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  • Ideation Science Team

5 reasons why universities are designed to fail in the pursuit of new ideas - insights from design thinking

I recently watched this video from Pattie Beele Hastings, a Professor of Interactive Media and Design at Quinnipiac University

Ironically also one of the few findable youtube videos dedicated to ideation.

I think she really nailed some of the key things about ideation in design thinking methodology; Generate Quantity, Diversity, Suspend Judgement, Novelty and Inclusion. These elements were discussed in the context of design thinking but they are all relevant to ideation more generally.

It occurred to me that universities - by design - might be set up to systematically fail in the process of ideation. Based on my own observations, here's some discussion points and thoughts as to why universities may be falling short in this area:

Generate Quantity Over Quality

In the realm of design thinking, the focus is on generating a large number of ideas to explore various possibilities without an immediate commitment to their viability. This approach is contrary to the typical university emphasis on quality and depth in a narrower field of study, potentially stifling the creative process. On a personal level, when I approached a university to do a research masters - the discussion revolved around narrowing my focus on a specific project.

Generate Diversity

Design thinking thrives on a multitude of perspectives, often requiring input from people of different backgrounds, disciplines, and ways of thinking. Historically, universities have been perceived as elite institutions that may not represent the broader society comprehensively, thus limiting the diversity of thought. An example of this my own experience with the faculty of the built environment at my university, they tend to engage with industry at the tier one level, enterprise level, two thirds of the construction industry are small businesses. Universities engage plumbers only to service their toilets.

Suspend Judgement

Academic environments are inherently critical, built on peer reviews, grades, and evaluations. This culture of judgement interwoven with the curse of knowledge can inhibit free thinking and discourage the kind of risk-taking necessary for innovative ideation. It goes even deeper, outliers in thinking are not very welcome.

Every Voice at the Table

Design thinking values inclusivity, ensuring that every participant has an equal opportunity to contribute. In contrast, academic settings can sometimes seem hierarchical, where the voices of tenured professors might dominate over those of junior faculty, adjuncts, or students. In effect it’s about all about status, status is achieved by tenure, publication and funding.

Novelty Over Relevance

In universities, the emphasis often lies on relevance and the applicability of ideas to existing bodies of knowledge, organised into distinct faculties and departments. This focus can sometimes overshadow the pursuit of new, radical ideas that might not fit neatly into established categories.

While I’ve made some observation above that universities are inherently structured in ways that may hinder the free-flowing process of ideation essential to design thinking, recent (recent in the context of the history of academia) trends suggest that changes might be underway that may help address some of the structural barriers to ideation and hence innovation identified above. As we delve into these transformative trends, it becomes evident that universities are adapting to become more conducive to the methodologies of design thinking but we’re still at the early stages, Universities are big ships to turn even slightly.

 Here are some of my observations:

Rise in Interdisciplinary Studies

Universities are increasingly recognizing the value of interdisciplinary education, which merges concepts from various fields to foster a broader perspective and more comprehensive understanding. This approach breaks down traditional departmental barriers, encouraging collaboration and the exchange of ideas between disciplines. It mirrors the design thinking emphasis on diversity and synthesis of varied viewpoints, which can lead to more innovative solutions and breakthroughs in research.

Rise in Engagement:

Engagement in this context refers to the interaction between universities and external communities, including businesses, local governments, and the public. This trend involves students and faculty working on real-world problems as part of their academic experience, thus integrating practical engagement with theoretical learning. Increased engagement helps universities stay relevant and responsive to societal needs and encourages the practical application of ideas—key aspects of design thinking

Permeation of Design Thinking Throughout Universities:

Design thinking methodologies are gradually being integrated into university curriculums, not just in design disciplines but across various fields including business, engineering, and health sciences. This integration is evident in workshops, courses, and even in the structure of degree programs, which aim to cultivate creativity, problem-solving skills, and an iterative, user-centered approach to projects. By fostering a culture that values creative problem-solving, universities are adapting to produce graduates who are better equipped for modern challenges.

Rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The advent of AI in academic settings is transforming the traditional modes of inquiry and problem-solving. AI's capability to analyze vast amounts of data and recognize patterns can lead to more innovative approaches to research and learning. Furthermore, as AI begins to play a significant role in various industries, universities are prompted to rethink their curricula to include AI-driven analytics and problem-solving techniques. This not only enhances the learning experience but also ensures that students are prepared for the technologically advanced workforce.

Increase in the Value of Ideas

In today’s knowledge-based economy, there is a heightened appreciation for novel ideas and intellectual creativity, which are critical drivers of innovation and economic growth. Universities are responding by placing a greater emphasis on ideation, creativity, and entrepreneurial thinking within their programs. This shift is making academic environments more conducive to generating valuable, innovative ideas that can translate into viable products and solutions in the marketplace.


This post is designed to provoke the start of a discussion, I’m happy to know where I might be wrong and why. But I'm not stopping there, in an effort to test this hypothesis - so I'm going to send this to 10 senior staff at my local university. Let's see whether where this idea goes.........

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