Elkin native Ben Erlandson recently returned to the area to begin the VESIC Institute, an interactive research, design and development organization, with the goal of helping people solve the many complex problems that are faced every day. VESIC stands for Virtual Environments for Situated Inquiry of Complexity.
“While all pursuits of VESIC intend to foster learning, it is not a teaching organization, in the formal sense,” Erlandson said. “Many of the tools we build — if they indeed function the way in which they are designed — will inherently result in the creation of of ‘teachable moments’ within the user experience. These tools are intended to be learning systems.”
The son of Dr. Steve and Linda Erlandson, Ben, who is a 1997 Elkin High School graduate, hopes for strong community involvement in the development of the organization’s ongoing projects that he said eventually may have a worldwide impact.
To help people understand what is involved in the process, Erlandson will teach six free classes at the Elkin Public Library: “Participatory design with digital software tools for solving complex problems” (Sept. 15), “What is complexity and how to shift to a systems thinking mindset” (Sept. 22), “Understanding everyday complexity through systems wisdom” (Oct. 13), “Interpreting the world around us through functional, cultural, and critical literacy” (Oct. 20), “Complex problems and ways to design solutions, using local community examples” (Nov. 10) and “Navigating the Future: Projects and partnerships across communities, cultures, and generations to navigate social-ecological systems in a fast-paced world” (Nov. 17).
“These are not classes, in the traditional sense,” Erlandson said. “This is more akin to a ‘town hall meeting’ format. Our tools are designed to implement information visualization and manipulation, data collection, analysis and annotation and complex systems modeling and simulation. One primary purpose of the upcoming series at the library is to foster a better understanding of how these tools will work, and why they are being built with these capabilities.”
Although Erlandson considers himself a lifelong learner, his academic credentials speak for themselves. His undergraduate degree was in multimedia arts and sciences from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and his master’s degree is in new media production from Emerson College.
He has worked with the Boston Medical Center to develop digital tools to help nursing professionals; as an instructional designer for the Adventure of the American Mind program funded by a grant from the Library of Congress; was an adjunct faculty member in the Mass Communications Department at UNC-Asheville, where he taught broadcast journalism and basic video production; and was a professor at California State University, Monterey Bay.
The VESIC Institute also plans to start a winter reading group co-hosted with Diana’s Bookstore in January and paid, half-day workshops and will offer classes in nearby Ashe, Alleghany, Wilkes, Yadkin, Iredell and Forsyth counties.
“We hope to record the classes in audio or video,” Ben said. “We can then share them online. The classes are more of a discussion than a teaching time. I like the idea of starting with the Elkin Library — that’s where I used to hang out as a teenager, so I feel a personal allegiance to them. We will also work with the Appalachian Regional Library to get really good coverage.”
Erlandson has definite goals for the organization. The first phase, which will be up to the first year, will be focused on public awareness and fundraiser; phase two will be to purchase a mobile design lab that can travel through the five-county region; phase three, which he hopes to complete between three-to-five years, is to establish a permanent downtown Elkin hub which would feature an interactive center, complete with flexible working space.
“We want to work with the school system to establish relationships with students and their parents, although the program will not be designed specifically for schools,” Ben said. “We also want to visit senior centers and community centers. At VESIC, we do not intend to have software deal with human problems. The intent is to help humans deal with human problems. We can help humans by putting tools in their hands, and building these tools so that the tools themselves help the humans understand how to use them.”
Software can be designed that would have some level of artificial intelligence appropriate for the relationship that is fostered between people, machines, information and the environments within which those three things interact, Erlandson said.
“This is a big drive for me, personally,” Erlandson said. “There is so much that drives me to to achieve these goals — I have been a lot of different places in the world that has affected the way I see the problems that face us as a species. We have a long way to go to improve the way we behave as a planet — we’re not doing a good job of it, now.”
For more information, contact Erlandson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sherry Beason-Schmitt may be reached at 336-258-4059 or on Twitter @SBeasonSchmitt.