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UI graduate brings life of innovation to campus

Sun., Oct. 10, 2010

Ron Walters teaches design thinking to UI students last month.  (Associated Press)
Ron Walters teaches design thinking to UI students last month. (Associated Press)

‘Design Thinking’ pushes students

MOSCOW, Idaho – Meg Browning isn’t afraid of having her mind blown. Ron Walters is just the man to do it.

Browning, a University of Idaho accounting and economics student, is expanding her mental horizons this semester, enrolling in Walters’ “Design Thinking Unlimited” course that is cross-pollinating the minds of business and design students.

“I think that’s the point of the class,” said Browning, a 21-year-old senior from Moscow, “to pull your mind in new directions, and to have the values that I have accumulated questioned.”

If that’s what Browning wants, Walters can deliver. Now a principal at NBBJ, the global architecture and design firm based in Seattle, Walters’ life is full of cracked conventions and innovative ideas.

As a UI architecture student in 1968, he joined with the nascent campus computer club to create pioneering digital maps that integrated data on geology, hydrology, soils and other factors for a theoretical zoo design project.

“It was one of the first uses of computers and planning and architecture,” Walters said.

An Associated Press reporter in Spokane got wind of the project and drove to Moscow to interview Walters. The resulting story garnered so much attention that Walters got invitations to speak at conferences around the country, all expenses paid.

“That was pretty heady stuff for a farm boy from Idaho,” he said.

That was just the beginning of Walters’ forays into innovation. He was inspired by Ian McHarg’s 1969 book “Design With Nature,” which pioneered the concept of ecological planning. After graduating in 1970, he wanted to work for an architecture firm that practiced those concepts.

But Walters found that none existed.

So at the age of 24, he quit looking and founded his first company, Comarc Systems, in San Francisco. Comarc rode the wave of regulations created by the newly founded Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California, creating a niche for itself in environmental planning.

Again, computers played a big role in Walters’ success. Comarc was one of the pioneer developers and users of geographic information systems, or GIS, the now ubiquitous field that merges mapping, databases and statistical analysis.

Comarc worked around the globe, mapping the entire state of Alaska, creating the land-use plan for all of Malaysia, and creating forest management systems for timber companies. In the process, it developed GIS to the point where it could be sold as a stand-alone system to governments and businesses worldwide.

“I was taught to design buildings,” he said. “Nobody told me I could design businesses.”

That led Walters to even greater innovations. In the early 1980s, banks that were expanding due to deregulation used his methods to understand their customers in ways they never thought possible. He and his consultants even started creating strategic plans for other businesses and communities using what he calls “relational databases management systems.”

“Every person lives and works somewhere,” Walters said. “If we know these and other factors, we can mathematically connect everything about them.”

With so much work, Walters said he burned out, sold the company and went out on his own to do strategic planning consulting. He eventually was hired as a consultant by the international business services firm Deloitte, but found his colleagues were all MBAs.

That turned out to be an advantage. Walters was chosen for some projects precisely because he knew nothing about them, and could bring a fresh mind to the problems involved. For instance, he was chosen to redesign the faltering Fred Meyer company because he had no experience in retail.

And it is that kind of thinking, freewheeling and innovative, that led Walters back to his alma mater this fall.

“Design thinking is now being used as a business term, and that’s a great thing,” he said, seated in a suit and tie in the UI Commons rotunda. “But why stop there?”

He is teaching his students – half from the College of Business and half from the College of Art and Architecture – to use his brand of thinking to solve the “wicked” problems of the world.

“These are the problems where there is no basis for agreement on what the problem is, let alone what the solution is,” he said.

Walters didn’t hold back on the first assignment he gave students: redesign Congress.

“In a week, no less,” Browning said when talking about the initial shock of the task.

And there was more shock – culture shock – when she was thrown together with two architecture students, Browning said. She had some very specific ideas to bring to the table, but her team members were used to thinking in much more general terms.

“I was a tad bit frustrated at first,” Browning said. “But then I realized that this was planned. (Walters) probably wanted to do this to me, and was trying to teach me something.”

The resulting experience was enlightening, she said. And Walters said he got his turn to be blown away, when the students made their presentations.

The class’s next project will deal with Walters’ current passion, the re-creation of strong, community-based economies.

“Until our local economies work, we can’t really contribute to our national economy,” Walters said.

The students will work on designing a local economic ecosystem that is self-sustaining, then connect it with the world’s larger economic structures.

And, he added, land-grant institutions like the UI are perfectly positioned to provide the leadership that will reinvent the world and solve any number of those wicked problems.

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