With accessible, everyday items like sticky notes and pipe cleaners, UW Tacoma’s Global Innovation & Design Lab brings together people of all backgrounds to solve difficult challenges, using design thinking.
(In the image above, participants in United Way of Pierce County's Resilient Communities Through Human-Centered Design workshop begin to envision prototypes by working with pipe cleaners. The workshop was part of United Way's From Poverty to Possibilities Summit in 2019 and again in 2020.)
“She provided kits that allowed us to put our ideas into a kind of 3D model using clay, pipe cleaners, markers and poster board,” says Grant Twyman. Twyman is the chief operating officer of NEXT Consulting and is on the board of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, a leading regional business advocacy organization. “We took our ideas out of our minds and put them into a format that allowed us to see them differently, think about them differently,” he said.
Twyman is referring to his experience with UW Tacoma Professor Divya McMillin and the Global Innovation & Design Lab. The Chamber contacted the GID Lab in the fall of 2020 to help it think through the process of creating a new strategic plan in the wake of the pandemic and incidents of police brutality in the summer of 2020.
“The Chamber changed its mission statement in September of 2020 to include the ideas of equity and inclusion,” said Twyman. “Before, it was ’To make the South Sound the best place to do business in Washington State,’ but we updated that to ‘To make the South Sound the most equitable and inclusive place to do business in Washington State.’”
The revised mission statement sounded good, but what did it really mean to be the most “equitable and inclusive place to do business?” “That’s why we brought Divya and her team in, to help us answer the question of how we pursue the truth of that mission.” said Twyman.
Fellow Chamber board member Bruce Kendall, who is the executive director of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County, says, similar to the GID Lab’s impact on the EDB, the work with GID through the Chamber yielded more than what the organization could have achieved on its own.
“By using their services,” said Kendall, “we were inspired to explore and create innovative, client-centered strategies that will drive equitable and sustainable growth throughout our South Sound communities.”
A screenshot shows participants in a Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber design thinking workshop, held virtually due to COVID-19 in-person restrictions. A virtual whiteboard shows participants replicating in-person tools like sticky notes and diagrams.
Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber board members gathered for a retreat in June 2021, where they reviewed the work of three previous workshops and generated prototypes envisioning an equitable and inclusive South Sound business climate.
A prototype model developed by one team at the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber board retreat. Prototypes do not necessarily or always depict real-world objects. In this case elements symbolize the role of communication in fostering equity and inclusiveness.
There’s a reason why Twyman and the Chamber looked to McMillin for help and that reason is design thinking. “Design thinking begins with empathy,” said McMillin. “It’s iterative and focused on the needs of a community.”
McMillin’s interest in design thinking is an outgrowth of her own global media research using participatory design among communities around the world. It is an extension of her work with UW Tacoma’s Global Honors program as well as the campus’s Institute for Innovation & Global Engagement. “I’m committed to solutions and providing students the tools they need to create solutions for themselves and their community,” she said.
Both the Global Honors program and the Institute for Innovation & Global Engagement are built with this philosophy in mind. Community engagement and inclusive innovation are part of their DNA and led McMillin to the Bamford Foundation.
Calvin D. Bamford, Jr. and Joanne Bamford established the foundation in 1990 with a mission to “improve the quality of life of individuals and families and to strengthen their communities.” Cal Bamford is president of the Tacoma-based Globe Machine Manufacturing Company. “The Bamford Foundation places a high priority on education and inclusion,” said McMillin.
The Bamford Foundation offered to support the Institute for Innovation & Global Engagement to expand students’ understanding and experience of global interdependencies. With Bamford funding, McMillin created the year-long Bamford Fellowship in Global Engagement, as well as a range of awards for study abroad and global conferences.
McMillin’s relationship with the Bamfords proved fortuitous. “I was having a conversation with Cal one day about wanting to expand this interdisciplinary problem-solving framework and he mentioned design thinking,” said McMillin. “I was familiar with participatory design which is at the heart of my fieldwork in such venues as sweatshops and call centers. I was aware of design thinking and its applications for product design, as popularized by the Stanford d.School. I was intrigued by the idea of exploring this version of creative problem solving for process and product innovations.”
