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Microsoft's Imagine Cup 2007

Twenty-something Rebels Show World-class Creativity


Four Taiwanese university students, once told they 'had no future', placed second in a global creativity competition, highlighting what kinds of talent will be in demand in tomorrow's Taiwan.



Twenty-something Rebels Show World-class Creativity

By Hsiao-Wen Wang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 379 )

Early August in Seoul. With rain pouring down, the streets were desolate, only a few scattered tourists taking in the timeless Gyeongbok Palace, with its black roof tiles and red pillars. But for Chang Hao-jan and his gang of four, it was an unforgettable summer.

They became the first Taiwanese students to reach the finals of Microsoft’s Imagine Cup, held in Seoul in early August, and to shine on this international stage.

More than 100,000 students from 173 countries participated in this year’s Imagine Cup, held annually to stimulate the creative potential of young people. With education the theme for the 2007 competition, students were encouraged to “imagine a world where technology enables a better education for all” in nine separate categories, including software design and short film. The event gave students a chance to dream of a better future, while giving Microsoft greater access to campuses and helping it uncover students’ needs and explore possible future technology applications.

Creativity Is ‘In’

At this year’s competition, Taiwan’s “Team Circle” caught many by surprise and gained newfound respect. The team consisted of Chang Hao-jan, a graduate student in applied media arts at National Taiwan University of Arts; Chang Shu-wei, a senior at National Taiwan University of Arts; Lin Di-er, a graduate student in fine arts at National Taiwan Normal University; and Tseng Yen-chi, a student at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology Graduate School of Design. Faced with the task of completing a short film within 36 hours, the four friends beat more than 200 participants from around the world with their production called “EduCASEtion” to win second place in the short film category.

When these four students in their 20s were announced as runners-up, they dashed to the stage in their Chinese tunic suits and satin “qipaos” (a Chinese-style gown), pulling along suitcases marked with “TAIWAN” in big letters, and on the verge of tears yelled in unison, “We won!”

The second place finish was the most captivating expression of their youthful energy, but it also cast light on where Taiwan’s talent pool needs to shine in the future. In the coming years, those in demand will be creative talent.

But for one’s creativity to stand out, you have to be faithful to your cultural roots and understand your own strengths and weaknesses, as Team Circle demonstrated in Seoul.

Chang Hao-jan, Tseng, Lin and Chang Shu-wei’s short film succeeded because it captured the Oriental aesthetic of conveying deep meaning through simple images, thus differentiating itself from the competition.

They decided to express their creativity with an understated presentation. While most entries relied on “loud” Western humor that left the audience in stitches, the Taiwanese students deliberately eschewed humor and opted for refined expression of emotions and plot. Using an anthropomorphized object, they created a “wish suitcase” that enabled people to learn whatever they wanted, and told the story of a girl lacking in self-confidence who, with the help of the suitcase, discovered her own passion and learned to love herself.

“American humor is very ‘in-your-face.’ Our humor doesn’t cross cultures well, so we decided to stress emotion,” said Tseng, who used 3D animation to give the suitcase “facial expressions” conveying curiosity and sympathy.

“The greatest power is ‘soft’ power,” said Chang Hao-jan, the production’s director and a student of the works of Laozi. “What we wanted to stress was a balance between technology and intelligence.”

In their short six-minute film, there were no jokes, and none of the absurd sequences popular in some Chinese-language films today. There was simply a melancholic aura similar to that pervading Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films.

In this competition centered on technology, few people put heart into their works; giving a suitcase such a wide range of meanings was very creative, observed Chris Hess, creative director at graphic design firm Mondo Robot and a judge in the Imagine Cup’s short film category.

Anything but Model Students

The success of the four students was also a reflection of the long-hidden failure of Taiwan’s education system.

In an educational system wholly focused on the pursuit of diplomas, Chang Hao-jan and Tseng were often told by their teachers that they “had no future” because of their respective passions for photography and drawing. And in order to study art, Chang Shu-wei had to stage a noisy household insurrection, defying her father, who works at the Hsinchu Science-Based Industrial Park and hoped she would study medicine.

Happily, the four learned at a young age not to bow to adults’ value judgments, and rejected the “first in your class” ideology so pervasive among Taiwan’s parents.

Tseng, who always has a sketchpad at his side and loved to scribble on blank pages of textbooks, was often criticized by his fine arts teacher for his “vulgar cartoons without substance.” He would then hit back, sometimes with drawings that made fun of the teacher, who would then punish him by having him hold up black garbage bags in each of his raised hands.

“I hate systematic things,” Tseng says with a silly laugh. “In the movie ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’ didn’t Willy Wonka talk about how grown-ups say such-and-such is wrong, but they always strangle creativity?”

Chang Hao-jan was also anything but a model student. He found his calling at an early age behind the camera lens.

More than a decade ago, Chang Hao-jan’s father gave him a Canon AE1 single-lens reflex camera. From that point on, the lens became the third eye through which this second-grader took in the world. He would shoot 10 rolls of film, or more than 300 photos, every week.

Ten years later, Chang Hao-jan, in his trademark bandanna and rubber blue flip-flops, had done the unthinkable and ridden his obsession with the camera lens into the international limelight, bringing glory to Taiwan.

“Whatever you do, never unthinkingly accept mainstream values,” was the first thing he said after receiving his award.

Another group of Taiwanese students from National Taiwan University also were finalists in the Microsoft talent competition, in the software design category, where they demonstrated exceptional computing and technical abilities. But, like many Taiwanese students, they lacked skills in presentation and integration, a reflection of the clear separation of Taiwan’s academic departments in the education system.

Defining the Problem

Ovid Tseng, a former Taiwan education minister and one of the judges in the software design category, explains the problem with an analogy.

“The best presentation is like a musical orchestra performing in harmony on stage. When the conductor points, that’s when the flutist or violinist plays a solo.It’s not about one person performing alone,” Tseng suggests. When Taiwanese students stand on an international stage, they must not only possess the courage to put themselves on display, but also practice working together as a group on their presentation prior to the competition.

One of the big surprises at this year’s Imagine Cup was that the best concepts on how technology could help education did not come from the United States, Europe, or other technologically advanced countries. They generally came from poorer countries. Students from Thailand won the software design category by creating an interactive reading and instruction tool called “Living Book” to teach Thai children English. Taking a Harry Potter novel, if a student uses the cursor to click on the words “Harry Potter,” an image and English sound immediately pop up, along with links to Internet knowledge databanks like Wikipedia. This enables Thai students to learn about a language and foreign cultures in a relaxed and fun environment.

“It was strange that the best concepts came from economically disadvantaged countries, like Thailand and Ukraine. They really concentrated on thinking of ways to improve their lives,” Tseng said. In contrast, “Taiwan’s students, because they’ve grown up in a coddled environment, lack the ability to define problems and help the disadvantaged solve problems,” he suggests.

Next year, Microsoft will hold the Imagine Cup in Paris. When the time comes, maybe Taiwan’s students will show even more creativity and wisdom and bring back a winner’s trophy, leaving behind a wonderful milestone of their youth.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 叛逆七年級 創意勇奪全球第二