High School students learn to co-create solutions to Worcester, Massachusetts (USA) transportation problems

-by Hamsa Thota-

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In this article, Dr. Hamsa Thota describes innovation process skills learned by high school students in Worcester, Massachusetts and how the control and treatment groups applied their skills to create novel solutions to Worcester’s transportation problems as part of the Art of Science Learning project funded by the US National Science Foundation. The curricula taught to both control and treatment groups were designed using the Thota framework for innovation.


The transportation challenge held in the City of Worcester, Massachusetts (MA) in 2014 was a five weeks long civic innovation challenge project. It was part of the Art of Science Learning (ASL) research project funded by the US National Science Foundation. In this research project, four groups of 8-10 high school students in control or treatment groups were taught the front end of innovation (FEI) process skills. The control group was taught a customized front end of innovation process using the traditional new product development best practices. In contrast, the treatment group was taught an arts infused front end of innovation process. Both the control and treatment groups utilized their newly acquired innovation skills to co-create solutions to Worcester’s current transportation challenges. At the end of five weeks, each group developed a business case and made Gate 1 presentations similar in nature to the gate presentations made in the early phase of the classic FEI process. In the classic FEI, groups passing through the Gate 1 obtain permission to iterate i.e. to design, build and test prototypes of solutions until they get them right. Concepts exiting the FEI enter a new product development pipeline.

Worcester and the civic innovation challenge
Founded as a town on June 14, 1772 the city of Worcester is located in Central Massachusetts and is known as the “heart of the Commonwealth.” Worcester has “disconnected institutions, isolated neighborhoods, bad traffic patterns and urban design, zigzag routes, poor bike and pedestrian options and a diverse community with complex transportation needs”. Harvey Seifter, Director of the ASL research project described Worcester’s 2014 civic innovation challenge “to create transportation solutions to enhance Worcester’s economic productivity, connect its neighborhoods and communities, and improve the quality of life for its residents and visitors.”

Innovation Process Curriculum
The development of curriculum used to teach front end of innovation process skills to control and treatment groups of high school students was guided by the new product development (NPD) best practices. We incorporated the NPD best practices into the curriculum utilizing a systematic framework for innovation such as the Thota Framework. The three organizing principles of Thota framework for innovation are as follows:

1. People innovate. This principle focuses leaders on things they can do or consider doing to encourage innovation supportive behaviors in their organizations. A compelling vision and purpose motivates people to overcome “personal fears”, take risks and strive to achieve “stretch” goals. Clear strategy at three levels (organizational, business unit and new product development) and solution innovation charters keep innovation teams working on really new, new and incremental solutions and process improvement projects aligned throughout the organization.

2. Process supports people. The primary purpose of an innovation process is to support people to innovate. Inflexible NPD processes such as the basic Stage-Gate™ NPD process are harmful to creativity and innovation, especially in the front end of innovation. Best performing organizations deploy a variety of approaches to manage different types of innovation projects. Also, they customize their process, specific to their own operating environments.

3. Tools and methods support people and processes. The tools and methods selected for use in NPD projects must support efficient execution of innovation processes by cross-functional NPD teams.

The Thota framework for innovation is one of such systematic frameworks available to implement new product development practices.
The curriculum development team made use of the three principles from Thota Framework by asking following questions at the beginning of its work:

  1. How might we design a curriculum to enable groups of high school students to innovate within the scope of the research project?
  2. Are specific front end of innovation processes designed into the curriculum supportive of our students needs to innovate?
  3. Are the tools and methods designed into the curriculum capable of efficiently supporting completion of one cycle of the FEI process within the duration of the research project?

After due diligence, the curriculum development team chose to incorporate the three principles as outlined below:

1. Incorporation of People Innovate principle in the curriculum
The people innovate principle was incorporated into the classic FEI process by customizing it. In this rendering of the FEI process taught to control groups, strategy guided opportunity identification. Insights and creativity of students drove the FEI creative engine. Vision set up the context for opportunity identification and selection, and project goal guided idea generation and enrichment. Customized facilitation enabled each student group to co-create solutions.