“We are facing pressing industry and socio-economic challenges,” said Bamford. “We need to prepare new generations of problem-solvers. The GID Lab is a critical regional resource that will welcome all students and community members. With its interdisciplinary and design-thinking orientation, the GID Lab will play a key role in innovative and collaborative community-driven solutions.”
McMillin and a team of others traveled to Stanford University and its Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known colloquially as the d.school). Stanford didn’t invent the concept of design thinking but it is seen as one of the leaders in the field. McMillin returned to Stanford a year later to take part in the Innovation Masters Series. “I had a fantastic time learning from the founders of Stanford’s d.school and IDEO [an international design firm headquartered in San Francisco], and working with industry leaders and other professionals,” she said. “They were bringing in some really complex problems and using design thinking to work through them.”
McMillin saw the potential. “We at UW Tacoma already had an interdisciplinary structure in place for teaching and learning,” she said. “We also have a strong commitment to process and social innovations. There was, and still is, a high need in our community for this kind of accelerated creative and collaborative problem solving. We just needed a way to put these things together.”
Up and Running
The Global Innovation & Design Lab launched in the fall of 2018. Community support, including a generous gift from the Bamford family, helped get the GID Lab up and running. “I brought in faculty from human-centered design, communication, engineering and technology to help build a curriculum,” said McMillin.
Workshops are a big part of the GID Lab. McMillin and her team host workshops with stakeholders both on campus and in the community. The United Way of Pierce County hired the GID Lab to work through the issue of affordable housing as part of its 2019 From Poverty to Possibilities summit. “We had about 300 people in a room going through a design exercise around affordable housing,” said United Way of Pierce County President and CEO Dona Ponepinto.
Ponepinto brought the GID Lab back for its 2020 summit, but things had changed dramatically in just a year. COVID-19 arrived in the United States in the winter of 2020 and quickly upended everyday life. The 2019 summit was in-person, the 2020 summit was switched to a virtual format. “We had the design thinking workshop and the GID Lab team moved hundreds of people into 40 Zoom breakout rooms so facilitators could assist participants as they moved through the steps of empathy building,” said Ponepinto.
That workshop focused on ways to connect communities, specifically people living in East Tacoma, Salishan and neighborhoods in the Franklin Pierce school district, with systems and resources. “COVID accelerated the need as well as the urgency to re-imagine how we address trauma and build resilience,” said Ponepinto.
Participants went through the steps – empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test – of the design thinking process. “About 30 prototypes were produced,” said Ponepinto. “These prototypes included everything from an Uber Eats app that delivers food-bank boxes to families to a community resource board. One of the things we did as an organization was to look at these prototypes and see if there’s something we can take and turn into a pilot.”
The information collected from a pilot doesn’t just stay with the United Way of Pierce County. The thinking is that local and state governments could use this material to craft policies or create programs to help these communities. Testing and iteration are key elements of the design cycle.
The Global Innovation & Design Lab wrapped up its two-year collaboration with the United Way of Pierce County in September 2021 by facilitating two design thinking workshops with eight residents of the Salishan community. The workshops built on the effort that started during the Poverty to Possibilities summits. Participants worked in two groups to assess the functionality and practicality of the prototypes. They then improved on them or created entirely new ones. What emerged was a multipurpose community space that could support affordable childcare and provide access to behavioral/mental health services.
United Way of Pierce County’s From Poverty to Possibilities Summit was all-virtual in 2020, due to the pandemic. Participants used yellow dots in an online whiteboard to prioritize the design challenges they would move to the prototyping stage.
Participants in United Way of Pierce County’s Resilient Pierce County workshop met in person in September 2021, as COVID-19 restrictions began to relax.
Using everyday materials means that participants can concentrate on creativity, rather than getting stressed over technology glitches. Here, participants in a Resilient Pierce County workshop are seen with their prototype of a community center in Tacoma.
Excitement of Problem Solving
The Global Innovation & Design Lab has facilitated a number of workshops since launching, with a range of organizations including the Institute for Black Justice and the Titus-Will Automotive Group. COVID-19 changed how McMillin and her team did their work, but it didn’t slow them down. In fact, the number of projects peaked as McMillin launched a series called INNOVATE TACOMA to assist organizations through the pandemic.
