What’s all the buzz about? Redefining creative collaboration with brainswarming

Could brainswarming...

Can brainswarming help you have the breakthrough you’ve been needing? (Photo via RioPatuca on Shutterstock.)

Brainstorming: it’s a tool we’ve come to know and love (or hate) as a default way to generate fresh ideas for our projects, programs, and more when we’re stuck or just starting out.

However, in a recent Fast Company post and in his new e-book, Kevin Maney suggests it might be time to think of this old-school method as old news.

He writes that brainstorming “relies on a thunderstorm metaphor–a sudden swirl of energy that gets everybody’s attention for a moment, then passes by, dissipates, and leaves nothing behind.”

So, out with the brainstorm, Maney says, and in with with brainswarm.

How does it work? Below is a short summary of the steps:

  1. Get the right swarmers. Cultivate a tight-knit core swarm and get them into a room with fresh recruits who will say something to shake up the familiar.
  2. Have a swarm room.  The worst place to jam on new ideas might just be the place where most companies today send people to jam on new ideas: the traditional conference room.
  3. Multiple writing and sketching surfaces are key. If everyone in the session has a pen and access to a writing surface, barriers to sharing ideas fall away.
  4. Herd the swarmers. Too many idea sessions start with a rule that there are no rules…if you have infinite choices, what do you choose?
  5. Be a critical swarm. Stop being so warm and fuzzy…Brainswarms need both a surfeit of ideas and constructive debate about those ideas. Bad ideas can lead to good debates that then lead to better ideas.
  6. Swarm success. There are lots of ways to make sure the ideas don’t get lost. Assign someone to synthesize and write up the swarm’s best ideas.
  7. Don’t stop. That’s the vital difference between brainswarms and brainstorms. Brainswarms never end.

How has brainstorming worked or not worked for you? Is it time for a new strategy?

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When the gate swings open: An Idealist’s reflection on love, hip-hop, and Brazil


As a child I played with National Geographic magazines. I cut the photos carefully from their binding and positioned them on my bedroom floor. I stood in the center of each photo and communed with the imagined essence of another world. For as long as I can remember, the power and mystery of place captivated my spirit and shook my bones with a voracious sense of wonder.

In 2005, when I was 22-years-old, I landed in Rio de Janeiro with a large university grant. I carried addresses and phone numbers for various nonprofits where I’d been contracted to teach hip-hop and English to Brazilian youth. In my mind, I had plans to study dance all around the country. As a taxi drove me at a furious pace through Rio’s tangled maze of steep hillside cobblestone, one clear thought rang out.

“I’m too sensitive for a city like this.“

I was right, but I’d soon learn I didn’t care. I cared about discovering how my sensitivity interacted with this new world. I wanted to see where the path of contradiction would lead me.

It first led me to a brown-eyed man who stalled my heart when his smile carved two dimples beside the corner of his mouth. The enchantment I felt on the nights I walked arm and arm beside him wasn’t simply the magic of being young and falling in love in a foreign country. It was the sensation of being in the presence of a gatekeeper. The one who stands on the threshold of where you’ve been and where you are going. The one who beckons you in such an alluring way you have no choice but to cross over, regardless of whether or not they follow behind you.

At 22-years-old, travel shattered my compass and my direction became suddenly, terrifyingly fluid. That transformative year, finding love and discovering my calling happened in tandem.

On one typically sweltering Rio afternoon, my Brazilian boyfriend invited me to meet him at a beach side park where his dance company rehearsed every day. The company consisted of a dedicated crew of teenagers with a shocking well of talent and a profound enthusiasm for hip-hop dance.

For the first month I sat mesmerized and watched them rehearse. They trained and created movement, yelled out to keep going when they were exhausted, and celebrated each other’s growth. For the second month I stood in the back row of their concrete stage, dancing alongside them. The third month my Brazilian boyfriend broke my heart. I debated ever returning to that park where I had spent the last 60 days humming with a familiar sense of wonder shaking in my bones.

“I’m too sensitive to handle this,” I thought.

Yet I found myself back at their concrete stage, terrified and uncertain. The community of dancers I’d been spending everyday with didn’t care where I’d been or who I’d dated. They only cared that when we danced we sought entry into the same unspeakable passion. Echoing every day around the park was the soundtrack of their excitement and it created a new compass within me. My brown-eyed ex ignored me, but one day it finally stopped mattering.

On the other side of the threshold the view was different. The narrative had changed. It was no longer about falling in love with a man. It was about falling in love with the story of a group of people. I began coming to practice with a camcorder in my hand. The first time I pressed record my breath stalled and my heartbeat quickened. The earth pressed into my feet. I felt certain I was exactly where I needed to be.

