Innovation is the engine of opportunity. At its core is a commitment to experiential learning that encourages critical thinking and creative problem-solving while also engaging soft skills.

uae_innovates_qrThis mindset is fundamental to the future of the United Arab Emirates. So much so that, it is part of the ‘United in Knowledge’ pillar of Vision 2021 which focuses on innovative Emiratis building a competitive economy.

Emphasizing it’s importance, H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum explained, “Innovation is not an option, but a necessity. It is not a culture, but work style, and governments and companies that do not innovate risk losing their competitiveness and falling far behind.”

Having taught INV 300, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the American University in the Emirates since 2018, I am fortunate to actively participate in this process. 

In support of my engagement in entrepreneurship education, on May 31, 2018 I was selected as one of 30 educators from a pool of more than 400 by the United Arab Emirates Ministry of Education o join “Cohort 3″ of the “UAE Innovation and Entrepreneurship Education Program.”

Some background on the program:

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What is design thinking?  According to Coe Leta Stafford, Managing Director of IDEO U, “design thinking is a process for creative problem solving.” Fundamentally human-centric, it encourages organizations to focus on their customers first; this leads to the development of human-centered goods, services, and processes.

Design thinking is about solving problems for people by asking questions differently. Essentially, it provides a pathway through which you can improve your creative process — and turn an idea into action. 

The entire design thinking process is comprised of five stages: 1. Empathize, 2. Define, 3. Ideate, 4. Prototype, 5. Test.

According to the Stanford d.school publication. “An Introduction to Design Thinking: PROCESS GUIDE,” the five stages of the design thinking process can be explained as follows:

1. Empathize: Learn about the audience for whom you are designing. Empathy is the centerpiece of a human-centered design process; it is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge. It is your effort to understand the way they do things and why, their physical and emotional needs, how they think about world, and what is meaningful to them.

2. Define: Construct a point of view that is based on user needs and insights. The Define mode of the design process is all about bringing clarity and focus to the design space. It is your chance, and responsibility, as a design thinker to define the challenge you are taking on, based on what you have learned about your user and about the context. After becoming an instant-expert on the subject and gaining invaluable empathy for the person you are designing for, this stage is about making sense of the widespread information you have gathered. In a word, the Define mode is sensemaking.

Ideate: Brainstorm and come up with creative solutions. Ideate is the mode of the design process in which you concentrate on idea generation. Mentally it represents a process of “going wide” in terms of concepts and outcomes. Ideation provides both the fuel and also the source material for building prototypes and getting innovative solutions into the hands of your users.

3. Prototype: Build a representation of one or more of your ideas to show to others.The Prototype mode is the iterative generation of artifacts intended to answer questions that get you closer to your final solution. In the early stages of a project that question may be broad – such as “do my users enjoy cooking in a competitive manner?”

In these early stages, you should create low-resolution prototypes that are quick and cheap to make (think minutes and cents) but can elicit useful feedback from users and colleagues. In later stages both your prototype and question may get a little more refined. For example, you may create a later stage prototype for the cooking project that aims to find out: “do my users enjoy cooking with voice commands or visual commands”.

A prototype can be anything that a user can interact with – be it a wall of post-it notes, a gadget you put together, a role-playing activity, or even a storyboard. Ideally you bias toward something a user can experience. Walking someone through a scenario with a storyboard is good, but having them role-play through a physical environment that you have created will likely bring out more emotions and responses from that person.

4. Test: Return to your original user group and testing your ideas for feedback. Test mode is when you solicit feedback about your prototypes from your users and have another opportunity to gain empathy for the people you are designing for.

Testing is another opportunity to understand your user, but unlike your initial empathy mode, you have now likely done more framing of the problem and created prototypes to test. Both these things tend to focus the interaction with users, but don’t reduce your “testing” work to asking whether or not people like your solution. Instead, continue to ask “Why?”, and focus on what you can learn about the person and the problem as well as your potential solutions.

