A Northern Michigan University delegation recently traveled to Virginia Commonwealth University's da Vinci Center for Innovation to help inform and inspire the future direction of SISU: The Innovation Institute at NMU. Both entities use a design-thinking framework that emphasizes cross-disciplinary collaboration.
SISU Co-Director Jes Thompson describes design thinking as “an approach to solving problems in which you start with empathy for the end users, then work through brainstorming and prototyping to build a solution that meets their needs. For example, what would improve our students' educational experience? Perhaps it's solving problems related to scheduling, advising, or being better prepared for the workforce. A similar process could be followed for business clients or theater audiences.”
While the da Vinci Center is focused on advancing entrepreneurial and technical innovation, SISU is committed to transformational education through experimental academic programs and services. Thompson said the trip reinforced the strengths of a smaller, collaborative campus such as NMU.
“I left there thinking, ‘Wow! Northern is blessed to have a lot of strengths, including its size,” Thompson added. “Every group we talked to at VCU was siloed, or fragmented from other groups. It was fun to go to a large school that has some exciting, futuristic programs going on, but they're all worried about sustainability and funding, and they're competing against each other for students. At NMU, we could work together more easily so that we're adding value across the whole institution instead of just one program.
“We made an action plan for ourselves as we were leaving, on what we can do to help heal the trust and transparency issues on our campus so people feel heard and see that their ideas contribute to action. We are transparent in our communication, but we also want to offer opportunities for staff, faculty and students to do more design thinking and collaborative visioning together.”
The NMU team attended the grand opening of a student-run Shift Retail Lab, a retail space developed and donated by an alumnus where past and present VCU students can showcase their work to gain insights and test their ideas for products and services with real-world customers. Thompson said it is somewhat similar to Invent@NMU, where student employees guided by professionals offer entrepreneurial support services for those with product ideas.
Other stops included the VCUarts Center for the Creative Economy, where Thompson said artists are learning business skills so they can make a living off their talent; and the 1717 Innovation Center, supported by Capital One, a collaborative workspace were multidisciplinary experts, organizations and entrepreneurs discover new ways to achieve their individual and collective missions.
“The 1717 is basically an idea factory, and students get to work with the people there,” Thompson said. “They also have a big mentor network, and I thought that might be a good idea to steal. Wouldn't it be neat if we had that kind of mentor network for academic innovation and organizational change here? They offer many certificate programs that are delivered in a way that's adaptable to any kind of learner. We could build and scaffold across the credentials we offer and help reach learners outside of NMU. It was a joy to be with people who see all the potential and opportunity for NMU.”
Before the pandemic, VCU's da Vinci Center Executive Director Garret Westlake and other representatives visited NMU twice in 2019. The purpose of the first trip was to host workshops on how design thinking and entrepreneurship might help Northern overcome projected enrollment challenges, and to meet with academic departments seeking to transform programs. The second visit included an ExperienceChange guided workshop for nearly 50 campus leaders, in which a computer-based simulation of an actual business' planned major changes showed the implications of decision-making along the way on an organization's employees and outcomes.
Two NMU groups have visited VCU. Members of the most recent one earlier this month, in addition to Thompson, were: Interim President Kerri Schuiling; Interim Provost Dale Kapla; SISU Co-Director Bill Digneit; College of Business Dean Carol Johnson; Jeff Korpi, director of partnerships and events; David Nyberg, executive director of business engagement and economic development; Sarah O'Neill, SISU marketing coordinator; and Stephanie Zadroga-Langlois, director of continuing education and workforce development.
“For SISU, it really helped us frame what we want to do once we get through the [Program Incentive Fund] PIF competition. It reinforced the idea that we need to be the collaborative glue to facilitate the design-thinking approach and that relationship building is just as important, if not more so, than outcomes that come from some of these initiatives. It's neat that the team and executive leadership agree that helping to lift each other up is important. SISU can facilitate that without erecting silos.”
The SISU Program Incentive Fund competition deadline is Dec. 1. The PIF was created to invest in innovative programs, program enhancement, and retention initiatives that embody NMU's core values and current strategic focus areas. Previous PIF awards provided funds to more than a dozen departments to implement new and innovative programs and projects to enhance retention and increase enrollment at NMU. Learn more here.