How It’s Done: Solving Real-World Problems Using Design Thinking and Innovation

 Classmates doing assignment together in the computer room
(Image credit: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia)

Changing the world is a lofty goal for any enterprise, but the team at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) Digital Transformation Hub in San Luis Obispo, California, is making that a reality as students work locally and with other innovation hubs around the world on real-world problems.

The Cal Poly Hub was created to help education and the public sector develop a more innovative culture to solve challenges in new ways using proven, customer-driven methods familiar to business. The Hub’s director, Paul Jurasin, says that one of their goals was to determine how student engagement in real-world problem-solving would add value in an educational environment plus provide experiences to help organizations tackle human challenges around the world.

Tasked with improving the campus IT infrastructure four years ago, Jurasin began looking for a partner to improve campus technology and connect them to the cloud. They chose Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

Administrators also wanted to provide students better access to emerging technology. The Cal Poly philosophy is to “learn by doing,” and the partnership with AWS opened up the opportunity to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), educational institutions, and nonprofits around the world who were working on real-world problems. The Hub collaborates with other AWS cloud innovation centers in France, Germany, Canada, Korea, and Australia on shared international challenges.

Developing the Innovation Process 

Jurasin and his team developed a workshop to use with clients as they refined their innovation model in multiple sectors, such as public safety, law enforcement, and healthcare. They began by identifying who needed a problem solved, the technology needed to solve it, and whether there were policy changes that needed to lead to the solution. The teams included students, subject matter experts, technology staff, and a leader.

The innovation team discovered early on that the process was more effective if they focused on the problem first and then brought in the technology. They also learned that the students on the team needed to be there for more than a quarter as projects lasted longer and involved a good deal of training. “Once we have students trained in methodology and process, we want to keep them for a year or more,” says Jurasin. 

The Hub team utilizes a 5-step innovation process based on a proven business model:

  1. Identify: Establish specific customer interest in the innovation process
  2. Engage: Vision is articulated, digital innovation is introduced; the design challenge is framed; agreement to work with the innovation team
  3. Define: Through the innovation workshop itself, customer needs are defined; a new digital offering is defined at a high level; stakeholder alignment and momentum
  4. Prototype: Statement of solution in the customer’s voice; digital offering brought to life with descriptive or digital prototype; value proposition created with order-of-magnitude cost/benefit estimates
  5. Realize Value: Minimum viable product (MVP) launched; scalable architecture designed and deployed; operating model established to support MVP and sustained innovation.

Using Design Thinking

Empathy mapping is actually the first step in design thinking. “When we put together the team for the innovation workshop—we try to bring in people who clearly represent the needs of the customer, or the actual customer, to gain a depth of understanding about the problem the customer is experiencing,” says Jurasin. “Once we understand how the customer is experiencing the problem, then we can innovate a better solution than if the customer were not involved. For example, if we are working with a community on their homeless situation, we would want a current or former homeless person to help us understand the real needs.”

Jurasin’s team uses the AWS empathy mapping process. Elements include:

  • Tasks: What tasks are users trying to complete? What questions do they need answered?
  • Influences: What people, things, or places may influence how the user acts?
  • Overall Goal: What is the users ultimate goal? What are they trying to achieve?
  • Pain Points: What pain points might the user be experiencing that they hope to overcome?
  • Feelings: How is the user feeling about the experience? What really matters to them?

At the conclusion of this process, team members have a clear understanding of their customer—the insights into their needs, wants, attitudes, and behaviors. 

Here is an example of a small project:

Students at Fresno State University were being inundated with communications from various departments of the university and there was a concern that critical communications might be missed. What the team developed was a comprehensive student-centered communication platform that delivers students relevant and high-priority communications on a consistent basis. 

The Mission

The Cal Poly Hub team wants to solve problems across the public sector. They work in open source so that anyone can have access to the solution. They believe that sharing this information will lead to more problems being solved across the world. 

“We would like to do more international challenges with other innovation hubs in order to impact global problems,” says Jurasin. For example, the hub in Paris is working on aging issues. The Cal Poly team may tackle that same issue in Los Angeles or Santa Monica. It might be the same problem but local conditions might mean a different solution.

With this defined innovation process, The Cal Poly Digital Transformation Hub has opportunities to collaborate with local and international partners to make an impact on significant real-world problems.

Annie Galvin Teich has more than 25 years' experience in education writing and publishing. She is an edtech industry expert in content marketing and copywriting. As a regular contributor to Tech & Learning she focuses on the information needs of district decision makers.