Shield & Spear wins a 2015 Passion for
Freedom Award


Shield and Spear, our feature-length documentary about creative expression in post-apartheid South Africa, has been awarded 2nd place from the NGO Passion for Freedom. This same award was given in 2014 to Ai Wei Wei: The Fake Case by Andreas Johnsen, placing us in good company. Chosen from hundreds of films from 24 countries worldwide, Shield and Spear addresses freedom of speech from the viewpoints and work of multiple musicians and artists, including Zanele Muholi, Brett Murray, and Yolanda Fyrus. A hearty congratulations to all involved, including Opendox and filmmaker Petter Ringbom.

Winner of the 2015 Health + Wellness Award


Working with Kupona Foundation to evolve its messaging and donor engagement strategy was rewarding for all involved—made more so with the announcement of our win in Graphic Design US’s 2015 Health + Wellness category. The winning design is a direct-mail kit for donors that served to test and validate our refreshed messaging and visual identity, while fostering a personal connection with individual recipients.

The five-part kit includes a folder of undyed recycled cardstock with a personalized greeting printed on the front cover; a full-color informational booklet; a donation card and envelope; and an inset business card. Part friendly missive, part educational reference, and part call-to-action, the kit brings to life the organization’s knack for strategic storytelling and relationship building.

Island entrepreneurs


Once a year in Barbados, 800 high school students are handed $20 bills and given four weeks to start their own businesses. Run by the Barbados Entrepreneurship Foundation, The $20 Challenge is just one example of a national drive towards self-starting. In a country where more than 60% of higher education graduates emigrate in search of better professional opportunities, the national policy push to support entrepreneurialism is an effort to both diversify the tourism-dominated economy and entice local talent to stay.

And in Barbados, policy has become culture. Turn on the TV on Wednesday nights and tune into the reality show “Bank on Me,” a “Project Runway” for entrepreneurs, where start-ups strut their business savvy and compete for angel investment. On Sunday mornings, head to the farmers market at Holders House, a plantation turned cultural venue, where you can shop goods crafted by local makers–most of whom got a boost from entrepreneurship programs run by local banks, schools, and government agencies. In the four days I spent in Barbados, I met dozens of entrepreneurs who were piloting new business offerings and most of them were women–from a teenager patenting her own organic insect repellent to a wedding photographer who also manufactures her own line of vegan meals.

So beyond the uptake in economic self-sufficiency, how else might this rise in entrepreneurialism be a gateway to even greater social change? I had travelled to Barbados to participate in a UN Women Caribbean workshop on ending gender-based violence. There, I met policymakers, international aid workers, educators, and activists from all over the region who were leading innovative educational and empowerment initiatives. And several of these participants were testing this crossover between entrepreneurship and social equality. One participant I met was Lia, a filmmaker and single mom who wanted to teach her daughter’s generation a new way of building healthy, non-violent relationships. She is piloting a new YoutTube series written and directed by teenagers on gender dynamics and self-esteem. In a country and region that faces epidemic rates of gender-based violence, entrepreneurialism presents a fresh avenue towards building gender parity. To advance her project, she was both competing on “Bank on Me” and participating in a collaborative grant from UN Women. And like many of the entrepreneurs I met, Lia had a double-sided business card: on one face was Radix Media, an educational film and television production company, and on the other was Majhari, a professional makeup service. When I asked Lia about how she managed both businesses, she explained that her parallel projects not just paid her bills, but also helped her build diverse networks and stay creatively inspired. Lia’s multifaceted approach to making change and making money illustrate how it takes cross-sector support to sustain entrepreneurs to invest in staying island side.

Artist Binta Ayofemi talks "social software"


The designs of both Prospect Park and Central Park in Manhattan are early virtual systems that activate the senses with deep layers of information, from the plants and geologies to the paths and common spaces. They’re all constructed to be generative and to exceed their original plan. The park is great code; it’s language. —Binta Ayofemi, Makeshift magazine, Issue 11

Kicking off 2015 is the new ritual-themed issue of Makeshift magazine, which looks at those symbolism-rich and purpose-built practices fueling endeavors around the world. To celebrate the theme, Openbox spoke with SF-based artist Binta Ayofemi about her creative platform Social Software. From public parks to Shaker furniture, Ayofemi points to the social code embedded in the analog world and how it guides our behaviors and relationships.

