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Faculty Spotlight: Elizabeth Gerber

IPR associate explores how a collaborative design process might address social ills


Liz Gerber
IPR associate Elizabeth Gerber studies "collective innovation," or the process of discovering new products and services interactively with the community.

Elizabeth (Liz) Gerber set out to make innovative toys, not get a PhD. Yet as she experimented with new ways for children to share their likes and dislikes, she realized she was more interested in the process of gathering and growing ideas with the community than in creating novel toys.

“I did not set out to be a researcher,” Gerber said. Now, over a decade after earning her PhD at Stanford University in management science, the researcher and IPR associate is still fascinated by how ideas develop through collaboration.

She calls her area of study “collective innovation,” the process of discovering new products and services interactively with the community—a process inspired not only by her first job but also her grandparents.

Design for Social Change—and America

Gerber’s grandparents were a powerful influence on her work. They left a comfortable suburban life to found a church in rural Vermont with a strong emphasis on social justice. She spent many hours alongside her grandmother bringing food to neighbors living in poverty and with her grandfather, a carpenter, in his workshop.

Her inherited commitment to social justice, experience with design, and scholarly interest in the process of creation through collaboration came together when she founded Design for America.

As a brand-new faculty member at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, Gerber pitched her idea for collaborative service learning to her dean and fellow artist and engineer, Julio Ottino. Along with three undergraduates, Gerber launched Design for America (DFA) in 2008. The program trains students to tackle innovative community service projects in health, education, economics, and the environment by using design and applying skills from the classroom.

From its origins as a small Northwestern experiment, Design for America has spread to 38 campuses nationwide with over 4,000 participants and alumni, or “changemakers.” They take on more than 150 projects per year, addressing difficult questions: How can we reduce hospital-acquired infections? How can we reduce food waste? How can we increase access to public transportation for people with disabilities?

Gerber has received numerous awards for her work, as has DFA, including most recently the prestigious Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt's 2018 Corporate and Institutional Achievement Award, which recognized DFA for “lasting achievement in American design.”

Collaborative Learning and Activities

As a design researcher in a toy company, Gerber’s first experience in crowdsourcing—or engaging many people in a project online—led her to realize that it has profound effects on how and what problems people discover, what solutions they propose, and how they disseminate their solutions.

Her experience led her to consider fundamental questions, including what problem-solving work will look like and who will participate in the future. She focused on the impact of the internet on inclusion of underrepresented participants.

“The internet broke open institutional boundaries,” she explained.

She and her collaborators have developed various human-computer interaction (HCI) support tools for crowdsourcing, including WeDo, a software that supports simple types of participatory collective action towards a common goal by automating some phases of the process through a website interface and Twitter.

Engagement and Social Reform

For Gerber, the next step is to use what she has learned about HCI to work toward profound social change collaboratively. She urges her fellow HCI researchers and practitioners to devote energy to designing, building, and evaluating solutions to alleviate poverty and other large-scale humanitarian undertakings across the world.

Take, for instance, the difficult problem of wage inequity between men and women. Gerber and her colleagues focus on this wage gap in the online gig economy. Analyzing online U.S. marketplaces that enable workers to set their own hourly billing rates, they find that women systematically ask for less money than men do: The median female worker asked only 74 percent of what the median man requested. Even controlling for job type, work experience, and educational level, women on average earned $6.28 less per hour than men.

With work like this, Gerber says she is moving toward more research into systemic and policy reform. Where else will she go?

“I ask where I am needed next,” she said.

Elizabeth Gerber is associate professor of mechanical engineering and communication studies, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence, and an IPR associate.