Darden's New i.Lab Provides Headquarters For 'Design-thinking'

March 16, 2010 — Along with their laptops, textbooks and BlackBerry phones, University of Virginia business students will soon have access to a new set of tools – ones more commonly associated with art, architecture and engineering than with a business school.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Brevy Cannon:

On Friday from 1 to 3 p.m., U.Va.'s Darden School of Business and its Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation will officially unveil Darden's innovation laboratory, or i.Lab – a space to support the teaching of "design-thinking," a relatively new component of the Darden curriculum.

"Schools have taught creativity for a long time," said Darden professor Jeanne Liedtka, one of the leaders behind the creation of the i.Lab. "What's new is the idea of systematically leveraging the tools from the design world to help Darden students be more creative, innovative thinkers."

Following three years of planning and five months and $1 million worth of construction, the school has transformed a little-used former cafeteria space in Sponsors Hall into the i.Lab.

Friday's ceremony will include remarks by New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink, an influential thinker who has written extensively about the "rise of right-brain thinking in modern economies." The event will be video streamed live and will be available online after the event.

Construction wrapped up in December, and much of the 4,000-square-foot i.Lab space has been in use this semester. This week the final touches are being added to one quarter of the space – a design-build studio where students can build models and prototypes of their ideas.

The studio features tall workbenches flanked by a full complement of tools – from hammers and wrenches to cordless saws, drills and Dremel carving tools, to oscilloscopes for mapping electronic circuits. Shelves will be piled with materials, from balsa wood, foam board, clay, tape, glue guns and other arts and crafts materials, to plywood, aluminum sheets and metal rods.

For the design-build studio, i.Lab lead architect Eugenio Schettini of Facilities Management worked with Darden professor Raul Chao, a former engineer with product development experience in a wide range of industries. The space will have most of the equipment one would encounter in a professional design lab, short of a 3-D rapid-prototyping machine, Chao said. "But even that might be coming in the future."

The equipment in the "garage," as some students like to call it, was based on feedback from past Darden classes that involved prototyping, and will evolve over time, Chao noted. As new project teams identify tools or materials they need, they can purchase them out of their project budgets (typically around $500), and the tools and unused supplies will remain in the studio for future users.

Darden's typical tiered "stadium-seating" classrooms are beautifully suited to Darden's traditional focus on case-method teaching with large group discussions, but not so conducive to developing design-thinking, Liedtka, former executive director of the Batten Institute, said.

Design-thinking skills are best developed through the hands-on design experience, an experimental, iterative process, said Liedtka, who teaches "Corporate Innovation and Design Experience," one of several courses that will now be based in the i.Lab, including a product development class taught by Chao.

In Chao's class, students break into small project teams of four or five people tasked with brainstorming a new product idea, such as a better Post-It note. Following a strategy of "placing small bets fast," the students quickly create a prototype, test it and learn from it to improve the next prototype, and then repeat the prototype-learn cycle.

"In the process of building it, that's when much of the innovation comes out," Batten Institute managing director Elizabeth O'Halloran said.

The other main segment of the i.Lab is a large collaboration space where students can review their business ideas and prototypes in a studio style familiar to art and architecture students. After giving shape to their ideas – in drawings, models or prototypes – the groups critique and learn from each others' projects.

The open room has floor-to-ceiling windows on one wall, a whiteboard more than 30 feet long on a second wall, with the other two walls providing plenty of space on which to mount and display project drawings, along with movable cases and other flexible display areas to show off prototypes.

Seeing the other groups' projects during critique sessions and working alongside the other groups in the "garage" will tend to encourage cross-fertilization of ideas, Chao said. That's a big improvement over past conditions, when the lack of appropriate workspaces meant students would spread out into random spaces around Darden to work on their projects, isolated from each other.

"We often underestimate how powerfully the physical space we're in shapes the kind of learning that we have," Liedtka said. "The absolute best example of that is Thomas Jefferson and the Academical Village. He recognized that the kind of campus you build impacts the kind of community you build.

"We're finding that this experiential learning is a nice complement to Darden's traditional focus on solid, analytical, business thinking," she said. "Students get the best of both worlds – both the skills around idea generation, and the more rigorous analytical skills needed for idea testing."

The i.Lab was completed with support from Darden's Batten Institute, a center dedicated to advancing knowledge about entrepreneurship and innovation. "The i.Lab is an embodiment of our mission," O'Halloran said. It also provides a new base for Darden's Entrepreneurship Program, whose faculty have been ranked No. 1 in the country by both Princeton Review and Entrepreneur Magazine.

The i.Lab will host several courses on innovation and product development as well as a course on "Bio-Innovation," led by Philippe Sommer, Darden's director of entrepreneurship programs. The course brings together students and professors from Darden, bioengineering and the schools of Medicine, Architecture and Nursing into small teams tasked with solving a real-world problem, forcing them to solve problems and collaborate across disciplines.

"I think we will be finding more and more opportunities to pull in students from across the University and involve them in the work of the i.Lab and the courses run there," O'Halloran said.


— By Brevy Cannon