In January of this year, US Ambassador Bruce Oreck, Olli and me came up with a crazy idea.  The backdrop was that Aalto Ventures Program was in its formative stages, and we needed to come up with ways to push the boundaries of the student experience.  We had a nice list of academic courses that were becoming increasingly popular, but there was nothing that completely pushed pushed students to the limit in an environment that was unknown to them.  There was a precedent from the design angle – Aalto on Tracks and Aalto on Waves, and Aalto in Africa – so we wanted to choose a focus and approach that was different and novel.


Thus the AVP Urban Challenge was born.  We wanted to leverage Bruce’s understanding as a native New Yorker, as well as our emerging partnerships with Pace and Philadelphia Universities.  We decided to focus on two key topics – customer experience, and urban design, and of course putting everything in an entrepreneurial framework.

With PhilaU, we built up a weekend program using their award winning Nexus Learning methodology to focus on a sprint to create ideas for how to build better urban environments for aging in place.  The students’ summary of the lessons learned of the Nexus Maximus Sprint is HERE, and Philadelphia University’s press release is HERE.


For Monday evening thru Friday, we planned a program where from Monday evening til Friday afternoon Bruce would lead us on an unforgettable street-level program.  Students’ blogpost are HERE and HERE regarding the lessons learned.


The trip is pretty well documented through the blogposts, and our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram streams, so no need to go thru the program in more detail.  I would like to focus on trust and the comfort zone, two concepts closely related and fundamental to both the Urban Challenge experience, as well as putting the world back on the right track.

We recruited dozens of students to apply for the Urban Challenge with nothing more than a promise – we are headed to NY and Philadelphia for a couple weeks, you will learn a lot and you will have a great time.  From the time that we invited people to apply, to the day we hopped on the plane, this was nearly all the students knew about the program.


Meanwhile, the program was built around endpoints.  Each day we had a couple landmark activities, but before, between, and after them was basically a set of “game time decisions”.  Luckily, we had Bruce and our friends at PhilaU and Pace, who have such deep inside information and knowhow as we moved forward from event to event that we trusted somehow we would get to where we needed to be, and that we would have incredible learning experiences along the way.


Reaction from the students has been really interesting all around, but the most intriguing response was that (1) they had the time of their life both from a learning and fun perspective, and (2) many would not have signed up if they had known how far out of the comfort zone we were headed (i.e. New York Trapeze School and Sleep No More Theatre).  In addition, it would probably not have been great marketing to emphasize that we would average about 30,000 steps per day, the equivalent of about 25km…


So I think that the takeaway is that we have to find people and organizations to trust, and to let them “take you there”.  Having a powerful concept like the Urban Challenge together with the right people committed to bringing unexpected and positive surprises can be even more fulfilling than seeing a long detailed plan with time schedules programmed to the last minute.  We hope that AVP is starting to become one of these trusted organizations that pushes the limits and offers its students a world-leading experience.  By doing things like the Urban Challenge, we believe our tribe will continue to grow in size and influence.

We can’t wait to push this whole thing to a new level, so keep following AVP!

Will, Olli and Bruce