Connecting Innovation and Creativity in teaching and learning: Design thinking goes to University.

One of the questions I ask designers in my field research is “how did you learn to solve problems”? I get all sorts of answers, but after more than a few jokes about the boot camp that is design school and the battle field of client work, most of the designers I interview talk about learning by doing – learning design thinking by doing design thinking.

If we accept that creativity and innovation are basic to both social and economic growth in our world (and it sure seems like we have), then we must take a closer look at how we are incorporating these skills into our classrooms through the learning opportunities we present to students. Design thinking is something you must learn by doing: the designers I interview and observe as part of the Doing Design Thinking study have certainly taught me that. And design thinking represents an essential skill set for the future. So how can I integrate design thinking practices in my work as an educator at the University of Calgary – what does this do to my understanding of what and how I teach at a post-secondary level, in a non-design area?

After all, being part of an academic community is all about learning to explore, to research and to connect ideas to the future – sounds a lot like design thinking in action no? There are a lot of fascinating ways that the problem solving practices of designers are being incorporated into K-12 education, into post-secondary curriculum redesign and into other creative arts disciplines but there is less work out there linking design thinking methods, and learning strategies within the post-secondary education classroom.

So what would this look like? How would we integrate ‘connective creativity’ – something the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (a US based coalition of educators, business leaders and policy makers) call “a core 21st century skill” – into the learning environment? As Tim Brown (link) and Jocelyn Wyatt (link) explain:

“Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional”. (Brown and Wyatt, 2010, p.12).

Nurturing this ability to connect the emotional and the functional meanings of ideas in the post-secondary learning space relies on our willingness to embrace problem or project based learning – what many are calling inquiry based learning methods. I can’t tell you how hard I nerd out to the academic literature on inquiry based learning – it is more than a little embarrassing.

But back to the point: to see how students learn, we must plant the flag of traditional models of design thinking practices in what we like to think are non-creative territories. We need to apply the methods designers embrace in their practice outside the studio space, in STEM labs and lecture theatres and tutorial classrooms. Using design thinking models as the foundation of our pedagogical approach can do more than just help us solve a predefined problem (which can be fascinating), they can help us grow and nurture our student’s creative thinking abilities – they can help us foster and enable innovation in the classroom by showing us how students learn to think critically, collaboratively, in a manner that increases interdisciplinary and integrating problem solving methods.

What I see designers doing in the studio can both define what we teach and how we teach.

And by integrating this model of complex problem solving into the classroom, we not only help students prepare for a career that relies on being able to connect ideas through creativity (see this excellent article by Rotherham & Willingham, 2010) but we open doors for students to improve their critical thinking skills, and their own ‘connective creativity’ processes. There are so many projects out there that are touching on this – one of the ones I’m really excited about his happening in the post-secondary space and I would love to see how we can integrate formal design thinking models and practices in  classrooms and labs as well.

The World Economic Forum tells us that by 2020, one-third of all jobs will require complex problem solving skills like ‘design thinking’. This is in three years. THREE YEARS! This means that students already enrolled in PSE will need these skills well in hand before they graduate if they want to take their place as leaders in the Canada of the future.

We have a lot to do everyone. I’m certainly looking forward to putting some of the findings from this @SSHRC_CRSH study into play in the University classroom and seeing just what the impact of integrating design thinking within learning in my field might be.


Connecting Creativity and Innovation – researching our #cdninnovation future

Innovation. We’re hearing this word a lot these days – in our federal budget, our businesses and especially in our research work.

The use of design thinking as a method to generate innovation in spaces outside the design studio is something that I believe we should all celebrate. If, as the meme-verse tells us, creativity is intelligence having fun, then design thinking seems to be traditional innovation strategies at a rave. Design thinking and innovation. Together, the terms ring with power and potential. Their pervasive use in the business literature and in our collective hive-twitter-mind suggests the melding of strategic, creative and analytical approaches to understanding some of the most complicated and important problems of today.

But all is not as it appears to be: generating innovation through design thinking is not just sticky tabs and prototyping. Using ‘design thinking’ to solve the problems of the future cannot be solely the application of magical fairy dust  – it is a social practice informed by a culture and a community that is shared, evolved and adapted every day by designers across Canada. It is connecting creativity and innovation in action.

Our new federal budget has created an opportunity for developing an actionable and evidence based innovation strategy that integrates what I see designers doing in the studio everyday into programs and services across our country. It is so exciting to see the discussion about design thinking and innovation move beyond the myth of creative magic, and into our larger narrative about what it means to be Canadian.

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I’m excited to see the ways in which the Canadian government is focusing our attention on the critical role innovation plays in the issues facing Canadians today. I’ve been lucky to be part of round table discussions held by Startup Canada, SSHRC & CRSH and Google where they asked participants from across Canada “How do YOU define a creative and entrepreneurial Canada?” You can download the full report about the initiative here (it really is worth the read!).

