Analogous Learning and the Path to Staying Curious

When I was 6 years old, I started taking swim lessons. It was at the swimming complex at the University of Tennessee, where I remember watching the diving team practice from the 10 meter platform in complete, terrified awe. Lucky for me, I started with blowing bubbles in the shallow end. Slowly, we progressed to a swimming stroke: the doggy paddle. Did you hear that right? The doggy paddle. The instructor was teaching us how to swim like a dog.

Fast forward a few decades. I’m now at CauseLabs, working to improve lives through technology, and I’m squarely in the middle of a world my 6 year old self could have never imagined. I have a formal education, books, the internet, and a nonstop influx of news and information at my fingertips. It’s all great, and it makes up the collection of the standard ways we’re learning. But there is so much more out there. We can learn from amazing things like mistakes and failure, serendipity or the unexpected.

And yes, like my younger self… we can even learn from dogs.

Seeing the world around us as a place to learn brought us the doggy paddle. But what if I told you that this same way of thinking led the way to saving millions of dollars and a breakthrough in global innovation? It’s all thanks to the kingfisher bird and a bullet train.

The Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains now move more passengers between metros than any rail in the world. But during development, their super speed caused them to exit the long, straight tunnels with a loud sonic boom. After several failed attempts at a solution, engineers knew they needed to think differently. So they looked to the kingfisher bird. Studying its long, narrow beak and smooth ability to transition from air to water, they were able to implement the same design to allow the trains to enter and exit the tunnels quietly, saving millions in build costs.

Instead of looking for a textbook answer, engineers looked around with a curious, insightful eye, and knew when to not stop learning. And the cool thing is, we can all do this too. Around here, we call it analogous learning.

Analogous Learning

At CauseLabs, when we use the word analogous, it just means we’re looking outside of the norms for inspiration. Which is pretty normal for us. We know that great work so often requires us to look beyond the traditional, and like our next example, we learned that when you’re working in places like a refugee settlement in western Uganda, the norms rarely ever apply.

It was on this project that the photo above was taken. We spent a lot of time in places like this, simply listening to refugees about their needs, with a focus on potential tools that could help them be better able to give feedback on those needs. From early on we could see that they were specific and articulate, but clearly felt disempowered and lacked the agency to make change. To design a new way, we knew we would need to pair their unique needs with a unique perspective.

But before you think we have it all figured out, this is the part of the story where I’ll tell you about our low point.

It was just before the halfway mark, and we needed a change. So, you guessed it, we looked around for some much needed inspiration. A few days later we arrived to an important meeting with a presentation full of analogous learnings — everything from apps to animals, public transit to pundits. Last I checked this is not in the typical playbook, but it was crucial to getting us where we needed to go. Let’s explain.

Pandas helped us understand how we could think about the prioritization of feedback by learning how the World Wildlife Federation is organized. Digital Matatus helped us think about how to collect feedback using technology in collaboration with local partnerships by learning how places like Nairobi are using crowdsourced information. And Carl Diggler, a fictitious political pundit created by Cafe.com, helped us understand how to pair qualitative and quantitative feedback using non-traditional methods.

You see, each of these is a perfect example of how analogous learning works. It’s not about ignoring the standards, but it is about staying curious, thinking big, and being open to learning in some not-so-standard ways. And not to mention, this led the way to the kickstart we needed. Each one of these examples helped us and our partners understand the problem in a way we couldn’t have done without it. By looking out, we could look in with a clearer lens and a fresh perspective.

So the next time you need a boost, stay curious, and look around. After all, you might find your dog really does have something to teach you.


Jonathan is a designer at CauseLabs. He lives in Nashville with his wife, a cat, and a constant taco craving.

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