The 2009 ICED conference was held at Stanford University during the last week of August. It is the 17th such conference, held every other year. The mainstay of the Design Society, ICED has been spreading out well beyond just engineering for several years now. I’ve only missed two ICEDs since 1993, and this one was certainly one of the best, largely due to the growing interest in interdisciplinary design.
It sure didn’t hurt to have the conference at Stanford University, which remains quite the oasis, both geographically and intellectually. Stanford put on quite a show for us, and though it seemed the registration fee was higher than usual, it was very much worth it: great keynote speakers, very well organized scheduling, and excellent food and drink really helped to create an open and comfortable atmosphere. This is something I’ve noticed lately: the conferences that seem the most productive are those at which the attendees are made to feel the most comfortable. I don’t think this can be attributed to shallowness of the attendees (“Pamper me if you want me to show up!”), because we were genuinely surprised with the organizers’ efforts. Indeed, I felt a little embarrassed at well I was treated.
The breadth, scope, and novelty of the research that was presented at ICED09 was fantastic. You can get a sense of this yourself by looking through the abstracts of the papers. Many of the papers came from outside engineering: business, management, science, medicine, pedagogy, and philosophy, to name a few. This is, I think, one of the most important things design engineers can do. We aren’t arbiters of absolute truth, but we do have a valid and useful perspective on things, a perspective that is (or should be) pragmatic yet attentive to the intangibles that make life interesting, safe, and fun. There is no point in designing something that cannot be “made;” at the same time, all the best made things these days need to be designed.
Pitching elevators is hard but fun
This year saw a number of “elevator pitch” presentations. In the old days, we used to call these “panel presentations.” I’m not sure why they changed the same, since that’s all that really changed. Nonetheless, these sessions can be a lot of fun and very productive. In an elevator pitch session, four or five presenters have only five minutes each to give an overview of their work. The rest of the session (usually more than an hour) is devoted to an open discussion between the presenters and the audience.
It can be quite hard to present a whole paper in just five minutes. The secret is to not even try. Instead, you just describe the problem and your answer, without any of the details. People particularly interested in the work can always read the full paper. Indeed, the panelists are urged to read all the papers in their session beforehand, to help stimulate discussion. Not that many people do – we’re usually too busy to read all that stuff, even if we really wanted to.
I like the elevator pitch sessions because I’m one of those people who always thought that the coffee breaks and lunches are the best parts of any conference. These are the times when you can sit and chat with people, and interact with them much more deeply than in a typical “podium style” presentation (which is just a short lecture). Elevator pitch sessions try to capture the interactivity of a chat over coffee, just with a bit more structure. I guess I’m not the only one to think that, because panel presentations have been getting more popular over the recent ICEDs, to the point where this year they were a very significant component of the activities.
I have some issues, though, with how elevator pitches are run. First of all, they’ve always been held in rooms typically used for lectures. Lots of chairs all pointing to the front of the room, and the presenters lined up at the front, as if waiting for an intellectual firing squad. These kinds of sessions would be better run in meeting rooms, where everyone can sit around a table and face everyone else. Everyone’s on equal footing then, and it does tend to promote more discussion.
I’d also make sure the contact information of all presenters at an elevator pitch session are distributed to all attendees of the session, so that it’s easier to follow up with the presenters after the conference. This is also an important feature of the “networking” that happens at conferences. If this were given to attendees at the start of the session, and if the list were formatted to give some space for noting marginalia during the discussion, one can take notes quickly during the session, then go back over them later and remember why one wanted to contact a presenter.
A particular ray of sunshine
I also have to note one particular ray of intellectual sunshine at ICED09: the workshop run by the special interest group (SIG) on EcoDesign run by Tim McAloone and Niki Bey. This workshop was run as an actual design exercise, based on a brief provided by a global consumer product maker. The point of the workshop was to brainstorm new ideas for the company that incorporated sustainable practises, materials, and knowledge. There was a huge scatter of ideas presented; more, I think, than the company representatives might have expected. This is good. And it brought to light a bunch of different issues for me – and likely for other participants – that I will have to build into my future research.