Her current work as an artist-in-residence at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City focuses on the use of plant materials, space, and texture to “program” our daily lives.

Click through to read the Makeshift article as a guest of Openbox.

Design as duty


It began with a 6AM blurry-eyed boarding time on the Acela Express to the annual A Better World by Design conference, co-hosted by Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (and, incidentally, co-founded by Steve Daniels, co-founder of Makeshift magazine). The event brought together makers, social entrepreneurs, educators, and students from around the world to explore how good design might solve our biggest problems. In the two-hour journey from New York to Rhode Island, one conversation framed the conference experience.

In the train car brimming with business people, a young man in a hoodie and buzz cut asked me where he could sit. I clarified that there were no assigned seats, and we claimed window seats facing each other. For a moment, he fidgeted with his smart phone, but then he leaned over and confided his predicament: “This is gonna sound weird, but I’m a Marine and it’s always strange when I’m back in the civvy world—like I forget how to act.” I confessed back to him that I am a social researcher and these are the moments I live for: exchanging stories from the different worlds we inhabit, even at 6AM.

Over the next two hours, Sam* shared that he is the son of Chinese and Polish immigrants and is stationed in the South as part of an aviation squadron. He enlisted straight out of high school, set on being financially independent from his parents, yet unsure about a career to pursue. His work mostly involved loading bombs onto aircrafts—a job that would one day reward him by paying for his college education. He told me that the best time of his life was during his two tours in Afghanistan. He barely left the base, which meant he bonded with his squad. He also enjoyed deployments across Europe and Africa. Having grown up as a cultural anomaly in suburban New Jersey, joining the military was instilling in him a new sense of belonging and possibility.

The difficult parts of our conversation came when it was my turn to share. He wanted to know about my job and the conference I was attending. The “civvy” profession of social impact design perplexed him—the more I shared, the more that needed explaining. Sam wanted to know how people outside of governments made large-scale change, how design could make society fairer, and what to study in school in order to become a social entrepreneur. His questions stayed with me throughout the conference.

As I listened to architects share stories of building sustainable infrastructure in South Asia, saw demos of responsive clothing designed for people with disabilities, and learned principles for reforming education around wonder and curiosity, I thought back to Sam’s motivation to enlist. Joining the military was a bold civic act, grounded in purpose and rewarded with an instant community. How might the decision to become a designer be equally civic and community driven? Could design be a civic duty? While the projects showcased throughout the conference clearly illustrated the role of design in addressing the needs and aspirations of communities, how might the design community itself be redesigned as an accessible civic career? Imagine if intellectually curious and civic minded young people like Sam could enlist in Design Service, where they would train in a design discipline and apply it within local and remote community contexts. Not only might this dramatically scale the ethos of the A Better World by Design conference, it might also better answer Sam’s questions about the social impact of design.

*Name has been changed for anonymity.

Alt MBA: KaosPilot steps out of the comfort zone

Vulnerability, curiosity and courage are just a few of the superpowers found in the students at KaosPilot, a Danish graduate school where students are teachers, teachers are students, and everyone learns. Moreover, everyone grows. Students and teachers alike, gather here to build and practice self-knowledge, and to set the highest standards for cutting-edge social innovation.

KaosPilot, founded in 1991, brings together the disciplines of design and business to prepare aspiring entrepreneurs and world-changers to respond to current cultural, social, and economic realities with versatile leadership and problem-solving skills. When the school’s staff isn’t teaching, they are working together as a change agency. They offer consulting services and workshops in the areas of creative leadership, experience design, talent development, and idea and concept development. In 2006, the Innovation Cup recognized KaosPilot as one of the most innovative public institutions in Denmark for its “willingness to change and take risks and [its] ability to predict trends.“

The school’s mission asks us to stretch our traditional understanding of what learning looks like in a school environment. KaosPilot structures the students' education around real-world projects in an environment that fosters experimentation, exploration, enterprise, and learning through experience. By emphasizing personal growth and encouraging the students to be playful, streetwise, risk-taking, balanced, and compassionate, the school trains students who are adept at developing innovative solutions in any environment. A student doesn’t go to KaosPilot to learn how to design only the tangible, says Openbox principal, Marquise Stillwell. Students go to KaosPilot to gain a deeper understanding of themselves — to prepare themselves to meet any challenge to the best of their ability. Effective leadership is about having all the tools of creative problem-solving at your disposal.

