Make it new
Innovation Center aims to stimulate creative thinking.
The University of Portland has taken a leaf out of Stanfords book, becoming the first Oregon college to open an Innovation Center.
It is more than just a room with mobile whiteboards, a foursome of big monitors and comfy furniture. The center attempts to help students learn the way they prefer (collaboratively) and also to learn one of the most valuable skills in the modern American marketplace: innovation.
A part of the Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the newly opened space is a laboratory opened on Oct. 12. Classes can book the room to brainstorm a project, from making a mobile app to delivering a social service for the homeless.
Its a whole new way of learning, of being able to do things as opposed to just hear things, says Peter Rachor, UPs Director for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Franz Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation.
Its a place for brainstorming and collaborating, but also pretotyping.
I first heard the word in Denmark. To pretotype is to take cardboard and foam board and glue and pipe cleaners and stickies and make a rough model before it is prototyped and becomes something fancier.
The furniture is modular, with students encouraged to break away from the main tables and huddle on stools. The white boards take dry erase markers, but they are also festooned with Post-It notes. These sticky paper notes represent untested ideas, or hypotheses. Theyre ideas where we dont know the outcome, we havent talked to people and tested the hypotheses and refined them.
This collaborative, fluid way of thinking, wherein failure is not repressed, has emerged at around the same time as the software industry over the last 25 years.
Iterate, Agitate, Organize
They discover as they build. They iterate, and iteration is not a bad thing. We used to teach that there was one right answer, but every single problem doesnt have one right answer.
For example, he says its not enough that the Tilikum Crossing has to stand up and carry traffic. It has to be culturally sensitive, and part of the citys ecosystem. We didnt used to teach that to engineers, that it had to be desirable, and viable, and fit in the citys grand plan.
The students are learning more than just how to play nicely together.
The bigger part is to empathize: to learn to look at things from other points of view. Thats a big part of design thinking.
Rachor says that learning does not usually teach innovation.
Much learning is preparing you go to work in Nike or Mercy Corps and do something that has been done for many years. Were trying to prepare students to create something that hasnt been done before. That could be anything: a new business, a new sneaker, a new chip or new ways of doing education or social work.
His slogan is Entrepreneurism is about making ideas happen.
Rachor says in the innovation workplace, people have to interact with other disciplines: the bio mechanic with the nurse, the writer with the chemist.
Thats the way theyre going to be working when they leave here.
Tune in, drop in
The Innovation Center also hosts open lab time, when students can hang out and find a person or project that inspires them. They might need a graphic designer, a software developer or a mechanical engineer. The school already has 3D printers and routers for making objects, in the engineering department, but they werent as accessible to non-engineers.
The space was designed by the students with little help from UP staff. It grew out of the University Innovation Fellows, a program which is headquartered at Stanford but is a separate organization. It runs a student-led innovation movement in which 170 schools participate.
He came back (from the d. School, also known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University) and said We need one of those, an innovation lab! Rachor says echoing the students enthusiasm.
Its not just a Pamplin School of Business facility (Robert B. Pamplin also owns the Portland Tribune and the Business Tribune.) It is for all majors and all years. Around a third of the users are business majors, a third engineering and a third everything else.
We tell the students, Go book the Innovation space and go brainstorm. It could be your new motor to generate electricity in a more efficient way, or solve the homelessness issue in Portland, or an approach to doing healthcare for new populations, he says, reeling off examples students have already started working on.
SmithCFI is a local Steelcase dealer that put the lab together. Steelcase is known for its research into how youth learn and adults work. Many colleges and workplaces are adopting their bean bag/cozy couch/library carousel style of work place.
Pop up culture
People say, Well its a room with screens, whats the big deal? But the space and the furniture are very much on the fly. Everything depends on the students approach to the situation.
Speakers are invited in for pop up classes. The students come up with a subject they want to learn something about, such as how to launch a product, how to make a logo. And they find someone to come and leads the class. That could be a student, a professional or a professor.
Rachor used to live and work in Silicon Valley. He has ins with several companies. The Innovation Fellows go to Google for the day.
A place like Google, theyre seeing scores of visits a day. They have a whole department dealing with it, its part of their HR department. The students who are interested are the sort of students they want to hire, regardless of their major.
Students have to make a selfie video explaining their vision. (Given that students make videos to apply for college and for grants, this is a useful skill.) The student who pushed for UPs own Innovation Center now works for NurseGrid, which was started by a UP alum and employs five others.
Give us a T
Different majors are encouraged use the center, from biomedical engineers to political science majors. Political Science majors want to make change. For example in the way homelessness is dealt with. Political science students are good at processes, theyre systems thinkers, but they have a hard time figuring out where to begin and end, because the thing is already running.
Rachor talks about T-shaped students. The (vertical) base of the T is their major, like engineering or finance. The top (horizontal) of the T is how they apply it, such as making an app or addressing homelessness.
So for poli-sci majors, the value is that its less campaign-oriented than it is systemic change-oriented. As students theyre more focused on a problem than a candidate.
Rachor believes that even without the center students would naturally self-organize this way because of the complexity of the world. His father and grandfather were accountants who worked for General Motors, and thats all they did. Rachor studied finance, but is on his twelfth job, three of which were at his own startups. He expects the number of jobs held by his students to far exceed twelve in their lifetime.
They can explore knowledge in many directions. In college my main source of knowledge was a book. But now students are not so bucketed or delineated.
Still, you cant learn everything from a Post-It note and Wikipedia: students will still have to know their basics. They have to know the base of the T before they can cross pollinate their thinking on the horizontal part of the T.
You cant fake civil engineering. Building a bridge takes hardcore engineering, and in nursing, much of it is about how to deliver medication. This is what employers are looking for.