Category: education & learning

Education and learning

design thinkingeducation & learninginnovationpublic health

The Tyranny of Text in Creating Innovative Systems

By plindberg via Flickr. Used under creative commons licence

Yesterday I attended another one of the fabulously inspiring Unfinished Business lectures put on by my friends from the Strategic Innovation Lab (sLab) at OCAD by Alexander Osterwalder, Ph.D on business model generation.  The talk focused on the methodology developed and employed by Osterwalder and his colleagues (including 470 members of an open online forum who paid to see the project bought to life!) and how it can be used to illustrate (literally!) the business model for an organization. The methodology, described in the book, which was designed carefully to reflect the visual nature of the approach, centres on using art, sticky notes and conversation to help organize firms’ thoughts about how to design their business.

At its core is something fundamentally juvenile – play, drawing, movement and tactile embodiment of ideas. At the end of the talk my colleague and I were chatting with some others about the way in which methods like this — ones that use visual learning and active, arts-based approaches to creative expression — get disregarded in mainstream. I even overheard comments made about the book (which was on sale) that somewhat dismissed the reliance on pictures, sketches and a relatively non-conventional layout (for similar examples of this layout look at two books highlighting Bruce Mau’s work and ideas: Massive Change and Life / Style) .

So even among designers and design thinkers this is still an idea that’s hard to grasp. It’s the tyranny of text.

Yet, it seems so intuitive to use the many tools at our disposal to facilitate creativity. Text is good for some things, but lousy for others. It’s like the old saying:

Give someone a hammer and pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail

We’ve given our health professionals tools and learning methods made up of numbers and letters and they’ve consequently treated their subsequent strategies for learning as ones requiring text and numbers to solve. The hammer is given in school, the public and patients are nails are used in the field.

It’s not like this for everyone. Ask a five-year old to share their ideas and they might offer a story, a finger paint picture, create a play, or get their friends to build something with clay. As a thirty-five, forty-five or fifty-five year old to do the same and they’ll likely offer you a typewritten page and PowerPoint presentation (with lots of text). Why? We’ve been so acculturated into a dominant design culture of text that we rarely consider sketchbooks, art tools, or performance as options, let alone good options when we develop ideas. Our education system, cultural bias towards the written word and perhaps an elitist attitude among the learned societies (combined with a mystery around arts-informed methods of learning) all contribute to this constant promotion of written work over other forms.

Knowledge translation, at its heart, is about generating the data needed to address problems, making sense of it, and ensuring that such knowledge is implemented in a manner that solves the problem.

I’ve heard many times that we only use 10 per cent of brain, which is a myth (note: I was thrilled to find that when you look up this “fact” in Google, nearly all of the first two pages of hits are myth-busters, raising my faith that the collective peer-review system is working — something Laura O’Grady kindly commented on with my last post) . But it might be closer to reality to say that we only use 10 per cent of our available creative tools to solve problems in the health sector.

So at your next meeting, maybe bring a sketchbook instead of your laptop and see what you produce.

design thinkingeducation & learningevaluationinnovationresearch

Design Thinking or Design Thinking + Action?


There is a fine line between being genuinely creative, innovative and forward thinking and just being trendy.

The issue is not a trivial one because good ideas can get buried when they become trendy, not because they are no longer any good, but because the original meaning behind the term and its very integrity get warped by the influx of products that poorly adhere to the spirit, meaning and intent of the original concepts. This is no more evident than in the troika of concepts that fit at the centre of this blog: systems thinking, design thinking and knowledge translation. (eHealth seems to have lost some its lustre).

This issue was brought to light in a recent blog post by Tim Brown, CEO of the design and innovation firm IDEO. In the post, Brown responds to another post on the design blog Core77 by Kevin McCullagh that spoke to the need to re-think the concept of design thinking and whether it’s popularity has outstripped its usefulness. It is this popularity which is killing the true discipline of design by unleashing a wave of half-baked applications of design thinking on the world and passing it off as good practice.

There’s something odd going on when business and political leaders flatter design with potentially holding the key to such big and pressing problems, and the design community looks the other way.

McCullagh goes on to add that the term design thinking is growing out of favour with designers themselves:

Today, as business and governments start to take design thinking seriously, many designers and design experts are distancing themselves from the term.While I have often been dubbed a design thinker, and I’ve certainly dedicated my career to winning a more strategic role for design. But I was uncomfortable with the concept of design thinking from the outset. I was not the only member of the design community to have misgivings. The term was poorly defined, its proponents often implied that designers were merely unthinking doers, and it allowed smart talkers with little design talent to claim to represent the industry. Others worried about ‘overstretch’—the gap between design thinkers’ claims, and their knowledge, capabilities and ability to deliver on those promises.

