IIT Design: What Touring the World Taught Us

In early 2015, after running our Strategy Conference and Design Research Conference for well over a decade, IIT Institute of Design set out on a mission to re-conceive “the design conference” into a more immersive, holistic, and meaningful learning experience. To achieve this, we had to entirely rethink both format and content, eventually arriving at a new model we called our Strategy World Tour.

On the tour, we visited four cities: San Francisco, Hong Kong/Shenzhen, Mumbai, and Detroit. We selected them for their critical mass of emerging behaviors and models that pose the most significant challenges to traditional ways of doing business, providing services, or—especially in the case of Detroit—going about daily life. In each of these cities, the Institute of Design has existing partnerships and research activity.

However, up until the point of the tour, we had not conducted a macro exploration of how disruptive activity—such as the maker movement or cause-driven commerce—is recreating industries, or the cities themselves, outside the context of specific projects or partners.

At the outset, we identified the maker movement, robotics and AI, social innovation, and innovation at scale as emerging drivers of change. We gave ourselves the rather daunting challenge to weave through several seemingly disparate dynamics over four cities and come out with a cohesive story on the other end. Yet, surprisingly we found numerous recurring themes and arrived rather naturally at the new examples that cropped up in each subsequent location.

For instance, our minds were blown by The Marin Country Day School, upending traditional education models by infusing making into school culture. We also took the maker movement lens to Hong Kong and stayed at a hotel that is also a higher ed teaching institution and living lab. They are training a hospitality workforce to support over 60 million tourists in a city occupied by only 7 million residents.

“Our tour was not a series of events, but rather a platform that repositions the role that design can play in the changing world”

— IIT Institute of Design

By the time we landed in Detroit for our examination of social innovation, we were primed to think about how these approaches could provide sufficient, sustainable education for the city’s impoverished. Nothing could better exemplify the power of this kind of approach than the Detroit Achievement Academy, founded three years ago by an ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur. The charter school performs not only better than any other school in the city, but ranks nationwide despite the fact that 60% of its students are homeless, and 100% struggle with poverty. By the end of the tour, we had added immersive learning as fundamental to our exploration.

Throughout the course of the tours, we also visited—oftentimes shockingly smart and complex—change-makers who shared their stories and creations. Our conversations took place in factories, innovation centers, laboratories, and slums. We talked over drinks on a lush garden rooftop in Mumbai, a yacht on the Victoria Harbor of Hong Kong, while riding a bus through the sprawling industry of Shenzhen, walking through the Redwoods outside San Francisco, and examining the soil on a Detroit urban farm.

As designed, our tour was not a series of events, but rather a platform that repositions the role that design can play in the changing world. It is deliberately porous, allowing for many inputs. Everything was documented with filmphotosblogging, diagramming, and social media coverage.

Participants can make this model work for what they need. It’s a novel way to develop curricula and faculty research, which we are already seeing migrate into classes examining open innovation systems and local manufacturing. Our alumni can use it to access fresh inspiration for their work compressed into a short, action-packed adventure, rather than a standard workshop or white paper. Corporate partners can conduct quick studies on factors that will soon impact their industries.

During this conference, our intent is to explore even more deeply some of what our tour experiences suggested. We think we can achieve this by providing a structure that will facilitate connecting drivers of change to application areas like healthcare, education, government and city planning. And we aim to engage all of our participants directly with the content and potential outcomes.

In addition to the conference, we are producing The Strategy World Tour Reader. This is essentially our version of a trend report with an emphasis on musings, speculation, and new frameworks for thinking our way through an increasingly complex world. The final content pieces for The Reader will come from outputs of this conference, providing an opportunity for our larger community of thinkers to join us in codifying new knowledge.

For more information about the tour, or to engage its multimedia platforms, click here.  

Based in Chicago, the author is director of corporate relations, communications, and marketing for the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, in Chicago.

She can be reached via e-mail at ashley@id.iit.edu.