“How do we design more inclusive spaces that promote creativity and diversity?” — Is a question that every company, university, and administrator that is designing products or spaces is currently considering. It’s a major key to thriving environments! Here in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture (VCEA) at WSU this has been a perennial discussion topic for several decades. Yet we remain decidedly average in diversity numbers. We seem stuck in the same rut as most while we watch companies like Google accelerate into the future. The key questions remain intractable: Why are we stuck? How do we fix it given our limited resources? And what can we do now?

Why we are stuck:

One of my good friends and mentors from my days at the University of Idaho is Regents Professor Dan Bukvich. In a 2014 interview with the UI Alumni magazine about his lifetime of achievement, Dan summed up the problem:

“I’ve been to a lot of places where people designed spaces for themselves and ended up incredibly limited.”

When given a windfall donation the vast majority of Universities and traditional companies will F themselves- fractionate and fractalize. Dan observed that music programs tend to carve out a percussion room, vocal room, strings room, performance halls, etc. Pretty soon they find in-group/out-group dynamics, siloing, and a lack of overlap and cohesion. Sound familiar? WSU has done the same thing. This is a natural result of faux-performance based thinking in the authoritarian-legalistic v-Meme. The authoritarian and legalistic v-Meme structures are naturally tree-like due to simplified design laws that culminate in fractal geometries. Do the same thing over and over again whenever you get more sunlight/resources and eventually you will cover all of your bases. Read my prior post “How Universities Evolved Tree-like Structures” for more.

The problem? Accelerating change. Trees tend not to pull up their roots to evolve and adapt quickly to new stimuli. They die and hope an offspring starts over with the right derivative skill set. Another word typically used to describe these types of organisms and organizations is “waterfall”– things flow one-way and you can’t go back, everything must be done by a certain time and you move on. For those of you familiar with the current problems of the Acadamy, it’s a real question whether we’ll make it through the 21st century without revolution.

Within MME we’re currently considering how to renovate our Design, Manufacturing, and Controls (DMC) Faculty and curriculum. Do we carve out a space to design, another space to build, another to assemble, and a final to test? Or can we think of another way?

We’re stuck, and it doesn’t look good.

Thankfully, we only tend to act like trees in a psychological v-Meme sense. We’re not a one-and-done tree, unlike the waterfall we must continually improve and iterate. We can change the program and fix it whenever we realize that we can and must.

How we can fix it

Let’s bring this back to the University of Idaho and my friend Dan Bukvich. Where most schools have many rehearsal halls and the fractionated approach to space allocation, the UI School of Music has just 1 rehearsal hall for everything. How is this possible? It’s literally used all day, every day. Given the limited resources the UI had at the time, the faculty came together and came up with a system to turn the space over in less than ten minutes for the next group. They innovated incredible transitions between classes to get the space converted quickly for the next group, whether percussion, strings, or vocal. The result? Idaho is known internationally for incredibly creative, high-energy transitions between performances, and student and faculty collaborations that transcend traditional boundaries in novel ways. That’s no accident — they forced themselves to innovate with what they had (people) and thereby freed themselves of the traditional building/space/money pits. They have to take a systemic v-Meme approach to realize the space must quickly look and act entirely differently to accept the new class, faculty member approach, and instrument paradigm. The result? The UI performs on performance night regardless of the group.

No surprise, this systemic v-Meme propagates to those close by. The UI has another fantastic example of systemic v-Meme use of space that’s even more relevant to VCEA in the UI Mechanical Engineering Department. The UI Capstone Design program was recently recognized by the National Academy of Engineering as one of 8 “Exemplary” programs for creating real-world engineering experiences. On the surface you’ll see a hub and spoke style design with a core machine shop, assembly area, design space, and club space. But the real magic is how the people are structured within the space. Rather than having graduate students associated with fractionated classes, the UI paired graduate students with sponsored projects and competitions, which adds a vertical project-centered aspect to their curriculum. Lean manufacturing is also a key focus.

Lean manufacturing is the Japanese design philosophy focusing on client empathy and continuous improvement of practice. The UI ME program is very “lean” through connecting course projects to continuously improve the function of the space. The music program does something very similar through educational-focused student projects. When everyone, and every class is continuously improving this core functioning area, and the community rallies around completion of sponsored projects, you see incredibly innovated results anchored in the physical world. It’s no coincidence that the UI won the NAE recognition and has won many SAE Clean Snowmobile Awards and the SAE Formula-hybrid competition.

This type of environment that is quickly reconfigurable, adaptable, and focused on real-world product delivery is known as “Agile” within the design world. The term “Agile” spun out of the philosophies of lean manufacturing to dominate the world of software engineering. Agile methods are well established online. What’s important to note is that I’m not advocating an either “Agile” or “Waterfall” approach, I’m simply advocating that we do more than just traditional “Waterfall”. Here’s a great read on Agile in a Waterfall World. Our library has an e-book version of the textbook: “Agile Practices for Waterfall Projects“.

With excellent equipment, facilities, staff, students, and textbook resources like those above, just about the only reason we at WSU have for not doing agile systems is that we have just enough money not to be forced to. The UI had to resort to systemic v-Meme, agile methods and spaces because they did not have enough resources from the state to do anything else several decades ago. Now that WSU’s resources are strained by the new Medical School and aggressive hiring of new tenure track faculty lines without additional staff, we too are approaching the must-change event horizon.

What we can do now

We need to take stock of our existing spaces. What percentage of the week are they utilized? Are they doing real work for our community and regional constituents? How empathetic are the spaces to users and neighboring spaces (i.e. do people know what is happening so that they can help)?

We can then start integrating and sharing our spaces for both research and teaching. When we are aligned with actually producing real product for our constituents, the lines between research and teaching blur. A design-build-assembly-test hub can be carved out of within bigger spaces and through combinations of spaces. The more you blur the lines between design-build-assemble-test, the more innovation and iteration you will get.

Aligning our people around real, sponsored projects for the constituents of our region changes our values to the core. Dr. Chuck has been advocating for a project Arrivals and Departures board for years. This kind of information flow can be accomplished by pairing graduate students and faculty with projects instead of classes. They can then get several classes working on aspects of their projects. The students get more from real world experiences, and the entire program gets more funding from the region. HINT: That’s a positive synergy. Another key result from this — the classic problem of deciding what courses to teach becomes easier. We teach the courses that our projects and region need us to teach to continue to deliver the products they need!

Many have said we need a new $60 million building to do this kind of thing. That would help. But we need to just do what we can, with what we have, where we are at. We just need to begin.

The resource crunch is necessitating a phase change on the horizon, and before we double down on the command and control waterfall of old, we need to embrace our quickly changing agile future.