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Marcelino J. Alvarez: Be a Designer of Community

About this talk

Uncorked Studios CEO and co-founder Marcelino J. Alvarez has worked on projects and products that took him to communities in Cuba, Lebanon, and Japan. In this talk, he explains how his own Cuban heritage inspired his design philosophy, how designers and entrepreneurs can produce work that truly benefits communities, and why mundane solutions are often the most necessary.

Marcelino J. Alvarez, CEO & Co-Founder, Uncorked Studios

Marcelino J. Alvarez is the founder and CEO of Uncorked Studios, a product design studio located in Portland, Oregon. Uncorked partners with the world’s top brands, including Google, Intel, Adidas, Diageo,, Samsung, Skype, the Bezos Family Foundation, Magnum Foundation, and more to build products with purpose.

Previously, Alvarez served as Executive Interactive Producer at Wieden + Kennedy. He produced the Nike Chalkbot, a robot that printed messages of hope and inspiration on the Tour de France in 2009 and 2010. He’s a co­founder of Safecast, an open data initiative to help residents of Japan report and understand the levels of radiation following the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster, and Incúbate, the first design-thinking workshop and incubator in Havana, Cuba.

Full Transcript

I’d like to tell you all a story about community, about the effects that government, oppressive regimes, and failed foreign policies can have on a community, specifically the smallest unit of community: the family. These are my grandparents. They were married in Havana, Cuba in 1952. Just nine years later, they would have to pack up all their belongings in a couple of duffle bags, take my father, aged five, and my uncle, aged three, and leave Havana.

They left to the U.S., leaving behind family, friends, memories, and the only community they had ever known. My father and my grandfather haven’t been back to Cuba. My grandmother came back three times. The first, to sign the deed to her house—the house that her father had built—to her cousins, Manolo and Sara. The second time she went back to Cuba was to bury her mom, who had passed away, and the third and final time, in 1983, was to bring her ailing father back to Orlando, Florida, where I had a chance to meet him.

Growing up in South Florida, Cuba was presented in very stark black and white terms: us versus them, good versus evil, Reagan versus Castro. I spent my entire career resisting black and white. I have thrived in the gray. I have sought that slash between either and or. And so, in 2015, when I was presented with an opportunity to visit Cuba for the first time as part of a delegation protecting entrepreneurs, business leaders, policy experts from the U.S. and their counterparts in Havana, I couldn’t say no. I had to go, much against my father’s wishes.

Over the course of seven days, I had an opportunity to meet with some really incredible people, but none more incredible than my grandma’s cousins. That’s Sara in the upper left corner, and Manolo, the oldest and youngest cousins that my grandma had. I got to see the house that my great grandfather Angel had built. That’s Angel in the white polo shirt. I got to see the room where my father grew up in, where he lived, the dining table where he had some of his first meals, where he formed some of his first and most foundational memories of his most immediate community: his family.

I got to sit at that table with Sara and Manolo drinking a little Cuban coffee, sharing memories and connecting dots of broken points in our family’s history. Sara had brought out this kind of old, moldy cardboard box filled with photos that she had kept over the years, photos that my grandmother had brought back on each of her trips. We sat and went through each of the photos, and we tried to see what happened to this family member, where’s this person today, this was your grandmother’s wedding. I got to see my grandmother in a flamenco dress, and I heard that she used to party really, really hard in Havana at the old yacht club.

That was pretty incredible because I remember my grandma with a chancleta, a flip flop that would be the force of discipline at my household, so to hear that my grandma partied was pretty neat. But our time was really, really short, and I had to say goodbye. And Sara gave me a stack of those photos to take with me, including this one. She told me “This was your father’s dog, Golfo. He had to leave Golfo behind when he went to the U.S. I want you to know, and I want you to tell your dad that Golfo lived a really, really good life, that he never stopped wondering if your dad and your uncle were going to come back, that up until the very last, he always expected them to come home.

Now, up until that point, I had been fighting back tears, but the story of this dog that I had never known my dad had had, and just kind of this image of this dog waiting each and every day for the rest of his life for my dad to come home just broke it open. And so, I cried. I cried a lot. And I said our goodbyes, but I promised her this. I said, “I will be back, and I promise to bring you more photos of our family and where we’re at so we can continue to connect.” I had to get back to the hotel that we were staying at, which is the Hotel Nacional, and I had to meet with my colleagues because we were preparing to actually go to a cocktail reception, a happy hour with some of the entrepreneurs we were working with. And I get to the hotel, and I’m a mess.

