Re-thinking research

Professor Kees Dorst, photo by Joanne Saad

Professor Kees Dorst, photo by Joanne Saad

In summary: 
  • By adapting a concept originated in North American universities called design thinking, UTS research staff are changing the way we approach teaching and learning
  • The solution-driven method unites cross-disciplinary students, academics and professionals, allowing them to work together to uncover new solutions to real-world problems

A concept known as design thinking has the potential to change the face of teaching and research at UTS. Already, the concept, which is gaining traction in a number of faculties, is being used by students to uncover new solutions to real-world problems.

Made famous in institutions such as the Stanford University and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, design thinking is a creative and human-centred approach to problem solving. It calls on people from diverse professional backgrounds to apply their expertise in an innovative way to tackle real-world issues.

“The principles around design thinking are that it’s grounded in real-world problems and based on the premise that these problems can’t be solved by one perspective or by a single disciplinary approach,” says Dr Julie Jupp,  Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building’s (DAB) School of the Built Environment.

“Essentially it’s an approach to problem solving. Design thinking has been formalised at the Stanford into a method, or really a tool belt – it’s a process students, industry and researchers alike can follow that leads toward innovation, creativity and entrepreneurial activity.

“Design thinking aims to provide solutions that are human-centred; design that’s integrated, that’s interdisciplinary and biased towards action.”

Jupp is one of five UTS academics who recently returned from a sojourn at the, one of the world’s most celebrated design-thinking institutes and famed for its unconventional approach.

She and colleagues Dr Nathan Kirchner and Dr Wayne Brookes from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, Dr Jochen Schweitzer from the UTS Business School, and Dr Joanne Jakovich from the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, spent between three and 10 weeks each in the United States attending classes and starting to brainstorm on how design thinking might be applied to UTS teaching and research programs.

They encountered a range of innovative approaches. Business, science, design, humanities, medicine, law and education students came together to take classes like Creative Gym – where experiential activities focus on movement and physical activity to connect mind and body – or Design for Sustainable Abundance – where students tackle a range of sustainability problems in areas like food and transport. Many of the classes are taught by industry figures, or have an obvious industry bent in the way they are constructed.

“From a research perspective – in terms of engaging with industry and enabling research to be use-inspired and more industry relevant, and having research partners who are actively collaborating with academics and students on research projects – design thinking holds some great practices and good principles,” says Jupp.

The idea to bring design thinking to UTS evolved in parallel in both DAB and the UTS Business School.

Professor Kees Dorst, Associate Dean (Research) at DAB and an international leader in design innovation, believes an obvious gap exists in applying design thinking to academic research. “What I’m trying to do is develop a design-thinking identity around UTS.

"With the research talent across these faculties, we can take the lessons we’ve learned from the Stanford and use them to develop the next generation of design thinking – integrating innovative teaching and learning practices, solid research and an exciting new kind of industry engagement."

Design-thinking activities already exist in pockets around UTS. A research project currently being conducted by the Designing Out Crime Research Centre aims to rejuvenate the neighbourhoods and community spaces of Mount Druitt.

In this project, designers and social workers will come together to examine a range of physical, environmental, social and community issues, such as public transport and public safety, within a design framework. They’ll examine these issues both in the context of their own expertise and in the context of the group’s collective expertise.

“This project is an inspiring Australian example of design thinking in action,” says Jupp.

“The researchers are gathering information, understanding the problem, looking at the different user perspectives, and trying to understand and engage with the user using ethnographic methods to place themselves in the user’s context, in the user’s environment.”

The aim is to transform these pockets of design thinking into a university-wide model so the concept can reach, and benefit, a range of faculties and research areas.

Dean of the UTS Business School Professor Roy Green says design thinking encompasses the graduate attributes he’d like to create in his students. He also sees the school’s research direction taking the same path.

“Businesses are running out of their old paradigm – they need new ways to engage with the world.

“Design thinking, in a business context, is essentially about looking at different ways of running businesses, of developing new products and processes, of running organisations, of visualising what markets will look like in five or 10 years, and enabling customers to visualise companies and their products in a different way.”

Dorst says, “It’s good to influence the staff and make them aware of the design-thinking paradigm and have that embodied in different ways in different faculties, and see whether it grows or not in those faculties.”

Just how design thinking might find a home for itself at UTS is still in discussion.

“We’re at the point of getting things together and trying to create enthusiasm and a critical mass for things to start happening,” says Dorst.

“I think we do need to develop a facility, but whether that’s a hub-type lab or a style of lab is still up for debate. There are many different types of labs around the world now and none of them are quite right for us.

“UTS is home to one of the biggest design schools in the world. And being an ambitious place, and a dynamic place, we need to build something that will exploit those qualities and be responsive to them – a facility that is really unique to UTS.”

Photographer: Joanne Saad