Since that initial discovery I’ve been growing into the craft of filmmaking, following this community of dancers around Brazil and other parts of the world as their story widens. I’ve made a hundred amateur mistakes and another hundred skillful, intuitive choices. I’ve kept myself in the center of my sensitivity even when the pressure mounted because that sensitivity is ultimately what makes me an alert storyteller. I have cherished every moment with the community I’ve filmed. I’ve fallen in love over and over and over again.

My editor and I recently put the finishing touches on Believe The Beat, the feature length documentary that began eight years ago, when a sweet boy asked me my name after a dance class on a clear night in a loud city. There is sometimes a voice inside me that yearns to omit this piece of the story.

“I went to Brazil to make a film,” I hear myself think. “I researched and I planned my strategy. I was intentional and grounded and focused from the start.”

Then the rest of me rushes in. I am reminded of the little girl who stood on photos of foreign lands with the unknown looming. Who closed her eyes and said yes to a million possible truths.

This is what the world asks us to do. Follow the winding, complicated path toward voracious wonder. Say yes to the moments that enchant and challenge and surprise us. Walk across the threshold when the gate swings open and keep moving forward as it shuts.

DSCF0706Jocelyn Edelstein is a Portland filmmaker, writer, choreographer, and founder of the Urban Body Project, a multimedia collective that explores the relationship between dance, culture, and community. Her writing has been previously published in Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011, Volume 8, and will be upcoming in Volume 9. When she is not making films or writing stories she is performing and teaching dance at Polaris Contemporary Dance Center.

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Taking urban farming to new heights in New Orleans

VertiFarms co-founders Kevin and Doug with one of their vertical farm installations on top of Rouses market. (Photo credit: Tulane New Wave http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/)

VertiFarms co-founders Kevin and Doug with one of their vertical farm installations on top of Rouses market. (Photo credit: Tulane New Wave http://tulane.edu/news/newwave/)

Astronaut. Firefighter. Trapeze Artist. Few occupations kids set their sights on at age 13 end up being a reality. Doug Jacobs begs to differ.

After visiting Florida’s Disney World theme park as a preteen, Doug was inspired to start a hydroponics farming business, a form of gardening that requires no soil, only nutrient-rich water, to feed plants.

“As a child, I was always scared about the inevitable lack of food in world, based on the fast pace of population growth,” says Doug, now 28. “So when I went to EPCOT and saw that exhibit on aeroponic farming [similar to hydroponics models], it all clicked. I thought, ‘This is the farm of the future.’”

After the visit, there was no turning back. Doug’s not entirely sure what kept his intentions afloat through high school, but he’s certain it was meant to be.

“It is hard to explain it,” he says. “I just had this internal drive that kept telling me this is the right thing to do. Also, part of it was a lot of loathing being stuck inside when I was in school and then at work. I day dreamed a lot. I wanted to be outside in the sun, growing food.”

But it wasn’t until moving from Florida to New Orleans to study at Tulane University that Doug started rooting his intentions to create a low-impact, mass-output farming system, not dependent on large plots of fertile land.

“In New Orleans, a lot of good soil is polluted by flooding and it’s a city—so there isn’t much open land to begin with,” Doug says. “With our vertical farms, those factors aren’t an issue.”

Vertical farms (or tower gardens)—six-foot-tall aeroponic gardens suspended in the air—are the core models of Jacob’s fast-growing company, VertiFarms. Motivated by wanting to offset the depleting supply of fertile farm soil, Doug officially kicked off the company with fellow student Kevin Morgan-Rothschild in 2012.

Now, the duo’s vertical farms are commonplace across New Orleans in restaurants wanting to grow their own herbs on site and teachers educating students on urban gardening. Rouses Market, a grocery store in downtown New Orleans, has been one of the business’ top clients, hosting more than 90 vertical farms on its rooftop.

But the interest hasn’t stopped at the city limits.

Doug teaches a local Girl Scouts troop about aeroponics. (Photo credit: VertiFarms)

Doug teaches a local Girl Scouts troop about aeroponics. (Photo credit: VertiFarms)

“We’re now working on selling our system to a town in Alaska,” Doug says. “And Vietnam already bought a few of our farms. It’s pretty incredible how fast we’re growing.”

Despite VertiFarm’s recent growth, Doug admits that it wasn’t always a smooth process.

“The up front capital is not cheap, that is definitely the hardest part of the job,” Doug says.

Fortunately, in April 2011, VertiFarms won a $10,000 award from Tulane University for its social innovation, giving the company a boost. Aside from that, however, the duo works hard on their own and in collaboration with New Orleans social entrepreneur incubator, Propeller, to secure grants and supporters of all sizes.

