This week we caught up with Greg Van Alstyne the Co-founder & Director of Research, at OCAD’s sLab. Greg is also the Co-founder, of DesignJam, and Associate Professor, SFI Graduate Program at OCAD University.  He recently spoke at the Thinking Like a Designer event during the Toronto Design Offsite Festival. We sat down with Greg to dive further into design thinking, the maker movement, and what questions we need to be asking about the future.

What is the OCAD sLab and how did you get involved as a co-founder?

We founded sLab or “Strategic Innovation Lab” five years ago when OCAD University was just beginning to offer graduate programs. The idea was to gather faculty to articulate and foster design thinking, as a methodology to inform socially responsible innovation — co-creating new and transformative ideas, services and systems that could make the world a better place, for the many rather than the few. Today sLab ties together a dozen faculty, scores of students/alumni and hundreds of external collaborators. sLab is a platform, serving as a flexible bridge between the wider world — startups, policymaking, firms, and communities — and the MDes in Strategic Foresight & Innovation program. SFI is OCAD U’s most popular graduate degree with more than 115 students — mostly mid-career professionals from around the world in part-time and full-time streams. Each of them is becoming a changemaker, learning to lead positive design-driven work in innovative team settings.

What is the sLab DesignJam and how is it hoping to help young startups?

DesignJam is sLab’s new service, offering design thinking and creative business skills for cultural entrepreneurs & young startups. We’ve got a great team building a set of workshops and events including DesignJam Toronto — a day-long big-tent jamboree this March — and a “Roadshow” to bring this experience to innovation centres across Ontario. From this, together with our five-year catalogue of public events, we’re gathering video, audio, stories and methods in an online “toolbox” to support 24/7 learning across the province. With support from Ontario’s OCE and ONE, DesignJam provides coaching, mentorship and practical, hands-on skills to create a business, or to make business more creative.

Can you define Design Thinking and describe what role it plays within the creative process?

There are many great ideas about what Design Thinking is, and why it’s seeing more uptake in business, policy, and hybrid settings. The emphasis I would give is this: Design Thinking brings rigorous creativity and wholistic integration to trans-disciplinary problem finding, problem framing, and problem solving. We take the radically human-centred, problem-solving centre of professional design, scale and augment it to meet many new and complex challenges. The new context brings unprecedented problems and opportunities tied to urbanization, globalization, climate change, social inclusion, automation, attention economics and more. In the twenty-first century we need a methodology — a mindset, skillset and toolset — to help lead participatory, responsive planning, patterning and action — and Design Thinking offers this.

What tools would you recommend for people who want to adopt more design thinking practices into their daily process?

One really nice tool I’ve been using and teaching recently is the Empathy Map, an x-shaped space in which we draw a persona in the centre, together with what that person feels, hears, thinks, sees and does. I first learned Empathy Mapping when I saw this visual approach used by its inventor, Dave Gray, a visual thinking pioneer, author, and friend of sLab. Recently I noticed that Dave’s ideas are woven into the Value Proposition Canvas, the newest tool and book from Alex Osterwalder, Toronto-based Alan Smith, and team. These techniques are intuitive, visual, human-centred, and pretty easy to use right away. Yet, like fine instruments, they reward practice, personalization, even hybridization, as when the “classic” Empathy Map can be seen operating within the new Value Proposition Canvas.

You have written papers and been involved in projects focused on the evolution of design and the shift from controlled top-down approaches to bottom-up co-creation and development. What role do you feel the maker movement plays in this evolution?

That’s a great question. How do we explore where the combination of additive manufacturing and mass creativity might lead? This questioning and patterning is something I call “Designing for Emergence.” As designers we have a legacy of top-down training… Essentially we have been taught to specify and control: the PANTONE number, the shape, a few relationships. Even when we do systems thinking it is often quite static. But what happens when all these things become variable, as in digital and converged spaces? When we unleash mass personalization, internationalization, insatiable user appetites, curiosity, and co-creativity? We need a new vocabulary, grammar and syntax for this — a new playbook for design. To understand change and help lead to positive futures, we need to understand innovation diffusion, complexity, emergence and foresight. We need to ask different questions — not just “How?” but “How might we…?” We need to ask “What could lead to this?” & “What could this lead to?”

As an accomplished futurist you’ve been part of projects such as: 2020 Media Futures, which is designed to understand and envision what media may look like in the year 2020. Are there any specific signals/trends that you are particularly intrigued by that you think will have the highest influence on our media landscape?

The idea of understanding influences on media by making media is really alluring. Conventional research has limits… For example, I can’t say how readers in general might be feeling, not without building up a pretty thick context anyway. But at sLab we have a group called DEMO Publishing doing action research — “acting like a publisher” — to understand the futures of reading, writing and publishing. We’re about to have a launch party for our first title, *What is Information* by Robert K. Logan. I would say we are exploring a “package” of trends and how they combine, including social publishing, open publishing, tablet publishing, print on demand, web fonts, XML-first, cross platform publishing. The book is an ancient form that is both dissolving and reconstituting itself. We think information and theory are beautiful so we tried to make a beautiful book about information theory.

What projects are you working on right now that you are most excited about?

There’s one I didn’t mention, Digital Governance, that doesn’t look so “cool” at first because its about government. Can this world of shiny marble halls and paperwork adapt and transform itself in the digital era? But seriously, how can it not? The project is to build a diverse partnership, funded by SSHRC, and we are challenging each other to describe these changes in honest and creative ways. We’re building a huge “gigamap” — an elaborate information graphic form pioneered by colleagues in Norway and co-developed by sLab faculty at OCAD U — to map the governance system. Through invited and open workshops we gather insights that are “live sketched” — recorded graphically as well as verbally. Metaphors used to describe changes, now and in the futures, are expressed visually, viscerally. We can get to a better, shared understand of the now, the near term, and possible far term futures, in part through these more universal languages — emotions, visual thinking, metaphor.

To learn more, visit Greg’s website or follow him and sLab on Twitter.