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Can design thinking solve Canada's innovation challenges?
Blog

Design thinking:

a new social technology?

Takeaways

  • Design-based concepts have the potential to address — and in some cases, solve — complex socio-economic, business, and environmental problems.
  • Over 80 percent of all product-related waste is determined during product design, making Design for Environment (DfE) one of the most important trends in Canadian design innovation.
  • By emphasizing empathy as a core value, design thinking tools can even help organizations design better hiring processes.

Mitacs recently asked two leading experts to talk about the commercial value of innovative design. Alan Goldman is the Industry Liaison, Research, at Emily Carr University of Art + Design (ECUAD). Kyoko Sutton is Director, Business Development, and creative sector lead at Mitacs, Vancouver.

What is design thinking, or rather, innovation by design?

Alan: Innovation by design is a creative methodology that uses design capabilities to solve complex problems and create value-based products and services for the end user. Designers typically use a range of tools to better understand and address a situation, from systemic reasoning, computational thinking, and logic, to intuition, experience, and imagination. This is fertile ground for human ingenuity and innovation, and especially useful to organizations that thrive on novel ideas.

At Emily Carr University of Art + Design, we support an innovative learning culture by stimulating critical thinking and curiosity. This encourages students to ask questions and brainstorm ideas that challenge conventional notions of design. Our students develop a variety of skills and techniques to prototype, test, and refine possible solutions or engage in further creative inquiry.  

Kyoko: No matter how ambitious or simple an idea, there’s always a way to reinvent it — and that’s the kind of challenge designers love to confront. When you combine design thinking skills with research insight, you get results that are human-centered, marketable, and evidence-based. That’s why design thinking models hold tremendous commercial value in business and entrepreneurship. They train us to observe a situation from multiple angles in order to find a solution that works with and for us.

At the heart of it, design thinking is a celebration of empathy and the human experience.

How has design thinking evolved in Canada and around the world?

Kyoko: In the past 20 years, design thinking models and ideation techniques have grown hugely popular in business and technology, so it’s no surprise that academic institutions are evolving to meet this growing demand. Take Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as Stanford d.school — a design and innovation hub that helps students, researchers, and communities build creative capacity. It was conceived by Stanford University alumnus and design thinking pioneer David Kelley, who also happens to be the founder of global design firm IDEO – widely known for commercializing design-based methodologies. The idea is to apply these methods in new contexts in order to improve product design, user experience, corporate strategy, and organizational culture. By emphasizing empathy as a core value, these tools can even help organizations design better hiring processes.

Design-based concepts also have the potential to address — and in some cases, solve — complex socio-economic and environmental problems, such as sustainability, education, and homelessness. We’re already seeing this trend in Canada, particularly Vancouver, where the Urban Design Panel advises City Council on urban design policy.

Alan: Over 80 percent of all product-related waste is determined during product design, making Design for Environment (DfE) one of the most important trends in Canadian design innovation. It’s a sustainable design approach that considers the entire life cycle of a product, process, or service, in order to minimize its environmental impact. Moreover, DfE practices help businesses, and their supply chain partners, create innovative design solutions that not only reduce product-related waste and input costs, but also give them a competitive advantage.

How does art and design influence Canada’s innovation strategy?

Kyoko: Although innovation insights are gleaned from scientific data, that data is often a reflection of human behaviour — the way we think and behave, and our conscious and unconscious biases. In other words, it’s shaped by our subjective experience. That’s why art is a catalyst for innovation and social change, and why so many social justice movements are catapulted by “artivism”, i.e., a combination of art and activism. This is particularly evident in Canada’s inclusive innovation strategy which places the experience of under-represented groups — their unique ways of knowing and being in the world — at the forefront of policy solutions. The effects of this strategy can be felt in organizations across Canada that are now adopting best practices to ensure their workspace is inclusive by design.

Similarly, many Canadian filmmakers, animators, and visual effects (VFX) artists are experimenting with new ideas and storylines that reflect the diversity of the Canadian population. In doing so, they’re setting benchmarks in animation and visual effects while ensuring equal representation on screen.