A. Culture
The curriculum development team recognized that high school students bring with them unique personal and learning cultures as well as a broad spectrum of learning behaviors. So the brainstorming exercises held during the opportunity identification, opportunity analysis and selection; and the idea generation and selection steps included combination of brainstorming and brainwriting exercises. Also, facilitation provided to each group varied from a moderate to intense level depending on the specific needs of each group.

B. Innovation culture
The curriculum development team recognized the need to create a co-creation culture around clearly defined goals during the five weeks long research project. The research team divided students into working groups of 8-10 members and tasked each group to apply the front end process skills learned to co-create solutions to solve Worcester’s transportation problem. To co-create solution, group members worked together to develop the solution idea, transform it, and give it a new meaning or source new players and resources to develop it. Output from the FEI is the written business case. Each group presented its business case to a local panel of judges.

C. Vision
In the visioning exercise, control groups of high school students were encouraged to envision transportation in Worcester in the year 2025. For example they could envision a greener, more convenient, more accessible Worcester with more transportation options and a less expensive transportation system. After completion of the visioning exercise, each group organized its ideas into groups that can be implemented in 2015, 2020 and 2025. Then, each group described its ideal city in the year 2025 and highlighted features and benefits of the transportation solution ideas it chose to implement in the year 2020.

D. Strategy
In facilitated class exercises, control groups of students used the three horizons strategy framework (year 2015, 2020 and 2025) to sort ideas into three categories of innovation. The three categories were incremental ideas, new ideas with big impact and breakthrough ideas that could change people’s transportation behaviors significantly. Creative insights occur at the intersections of markets, technologies and product-services solutions and students were encouraged to look for the white spaces, i.e. opportunity spaces at the intersection of incremental and really new and breakthrough ideas to identify new transportation solution opportunities. Students were further encouraged to look for creative ways to combine ideas so as to modify, simplify or expand upon their scope to fit the 2020 timeframe for implementation.

E. Solutions Innovation Charter (SIC)
Each control group created its solutions innovation charter (SIC) after completing three exercises listed below:
1) Assess competitiveness and feasibility
2) Assess value to target customer
3) Assess capabilities to take solution from concept to market.

2. Incorporation of process principle into the curriculum
In the classic FEI process, innovation teams research customer needs and identify opportunities. They analyze opportunities and select the most promising solution ideas for prototyping and testing. They iterate, i.e. make improvements to make solutions better, until they get the concept right for the target customer. Teams prepare business cases to justify resource commitment to further develop solution into a tangible product or service.
During the five weeks long research project, both control and treatment groups of high school students completed one cycle of the classic FEI process, selected one specific transportation problem each group wanted to solve and then co-created a solution. All work was completed while the class was in session. There was no homework. Each group prepared a business case and made business case presentations to local panel of judges. Group presentations were similar in nature to the Gate 1 presentations made within the FEI process.

3. Incorporation of tools & methods principle into the curriculum
The control curriculum contained five qualitative tools. The five tools selected were a personal journal, personal collage, concept map, mind map and the opportunity matrix. Students also completed brainstorming and brainwriting exercises. The treatment curriculum contained arts based creativity tools such as the metaphorming, visioning and story telling in addition to traditional ones.

In the Worcester transportation challenge, we successfully customized the classic Front end of innovation process with traditional and arts based creativity tools to solve pressing transportation problems. We customized the control and treatment curricula utilizing the Thota framework for innovation. Both the control and treatment groups of students utilized concrete skill sets they learned in the class and co-created novel solutions to solve Worcester’s transportation problems.

HThotaDr. Hamsa Thota is the president of Innovation Business Development, Inc. (IBD, USA), training and consulting company specializing in innovation performance improvement. He was past president and chairman of the Product Development and Management Association (PDMA). He served as a senior advisor to the art of science learning (ASL) civic innovation challenge research project held in Worcester, Massachusetts.

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