Innovators Before Innovation:
A close look at the DMBA's Innovation Studio Class
Is innovation a teachable skill? California College of the Arts' MBA in Design Strategy program certainly thinks so. Innovation Studio, one of the program's four foundational first-semester courses, exposes students to the skills, tools and mindsets required for design-led innovation.
Throughout the semester, students work together in teams on an immersive team project geared toward tackling a real 21st century challenge. Students must put their learning into practice - observing and questioning using empathy, thinking and communicating visually, prototyping and experimenting rapidly, and sharing ideas through compelling storytelling - all crucial skills of a design-led innovator. Equally important, the students learn to embrace the everyday leadership behaviors associated with successful innovation - the ability to create a compelling vision, navigate inevitably ambiguity and conflict, learn from failure and setbacks and build conditions of trust and high performance within their teams
2013's innovation challenge asked students to re-imagine the future of city services. Galvanized by pressing issues facing urban centers such as Detroit, students embarked into the streets of their own city to practice design-based research techniques such as interviewing, ethnographic observation, and persona and journey mapping to discover, prototype, and test innovative ideas to meet city dwellers' unmet needs. As professor Lisa Kay Solomon explained, their goal was not to "fix" cities, but to think expansively about how cities could develop new products and services to support sustainable, thriving communities. Essentially, what are the unmet needs of citizens living and working in cities?
On December 12, 2013 DMBA students presented their final projects to a panel of local innovation leaders across private, social impact and government sectors at the TechShop Annex in San Francisco, another hub of innovation activity. TechShop hosts Matt Shutte and Jarod Holtz were joined by Jeff Kirshner, David Viotti, change agents Kiran Jane, and Jamie Gardner, and Kristi Templitz, Charolotte Cooper, and Todd Grantham.
Addressing a wide array of challenges, each of the six teams solutions shared common characteristics of design-led innovation: they were future-oriented, discovery-driven, focused on user needs, grounded in market and trend research, refined through user testing, and told using core tenets of storytelling. Their proposals for city innovations include:
• PayPort relieves the classic commuter headache of long waits and lost tickets by providing commuters a universal, streamlined payment method for rides aboard trains, buses, and city bikes. How might what is often the most stressful time of day for commuters become the most relaxing? By scanning a wristband, swiping a card, or flashing a cell phone, commuters can move across the city with ease, and transportation agencies can monitor patterns of transit, promoting increased awareness and accountability.
• Doggle addresses the hidden gap between people who love dogs but are unable to own them for a variety of reasons. Doggle connects over-worked humans in need of energizing breaks with shelter dogs in need of play, attention, and adoption. This mobile app-based dog-delivery service offers a new model for collaborative "dogsumption", providing emotional and health benefits to busy humans and their best friends.
• Reconnect SF focuses on the pending danger of cities whose citizens are over-connected and out of touch with the physical and emotional world around them. A city-wide movement, ReconnectSF promotes healthy, selective disconnection from over-abundant technology through services such as mobile-device check-in stations in public places and key partnerships with transportation and entertainment authorities. Reconnect SF believes that creating time and space for authentic connection promotes empathy and safety among members of an urban community.
• The Wishing Tree transforms public spaces into hubs of community impact when the branches of special wooden wishing trees are populated by hand-written wishes in plazas and public parks. Wishes are mapped onto virtual infrastructures, helping turn city residents' real needs into wishes-come-true. A smaller, portable Wishing Kit makes the power of wishing possible anywhere (available for purchase on Kickstarter soon!).
• SquareFoot believes that people deserve an easier time finding a place to live. This site transforms the maddening apartment hunt into a human-centered process benefitting renters and landlords through an online marketplace and user generated profiles. Neighborhood, building, and landlord statistics accompany a secure portal for application and document exchange.
• Urban Barn supplies urban food deserts with customized vending machines providing accessible healthy, take-home snacks and cook-at-home meals at affordable prices and redeemable food stamps. Combating the dearth of healthy whole foods in some American cities (even within the regions that grow them), Urban Barn machines in neighborhood corner stores will act as dispenser of whole foods, cooking tips, and nutrition information.
Teams received enthusiastic feedback and constructive suggestions from the guest judges - advice they will carry forward into their prototypes should they continue on as teams into the program's capstone Venture Studio class next spring. Having journeyed through the stages of design thinking and rapid prototyping to test and pitch their final ideas, students emerged with a toolkit of mindsets, practices, skills to use as emerging designers in observing the world them and searching constantly for the "real need."
The TechShop audience joined the students in cheers and roaring applause, with the understanding that this was not an end for these teams and ideas, but just a beginning. Upon reflection of the semester experience, one DMBA student captured it best, "Now that I understand what innovation is about, it's not just my job to do this work, it's my responsibility."
(Picture caption: Innovation Studio guests enthusiastically joined the student learning process at TechShop)
CCA's MBA in Design Strategy (DMBA) is a new business school focused on blending creative discovery and problem solving skills with the fundamental analytic elements of a graduate business degree (http://www.cca.edu/academics/graduate/design-mba). Since it began six years ago, the program has doubled its student population and has been recognized as a leader in its field pioneering design-led business education.