“But it’s something that works universally to make a global shift. So it pays for itself, really.”

However, Doug stresses that VertiFarms’ contribution to food security won’t save the world single handedly.

“We know we’re only one part of the solution. It takes changing diets and mindsets to start the change,” he says. “We’re just a piece of the puzzle.”

Want to introduce vertical agriculture to your community, or know someone who’d be interested in using the model? Contact Doug at doug@ampsnola.com.

Learn more about Louisiana month at Idealist.

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Step by step: Barefoot College brings rural ideas to a global sphere

Thirty years ago, in the small northwest Indian village of Tilonia, a rundown tuberculosis sanatorium lay vacant—its collection of once-crowded buildings gathering sand and bleaching to white in the desert sun.

Now, after an inspired rejuvenation, the 45-acre campus is home to one of the most successful education centers in the world: The Barefoot College.

Built in the 70s as a platform to empower local poverty-stricken villagers by sharing regional  skills (like farming, building, and manufacturing using local resources) and traditional knowledge, the Barefoot College now serves as a model of rural higher education throughout India and the world.

From teaching residents how to build successful and lo-tech water supply schemes to creating powerful working roles for women in communities where most jobs are left to the men, the college has sparked a shift in education tactics on both a local and global scale.

But what helped this small institution become so powerful? According to the college’s extremely modest and media-shy founder Bunker Roy, it all comes down to maintaining a solid focus throughout the development and growth of the organization.

Getting schooled 


A woman at the Tilonia Barefoot College campus works on a solar engineering project. (Photo by UN Women Gallery via Flicker Creative Commons)

In 1972, a small group of young professionals started the college with the intention of melding the minds of urban professionals, who were educated in a modern college setting, with poverty-stricken villagers, who were skilled in traditional tasks passed down through generations in their small community.

Bringing these two seemingly opposite pockets of educated individuals together could widen the minds of both groups, thus upending the hierarchical, wealth-based education system for the best, the staff thought.

This progressive model worked—but only for so long.

Changing the syllabus 

A decade after the college’s start, most of the urbanites had returned to financially secure jobs in metropolitan centers, leaving the villagers in complete control of the campus.

Thus began a new phase in the college’s direction. Cut off from external aid, the students boosted their self-sufficiency as a community, relying on their new-found knowledge of external technologies (solar energy and clean water systems) and already embedded traditional wisdom.

The women of Tilonia began to install solar panels in the college’s roofs, significantly cutting back on the village’s electricity bills. Teachers reintroduced puppetry, a past traditional teaching tool, into classrooms that once were struggling under western education-based lesson plans. They were pulling themselves out of a rut with the simple trust in their own developed skills.

Roy saw this as a substantial turning point in the school’s metamorphosis.

“This is one of the Barefoot College’s greatest accomplishments—to reduce dependency on the urban professionals and demonstrate the capacity and competence of the poorest of the poor,” Roy said.

The original idea of the college, to acknowledge traditional skill-sharing education platforms, had essentially remained the same, aside from shedding the urban influence. Which turned out to be precisely what Roy had wanted it to be.

“For an unemployed and unemployable semi-literate rural youth to be providing a vital service in a village, effectively replacing a urban trained paper-qualified doctor, teacher, and water engineer is a totally revolutionary idea,” Roy said.

This twist in focus helped steer the college onto the expanding path it’s on today.

Teaching by example

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At a 2008 Pop!Tech conference, Bunker Roy shows how the college uses traditional educational tools, like puppetry, to teach. (Photo by Pop!Tech via Flick Creative Commons)

The college has inspired 20 similar schools to pop up across India, and works with small, impoverished villages across Africa and the Middle East to train locals in creating their own similarly founded campuses.

More than 200 semi-literate people have been trained in solar engineering for village energy sources and 500,000 now have access to safe drinking water through an array of hand pumps and rainwater catchment systems designed by students.

And, many times, the students become the teachers. Recently, outside professionals have visited the Barefoot College to learn traditional construction techniques from skilled villagers to use in urban settings.

Locally, struggling villages have found a new sense of economic stability and self-respect through the college’s efforts.

“It has been the job of the Barefoot College to provide that critical space for the poor to grow from ‘no-human beings’ in the eyes of so-called civilized society to a responsible, respected and accepted ‘barefoot’ professional,” Roy said.

But while the college has found sturdy ground in Tilonia and across the globe, Roy said that the idea to create a new type of rural education system was fated to be a challenging push against the norm.

However, his original intentions have anything but diminished.

“It is an eternal struggle,” Roy said. “But the struggle and the challenge make it worthwhile knowing that it’s making a tangible difference.”

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