Liz Ogbu: CCA’s Scholar in Residence

Liz Ogbu is CCA's "scholar in residence" at the Center for Art and Public Life. She spends about four or five hours a week there; she'd love it to be more, but she's a busy woman.

As often as twice a month she's getting on a plane to attend a design or education conference somewhere around the world -- frequently as an invited speaker. She teaches one course per semester at CCA, which translates to about one day a week. She spends another day every week teaching at Stanford University's famed Institute of Design, better known as "the"

She also runs an independent consultancy that undertakes short- and long-term projects; currently she's working with CCA Architecture faculty member Douglas Burnham on something for PG&E, something else for the Nike Foundation in Nigeria, and a pop-up health clinic project funded by Autodesk.

With another CCA Architecture faculty member, Lisa Findley, she’s writing a chapter on South Africa for a book on different ways of appropriating space globally.

ENGAGE at CCA: Creative Disruption

In spring 2013 Ogbu taught an ENGAGE at CCA course called Creative Disruption in which students worked with the community partner popuphood.

The assignment was to research ways that the few blocks around Telegraph and 23rd Street in Oakland -- which are completely mobbed with people once a month for Art Murmur and First Fridays -- could have more activity the rest of the time, and more community-based amenities.

The students did several intensive weeks of interviews with stakeholders, identifying needs such as the lack of public open space and unclear community identity. They then proposed ideas that were featured in an exhibition and installations at the May 2013 Art Murmur.

Looking Back

Ogbu grew up in Oakland. She attended Wellesley College for her undergraduate degree, then won a Watson Fellowship to spend a year visiting 10 sub-Saharan African countries. ("The best year of my life!" she enthuses.)

She went to Harvard University for a master’s degree in architecture, and spent a year at SMWM (now part of Perkins + Will) before moving on to Public Architecture for the following five years.

There, she spent her time working in the realms of community-based design and "responsive urbanism." And that’s where she met David Meckel, CCA's director of campus planning, who introduced her to Sanjit Sethi, the director of the Center. "I started informally advising Sanjit on Center-related questions, and then finally in 2012 we made my position official," she recounts.

Embedded at the Center

Ogbu uses the word "embedded" quite a bit, and it does go far to explain her relationship with most of the organizations she works for: operating from within rather than remotely, and on a longer term than the typical consulting job. Her embedment at the Center, broadly speaking, involves applying design thinking to its activities in a way that leverages her background in social innovation.

The Center may have only a handful of full-time staff, but it has become a well-oiled machine in recent years, and has made vast leaps and bounds in terms of articulating what it does and gaining recognition inside and outside the college.

Ogbu is constantly looking for ways to cross-pollinate among the Center's three core programs -- ENGAGE at CCA, the IMPACT Social Entrepreneurship Awards, and CCA Connects -- and CCA's academic curriculum.

"I also think a lot about what the future holds for the Center. There are the specific questions, like: How can we get more students to apply for IMPACT Awards? And then there are the bigger ones: Can we, or should we, launch new programs, or should we focus on scaling up the programming that already exists? How can we get a wider range of academic disciplines involved in what we're doing?"

And, crucially: How can the Center position itself as a model for other organizations like it, in the United States and around the world?

An Fellow

Ogbu was one of the inaugural Fellows, a groundbreaking program in which the world-famous design consultancy IDEO formed its own nonprofit, hired a team to serve as fellows for a period of one year, and sent small groups of them out into the world to work (at dramatically discounted rates) on projects for nonprofits dedicated to alleviating poverty.

"It was an honor to be selected," she remembers, revealing that there were 450 applicants for just five open positions (three additional members of the cohort were on sabbatical from IDEO). "There was one other architect, a few MBAs, and the rest were designers. Some had a lot of design experience but not much experience with social-impact projects, or vice versa. So we all learned a lot from one another."

About the Cookstoves

One of her most memorable projects from that Fellow year took place in East Africa, doing user-centered research related to cookstoves. There are already organizations active in the area promoting the use of cookstoves over wood fires (they are healthier and more environmentally friendly), but the adoption rate is low; sometimes people even take the cookstoves home but then hardly ever use them.

Ogbu's team looked into why this was happening.

"The traditional NGO-type way of dealing with something like this," she explains, "doesn't involve talking to lots of regular people and visiting their kitchens. Whereas that was our modus operandi. We discovered several different factors at work.

"Sometimes the cookstoves didn't readily lend themselves to cooking traditional dishes, or to cooking large volumes of food. Or the cost of a month's supply of fuel might be 10 times the cost of the stove, and more than a family could afford."

2012 Clinton Global Initiative

Ogbu was a design workshop leader at the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative, and it was a landmark event in her career thus far. "The theme was 'designing for impact' and I worked with Jocelyn Wyatt and Patrice Martin, the heads of, along with seven other emerging social design leaders. We held 'design labs' so that people could actually get their hands dirty with design thinking.

"It was new for a lot of them. In my workshop, one of the people we collaborated with was Robert Ivy, the head of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). Another was Johanna Ralston, CEO of the World Heart Federation.

"Just being at CGI was amazing! While walking to your next seminar, you might bump into someone like Muhammad Yunus or Chelsea Clinton."


"There are a lot of very interesting conversations going on right now about what social change even is, and where it comes from.

For instance, does it necessarily always require creating a new organization? We can't all go out and start new nonprofits! What about individuals at existing companies who have ideas for positive change, either in how the company is organized or in what it does? What are some methods they can use to get the ear of the leadership?

"There's a neologism that has been coined lately -- the 'intrapreneur' -- to get at this idea of instigating change from within an organization or institution."

Thinking About Design Thinking

Design thinking goes by many different names: human-centered design, community-based participatory research, participatory design. The concept itself is about constant evolution and iteration, and as a professional practice it is likewise evolving, in the process of catching on, still defining itself.

Some people know what it is, want it for their organizations, and can't wait to hire someone like Ogbu to come in and get embedded. Others have never heard of it, or dismiss it as kids' stuff, playing with markers and Post-it notes.

Ogbu's work brings her into contact with people like Bill Clinton and Tim Brown, but also with some of the poorest people on the planet.

"It's definitely a hectic life. But it's thrilling to be in on the ground floor of all these exciting conversations."

Her upcoming projects include ramping up efforts with the PG&E and pop-up health clinic projects; speaking engagements in London (this summer) and TEDx in Washington DC (in the fall) to talk about urban revitalization and social change; and exploring potential future collaborations with popuphood and with teams working in India and Kenya.