This is a great activity for a design conference. Even though we’re supposed to be researchers, most of us have pretty substantive design experience too. Getting a chance to flex those muscles is a wonderful way to think differently about research, and help get new products out into the real world at the same time.
There may have been other SIG meetings that were run this way – I was only able to attend this one.
A bit of an edge
However, I did notice that the questioning got a bit more…pointed. Having been to plenty of ICED conferences, I was always pleased to see how civilized the questions were that audience members asked after a presentation. This year was a bit different. There were a few occasions where it seemed clear the questioner was rather frustrated with some apparent lack in the presentation – usually with respect to having ignored some segment of the research literature. Some of the audience members took quite a closed attitude to some of the presentations – especially presentations in which engineering researchers reported work in non-engineering fields like anthropology. (You can tell from the audience’s body language: crossed arms and legs, frowning expressions, the occasional shake of the head… pretty obvious stuff.) There was one occasion where a couple of attendees targeted each other with their questions rather than the presenter. And on one occasion, an audience member well known for his generally scientific position on things took a decidedly metaphysical stance, apparently for no other reason than to undermine the position of the work being presented.
Not that it ever got ugly, mind you, but it was a little less diplomatic than usual.
I attribute this to the growth of the conference. Once upon a time, attendees at ICEDs were very strictly mechanical engineers. Now, one will find all kinds of academics and industry-based researchers, from nearly every discipline. The engineers still seem to constitute the greatest portion of attendees and presenters, but it’s changing. And most of us welcome the change. Perhaps there’s a certain discomfort with having to find a new language – one that works on and for a broader audience – with which to converse. This is a good thing, and I complement the Design Society for this because they could have tried to broaden the ICED base more quickly through aggressive advertising and other techniques. This would have forced matters, and probably invoked the ire of many established researchers, for whom the change would have been too fast. Instead, they’re letting the conference evolve more organically; this means there will be far less discomfort experienced by the attendees, especially those who remember the “good old days” fondly. And even though they were good old days, the times have changed and what was once good ain’t so good anymore.
Perhaps the biggest change is that the design engineering research community is (finally) starting to understand the role of methodologies that are not, strictly speaking, “scientific.” It’s not that we’re watering down the scientific robustness of our work; instead, we are recognizing that other methodologies – principally action research and related methodologies – can give us a perspective on designing that is much broader than, and able to address issues that, a strictly scientific perspective just can’t do (yet).
Of course, student presenters are always treated well. This is another great feature of the ICEDs. Students who are just beginning their academic career are much more nervous about presenting before large groups of more experienced researchers. I remember my first ICED: I was sweating bricks up until the first question was posed. It was direct and pertinent, but it was also carefully phrased to not induce psychotic breaks or emotional scarring. I immediately understood that I was with colleagues and mentors, and not with adversaries. This is an excellent tradition, and it pleases me immensely that now, more than 15 years on, the same care and consideration is shown to students as was shown to me.
Another thing that surprised me was the relatively large number of researchers from Canadian institutions at ICED; we counted about 14 this year. That’s a lot. This may be partly because it is more feasible to travel to California than various places in Europe (where ICED has usually been held). But it struck me as odd and a little sad that I should have to go to California to meet so many colleagues who work in my own country.
Room for improvement
No conference is perfect. And at ICED09 too, there were a few little problems.
Many of the session rooms were often overcrowded. While the air conditioning was up to the challenge (even in the blistering California summer), it was a little too cramped, a little too often. It’s almost as if the organizers underestimated the attendance.
This makes me wonder if the conference wasn’t a little too successful this year. There were so many people there, that I was able to spend serious time with only a few of them. I prefer smaller conferences because one has more time to have meaningful discussions with other researchers. This becomes exceedingly difficult as the conference grows. And senior researchers with excellent reputations suffer the most – everyone wants to talk to them!
As I mentioned earlier, the food and drink were very good overall. However, while there was a nearly infinite supply of coffee and tea (in that heat!) there was very little water or juice to be had. While I recall consuming vast quantities of coffee when I was a foolish youth (or maybe a youthful fool), I now find that practise unsustainable on a personal level. I would have very much liked to have at least as much water available as there was coffee.