Stillwell leads workshops for first and second year graduate students, but he’s quick to point out that he’s not a conventional teacher with a curriculum. In March 2014, Stillwell led KaosPilot students through an intensive workshop where they each cultivated their own superpowers. Aligning with the KaosPilot pedagogy, his role as a workshop leader is to create an experience of openness where the students can step out of their comfort zones and begin to teach themselves. Fostering creativity is about managing a space that empowers people, says Stillwell. “It’s simple. I push curiosity. I enable people to feel vulnerable. That’s it.”

Shield and Spear on the festival circuit.


Shield and Spear,” a feature documentary about politically active artists in South Africa, executive produced by Openbox, is currently touring the film festival circuit. In April 2014, the film had its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs, the world’s largest documentary film festival. It then headed to Sheffield Doc/Fest, where we signed a worldwide sales deal with London-based Journeyman Pictures.

We had our African premiere at Durban International Film Festival, Africa’s largest film festival. The enigmatic band, The Brother Moves On, joined us in Durban for the screening and performed for the festival crowd. Timed with the event, Director Petter Ringbom talked to Okayafrica.

Shield and Spear had its U.S. premiere at NYC’s Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Sound + Vision series. Pictured above are Openbox’s Marquise Stillwell and Petter Ringbom, along with South African artist Xander Ferreira, on stage at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. New York Post’s “Page Six” reported covered the screening in their trademark tongue-in-cheek way: “Hipsters flock to Lincoln Center for Shield and Spear.”

This fall Shield and Spear is screening in Los Angeles, Sydney, Oslo, Amsterdam and more. Follow us to find out when we’re screening in your town.

Designing for interconnectedness

After a week of immersive field research at Denver’s Off-Center theater company, David, Anastassia, Michael, and Matias return to Openbox with pages of notes, surveys, and interview transcripts. They begin the process of breaking down the data and sorting it to uncover hidden themes and patterns. System mapping is one of many exercises that the Openbox team will use to gain a holistic understanding of Off-Center’s needs.

With roots in public policy, system mapping is a versatile tool, proving useful in many fields for understanding the broader context of an issue. At its most fundamental, system mapping is the process of sketching out elements and organizing them into a unified, albeit complex, whole. The very process asks us to understand a challenge or scenario as part of a larger, interdependent ecosystem. This big-picture thinking—visualized in “map” form reveals relationships between people and issues, allowing for insightful and empathic decision making.

System mapping begins with the proverbial brain dump to identify the information that must be present. The relationships between the pieces of information—including people and communities—are also indicated. Arrows, color codes, and the proximity of elements on the map establish a language that allows the team to see past the complexity of interconnectedness. The resulting infographic, or map, unveils opportunities for action and draws educated predictions about the outcomes of potential strategies amid unique and complex community dynamics.

David, Anastassia, Michael and Matias conducted many interviews during their visit with Off-Center. The observations, opinions, and desires that each participant shared became important elements in the system mapping process, allowing the team to understand the relationships between the theater’s diversity of stakeholders and its business challenges. Using a system map, the team was better able to design for Off-Center’s creative culture and vibrant community, while planning for growth. Read the case study here.

A view into Ouishare Fest 2014, Paris, France


In April, I had the pleasure of going home for both family time and immersion in the European interpretation of the collaborative economy. The Ouishare Fest 2014 explored the theme of The Age of Communities, attempting to generate a cohesive understanding of the multiple opportunities that circular consumption can bring about at both the local and the global level. Stakeholders hailing from the private, public, non-profit, and academic sectors were committed to creating a comprehensive definition of the popular concept of “shared economy.” In the end, what resonated most with participants was this genuine inclination to create crowdsourced parallel systems to provide services that are overlooked by traditional institutions. Will they succeed?

It was heartening to be part of a gathering that consciously challenged the traditional format of regular conferences. Strict business etiquette and performative identities were replaced by a casual and collegial atmosphere, where the exchange of spontaneous ideas and personal stories were more likely than sterile business-card swapping to lead to enduring collaborations. While the participant pool could have been more diverse, the overall message was inclusive and optimistic.

MCA Denver teens: failing early to succeed sooner

Each year the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver (MCA Denver) invites students to join their Teen Council, also known as the Failure Lab. The teens, from high schools across the city, come together to produce art events, build leadership skills, and cultivate creative careers.