This last point is worth noting and it speaks to the problem of ‘trendiness’. As the concept of design thinking has become commonplace, the rigor in which it was initially applied and the methods used to develop it seem to have been cast aside, or at least politely ignored, in favour of something more trendy so that everyone and anyone can be a design thinker. And whether this is a good thing or not is up for debate.

Tim Brown agrees, but only partially, adding:

I support much of what (McCullagh) has to say. Design thinking has to show impact if it is to be taken seriously. Designing is as much about doing as it is about thinking. Designers have much to learn from others who are more rigorous and analytical in their methodologies.

What I struggle with is the assertion that the economic downturn has taken the wind out of the sails of design thinking. My observation is just the opposite. I see organizations, corporate or otherwise, asking broader, more strategic, more interesting questions of designers than ever before. Whether as designers we are equipped to answer these questions may be another matter.

And here in lies the rub. Design thinking as a method of thinking has taken off, while design thinking methodologies (or rather, their study and evaluation) has languished. Yet, for design thinking to be effective in producing real change (as opposed to just new ways of thinking) its methods need to be either improved, or implemented better and evaluated. In short: design thinking must also include action.

I would surmise that it is up to designers, but also academic researchers to take on this challenge and create opportunities to develop design thinking as a disciplinary focus within applied research faculties. Places like the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business and the Ontario College of Art and Design’s Strategic Innovation Lab are places to start, but so should schools of public health, social work and education. Only when the methods improve and the research behind it will design thinking escape the “trendy” label and endure as a field of sustained innovation.

education & learningresearchsocial mediasocial systemssystems thinking

Knowledge Translation or Just Better Marketing?

How Much Marketing Can We Take?

This week at the CoNEKTR Lunch and Learn at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the focus of discussion was on knowledge translation and the theme I discussed in a previous post. It was a lively discussion and one that emphasized the limits that one hour and many great minds presents for exploring a big topic like KT.

The discussion around the room focused on the challenges of taking what it is we know and transforming it into practice, policy and research innovations that work in the everyday. While the subtext of the presentation was initially focused on systems issues, building on Russell Ackoff‘s phrase about “doing the wrong things righter”, the bulk of the conversation was on whether or not we are dealing with issues that have to do with marketing and simply being better at it.

That is, if health sciences just got better at packaging the materials they produce, delivering them more effectively (or more often) and doing so by understanding the user better, things would get done. One could view this argument as proof positive that as a field, we are so wedded to the idea of shoveling content that we no longer see that this is just doing different versions of the same thing over again. But a closer look suggests that social marketing might provide us with a middle ground between the largely content-driven approach that dominates the literature (which suggests that if we just package the best content better, people will listen to what we say because it is, after all, the best content) and a systems change approach that looks at redesigning the way we interact with knowledge and produce it in the first place.

A finer look at marketing suggests that there is something different from the traditional view. A marketing perspective is less concerned with the quality of the product (i.e., content) and more about process of how to get this content to people and get them to use it. The crassest example of this can be seen in episodes of Mad Men and how they brazenly craft messages around toxic substances like cigarettes to seduce people, fictional representations of the very real world work of the tobacco industry does to reach youth , racial minorities and women alike. But unlike the callous marketers who don’t care about their audience’s health, health professionals very much do. And so do some marketers.

By focusing on the process of getting information to the intended audience, a marketing perspective gets closer to the spirit of what knowledge translation is intended by some definitions. What it fails to do is question or even challenge the underlying structures that create the barriers to knowledge application in the first place. Emphasis on clever, creative means of getting around these barriers is a start, but just a start. The supposition here is that people are simply distracted or busy and that they are not able to attend to the messages around them due to volume. This has some merit. As anyone active in social media use, spent time in front the TV, visited a “free” website, or having visited public places like Times Square (pictured) can attest, the volume of information we get exposed to on a daily basis is enormous. It sounds good, but as any marketer can tell you, today’s effective and innovative strategy is tomorrow’s overused, ignored delivery system. Once widely adopted, a marketing strategy often loses its lustre and something new must replace it, which is why marketing is such a dynamic field.

A systems-oriented approach is also dynamic, but one that aims to transform the structure of the relationships and processes within the system rather than work around the existing ones.

Perhaps the question is less about whether social marketing is knowledge translation, but whether social marketing is enough given the information climate most health professionals and consumers exist.

education & learninginnovationresearchscience & technology

Education for Innovation


Are we creating the type of innovators that suit the digital economy? That respond to any opportunity, not just the ones that we plan for? There’s a lot of thinking out there that suggests we’re not.

