Teaming up for Innovation & Design Club’s first-ever innovation challenge

I had no idea what to expect when I signed up as a “free agent” for the Innovation and Design Club’s first ever design competition —the University of Chicago Innovation Challenge. Who was my team going to be? What were we going to be doing? The kickoff included free Chipotle and was hosted at the beautiful (and free, we learned) Chicago Cultural Center, which was to be our client organization. I met my team: an undergrad Econ major, a policy student, and another Boothie. Each of us had varying levels of knowledge about human-centered design ranging from “I have no idea what this is!” to “Design? I went to a design high school.”

The Cultural Center’s representative shared a short presentation with us before posing the challenge: “How might we get people excited to explore the Chicago Cultural Center beyond the 1st floor?”

This would be the question my team and I would spend the next 3 weeks trying to answer. This was followed by an insightful lecture from Professor Lindsey Lyman giving us the tools we needed to begin interviewing stakeholders.

Less than a week later I found myself back at the Cultural Center with one of my teammates, notepad in hand. Do you know how nerve-wracking it is to approach a complete stranger and bother them with interview questions?

After wandering around the building several times, we faced our fears and just did it. We approached a non-threatening, seeming elderly woman who was so excited to be interviewed that she called her whole extended family, who was visiting from out of town, to come talk to us. We learned that talking to strangers can actually be fun for everyone, and we found some unique insights in the process! Several interviews later, we left to record our findings.

Our next meeting was at the Polsky Center. We sat with our teams, organized around massive black poster boards and piles of bright post-it notes. Professor Lyman was back, this time with a presentation on how to turn our interviews into insights and then translate these insights into ideas we could use to solve (part of) the Cultural Center’s challenge. Using her process, we spent the morning filling out (so many) post-its. I was surprised by how productive we were! By lunch time we’d shared what we learned from our interviews, agreed on which persona, specifically, we wanted to solve for and had already brainstormed several ways in which we could help. After lunch we had time to squeeze in a quick tour of Polsky’s Fab Lab.

Each team had been paired with a design coach—a professional designer who would help us navigate this challenge. Our team’s coach, Matt, is a designer at DoTank in River North. After a quick tour of their brand new office, we explained the progress we’d made and the solutions we were considering. Matt asked several pointed questions to help us narrow down our ideas until we had the one we all agreed was the most promising. He introduced us to the business model canvas, which is basically a template to use to think through everything we’d need to make our crazy idea business viable. With that, we divided up to make our presentation and prepare for the finals.

The finals event was hosted at the Polsky Exchange (a 34,000-square-foot startup hub in Hyde Park where the Fab Lab is also located) with an impressive line up of judges to evaluate our presentations: a Director of Design at the City of Chicago, a Director of Visitor Experience at Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, an Executive Director of Global Initiatives & Strategy at the University of Chicago, a Business Designer at IDEO, and a Senior Design Researcher & Strategist at IA Collaborative.

We knew right away that we had to impress and delight with our presentation! After walking through our solution and taking questions from the judges, our team breathed a sigh of both relief and accomplishment—what an incredible experience it’s been. My team ended up not placing, but we had a great time. After 3 intense weeks we not only felt we’d worked well together, but we’d also bonded as friends and learned a ton about design thinking. I’d call the first ever University of Chicago Innovation Challenge a success and I’m excited to see what’s in store for the second annual!

Innovation & Design Club aims to inspire Booth students to learn and apply design thinking principles to solving tough business challenges. We believe that design thinking is not just a “nice-to-have” skill-set, but a core business skill for thriving in the modern world of work. We offer learning, career development, and networking opportunities for students across all concentrations and industries.

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