My face is all bloated. I’d been crying for the last hour. I tell my colleagues, “Hey, I’ll be right back. I’ve just got to go shower and just kind of decompress for a little bit.” And so, I come out of the hotel, and it’s on this hill near a bluff. It’s in October in Havana, but it’s still a very muggy 85 degrees. You can hear the sounds of the ocean just hitting against the Malecon, which is the sea wall along Havana, and kind of the smell of old diesel engines, the rumbling of old cars. And so I walked down this tree lined street, and I hang a right, and the restaurant we were going to is just a few short blocks away. I make my way past the entrance to the hotel and past a line of American cars that had been relics of the 1950s that had been co-opted into taxi cabs waiting for the valet at the entrance of the hotel to call them in. And I’m walking past, and my mind is all over the place connecting past, and present, and community history.

I had this kind of weird feeling in the back of my head like I was being followed, and I don’t know why, but for that moment, I asked myself, what would Jason Bourne do? I have no formal training as a spy, and Jason Bourne is not a real human being, but in that moment, I thought “What would Jason Bourne do?” And I look over, and I see a man in a white t-shirt and some ripped up jeans across the street. And the minute we make eye contact, he stops. And I say to myself, “huh.” So, I decided I’m going to outrun this guy for some reason. So I keep walking, and I hang a left, and I’m walking towards the restaurant we’re at, which is fortunately across from the U.S. embassy. So, I thought to myself, “If all shit breaks loose, I’m just going to run for the U.S. embassy and get out of here.”

I weave in and out of a gas station, and I approach these old trucks that were filling up for fuel to kind of see in the side mirrors is this guy behind me? And a pro tip, that might work in movies, but you can’t really see that far behind you. So, I keep walking, and I kind of walk through, and I decide I’ll take a different tactic. I’m just going to stop. I’m going to take a photo, a really long panoramic photo and see if this guy is behind me, and he wasn’t. So, I felt really good, and so I walked to the restaurant we’re at, and it was in this small triangle shaped building, and the entrance was probably half the size of this stage, and I press the button on the elevator, which is by the way, the slowest elevator in the world, and I wait, and I wait, and I wait, and out of nowhere, I hear a voice say “Oi” and every muscle in my body just tensed up, and I’m like ‘shit’. And I turn around, and sure enough, there’s the guy in the white t-shirt with the ripped up jeans.

I’m thinking to myself, “Dammit, my dad was right.” This is the end. I’m going to get thrown in a prison. I’m going to get killed here, and again, I talked to myself, “What would Jason Bourne do? Could I take this guy?” I’ve never fought anybody. I have no business taking anyone on. I tried to do that thing where you count the exits, but there’s really only two: the one that he’s blocking and the elevator behind me, which I’m still waiting on. And I finally hear a bing. I still haven’t answered him. I’m just slowly taking back and thinking, “What would Jason Bourne say as he escapes this really dangerous scene with this guy in the white shirt?”

The only thing I could come up with is, “Hey, I’m not a Mexican.” He had said to me, “You look like a Mexican.” And I was like “Whoa, I’m not a Mexican.” I tried to leave. Unfortunately, the elevator had arrived at that point in time, but, because it was the slowest elevator in the world—because there were like 20 people in the elevator—there was no way I was making a quick exit in this elevator. So, I’m waiting, I’m stuck, and at that moment, one of the Cuban entrepreneurs shows up, and he’s like, Hey, Marcelino, sorry we’re running late. We had some stuff to attend to.” I’m like, “Hey Pablo, it is really great to see you right now.” And the guy in the white shirt left.

I didn’t even see him leave. He just left with only saying one thing. “You look like a Mexican.” I was like what does that mean? Pablo, the Cuban entrepreneur, kind of signifies this new Cuba, and he may have diffused a minor post-Cold War incident. I don’t know, but he signified community in two really interesting ways. First was community of the past. We had kind of a common ancestry and a history together, and the second was community of the present. We were both entrepreneurs, both business leaders, both trying to make the most matter in our community. And one of the really weird strange things is for me personally, I had to travel all the way across the world to really understand how I could better interact and affect my own community. And I think it’s important to put this in context for who we are as Uncorked Studios.

You see, we’re an integrated product design studio, and we’re obsessed with connecting people, technology and context to create meaningful change. But meaningful change is a very loaded term. How do you know what meaningful change looks like? How do you know when you have an opportunity to create meaningful change? Early in our existence, right after the Fukushima earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster, we asked ourselves, “Why isn’t there better data? What if we just crowdsourced a website with radiation points and just opened it up to the world? Who might be interested in this problem?” And we got connected to an amazing community of other people who were motivated by this problem. And today, the site that we launched, Safecast, is the largest collection of independent radiation data in the world, collected over 50 million data points.