The GID Lab’s influence can also be seen on campus. A minor in innovation and design launched in winter of 2021. Students who are interested in design thinking can also apply for the Global Innovation & Design Award. Awards of $500 per student are made each quarter. Students gain valuable experience assisting on one to three projects undertaken by the lab during their supported quarter.
The next step in the GID Lab’s growth will come in January of 2023. That’s when the 55,000-square-foot Milgard Hall is slated to open. “People see the big building, expanded space, more classrooms,” said McMillin. “I see the excitement of problem solving, the bustle of people, small groups around mobile boards and 3D models. I hear the laughter and chatter of brainstorming, upbeat music as we work through barriers and break through to solutions.”
The Milgard Hall facilities — two design labs, a community workshop hall, and cubicles for focused work — are all designed to draw in multidisciplinary groups. Open blocks will allow students to use the lab spaces without booking them — to brainstorm a research proposal or work through a class project during their free time. “Perhaps one day we’ll have a coffee shop or snack bar in the building” she said, describing the labs she toured while attending conferences at Harvard, Tufts, the d.School and the Elisava School of Design (Barcelona) which helped her design the space, furniture, and functionality of the space in Milgard Hall. “The smell of food and coffee only adds to our creativity — all senses on,” she said.
To this end, McMillin and her team hosted design sprints with university leadership, community members and students on how the new space within Milgard Hall could be used to foster multidisciplinary collaboration and creative problem solving. “A student came up with this idea of ‘a hall for all,’” said McMillin.
This Capability in Tacoma
Jackie Flowers is ready for an in-person experience with the Global Innovation & Design Lab, whether that’s in Milgard Hall or somewhere else. Flowers worked with the GID Lab on behalf of the Tacoma-Pierce County Economic Development Board. “The Board brought in the Lab to help with refreshing its strategic plan to include a focus on equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said. “We started on this process in late 2021 which means we were working over Zoom and I was amazed by the GID Lab’s ability to bring this diverse set of board members together and really engage them.”
Flowers and other members of the board used those everyday items that are ever-present at the GID Lab – clay, sticky notes, pipe cleaners – to think through and ultimately prototype their ideas. McMillin and her team compiled a report with recommendations for the board to consider. “We’re going through the final stages now,” said Flowers.
Flowers left the workshop feeling inspired and excited to bring the GID Lab’s expertise to Tacoma Public Utilities, her employer. “The area that we’re looking to work with the Lab on is how to better serve our income-constrained customers, both in terms of programs and services,” she said. “Having this capability in Tacoma is such an incredible resource for us. I can’t wait to use it more and share it more with our networks and groups that we work with because I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool. I’m just thrilled that we have this capability here.”
The onset of the pandemic forced the GID Lab to think carefully about how to run workshops in virtual spaces. A Zoom gallery is by now commonplace, but there is an undeniable power in this way of "seeing" a multitude of event participants.
The GID Lab introduced to the EDB the idea of using design thinking to refresh the Board’s strategic plan, which included goals around equity and inclusion. A portion of a virtual meeting screen shows the “mural ideation board” from an EDB/Lab workshop.
Teams from the EDB developed prototypes illustrating their ideas for their strategic direction. The image above shows a portion of the prototype “mural” with a grid of virtual meeting participants in the foreground.
The Genius of Pipe Cleaners
There is something genius about the idea of using pipe cleaners to change the world. We live in the age of technology. Got a problem, chances are there’s a device or algorithm that can solve it — and that raises equity issues, about who has access to resources and who doesn’t.
The work being done at the Global Innovation & Design Lab is about removing barriers, about moving out into the community to understand its needs and then bringing to the table those closest to the issues, to co-design solutions. It puts CEOs of big corporations in the same room as heads of nonprofits and everyday people and asks them to build together. The ideas surge as the empathy builds and before you know it, clay, pens, sticky notes and pipe cleaners construct a new world, a new product, a new way forward that changes lives.