Robbie ’69 emphasizes innovation, creativity

Thayer School of Engineering professor Peter Robbie '69 encouraged students to practice design thinking.

Design thinkers must use empathy, creativity, collaboration and playfulness when addressing complex problems, Thayer School of Engineering professor Peter Robbie ’69 said during a Social Enterprise and Economic Development Society lecture Tuesday evening. Design thinking is a unique method of problem solving that attempts to satisfy individuals’ needs in a manner that is both feasible and profitable, according to Robbie.

While production consists of “exploiting existing knowledge and perfecting repetition,” innovation centers around “trying to explore new knowledge,” Robbie said. Robbie cited the development of the Toyota Prius as an example of a production company creating a truly innovative product.

“The development of the Toyota Prius totally debunked the image of Toyota as a safe, boring company,” Robbie said. He added that developing the hybrid car required the company to assume greater risks than it had in the past.

Robbie also introduced the idea of the “knowledge funnel,” a concept coined by University of Toronto Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin. In this model, knowledge moves on a continuum from “mystery” to “heuristic” to “algorithm” and finally to “code,” Robbie said. Heuristics are “rules of thumb” derived from experience, algorithms are ways to apply this knowledge and code consists of “embedded algorithms that ensure the automatic application of that knowledge,” he said

This knowledge funnel is critical to the advancement of ideas and to the concept of design thinking as a whole, according to Robbie.

“Radical innovation only occurs when you get to the next level of the knowledge funnel,” he said.

Robbie distinguished between design thinking and analytical thinking, by describing the latter as a more common way of interpreting a knowledge paradigm.

“But in design thinking, you are trying to advance to the next knowledge state in the knowledge funnel,” he said.

Engineers seeking to reach this next level face two major challenges, he said. They must use the correct design process for the appropriate issue and they also have to learn when to utilize design thinking or analytical thinking.

Robbie profiled several groups of Dartmouth students and alumni, as well as various entrepreneurs from across the globe, currently engaged in design thinking.

A group of students in the course Introduction to Engineering, for example, recently developed a more effective way to teach children how to ride a bike, he said.

“The group developed a project called the Gyrobike, which has a gyro on the front wheel in order to help stabilize it,” Robbie said. “Kids were able to learn how to ride the bike really easily as a result.”

The lesson learned from the Gyrobike is that empathy matters, he said.

“It’s just one of those nice stories that began with an empathic connection with children, whereas some adults would say that all kids should struggle to learn to ride the bike,” Robbie said.

Robbie also emphasized the importance of maintaining a focus on the user, a concept that is illustrated by the varying levels of effectiveness of anti-smoking advertisements produced by Phillip Morris and the American Legacy Foundation Campaign. Phillip Morris is the nation’s leading cigarette manufacturer while the American Legacy Foundation Campaign produces and distributes anti-smoking literature.

“By 2002, the Journal of Public Health conducted a survey to determine which organization’s ad had a better effect,” Robbie said. “Teens watching the [Phillip Morris] ad were 33 percent more likely to smoke, while those watching the [Legacy Foundation] ad were 66 percent less likely to smoke.”

Robbie emphasized the need for design thinkers to be curious and “think differently.”

A project conducted by another Introduction to Engineering group in which the students attempted to bake a cake without using an oven also illustrates the importance of creative problem solving.

“The group put a metal bar on either side of the Pyrex pan so that the [electric] current flows through the cake batter itself, so it heats up,” Robbie said. “At 210 degrees Fahrenheit, the cake was done.”

Design thinking has the potential to help solve many pressing problems across the world, Robbie said.
Two Dartmouth alumni are currently manufacturing bamboo bicycles for African children, he said. Because the bamboo bicycles will be more affordable than those imported from China, such an invention demonstrates the power of innovative responses to modern challenges, Robbie said.

SEEDS is a student group that aims to educate the Dartmouth community about social entrepreneurship and economic development issues, as well as provide hands-on and pre-professional experience to its members, according to the organization’s website.

The presentation, “Design Thinking for Economic Development,” took place in Carson Hall.

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