Ideally you can test within a real context of the user’s life. For a physical object, ask people to take it with them and use it within their normal routines. For an experience, try to create a scenario in a location that would capture the real situation. If testing a prototype is not possible, frame a more realistic situation by having users take on a role or task when approaching your prototype. A rule of thumb: always prototype as if you know you’re right, but test as if you know you’re wrong—testing is the chance to refine your solutions and make them better.

To further understand design thinking I invite you to view the following video, “The Design Thinking Process;” it cleverly and clearly explains the five stages in just under four minutes.

The main priority of the Year 3 project is to ensure the sustainability of the innovation and entrepreneurship curriculum in the UAE, with an additional focus on developing a core group of Program Ambassadors to deepen the impact of innovation and entrepreneurship education in the UAE. Year 3 program components are organized into 3 categories:

  1. Create and Develop an I&E Curriculum
  2. Support the Teaching of the I&E Curriculum
  3. Facilitate the Growth of the I&E Ecosystem

It is my honor to represent the American University in the Emirates as a pivotal part of this initiative and I am excited to contribute to innovation and entrepreneurship educational efforts in the UAE!

It’s  rewarding to get recognized for your role in education.

Case in point: I was selected by Maggie Williams to step into the June 2018 “Spotlight” of Chief Learning Officer Middle East. The Spotlight is a short interview completed virtually, face to face and can be written or video.

Through this profile I was invited to share my insights into education with the Chief Learning Officer Middle East community of educators, learning and development professionals, and human resources practitioners. 

Presented in question and answer format, I  addressed each of the following inquiries:

  • How would you describe the culture of your business?
  • What are the biggest challenges in the next 5 years?
  • What are the skills and competencies that you would need to train in order to meet the region’s talent requirements?
  • What is your Philosophy?
  • What’s next on your agenda?
  • How can people connect with me?

Of the seven questions above, the one I found most interesting was the second one: What are the biggest challenges in the next 5 years? My answer to that question follows:

I envision three big challenges facing higher education and corporate training in the next five years; they are broad in scope, but specific in application and can be characterized as: pedagogical, practical, and portable.

The first, pedagogical, means that all learning activities should be anchored to educational objectives; these provide parameters for the development of curriculum and metrics against which assessments can be measured. As educational offerings continue to embrace entertainment, it is essential to ensure there is still value to that experience.

The second, practical, acknowledges that learning should be useful and applicable to the real world; it might not be immediately actionable, but it should be relatable to the learners taking the course. Giving a nod to the influx of entertainment in learning, learning should leverage all technology and tools to make it as engaging and entertaining as possible — without sacrificing the integrity of the instruction.

The last challenge, portable, speaks to increased use of mobile devices as delivery devices. At the most basic level educational offerings should be developed using responsive design principles to ensure their accessibility on as many devices as possible. Ideally, learning modules will be specifically designed for mobile devices via customized apps, technology, or tools. Consideration should also be given to making content available offline and for users with low-bandwidth connections.

Do you agree — or disagree — with my predictions?

Teaching is a profession that can be as challenging as it is rewarding, but every now and then I am reminded why I chose this professional path.

In May I received a kind and heartfelt email from Omran Al Farsi, a human resources student at the American University in the Emirates. He had been  a student in my Principles of Management class during the spring semester which had recently concluded. 

The students in Omran’s class, which was one of my smallest at AUE, were uniquely mature and engaged; it felt more like a masters degree class than an undergraduate one.  We spent many of our class periods in the food court discussing management articles from the Harvard Business Review. It was refreshing and revitalizing.

And so, in some ways, I wasn’t surprised to receive a message from a student in that class. However, I was nevertheless surprised, inspired, and energized by Omran’s email; it was exceptionally thoughtful and sincere. The text of his message follows.

It is my pleasure to share it with you below:

“If my educational journey taught me two things, it would be the importance of knowledge and the person who is giving you that knowledge. Thus, I am forever grateful to you and appreciative for your mentoring throughout the course. You have taught me so many things academic related and in leadership on a personal level. I never heard your name mentioned without students and instructors complimenting you as a person and instructor. I found out why when I first attended your class. You have one of the most pure and kind hearts I have ever encountered in my life.” — Omran Al Farsi, Human Resource Management Student at American University in the Emirates