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The Challenge

Help South Bend residents forge their own resilience through learning in the face of advancing technology and the changing nature of work, and ultimately scale this model to communities across the country.

The Outcome

Bendable is a scalable, community-curated platform that connects people with opportunities to learn with and from each other, on topics ranging from professional development to personal interests.

Tiffany, a single mother in South Bend, Indiana, wants more for herself and her kids.

She works as a manager at Taco Bell, but this salary barely covers the bills. When she dropped out of high school, Tiffany jumped straight into the working world. Now, between her full-time job and caring for her two children, finding time to study and earn her GED feels impossible. South Bend has lots of GED programs, but Tiffany isn’t sure which one can help her learn the specific skills she needs to earn enough money to feel secure. Even if she found the right program, she’s uncertain if she could fit it into her busy life. Though she tries to fit in an occasional treat like an ice cream, she feels like she isn’t able to give her family enough time or money.

Tiffany’s predicament is common. For most people, learning ends when they leave school. The current economy does a decent job of supporting those with higher-level degrees, but many who don't fall into this category struggle. If they want to switch careers or are forced to due to a layoff, disruptive technology, or health issue, the education and guidance they need are often difficult to access or completely out of reach. To stay resilient in the face of change, learning must be a lifelong endeavor.

The Drucker Institute, a social enterprise dedicated to making leaders and organizations more effective, recognized this need and partnered with IDEO and the city of South Bend, Indiana to build a lifelong learning program that would spark a cultural shift across the United States. With 100,000 residents, the “Beta City,” as former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg calls it, was the ideal testing ground for the program—big enough to have major challenges but small enough to get things done quickly.

In this video, South Bend residents share their stories and the barriers that keep them from accessing learning opportunities, from lack of time and money to limited technology skills.

Once known for its manufacturing industry, South Bend is working to find its footing in today’s economy. Former Mayor Buttigieg dedicated eight years in office to equipping residents with the tools and resources they need to succeed, and was eager to test solutions to the city’s economic and social issues. The local St. Joseph County Public Library system was also evolving their physical space and offerings—like free tax assistance and language classes—to meet the changing needs of the South Bend community. The Drucker Institute and IDEO saw an opportunity to join forces with the city and its local library to help realize the shared goal of creating a city of lifelong learning.

I love the idea of having one of the most new and innovative things happening in this city tied to one of the most timeless and reliable institutions in our community.

Pete Buttigieg, Former Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, speaking about the role of the library in creating Bendable

With former Mayor Buttigieg’s support and additional funding from Google.org and Walmart.org, the team began on-the-ground research with residents, librarians, and businesses to deeply understand the South Bend community. To get to know their needs, the team conducted over 75 in-depth interviews, visited homes to understand daily challenges, spent time with local business owners, and spoke with librarians to learn about their role in the community.

The team initially set out to build learner profiles—descriptions of the most common types of learners that explain who they are, what motivates them, how they learn, and more—to help shape the lifelong learning program. But they soon realized that static profiles can’t match the complexity and diversity of learners in today’s world. Research revealed countless reasons why people seek learning opportunities and a wide range of barriers that hold them back.

Take Otis, a South Bend resident who struggled to re-enter the workforce after spending several years in prison. While in prison, he earned his GED and took college courses to broaden his skill set and make himself a more desirable job candidate. But during this time away, Otis couldn’t keep up with rapid advances in technology. When he was released, the idea of finding a job online seemed foreign. Even though programs that help people apply for jobs online exist in South Bend, Otis didn’t know about them or where he might find them. He preferred getting information from neighbors and friends at a weekly neighborhood gathering.

“I don’t like handouts, and I try to do things on my own. But sometimes it’s so hard that you have to ask for help. And I’m still learning.” —Otis, 57, South Bend resident

Research also surfaced residents’ negative associations with traditional educational experiences, a desire to learn from trusted friends and community members, and a preference for hands-on learning methods. But the most powerful insight was the disconnect between the large number of learning opportunities already available in South Bend—many for free—and residents’ awareness and ability to access them. The team realized that South Bend wasn’t under-resourced, it was under-connected.

The problem is not a supply problem. It's an organization and distribution problem. If you're just a regular person you don't know where to start.

Rick Wartzman, Director at The Drucker Institute

The team pivoted from creating learner profiles and instead began researching and mapping the connections between how people like to learn and what they want to learn. Learners fluctuate between modes based on their goals: A low-stakes learning goal like mastering a recipe might be achievable by watching an online video, but a high-stakes goal like getting a new job may need to be accompanied by an in-person class or individualized mentoring.

In order for a lifelong learning solution to take root and sustain, it needed to be designed for and by the people of South Bend. With help from residents, the team gathered learning resources from South Bend and beyond, including TED talks, resume writers, technology experts, community college courses, and more, and placed them in a unified repository. They polled residents on their interest areas and included free seats to relevant online courses. This repository of learning opportunities across platforms and locations ultimately aimed to simplify the process of searching for resources.

Local experts and business owners then grouped and curated the resources into “collections” based on their area of expertise. A collection could help a resident learn about starting a small business from a local restaurant owner, using the latest smartphone apps from their tech-savvy neighbor, mastering the skills needed for a management position from a company that’s hiring, and more.

The team hired Kay Westhues, a South Bend resident, to coordinate over a dozen community “connectors” who would show early prototypes of the collections to friends and neighbors. Kay and the connectors brought valuable and objective feedback back to the core design team. Rather than designing for the South Bend community, this model allowed the team to design with the community, ultimately equipping citizens to take ownership of the program and move it forward.

A South Bend community connector gathers feedback on an early prototype from her family and friends.

After six months, the team evolved the repository through several prototypes and created Bendable: a community-powered lifelong learning platform that connects people with opportunities to learn with and from each other. After designing the visual branding, user interface, and mobile experience, a development partner brought the app and website to life. Managed by South Bend’s St. Joseph County Public Library system, the mobile application and website surfaces free resources and builds real-life connections by relying on trusted experts, peers, and locals to share their knowledge.

Given its role as a physical space for lifelong learning, it made sense for South Bend’s St. Joseph County Public Library to manage the Bendable platform.

To help the library independently maintain, facilitate, and grow Bendable, the team trained library staff on how to run the program. Bendable helps fuel the library’s existing efforts, scale their impact, and encourage people to think about librarians in a new way—as community organizers, activists, and connectors.

Similar to music playlists, the Bendable lifelong learning mobile application surfaces collections of free resources on topics ranging from work skills to hobbies curated by local experts, residents, and business owners.

Bendable is scheduled to launch in South Bend in mid 2020. After launch, The Drucker Institute plans to expand the program across the United States, forming a network of “Cities of Lifelong Learning.” Bendable aims to enable citizens like Tiffany and Otis through personal and professional growth, giving them more agency as they navigate the changing workplace and building a sense of belonging and connection within communities.

Life is really all about learning. Even as you get older, there are older people who don’t know everything. I feel like you do learn stuff everyday.

Tiffany, 25, South Bend resident

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