Teaching Prototyping with Back to the Future and Self-Lacing Shoes
Using the case of the self-lacing shoe to teach prototype design and DFV-I
Prototyping is a powerful tool and mindset that can help public servants create solutions with segments of the public. It is an approach that enables us to think together with our hands. Sometimes the urge to jump from idea to pilot results in uninteded consequences, sunk costs, and unforeseen challenges in scaling our solutions. Prototyping helps us make ideas tangible allowing us to test and de-risk them before investing. As a bonus it can save a lot of time, too! Alex Ryan once shared that a prototype is worth a thousand meetings. Therefore, it’s important we share this skill in the public service.
At NouLAB (New Brunswick’s Public and Social Innovation Lab), we seek to build the capacity of innovators to solve our most pressing challenges. One of the practices we teach and apply is prototype design. When I was first introduced to the concept of prototyping in a social innovation context, I found it difficult to wrap my head around. Thanks to the Netflix Docuseries “Abstract” we have found the story of the self-lacing shoe an effective way of communicating the concepts of Desirability, Feasibility, Viability, and Impact (DFV-I).
Back to the Future featured many imaginative future technologies. One of the designers who participated in coming up with these ideas was Tinker Hatfield, a Nike shoe designer. He came up with the self-lacing shoe: the Nike MAG. In the movie the shoes obviously didn’t actually work but were shown to work by stage hands. This is a relatively low fidelity concept. They show us how they might work without actually functioning. Fans of the movie LOVED this idea, and along with the hoverboard, have not lost hope that they will one day come to fruition.
Do people desire self-lacing shoes? Yes.
As technologies advanced the designers and engineers began to build and test versions of this prototype. For the longest time the technologies were enough to demonstrate technical feasibility but were often too large and too expensive, making a market ready product unviable. But they were able to prove the concept. In 2011 the tech was still too expensive for a market viable product but Nike produced a limited series to raise funds for Parkinsons in MJFs name.
Are self-lacing shoes technically feasible? Yes.
At this point, the shoes are more of a fun, novel, thing, than an innovation with impact. However, with technology advancements that have lead to lighter, less expensive components, the concept now showed signs of viability.
Are self-lacing shoes economically viable? Arguably, yes.
In studying a segment of their users, professional basketball players, research showed that a major cause of injury and deterioration of the feet was lack of circulation. This is because players require tightly laced, supportive footwear. The problem is that tight laces reduce circulation and damage the feet.
Because the team at Nike had spent some time blue-skying, imagining, and playing with ideas, they had already developed a prototype that 1. put them ahead of other shoemakers, and 2. When the conditions were ripe, positioned them to solve a significant problem for one of their largest user segments. They used the insights derived from all those years of playing and prototyping to develop Hyperadapt, a self-lacing shoe that when in a resting position loosens up, and when in action tightens in an instant.
Will a self-lacing shoe have impact? Yes.
Thoughts on sequencing:
Understanding first that DFV-I is part of a non-linear, iterative learning process, I believe sequencing can help participants focus and better understand the concepts in practice. When teaching prototyping to participants I encourage them first to come up with wild ideas that they can then test for desirability. I think it’s important that a team does not get bogged down in feasibility or viability in the discovery phase. If they do, then they often end up debating whether or not an idea is possible, and striving to implement concepts that fit within the status quo. Instead, like Tripp, encourage participants to come up with something seemingly impossible and show how it might work. If it is desirable then that is the encouragement they need to keep pursuing the hunch. When feasibility is demonstrated perhaps those same folks will create the pull to fund a minimum viable product/program.
How do you approach facilitating prototyping? Have you encountered any novel teaching methods or activities?