We use that to build our studio’s credibility and capabilities, and the tools that we use to understand product design and product development. Along the way, we refined those tools up until Cuba, where we had an opportunity to apply it for a new community. And we’ve grown beyond Cuba. We’ve had an opportunity to take the insights from Cuba and help a large travel organization understand how do we restore resiliency in the Caribbean following the hurricanes Irma and Maria? How can we help the community in Portland build the next generation of connected products by connecting mentorship and opportunity with businesses and organizations that are interested in seeing the future of advanced manufacturing?

And so, from Safecast to the boundaries of the Cold War, to the efforts that we’re doing with PIE Shop, all these things have a few threads in common. The first is we never tried to make money off of any of these things. In fact, we lost quite a bit of money on these things. But we did not because we were looking for an ROI. We did it because we felt that we had an obligation to do so. We did it because we believed that the tools that we had were the best tools at that moment, and we would not be able to live with ourselves if we didn’t do it. We looked at community much like the open source movement, and so for us, we’ve built upon that over the years. One of the things that we’ve discovered is community is a bit of a complex system. And like any complex system that you work on, we broke it apart into its component problems. We never approached Safecast, or Cuba, Puerto Rico, as experts.

In fact, we approached it as naïve people who didn’t really know what we were doing but did know that we were designers first, that we would ask questions about the context and how we might affect change. We asked a lot of questions, some that were smart, some that weren’t. We would prototype or propose imperfect solutions, and then we would iterate it upon those with feedback from the communities that we were working with, and Cuba was one of those such communities. We originally went there under the guise of a program called Fringe Diplomacy, which has a very fundamental and simple belief: that people to people connections can move faster and more effectively than governments can, and so in a case where businesses from both sides of the aisle are sitting around a table and relationships improve, you have a foundation to where that new community can go.

In the case that a Cuban-American entrepreneur from Portland, Oregon, suddenly finds himself in a prison because a guy with a white t shirt chased him down, you have a lifeline to kind of be a back channel of communication to get him out, and specifically, we were working there doing a design thinking workshop with Cuban entrepreneurs. Now, these aren’t the same types of entrepreneurs that we see here. They weren’t chasing after unicorn evaluations or giant problems with hockey sticks. They were trying to solve local problems. They were using the same sets of technologies that we use, but they were framing it from a context of “How do I make my own community better?” And so, if your traditional VC might be obsessed with people, products and profits, these entrepreneurs were obsessed with context and the potential for a better future. And for me, that’s a way better framing for how startup and an entrepreneur should approach the world.

We wanted to make sure when we went in with the Cuban entrepreneurs that we weren’t just bringing these tablets down of here’s how we do it in America, but that in fact, we were sharing insights and aligning on tools. So, we acknowledged early on we’re not going to fix really complicated things. We’re not going to fix the embargo with Cuba. We’re not going to fix 60 years of complicated history, but we can align on a mutual vision. We can say that we’ve got a shared set of tools, a similar support system that we encounter similar sets of obstacles along the way, and this is one of the first exercises that we did where we posted up on those things, and it was incredible to see how both the Cuban entrepreneurs and their American counterparts had a similar framework for how they viewed the world.

So, here’s the deal. We’re all designers of community. You can do this too. Every day, we’re surrounded by problems that just seem so big that you ask yourself why hasn’t anybody solved this yet? Maybe there’s no money behind it. Maybe it’s too complex. Even if it’s both of those things, these are the problems that are often most worth solving. So, I’m going to share with you the playbook that we have for how we approach complex community design, and there’s just one caveat. We’re still not experts. What we do, we iterate upon, and we look for feedback, but these are some insights that we’ve learned along the way.

The first is: find a problem. Make it a really sticky one, one that’s worth solving. Ask yourself why hasn’t anyone tried to solve this before? Who else might be interested in the solution to this problem? How might we build a better community around it? Start proposing solutions. As a designer, what might I do to actually solve this particular problem, and then quickly get out of the realm of talking, and start doing. Start building. Prototype something. Pilot it. Share it with the people that you identify that might have that same problem, and then repeat because the fact of the matter is is that it’s very likely that whatever you prototype is going to be imperfect. And you should embrace that perfection. You should use it to either identify a new set of problems or a new set of questions that you ask, and just go through this over, and over, and over again.

