Collaboration by Design

A conversation with designer, teacher, and N Square Fellow, Tom Weis

N Square is a collective of leaders from varied disciplines, including designers, diplomats, scientists and technologists, working together to reduce global nuclear threats. Tom Weis is part of their Innovators Network, and he fielded some questions on the role of design in scaling this type of problem.

How did you become interested in working with the reduction of nuclear threats?

Nick Lum, founder of BeeLine Reader

I was attending a conference in 2015 and saw a talk by Erika Gregory, the Director of N Square and Carl Robichaud from the Carnegie Corporation. It was essentially a call to action for people outside of the nuclear community to get involved in an effort to reduce nuclear threats. I’d never imagined that this was a topic that anyone could make a contribution towards. The challenge was compelling and I immediately sought out N Square’s program director. I was slated to teach a graduate level course introducing students to the design process. I proposed that we used this challenge (bringing awareness of nuclear threats to the public) as the overarching theme of the course. My Department Head signed off and N Square sponsored the class.

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What is the biggest upside of bringing disparate talents to work together? The biggest challenge?

Creativity is inherently about taking risks, which is counter (for obvious reasons) to nuclear threat experts.
— Tom Weis, N Square Fellow

It’s far too easy to be bound within the limitations and perspectives of our own disciplines. One of the most exciting initiatives I’ve been able to bring to the classroom is an ongoing collaboration with RISD ID students and cadets and officers from West Point. We’ve done this for the past two years. Each time it begins with assumptions or perhaps some skepticism with regards to what the other party might provide. In the end, we’ve seen incredible growth and mutual respect for the passion, rigor and creativity of these young people. The cadets (primarily engineering students) are focused on solutions and are aware of the real world constraints that play into global conflicts and interactions. Design students often have the ability to reframe questions and dig deeper into new insights, something that comes from a culture of critique. What the design students often lack is the grounding that is such a big part of what the military must grapple with. The constraints and issues they deal with are not just hypothetical, which is important to remember as a young designer. There are many challenges of bringing different disciplines together. One is that you need an investment in time. You cannot just do a short exercise together and think that some magic will happen, you have to build trust and understanding with what each group might offer and that can take time. Another challenge is that we often use similar terminology but it means very different things to each party. Establishing definitions early is useful.

Where can design most effectively move the needle on nuclear threat reduction?

NSquare-nuclear3.jpg

Creativity is inherently about taking risks, which is counter (for obvious reasons) to nuclear threat experts. That being said, one of the challenges that the nuclear community has is communication. How do they engage the next generation of security experts, how do they get the public to care and how does anyone feel any sense of agency around the topic? We can all make small contributions or personal efforts to address climate change. (at the very least we can make efforts that make us feel like we are doing something.) When it comes to nuclear threats it can be confusing to know if this is a voting issue or whether or not having nuclear weapons makes the world safer or more dangerous. The topic itself is complex and confusing, but what designers can offer is an understanding of the audiences that the nuclear experts are trying to reach. In addition we offer a process that is not afraid to try, to fail and to learn from our approaches.


I saw that you are working with RISD to develop curricula around addressing nuclear threats. What have you learned from this process?

I have taught three advanced studios related to the topic and am preparing for my fourth this fall. One thing I’ve learned is that students engage when they are able to take what they love best and are able to apply it to the challenge. In other words, if you love to code—how do you apply that to reducing nuclear threats? Some students have made Augmented Reality games that teach young people about nuclear topics, others have made provocative future scenarios that allow us to speculate on possible worlds that involve nuclear incidents.


Are there any technological advancements on the horizon that you think will be game changers for N Square initiatives? 

...I believe that we often overlook the importance of understanding culture and human behavior when we are looking at wicked problems.
— Tom Weis, N Square Fellow

A colleague of mine, Justin Cook, runs RISD’s center for complexity. He introduced me to this great quote by the British architect Cedric Price: “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?” I think that in many sectors there is this promise that technology will address problems that we haven’t been able to crack. In many cases that’s true, but I believe that we often overlook the importance of understanding culture and human behavior when we are looking at wicked problems. Most of our challenges are human in nature even though they are often viewed on a global scale. One of the questions that many in the N Square network have rightly focused on is how we make these complex challenges proximate and relatable. Once we understand some of those questions we can leverage technology to share the messages.

The work of Hello. We are_ feels very rooted in classic traditions of tactile craftsmanship. What’s your view on design that lives purely in the digital world? Or as a theoretical system or process?

My background was in sculpture, traditional wooden boatbuilding and furniture. I still have a studio where I spend my spare time building furniture (primarily for myself). Making has always been my passion but I also love challenges. When I first got into Industrial Design I thought I had to fit into some category within the field. I wasn’t interested in designing mass produced products, despite my love for developing prototypes. I realized that we cannot make anything in this world—whether it’s 10,000 Ikea chairs or the dinner you put on your table, without thinking about the larger system that is impacted by our decisions. So I try to bring that to my classes and to my own work. An understanding of systems and implications of intersecting parts. My passion for craft still comes out in how we communicate our intentions whether they are tangible or on a screen.

To learn more about N Square, visit www.nsquare.org

To learn more about Hello. We are_, visit helloweare.com