The students on the Teen Council have ownership of the programs they produce. They generate ideas, plan details, invite their peers, and learn a lot about leadership along the way. The process also provides experience with practical skills. The students interact with contemporary art in a museum setting and learn the ins and outs of planning and executing an art show.

When they have handled the last detail and opened the doors of the gallery, the students become hosts. They lead guided museum tours for the public, and they speak on panels before an audience of their peers. The teens design their own space where they can engage in thoughtful dialogue about art and life.

MCA Denver’s Teen Council welcomes young artists into the adult art community. The students meet artists and collaborate with museum professionals. They begin to explore their identities and discover their voices as artists. They come away empowered to imagine and pursue their own artistic career paths.

Graffiti landscapes: How does an alien create community?

The noisy streets of a city range from energizing to abrasive. Cafes, shops, signs, traffic and crowds are distractions that keep us in constant movement toward the next destination. This is a story about the spaces between our destinations. The unanticipated, unpredictable spaces, amid the bustle, that stop us in our tracks and ask us to think, as we travel through the street artist’s canvas.

Cities are graffiti landscapes. The tools and forms of street art are many: words spray painted in subway tunnels, posters pasted at bus stops, mosaic creatures climbing buildings, chalk shapes drawn on sidewalks. Its forms are as varied as our reactions to them. Some see graffiti as thoughtful, expressive art, laden with social value. Others view it is a nuisance and call it vandalism.

A french artist, known to the world as Invader, creates mosaic aliens modeled after video games from the 1970s. His alien “invasions” serve as a humorous nudge of contrarian fun. The aliens peek out from an upscale women’s boutique and glower over a sidewalk cafe in Paris. They kneel almost out of sight on a street corner in Manhattan and perch atop a vast wall of graffiti in Brooklyn. These analog reminders of the space age watch over the passersby in more than 60 cities in 30 different countries. The playful irony of their presence asks us to stop and reflect. They remind us that we live in a world of divergent perspectives that is, nonetheless, a world we share.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether we approve of street art. What if the value of graffiti lies within the debate, rather than in its resolution? If the city is our teacher, then graffiti is the voice of a neighbor asking us to listen. On the side of a building in Los Angeles, Einstein declares that “Love is the Answer.” At a beach in Miami an alien encounter reminds us not to lose our curiosity. To understand a city as community, first we must learn the language of its many voices.

Haiti's first hackathon

In 2013, Openbox funded Haiti’s first hackathon in partnership with Digital Democracy, a nonprofit that helps marginalized communities gain empowerment through the use of technology. Inspired by the Haitian organization Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), the hackathon challenged students at the Ecole Superieure d'Infotronique d'Haiti (ESIH) to develop a tool to help alleviate gender-based violence.

Garnering more than 40 participants and 15 international visitors, the hackathon introduced students to the realities of designing for real-life users. In two days, the participants created a geo-referenced map of Haiti populated with resources and services available to victims of sexual violence. In addition to yielding a practical solution to a dire problem, the hackathon gave students new confidence in their abilities.

Since the first hackathon, the ESIH has formed a coding club called Enjoy.code, with more than 100 applicants showing interest in joining. The school has also organized two more hackathons—one to participate in NASA’s space app challenge, and the other to build an app that translates SMS messages into voice messages. Students and administration alike champion ESIH’s exuberant hacker culture as proof of the potential for hackathons to produce low-cost problem-solving in resource-constrained environments.

Shared space: How does an empty lot tell the story of a community?

Tucked away in a dense urban neighborhood there is a piece of land, left unused. Garbage blows in, weeds strangle what remains of its history, and people pass it by. This eyesore is an undiscovered canvas for community design.

A moment of curiosity paired with a little investigation reveals a rich history. A narrative begins to emerge from beneath the debris. A group of neighbors convenes. They exchange stories and establish connection over a shared sense of place. The people from this community are now designers in training, cultivating their ability to draw inspiration from their experiences and from their empathy with one another.

At its best, community design is an honest process that investigates realities, inspires hope, shifts perspectives and aims to build lasting community change. Ideas emerge and challenges surface, resulting in a space where people of all ages and backgrounds work together to build creative solutions. Through this process, relationships grow, and the value of a piece of land as a community resource deepens.

The narrative buried in a neglected lot becomes a story of creativity, community, and identity evolving in the shared spaces of a complex urban ecosystem.