exercise of describing Protei under these 3 aspects : USER + NEED + INSIGHT.

  • Users : hobbyists, hackers, scientists, engineers, designers, residents in the Gulf of Mexico facing oil spills, fishermen around Fukushima, Inhabitants surrounding Lake Chad, Californian red tides, governmental fish stocks assessment, People interested in climate change, to protect illegal immigrants dying at sea, Hawaii coral reefs and plastic pollution… Many applications. But what seemed to characterize our approach was that we are trying to both have a low entry for general public as well as presenting a potentially costly new technology for high end clients.
  • Need : Making a sensing and cleaning ocean accessible to everyone : government and industry (traditional) as well as resident (citizen sensing). For profit (Protei INC) + Non Profit (Open-H2O). Local communities can take action themselves : capacity building and decentralised manufacturing.
  • Insight :  our technology, the shape shifting sailing robot. Our knowledge of our community. The infectious power of the Open Hardware Intellectual Property licensing.

What came out of this is that we have most of the narrative elements (maybe too many of them), but not the emotional potency nor the surprise effect that provokes the “aha moment” that wins people’s heart. Another critic that was raised was that fishermen that may be our end users are -in general- not excited about wind powered vessels and they could feel wind power is “historical” and out of fashion. To bridge the gap, high performance, attractive design and an impecable reputation would be required. We also saw that an Open Technology could lead to a proliferation of users / usages / versions / machines, susceptible of making us miss our “core target user” ; but on the other hand, down the line, proliferation may be the very best thing that could happen.

The conclusion of the workshop was that, a truly meaningful innovation is something like : “Give someone something they never thought they’d need – and turn that into something they can never think they could live without”. Kembel used a disputed quote of  Ford “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” , which is kind of the polar opposite of customer feedback based-development.

Even if it was more of a side note than the core of the workshop, the most valuable information for me here was : in a rapidly changing world, we need to have very short prototyping and innovation cycles to respond to the market fluctuation and accelerate technology progress. And that is true not only with technology but also with narrative -how I present the project, either people-centered, or technology-centered, customised for the cultural background of my audience – but also the marketing strategy, the distribution strategy, pricing : try until it matches, and keep trying. We need to go ahead of the users needs, but we need to consult the users frequently, and in our case involve the community of users to become our community of makers, a transformational activity.

Fireside Chat with Tom DeBlasis

The discussion took place between Daniel Epstein and Tom De Blasis.

>> Superpower ?

  • Calm in Chaos
  • See a solution where other people see problem

>> Kryptonite ?

  • Lack of love for modern communication technology (email hate)

_I (De Blasis) was Born in Pittsburgh, Pen., half Italian, half sicilian, from a family of coal miners and steel workers, I related to the feeling of adventure, migration, going somewhere and trying something new. As a kid, I was trouble, at some point I changed to a better school that opened up my horizon.

>> What got you in Nike Foundation?
_  I worked for 7 years in Nike Football, all over the world. I was in charge of all the equipment, for about a 1000 products, from the unique products for top athletes to mass produced items. I got tired of working for a corporation only to make more money. I wanted a more meaningful legacy.

>> What was your job like?
_ Privilege to do my job. Amazing to work with athletes. I Learned to tell stories. In the corporate culture of Nike, everything is story telling. So it became part of my skill set. Tell the the story from a human point of view.

>> Director of design for Nike Football to Director of Nike foundation, how did you do the shift?
_ I wanted to see how the machine works from the inside. Many people tell me “The ball is the thing that saved my life.” I knew the power of it as an object that can change the world. I was interested in emerging market business, interested in refugee camps. The big shift for me was when the earthquake happened in Haiti. What can we do to help beyond give money. As a designer and problem solver, I can use my talent. After Katrina, I was inspired by the response of architects and designers. In Haiti, I landed there and worked with Architecture for Humanity, partially funded by Nike. I wanted to understand the users first, the people in difficult situation in Haiti. In a meeting I stood up and said : ”None of us have ever been to Haiti. Let’s not rely only on information on CNN. I want to go there.” With a bunch of designer we went there thinking :”what can Nike offer in a disaster area?”, but all I knew was that “I wanted something meaningful”.

>> What did Nike do?
_ As a designer you are train to connect things. Looking broadly -and maybe superficially- at things. I saw the situation with water that was falling apart. Sickness of the kids. Trash and water. Before  Cholera broke out there. I met people working on the “soft side of rebuilding”, not rebuilding the road / infrastructure, but rebuilding people’s lives. They told me that sometimes they use something as simple of a soccer ball. Kids were asking for soccer balls. So we started to deliver water filters with soccer balls. We called it the ”The health and Happiness kit” Water + soccer ball + rope + tarpaulin.
We prototyped distribution, and it worked amazingly. So we could be back to storytelling : capture the emotions in ways that motivates people.

>> How did you have this realisation ?
_ The project got a lot of traction and support from Nike, growing to supply access to clean water to a hundred thousand people.

Cesar >> Did you have Haitians in your team?
_ We had several Haitians in our team, that would know what really happens locally. They would negotiate the whole thing. The trick was to find the leaders, so we don’t call problem. And we got the Grandmas – no one messes around with Grandmas-,  talk about what to do in creole, and roll it out.

>> The Nike is one of the coolest foundation, but whay are YOU here to get out of this community (us)?
_ I’m fascinated with the intersection of social entrepreneurship, design thinking, the future and I wanted to be out on the water. Spend time on the ocean.

>> How would you contribute to this community? Help these entrepreneurs push their development?
_ I dont know yet.

General weather conditions heading to Hilo Hawaii


To give you an idea : this is a big ship. Long narrow corridors, and it moves quite a bit. At some point during the night, a 1.5l common bottle would fall off the table, that’s how much it moves. But it’s ok, we’re all getting used to it.


scar hand

Several of you have asked, thank you, my hand is getting better, another week before removing the stitches according to the doctor. I cannot wait to heal to work with my hands and in the water, play basketball etc.

More precise dates for the trip

We have now a rather precise idea of what is going to happen and when : http://www.semesteratsea.org/voyages/spring-2013/calendar/
 More soon! Stay tuned!

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{ 6 comments to read ... please submit one more! }

  1. Thanks César for sharing. I feel like i’m on board even if my bottle of water was on the table this morning ;-) I was in Casablanca this week so does it make sense to try getting you some meaningful meetings with local businesses for April 18/21 ??

  2. Hi Dear Marc,
    yes absolutely, meeting in Morocco would be awesome! You’re an angel !
    I hope you had a great time in Casa !

  3. Nice reading you Cesar!

    Have a safe trip!!

    I think it’s great that you finally met Helmut and his lab-staff.

  4. Thanks a lot Leonardo for making this precious intro at CICESE, we had a great discussion with Prof Helmut and his Staff. We need to chat more sometimes ! Great thanks !

  5. you rock, my dear friend!!! xx

  6. Thanks Ly ! You’ve helped me – my friend !!!

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