It’ll be: ‘Let’s try something, let’s iterate with it, let’s get some feedback
and let’s adjust again.’”
Design thinkers often speak of “human-centered design” and “social
innovation,” concepts that flow from DT’s assertion that no single person
has the answer to a complex problem. Instead, it focuses on collective
goals and places a premium on sustainability, community, culture and the
empowerment of people, says Greg Van Alstyne, director of research and
co-founder of the Strategic Innovation Lab, or sLab, at OCAD University.
“It means you go about your problem-solving in a more holistic way. We
can say ‘human-centered,’ but it’s actually ‘life-centered,’” Mr. Van Alstyne
explains. “Our brand of design thinking is amenable to working within
social systems and improving the lot of communities.”
The DT approach played an essential role in one of sLab’s largest
projects, Economic Futures for Ontario 2032. Working with the provin-
cial government, the lab sought to envision the future of the provincial
economy from a number of different perspectives while factoring in the
impact of diverse variables, such as the environment, technology and
supra-national forces. The community was put “in the driver’s seat” of
the project, says Mr. Van Alstyne. The sLab researchers consulted with
groups of up to 100 people from the Ontario Public Service, engaging
them in co-creation, giving them a voice and allowing them to contribute
to the outcome. Co-creation refers to “designers and people not trained
in design working together in the design development process,” Mr. Van
Organizers at sLab gathered insights and ideas through “a series of
tightly structured and highly creative foresight workshops for which we
recruited ministry officials, policy professionals, senior leaders and ‘
leaders of tomorrow,’” says Mr. Van Alstyne. Participants, working in groups
of 10 to 14 people, authored a “kernel” story depicting how Ontarians may
be living and working two decades from now. These stories were then
“textured” and built upon through additional workshops. “So, co-creation
in this case indicates participatory data gathering, joint authorship and
iterative, joint editorship,” he says.
The resulting 200-page report detailed four vivid and detailed stories
on a 20-year timeline. “It’s a bottom-up view of what lived life might be like,”
says Mr. Van Alstyne. While the report is important, he maintains that the
process itself was actually the key to the whole exercise. By inviting members of the public service to participate in the exercise and share their
perspectives on the future, Mr. Van Alstyne suggests the results had much
more impact. “It builds a shared vision, which then can, demonstrably,
lead to co-ownership of the outcomes,” he says, noting that emphasis was
placed on marginalized cultures and economic opportunities for those
who haven’t traditionally had them.
Design thinking is also transforming university campuses in a tangible way. One example is at the University of Calgary’s Taylor Institute for
Teaching and Learning, which is undergoing a $40-million renovation.
“The whole space is designed to help students connect, communicate, col-
laborate and create knowledge,” says Lynn Taylor, vice-provost, teaching
and learning. “Traditional learning was focused on the facts and concepts
and procedures of a discipline, and we’re moving toward the goal of having
students think far more deeply about their learning.”
To create this new space within a two-floor, 4,000-square-metre
building that formerly served as an art museum, the university turned
to Diamond Schmitt Architects, who have designed similar spaces at a
number of other Canadian campuses. The new space, scheduled to open
in February, prioritizes flexibility, with movable walls and collapsible fur-
niture, and the seamless integration of technology.
Lead architect Don Schmitt observes that in a traditional campus
building, which usually contains a long corridor and individual classrooms, conversation tends to gravitate to the only true public space: the
hallway. “There’s a sense that more learning probably happens outside
the classroom or between the classrooms, than happens inside the classroom,” he says.
Gone is the old-model lecture hall, with fixed podium and chairs.
They’ve been replaced by a much more malleable space, which in a single
day can act as a dance studio, movie theatre, lecture space, or just a big
area for students to get together. “It’s about individual learning happening informally, quiet study, gregarious social activity, group study, group
projects, flexible studio environments, changeable, ‘hack-able’ spaces and
lots of flexibility to use different places in different ways,” Mr. Schmitt
Dr. Taylor says she hopes the design will be emulated in other build-
ings. “We understand learning so much differently than we used to. And if
we really lead from learning in our design processes, our spaces will look
different,” she says. “Design thinking is a team sport.”
Proponents of DT posit that, with its emphasis on teamwork and its
problem-based approach, design thinking is particularly well-suited to
solving “wicked problems” – those big, ill-defined, complex, multi-faceted
issues that don’t have a clear solution. U of T’s Dr. Norman points to climate
change as an example. “There’s no climate change discipline,” he says.
“We need everyone from scientists to citizens to politicians. And within
universities, you have geography and sociology and biology – you name
it – there’s somebody who can play a role.”
Business, too, has a role to play in addressing these large-scale problems.
Back at Google X, Dr. Wightman and his colleagues seek to solve some of
the most pressing needs on Earth – it’s not just jetpacks and hover boards
for fun or prosperity. Project Loon, the attempt to send Internet-enabling
hot-air balloons into the stratosphere, for one, is being developed with
the intention of increasing the quality of life around the globe, says Dr.
Wightman, the project’s lead engineer. He cites evidence that higher rates
of Internet connectivity are directly linked to a rise in GDP.
It’s this human-centred, problem-based approach to business that Dr.
Wightman seeks to bring to his executive MBA seminar at Queen’s. “It’s
incredibly empowering for people who are looking to lead change [to] tell
them: ‘Try this and blame me if it doesn’t work.’ When you remove the
blockers that prevent experimentation, it’s incredible what people can do.”