Alan: Design thinking is absolutely critical to the Canadian economy as we continue to tackle unprecedented challenges. Consider our need for health care innovation during the global pandemic. Without thoughtful human-centered innovation in health care, we’re likely to have problems that can literally endanger our lives. This is a tremendous opportunity for the medical community to implement new ideas — for example, addressing glaring design flaws in COVID-19 rapid tests.

Now more than ever, art and design institutes — along with the social sciences and humanities — are playing a key role in generating and mobilizing knowledge that can potentially save lives and help us transition to a post-pandemic society.

What are the opportunities and challenges in implementing innovative design?

Alan: Strong collaboration between research-based and design-based programs is integral to the future of Canadian innovation. Some academic institutions, such as ECUAD and Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD), are already doing this by building research partnerships and pedagogical links with other colleges and universities, in turn increasing Canada’s capacity to address innovation challenges from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

Kyoko: Although design thinking is all about creating the optimal human experience, it’s often misconstrued as being too technology-oriented. That’s why design thinking workshops and training are an important step toward building awareness, especially for executive leadership. Since this is a relatively new trend in the corporate world, opportunities for growth and development are abundant.

Managers could also benefit from implementing design thinking tools sooner rather than later, especially when it comes to time-sensitive projects. This would improve cross-functional collaboration and ensure consistency throughout the process.

How does Canadian design and innovation fare against countries?

Kyoko: Although the United States was the first to commercialize the concept of innovation by design, it’s not the only player in the global innovation industry.

According to the 2021 Global Innovation Index, Switzerland and Sweden rank first and second, respectively, in global innovation. Meanwhile, South Korea jumped five spots last year to secure a place in the top five. Despite efforts, Canada placed 16th in a list of 132 economies, indicating a significant drop in innovation outputs relative to its investment. This is yet another reason to collaborate with academic institutions and commercialize cutting-edge design-based research.

Alan: Regardless of our performance in the 2021 Global Innovation Index, Canada has extraordinary creative capacity and one of the most sought-after talent in the world. There’s a global demand for innovation, which means there are thousands of Canadian designers and innovators working in other countries. I believe it’s important to engage existing talent, build networks, and mobilize our global connections to lead the way in sustainable design.

Can you share some examples of innovation that integrate art, design, and technology?

Alan: ECUAD recently partnered with ShowMax Event Services to create a virtual production studio, fully equipped with the same technology used in Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian. The facility provides access to state-of-the-art equipment, giving students the opportunity to learn from industry professionals. This is a great example of artists and designers adapting their craft in response to emerging technologies.

Kyoko: Digital art exhibitions are an excellent integration of visual arts, set design, and technology. These exhibits typically feature the work of iconic artists — such as Vincent Van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, and Frida Kahlo — in high-tech galleries, creating an immersive experience that challenges our perception of reality.

The intersection of art, design, and technology is also increasingly evident in work-from-home settings. Thanks to virtual offices, human resource managers are now compelled to use design thinking tools to improve onboarding processes and maintain staff engagement.

Ultimately, we’re all looking to turn imagination into action, which means no form of creativity should go unnoticed. Case in point: one of our graduate students interned at a company that develops automation technology for 3D printers. His “unconventional perspective” led to the creation of better and safer personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers during the pandemic.

Bottom-line: your next big idea might be hidden in plain sight — and design thinking can help you find it.

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Kyoko Sutton

Director, Business Development
Western Canada

Kyoko is the Creative Sector Lead in B.C. at Mitacs. She holds a BFA and M.Des., and has been utilizing the human-centric philosophy and concept of art and design in business internationally. She has extensive experience working in art, design, entertainment, and digital media, as well as entrepreneurship.

Alan Goldman

Industry Liaison, Emily Carr University of Art (ECU) + Design

Alan is the Industry Liaison and an Adjunct Researcher at Emily Carr University of Art (ECU) + Design. He holds a Master of Applied Arts from ECU and as well as his work at ECU, he is also an accomplished documentary film maker.

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