PALO ALTO, California—The skylit atrium that serves as the centerpiece of Stanford University’s d.school spans two of the campus’s stately old red-tile-roofed, Spanish Revival-style academic buildings.
It’s a metaphor for the way the center, spun off by the School of Engineering, bridges other parts of the university to teach something that was once believed innate: how to think like an innovator.
“Innovation is not an event. It’s not a magic moment that happens,” says Susie Wise, one of the center’s faculty. “It’s a process.”
Handing people predetermined problems and requiring them to innovate solutions may be a longstanding basis of engineering education, Wise says. But this new approach to innovation starts with finding the problem.
The interdisciplinary d.school, started with $35 million from SAP cofounder Hasso Plattner, seeks to create not innovations, but innovators, using a discipline called design thinking.
“However long engineering has been around, it’s always been about the problem set,” Wise says. “Historically, in engineering, the problem is predefined. The professor gives you the problem and you work it through and there’s a right answer.”
In design thinking, she says, “It’s not necessarily about the problem. We think that coming up with a problem that you really want to work on is what matters most. Finding the solution has to come later in the process, after you’ve been in the world and really gotten both inspired and engaged.”
That’s why visitors to the d.school are immediately seated at small tables, paired up, and instructed to probe each other’s memories, thoughts, and ideas. They’re told to empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test prospective innovations, in that order and in those words (which also hang on the wall near the entrance as if written on a napkin; “Being here in Silicon Valley, you can’t be legitimate unless you have something written on a napkin,” Wise says).
Faculty hover and a stopwatch projected on the wall ticks down to the accompaniment of jazz fusion. Then a cart of bric-a-brac is rolled out—clips, string, ribbon, foil, wire, scissors, popsicle sticks—for the guests to fashion prototypes in three dimensions that represent their ideas.
The setting is meant to encourage creativity, with bright pastel colors on walls papered with Post-It notes, omnipresent white boards, and placards with high-energy, Nike-like slogans such as, “The Only Way to Do It is to Do It.” Other than large-screen Macs, there is little evident technology.
“It’s about the process, and you can do it anywhere with almost nothing,” Wise says.
More commonly, students will leave the building and look for problems to solve outside, like the students looking for ways to build a cheaper infant incubator who found that the glaring need was for a sleeping-bag-style baby warmer that could be used by mothers in remote regions, away from hospitals. Teams of students sent to India to help work on water-quality issues instead found that the kerosene lanterns used in rural areas were making people sick, so they developed cheap, solar-powered lanterns.
“The whole purpose of design thinking is actually design doing,” Wise says. “It’s being in the world, using deep ethnographic observation methods to really understand human situations as a starting point for what you should really be working on.”
Some 1,000 Stanford students now come to the d.school. “This is one of the places where this kind of thing is happening, and students are craving it,” Wise says. “And they’re not getting it elsewhere.”
One reason, she says, is that, “People really are recognizing some of the gaps they’ve experienced in their educations. Higher education is about your analytic side, and design thinking is about knowing that you have a way to tap into some other things that are intensely human.”
Meanwhile, Wise says, “‘innovation’ is every other word out of every other publication. So there is a sort of cultural pressure. You have the constant drumbeat of the creativity crisis and a sense that this is a moment, and a kind of paranoia of, ‘Can I do this?’ I think it also speaks to the optimism that you feel in Silicon Valley. People are wanting not only to make money, but to solve deep social concerns.”
The d.school, says Karin Forssell, director of learning, design, and technology, “really captures the Silicon Valley essence.”
So new is this process that the d.school is a prototype itself. Not just students, but outsiders are invited in, too. “Our Stanford students are incredibly important to us, but in terms of the larger design-thinking movement, working with large corporations is important learning for us, and it also gives us some more rapid cycles with some different kinds of users,” Wise says.
“At this point for us it’s about seeing our impact.”
Photo courtesy of Stanford d.school