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How ‘Design Thinking’ Activates ‘Fearless Ideas’ in Forthcoming Course from Smith

Feb 13, 2014
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“Dreaming with responsibility” and “dreaming in a pragmatic way” are among Gerald Suarez’s descriptors for students processing his forthcoming course, “Create the Future Through Systems Thinking and Design.”

Launching in fall 2014 and open to University of Maryland undergrads of any major, the class will provide tools and a framework for exploring and translating “audacious ideas to action and action into marketable goods and services,” said Suarez, Professor of the Practice in Systems Thinking and Design at UMD’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

Designated as a “Fearless Ideas Innovation/Entrepreneurship Course” by UMD’s Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (AIE), the effort stems, in part, from a “systems thinking” course Suarez developed in 2007 for Smith’s Quality Enhancement Systems and Teams (QUEST) program, which he formerly directed.

The new class will engage students in mental creation, imagination and contemplation, then guide them into action. Along the way, they should become adept in “design thinking methods and strategy” in the context of social value creation and be able to recognize:

  • Why it’s imperative to proactively activate and influence the future
  • Why innovators should think about the future
  • What makes shaping the future so challenging
  • The role of interactive planning in creating the future
  • Implications of design thinking to management

The role of vision, imagination and contemplation in the process of design

“The students will create innovative products or services that influence causes they believe in or dissolve issues that frustrate them,” said Suarez. “This in effect is empowering, dynamic, student-centered and reality-based.”

Projects by Suarez’s then-QUEST students illustrate this vision. Here are a few examples:

  • weBike, an idea for stationless bike sharing that evolved to a 5-year venture, serving communities in Maryland.
  • Shutters4Scholars, a foundation that generated and funneled donations to UCARE Inc., an established nonprofit organization supporting orphaned children in Ukraine.
  • “Self-sanitizing Escalator,” an innovative idea for sanitizing the handrail of automatic escalators that has drawn patent-pending status.

“The class’ simplicity was its greatest strength,” said weBike co-developer Brad Eisenberg (UMD ’09), now director of development for greeNEWit, a Columbia, Md.-based energy efficiency company. “There were no constraints – no competition guidelines, no team-building requirements, no clients – just a project, a passion and the tools and teachings to make systemic change.”

The students ultimately can “accelerate their own pathway to their aspirations,” Suarez said. “This counteracts day-to-day rigors of coursework and balancing other commitments and pursuits, which can derail them from thinking and acting for the future they aspire to.”

The course also will encourage each student to inspire and collaborate with one another. At semester’s end, they will present their projects, individually or in teams, to a panel of faculty and industry experts and leaders.

As a “Fearless Ideas” designee, Suarez’s course receives $5,000 in developmental funding through AIE, with additional funding for subsequent offerings. Reference material will include Suarez’s forthcoming book, “Leader of One: A Guide to Shaping the Future through Imagination and Design.”

“For students, the creative process is very challenging,” said Suarez. “It’s easy to think of a great idea, but it’s hard to prototype it and implement it. This course provides the platform to migrate from thought to action. This is as real as it gets.”

Eisenberg describes Suarez’s class through QUEST as “by far the most influential course I took while at UMD. I still use the principles I learned in that class in my current role building systems, technologies and processes for a growing startup company.

”I really credit Dr. Suarez for opening up a world of possibilities for me,” he added. “He showed that you don't have to follow the mold of a traditional career, but rather you can follow your passions and affect change simply by changing your mindset and allowing yourself to do so.”

Eisenberg’s predecessors now will follow a refined blueprint. “I’m aware of no other university-level course that’s focused to this extent on shaping your future, even though it’s expected, or even taken for granted, that a student’s future will be shaped along the way to completing a degree,” said Suarez.

Watch Suarez’s recent, related TED Talk at Loyola Marymount University.

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business 

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, MS in business, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.