If you do so, like we have, you’ll realize this kind of insightful point that community is a product, and we should look at it as such, and we should design for it as such. This is where we see our industry heading. It is no longer sufficient for a large organization to say, “We’re going to build an innovation arm within our organization, and we’re going to innovate really, really fast” only to have it be bound by corporate politics. It’s not enough for such a corporation to hire somebody like Uncorked to say, “Hey, build us an innovative product so that we might be innovative.” True innovation requires us to look at the entire ecosystem: public policy makers, city planners, startups, individual contributors, disadvantaged and affected communities that might not have a seat at the table. And we need to consider those communities as designers and ask the same sort of questions that I suggested before.

How might we build together? How might we break down some of these silos? If you’re looking for an example of what is a problem worth solving, look towards the mundane. There are opportunities in the everyday. This is one of my favorite photos from Cuba. One of my colleagues asked for a to go cup at the hotel, and there were no to go cups, and so the waiter took two of those really thin translucent plastic cups and poured some coffee into them, the kind that if you were to grab, you’d burn your hand and sue somebody. And what they did is they actually put a napkin between the two cups and created a thin layer of insulation and said here you go. Here’s a to go cup. I think that there are way more opportunities to scale impact through the mundane than there are through moon shots.

We’re obsessed with moon shots. We love moon shots. Moon shot culture. Unicorns, billionaire evaluations, but the fact of the matter is, most of us aren’t going to get a chance at a moon shot opportunity. There are more cars driving to work every day, more people taking a subway to work, riding a bike, or walking than there are going to the moon. Stop chasing the moon shots. Look for the opportunities in the everyday. I’ll leave you with some thoughts on how we might be able to do that. The first: reduce the clutter. There are so many opportunities that we have as designers to say, “No, this is a really bad idea. No, we don’t need another one of these. No, we shouldn’t build this again. No, this already exists.” Say no. Let the good ideas that have an opportunity to provide impact, let those opportunities breathe. And you can do it by saying no. The second: look for opportunities to create meaningful change.

Again, you’re not going to know what meaningful change is. You can’t define it. You kind of know when you see it. Even if you have an idea that on the surface doesn’t feel like it’s super compelling. Ask yourself, “How might I steer this towards impact? How might these same set of tools that I’m working on or the processes that I’m doing perhaps be utilized by a disadvantaged group, or someone that doesn’t have access to these same set of tools?” And most importantly: start designing your legacy. We only have so much time on this earth, and we’ve all worked on things that we regret working on, like why did I spend so much time doing this thing? But if you reframe the work that you’re doing every day, even if it’s designing a logo or making that logo bigger, or working for a brand on a project and you’re just in the face of a very difficult conversation, there is still an opportunity in that mundane to put that piece of work in a broader context.

Prove it by living it. What does meaningful change look like? This is one of the observations by one of the participants in our workshop. She had gone through the workshop a number of times, and at the end, we did an exercise where we said what are some of the insights that you might have? And she wrote this, “Cubans and Americans are very much alike.” That’s despite 60 years of broken foreign policy, 60 years of a Cold War, 60 years of each side telling the other that the other side is evil. This is meaningful change. I did have an opportunity to go back to Cuba like I promised Sara and Manolo. This is them today. Manolo is on the far left. He’s around 66 years old, and Sara’s around 88. That’s Manolo’s wife. I brought with them on my second trip a set of photos from the family, photos from my wedding, photos that we had collected along the way of my grandparents, of my father, my wife, my wedding, and we shared them.

One the second trip, I had an opportunity. I convinced my dad, who didn’t come with me on the trip—still working on that—but I did convince him to call in. So, one of the nights that we spent together, we had a phone call on land lines, and so I had one portable phone on my ear and Sara had the other. She was talking to my grandma, and they were reminiscing about the old days. They probably hadn’t spoken in about 10 years. Reminiscing about the old days, about the ailments that they each had, kind of trying to outdo each other. “Well, I’m limping, my back hurts, you know?” Things that cousins will do, even in their old age, and Sara remarked to my grandma, “Isn’t it remarkable that we’re both here? Isn’t it remarkable that I’m sitting in the same room as your grandchild? Who would have thought that we would have lived to see this day.” And that’s what I carry with me forward to my own legacy, my family.

I want my children to see the community that I live in, that I work in, through the eyes of impact, whether that’s the Portland community or the Cuban community that they come from. And I work every day to look for opportunities to scale that mundane because I recognize that those moon shot opportunities are few and far between. And so, I’ll leave you all with one question. Given the opportunity to view your own community through the lens of a product, given an opportunity to look for the mundane and scale it towards impact, what will you leave behind in your shoebox? Thank you.

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