I recently read an article on considerations around how to train for innovation in the December 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review. When most people speak of innovation, it seems as if they do with an idea that there are some key steps or tricks to being an innovator and that is about it. But what Gina Colarelli O’Connor, Andrew Corbett, and Ron Pierantozzi argue is that there are three types of innovators that all have three stages that build on each other depending on where they are in their career. This is an important and interesting idea and a shift from the traditional mindset.

The authors state:

Companies must first understand that breakthrough innovation consists of three phases:

Discovery: Creating or identifying high-impact market opportunities.

Incubation: Experimenting with technology and business concepts to design a viable model for a new business.

Acceleration: Developing a business until it can stand on its own.

To address this, they suggest training people to match these distinct stages and phases:

Each phase lends itself to distinct career paths, as well. The bench scientist, for instance, may eventually want to be involved in policy discussions about emerging technologies and how they may influence the company’s future. The incubator may want to pursue a technical path – managing larger, longer-term projects – or to manage a portfolio of emerging businesses. And the accelerating manager may want to stay with the business as it grows, take on a leadership role.
They go on to add:
Rather than develop those paths, however, many firms assume that an individual will be promoted along with a project as it grows from discovery through to acceleration. In reality, individuals with that breadth of skill sets are extremely rare. In other words, companies have essentially been setting their innovators up to fail.
And fail is what we seem to be doing. It’s an intriguing idea and one that begs the question of whether our schools and training programs are doing the right thing by training people to be just “innovators”.
Certainly in the realm of digital technology and using it to adapt to the changing climate and accelerating innovation the view is pessimistic. Some, such as David Johnson, President of the University of Waterloo, believe that we don’t train people in a mindset that allows them innovate. Johnson, told the CBC:

Johnston said the country’s university system must shoulder part of the blame for the lag in Canada’s technological mindset. The schools haven’t done enough to train students to work smarter, he said, which means that few Canadian companies succeed based on innovation. Of Canada’s biggest companies, most are banks, while only BlackBerry maker Research In Motion — also based in Waterloo — has succeeded internationally, mainly because it has focused on innovation.

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Perhaps the problem is that we use the term innovation so loosely that graduates fail to recognize where innovations are or how to move them along. Or, as Colarelli O’Connor and colleagues point out, they are trained for the wrong set of skills for the right kind of innovation stage.

complexitydesign thinkingeducation & learningsocial mediasocial systems

Jaron Lanier and Dominant Design

What happens when the system of innovation that serves us so well provides the very means of hindering creativity and limiting our potential? That is a process that Jaron Lanier calls”Lock in” and it is something that doesn’t get enough attention as we contemplate the systems we’re in. The term “lock-in” refers to what we might associate with path dependence in complexity science. It is the well-worn path that guides us in certain ways, often without us knowing it, and consequently limits the range of possibilities that we have before us.

Designer or technologists might also call this phenomenon ‘dominant design‘ . Regardless of what you call it, the phenomenon is worth looking at intently, which is just what Lanier does in his new  new book. Jaron Lanier is a unique figure in the technology world, filling the role of both pioneer, advocate and intense critic. His work on virtual reality has paved the way for a host of later innovations in ways of marrying the person and their perception with technology that can amplify or mediate this experience in virtual environments. Second Life, Flight Simulator and the very real use of VR to explore case scenarios (such as the one that Loyalist College in Ontario has used to train border guards via Second Life)  for practical purposes owe a lot to his him.

It is for this reason that Lanier’s opinion holds some weight. His recent book is a critical look at how we’ve unwittingly created paths that are leading us to stifle innovation, creativity and expression through tools that invoke a type of non-reflective “hive mind” that rewards the mediocre, the middle, and shaves off the edges, where much creative work really happens. Wikipedia, while useful and generating content that might not otherwise be available, also rewards the view of the majority or those types most likely to edit, re-edit and commit to a topic. In a drive towards providing a version of the truth, albeit an edited one, tools like Wikipedia aim for the middle or the points of agreement as the focus of the articles. This might be fine if there were many Wikipedias out there, but there really isn’t. It has become the dominant form of ‘encyclopedia’ out there.

Think of search and you get: Google. The reason is likely because it provides a great search, but also becomes something you’re accustomed to. Have you considered what other relevant things you are NOT seeing because they don’t fit Google’s search algorithm?

