Innovation in a crisis: How do faculty use design thinking?

Even during a global pandemic, faculty continue to create and innovate. Learn how Innovate Carolina supports faculty through its diverse resources, connections and partnerships as faculty seek to disrupt with innovative ideas and research-driven solutions.

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November 30, 2020
By Shellie Edge
Photography by Sarah Daniels

During the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill faculty find that they must not only innovate faster, but in a much different way. In this new normal, Innovate Carolina – the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship – has rapidly reimagined and brought online a diverse hub of programs, services and tools designed to support faculty innovators who are passionate about making a social and economic impact with their ideas. Many are focused on solving COVID-related problems, while others have entrepreneurial ideas that demand new thinking in a world where higher levels of virtual connections and interdisciplinary collaboration are essential.

Through a three-part series, Innovate Carolina will explore how faculty are engaging with our innovation hub in new ways as they develop ideas, projects and ventures during the pandemic period. We’ll take a look at the resources that some of the University’s most innovative researchers are using to advance ideas through design thinking and ideation, entrepreneurial mentoring and startup services, and opportunities to move innovations to scale.

Part One: Design Thinking 

If I wasn’t worried about failing, how would I tackle this challenge? If I put myself in the shoes of my customer, patient or student, what would they say? Or if I pretend there are no obstacles, what would I do next? At the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, faculty are using design thinking to think differently about how they develop solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. 

Design thinking is one of many new faculty services offered by Innovate Carolina, the University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship, which has created an innovation hub to help faculty translate ideas into action and take their innovations further, faster during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Innovate Carolina is helping faculty use design thinking to explore and test their ideas, helping them practice skills and methods that can accelerate innovation projects, explore inventive curricular methods, and launch new initiatives, nonprofits and startup ventures.

A creative approach to problem solving, design thinking helps people find solutions by examining a human need and then working through a creative process to find a solution to meet that need that is not only desirable but also feasible and viable. While traditional problem solving tends to be linear and often converges on single solutions quickly, design thinking offers a more flexible yet structured approach to solving a problem while involving the end user in the process. By focusing on the end user, design thinking finds solutions through inspiration, ideation and implementation. 

Liz Chen, Design Thinking Lead at Innovate Carolina, inspires faculty through skill-building workshops and training designed to motivate, provide guidance, make connections and encourage innovation.

“Equipping faculty with the right tools and skillsets allows them to further develop their entrepreneurial mindset,” says Chen who is also an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health. “My goal is to help faculty learn the tools and techniques to evaluate, develop and implement ideas through ideation, problem solving, team building and entrepreneurial practice.”

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“My goal is to help faculty learn the tools and techniques to evaluate, develop and implement ideas through ideation, problem solving, team building and entrepreneurial practice.”
Liz Chen

Faculty Innovation Workshop 

Chen leads the reimagined Chancellor’s Faculty Innovation Workshop, an invitation-only event open to a select group of UNC-Chapel Hill faculty who receive a nomination from their deans and an invitation from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. Known as an innovation masterclass for faculty innovators, the workshop has given Carolina’s most entrepreneurial researchers and teachers the chance to develop new skills that help them turn their ideas into solutions that make an impact. Many of these workshop alumni have used the knowledge and skills gained to accelerate innovation projects, secure additional competitive funding, and launch new centers, nonprofits and startup ventures.

For the previous 11 years, Innovate Carolina conducted the workshop as an in-person session that spanned three-to-four consecutive days in the spring. However, the emergence of COVID-19 prompted the team to think differently. What types of content do faculty need most during this unprecedented period? And what mode of delivery would most useful to faculty who need to jumpstart and advance ideas at a record pace? The answer wasn’t merely repackaging the previous event in a virtual format.  

To provide immediate support for faculty as they moved away from their labs and off campus in the early days of the pandemic, Chen led a summer faculty workshop series where participants learned to think differently about how to design teams and cultivate creativity in virtual environments. Participants explored methods for getting team members to invest early in team projects, identify and focus on shared specific outcomes, and facilitate efficient and meaningful onboarding experiences that help teams gel faster. As part of the workshop experience, faculty were also exposed to introductory content around each of the three phases of design thinking according to IDEO: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. At the end of this workshop series, participants identified additional support they needed beyond the workshop so that Chen could connect them with those resources. The full workshop series is now available to view on demand through the Innovate Now virtual event page.

In the fall of 2020, the faculty workshop continued as Chen led a more targeted cohort of innovators through a multi-week series of one-hour online sessions. These sessions allowed faculty to apply design thinking principles and methods to their specific projects, ideas and ventures they brought to the workshop. The workshops allow faculty to dive in deeper to their projects and develop them over a relatively short period of time – but in a more iterative fashion than in the past. 

“Participating in the design thinking workshop this fall came at a critical time for our research lab as we are currently trying to expand our mobile health technology platform to increase its sustainability, accessibility and impact,” says Kate Muessig, associate professor, Department of Health Behavior, UNC GIllings School of Global Public Health. “The resources, connections to other faculty doing this kind of work, and design thinking training approach offered through Innovate Carolina have given our team renewed energy and practical tools to tackle these challenges. We are excited to see how applying new ways of engaging the end users of our health innovations in the continued design process enhances creative problem-solving.” 

Targeted skill-building workshops

In addition to the Faculty Innovation Workshop, Chen holds targeted work sessions for faculty to focus on specific skillsets they want to build and hone. She is leading design thinking sessions for faculty and graduate students who are working on COVID-19 projects but did not receive NC Policy Collaboratory funding

When faculty have an idea that they’re interested in pursuing as a commercial product or service, Chen also connects them to Innovate Carolina’s research services team, which helps them determine if the idea has market potential. Patrick Kastian, Innovate Carolina’s research analyst, works with faculty to assess their ideas and technologies, review the competitive market landscape, and identify potential for grants and investment funding. 

“Faculty who attend the Faculty Innovation Workshop walk away with a solid understanding of their prospective customers, who would ultimately benefit from their innovations,” says Kastian. “This allows for a much more focused discussion around how to structure their market research and customer discovery efforts.”

Faculty who have applied for the C. Felix Harvey Award are taking advantage of Chen’s Design for Impact workshop, a three-hour design thinking workshop offered at the end of October. The Harvey Award recognizes exemplary faculty who reflect the University’s commitment to innovative engagement and outreach that addresses real-world challenges. In addition, faculty who are working on COVID-19 projects are encouraged and welcome to join this session well. The sessions helps faculty use human-centered design to uncover opportunities to not only strengthen their award applications, but also the approach they take on their innovation projects and ventures. 

Outside of UNC-Chapel Hill, Chen’s expertise is valued by industry. Recently, she facilitated a series of workshops for the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Innovation Garage. Led by Suzanne Jacobs, the Innovation Garage uses new technology to create innovative health care programs and more efficient business practices. Jacobs connected with Chen to see how Innovate Carolina could work with the Innovation Garage to help employees better understand the design thinking process. Chen was able to collaborate with BCBSNC employees to work through a specific challenge over three full days and, as a result, the BCBSNC team was able to generate ideas for how to improve their customer service. 


In part two, learn how to develop your company through Innovate Carolina’s entrepreneurial mentoring and venture services.