There were virtually no ashtrays anywhere on the Stanford campus – indeed, in Palo Alto generally. And, perhaps more surprisingly given the lack of ashtrays, virtually no cigarette butts on the ground. I can see that California has been doing well on the anti-smoking campaign. But if you’re hosting a conference with so many Europeans (and the odd social smoker from Canada), you really need to put out some ashtrays.
There was a wonderful Gala dinner on the Wednesday, but the dinner started immediately after the end of the day’s last technical session. In past years, sessions have always ended early enough to allow attendees to go back to their hotels and get freshened up before dinner – perhaps put on a change of clothes. As it was, my wife and kids had to join me at the dinner rather than have me pick them up. Although some people skipped a few sessions at the end of the day to change clothes for dinner, I was in a workshop all afternoon, and was in the same clothes all day. (Eeewwww!) We definitely need to bring back the Gala dinner pre-break.
A better program book
Since about 2001, ICED has distributed its proceedings on CD, and provided attendees with a book containing scheduling information and the abstracts of all the papers. This single volume is supposed to help attendees figure out which presentations they want to attend, where the lecture and workshop rooms are, etc. If there’s one thing that the Stanford team messed up this year, it was that book. And it was such a big ticket item, that I decided to give it its own section here.
First of all, it was a paperback bound volume. This means you couldn’t fold it back on itself without destroying the binding. This in turn makes using the book a two-hand job, which is hard to do at a conference (laptop slung on one shoulder, bottle of water in one hand, standing up near a coffee stand or in a crowded common area during coffee breaks…).
Second, the arrangement of material in the book was not good. Every session was labelled with a 5-letter/digit code that was virtually impossible to decipher or remember. For instance, I presented one paper in session W2-XP2, which was the second session on Wednesday (W2), which was also the second session about Design for Sustainability (X2). The P means it was a podium presentation, rather than an elevator pitch. The W2 part is pretty straightforward, but the XP2 part may as well be Greek. And having it be the second session on two different axes (theme and day) just begs for confusion.
The master index, at the front of the volume, gave a one-page overview of the whole conference, but with insufficient detail to get much more than the starting times of each group of sessions. (Remember that there were so many papers at this ICED, there were three simultaneous streams of presentations pretty day.) The section of the book for each day of the conference started with an overview of the session themes, rooms, and times. But they were hard to find in the book, being scattered as they were throughout it.
And if you were actually reading abstracts to decide if you wanted to sit in this session or that one, you weren’t given the times of the session on the abstract pages. So when you did find an abstract of a presentation you wanted to see, you had to go back to the index for that day – wherever that was.
I found myself constantly flipping between several pages, just to figure out where the next session was that I wanted to attend. Using dogears didn’t help much. Some people had used coloured post-its, just to keep track of key pages.
If I were to redesign it, the book would have been spiral bound so one could flip to the “current” page and hold it easily in one’s hand. The sessions only really need to be distinguished by day, session, and stream. So the session and stream could just be numbers, so you’d end up with identifiers like W23 (Wednesday, block session 2, stream 3). I believe this is roughly how things were done years ago, and it’s a system I really miss. It’s also much easier to remember session IDs. Also, I’d have put all the overview pages at the front of the book, so that one wouldn’t have to flip through the book just to find the “index” pages. Indeed, I think it’s possible to put virtually every useful bit of info, except for the paper abstracts themselves, on a single page (both sides). One could mark each day’s set of abstracts with a coloured divider page, and use those colours to mark up the overall schedule. Finally, every page should indicate which session it describes (including its three-part code), its times, and its location. I would even create some kind of small glyph that would appear on each page, a glyph that represents a stylized map indicating where the session is held with respect to other rooms or buildings. This might be hard to create, depending on the geometry of the actual venue, but it would likely be worth the trouble. I’d also put an icon on each page to indicate if it was a podium presentation session or an elevator pitch session.
Two big thumbs up
All my complaints aside, this was a fantastic conference, and all the attendees owe it all to the great work done by the Design Society and Stanford University.
Footnote: those of you who are interested may want to check the recently announced Journal of Remanufacturing to be published by Springer starting in 2011 (2010 for online versions).