Ever organize your files into something other than a folder or dragging it to your desktop? Probably not very often. The reason is that there is a dominant design out there that pushes us to create spaces with similar features across conditions so we have Macs and PCs use folders, have desktops, employ icons and organize information using hierarchies.

Jaron Lanier is worried that we’re creating a social web where creative opportunities that favour individual expression and innovation are getting squashed at the expense of tools and resources that appeal broadly, but have little depth or breadth for innovation. He’s not an anti-technology luddite here, rather providing a series of arguments for why we need to spend more energy contemplating the systems we create and critically examining their impact. Otherwise, we create knowledge generating tools that do little to help people learn, music programs that limit sound quality, and problem-solving tools that actually create more problems than they solve. It’s an interesting read and, while I don’t agree with all of his arguments, there is much to consider as social media becomes bigger, more connected and an ever-greater part of our life. More on this to come.

education & learningresearchsystems thinking

Education Without Borders

Borders — or the lack of them — are becoming big in the international aid and development world. Just look at the host of organizations seeking to extend the reach of technical and support services globally: Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), Engineers Without Borders, Technology Without Borders, stand as but a few. In education, there are a lot of organizations that lack borders such as Students without Borders, Education without Borders, Librarians without Borders, and Teachers without Borders. All of these have some type of global or international mandate to extend the reach of what they do (teach, study, curate or inform) beyond their own geopolitical border. But what about within those borders or outside of a development context? How well do we do there?

The topic came up in a number of discussions I’ve had with colleagues from the University of British Columbia and Texas Tech University the past few days. At issue was how little universities collaborate between each other or even within their own borders in contexts where there isn’t some ‘exotic’ context such as aid, or international relations. Thus, it seems that Canadian or American universities are more likely to collaborate with institutions across the globe in places like China or India than within North America. For example, In Toronto we have three major universities and all of them include some program on community or public health, yet these programs do not formally collaborate in spite of all being funded from the same government. It doesn’t change when you go outside of the city to consider institutions nearby like the University of Guelph,University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, McMaster or UOiT that all have things to contribute. It is more than a little ironic that “collaborate” is a usable keyword found on each of these institutions websites including the homepage of UoIT!

This isn’t to say that there is no cross-pollination between centres, it is just that such examples largely reflect those partnerships created by individuals, not institutions.

Part of the reasons have to do with a mindset surrounding the borders that we erect in education and science. As I’ve mentioned before, we in the academy rarely reward or truly encourage collaborative learning, because it means dissolving borders between people. How can you tell who did what? In the case of institutional partnerships around education, joint training programs, team science, and academic-supported social innovation the incentives are low when borders matter. It’s hard to take credit when you need to share your success with others. It’s hard to raise the kinds of donor funds when you can’t tell if your institution is the leader or your partner is.

It also matters when you have a disconnect between your vision and mission and common practice. Universities have mission statements that suggest  goals of advancement of knowledge (“velut arbor aevo – As a tree with the passage of time”, University of Toronto), seeking the truth (“Concordia cum vitae” — University of Waterloo or “veritas (truth)”, Harvard University) and contributions to society (“as one who serves” –University of Regina). None of these have anything to do with borders, suggesting that the reluctance to consider going beyond borders is a failure of mission, not just a matter of governance and practice. Indeed, a more detailed read of most university’s mission statements suggests that collaboration should be inherent in their mandate.

How about a true education without borders? Imagine taking classes from the best faculty across universities, while gaining greater access to those in your own institution. Consider the possibilities of what could come from having students at one institution work with those at other institutions to create knowledge or actions that benefit both including the communities they are a part of. What would a cross-university, cross-disciplinary curriculum look like? The possibilities are endless. However, unless we consider the concept of education without borders, we’ll remain with universities with them and that doesn’t seem to fit the mission of what these places are all about.

education & learningresearchscience & technology

Innovation & Education: Solutions?


The last couple of days I’ve been posting on issues of discovery and innovation and its ties to higher education pointing to a lot of the problems associated with the way that the scientific enterprise has been organized. These are complex problems because there is no one solution to them and no single cause. A confluence of policies, practices, assumptions accompanied by a culture that is rather resistant to change (despite being in the business of research, which is all about creating NEW knowledge).

It is one thing to identify the problems, another to articulate their scope and impact, but nearly all of that is moot if there isn’t action for change and some strategies for moving forward (or at least some other direction). So what are some ways in which we can take the current system, work with its strengths, and propose something different that shifts the standards, while doesn’t provoke such pushback that it can’t move forward without an unreasonably high amount of energy?

Any examples out there of examples where universities and research institutions (including funders) have got it right?
I’d love to hear your ideas while I look for some solutions and examples of my own.