Hearing from Canadians involved in creative, startup, venture and not for profit communities at those round table discussions about what they see to be the most important conditions required for building an innovative and #creativeCanada was fascinating. The type of problem solving work that I see happening in the design studio as designers tackle wicked and complex social problems is something that I think should be reflected in the research mandate of any great University.

This study is helping me learn more about how designers work – how they connect innovation and creativity on a daily basis – and I’m excited share that with researchers from across my own academic home and from across Canada at SSHRC Congress this May. After all, creativity and innovation are key calls to action in the our research agendas and in our government’s focus on the Canada of tomorrow.

What does it mean to connect innovation and creativity through design thinking?

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 9.22.31 AM.pngI’m so thrilled and honoured to be a part of the SSHRC Storytellers Top 25 Competition this year – I really believe that developing a better understanding of the ways that designers solve complex and critical problems will help us connect creativity and innovation in Canada’s future, and I’m so excited to share the research work I’ve been doing with all of Congress 2017 as part of this event.

My research explores what designers can tell us about problem solving and innovation, and what we can learn from them about applying their creative process to some of the challenges that lie ahead for Canada.

As a country, we’re known for our exciting cultural industries, and our spirit of innovation, but we face challenges in connecting the two. Creativity and innovation are becoming critical terms in how we understand Canada’s future – how we understand our competitiveness, how we look at existing problems and how we spot opportunities for change in our world. Sustained success, regardless of sector – increasingly depends on our ability to innovate: to exploit new ideas and new opportunities. But to do that, we have to somehow connect with creativity and with our creative community.
I believe that it is design that connects these two, and that Canada’s entrepreneurial and innovative future depends on how we integrate design thinking into the boardrooms and offices of our high tech industries, our resource community, our policy development, our scientific base and our educational facilities.
We can think of creativity as the generation of new ideas – either new ways of looking at existing problems, or of seeing new opportunities, new ways of thinking. But how do we harness it, how can we connect it with change in our industries or our policy or our markets?
And we can think of innovation as the successful exploitation of new ideas. Innovation is what carries those new ideas through to new products, new services, new solutions for challenges. But how do we move forward into an adjacent possible – how do we make sure we aren’t reinventing the success of the present?
What connects these two is design: research from many different fields really design thinking and the unique ways that designers work as the link between creativity and innovation. Design is the shaping of ideas –it is the force and power of creativity deployed to a specific end. By integrating design thinking as a way of problem solving, we can mobilize the force of creativity toward true innovation.
But here is the thing: we don’t have a very good picture of just what design thinking is – or even how designers do what they do. We have an idea…it’s all white boards and brain storms and magic and “creativity”! Designers have something unique to offer: the way that they work opens doors and introduces new ways of changing the world. And we need to know more about their unique practices: According to the World Economic Forum, by 2020, one-third of all jobs will require complex problem solving skills of this type. But the challenge that we are facing is that we don’t have a full picture of just what the practices of designers are. The terms ‘design thinking’ and ‘creativity’ get thrown around a lot: we know that designers of all kinds have a unique way of solving some of the most difficult and tangled problems out there, but there is a gap in our understanding of just what designers do on an every-day basis.
This is the question I am trying to answer in my research work: What steps do designers take in problem solving activities that allow them to bridge creativity and innovation in such a powerful way? How are they making decisions, how are they solving problems – how are they acting as agents of change? What can we learn from designers about how they work, what they do, and what they know about problem solving that they could teach the rest of us?
To understand how designers solve problems we need to keep asking questions about what it means to design, to be a designer, to do design thinking. We need to ask designers how they learn to do what they do, how they see their creative process, and how they learn to work in new ways.
I think that the people who are best equipped to tell us how to make this crucial connection are the designers themselves. I’ve been interviewing designers from around the world to hear more about how they see the world and what their creative process is in designing products, services and communications. And to get a better understanding of the Canadian context, I’ve been observing designers at work in an international design studio with offices here in Calgary. And here is the part that I think is really important: the designers that I am interviewing are sharing stories about how they no longer make things – now they make experiences, services, they are not designing ‘things’ for today, they are forecasting the future. They are working with a whole new way of thinking. This is what we need to understand if we are going to forge that connection between entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity in Canada’s future – because once we have a clear understanding of how designers work, how they bring creativity and ‘design thinking’ to problem solving, and how they use new and creative practices to forecast that future, I know that we’ll be able to harness the power of creativity and the unique practices of designers to build a more innovative Canada.
#SSHRCStorytellers Top 25, here I come! Can’t wait to hear more about the exciting and important research being done by other finalists from across Canada! #PHDChat #cdnpse #creativecanada #cdninnovation