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Stanford's Institute of Design: School for world changers

Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, create 'empathy driven' curricula, which push design that improves lives.

By Esha ChhabraContributor / September 30, 2011

Instructor Adam Royalty coaches a team through the tricky process of analyzing their user research to discover insights that will help generate concepts for new devices.

Courtesy of the d.school

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This school doesn't really have classrooms. In fact, Stanford University's Institute of Design in California isn't really a "school," jokes Prof. Jim Patell. Instead of classrooms, there are clusters of discussion and activity. Instead of blackboards, its walls come covered in massive sheets of white paper, design sketches, and countless Post-it notes. Instead of relying on final exams alone, the program measures success by how its students improve lives in the developing world.

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Stanford's Institute of Design, more commonly referred to as d.school, specializes in pooling students from all different areas of study. Here, public-policy wonks mix with computer scientists, engineers, and medical students. Despite its quirks, or rather because of them, students compete for seats in d.school classes – compete for a chance to step outside academia and start changing the real world.

"There's a lot of brilliant students at Stanford," says Sunny Jeon, a PhD candidate at the university in Stanford. "So, when you put them all together in a class that pushes them to innovate and develop practical solutions to the world's problems, you get some really interesting ideas and feel like your work can make a difference in somebody's life."

Mr. Jeon recently returned from Kenya, where he worked on his d.school project before the new semester begins this month.

He's developing a crowdsourcing system with two classmates – policy-focused Katharine Hoffman and computer scientist Anuraag Chigurupati – that will enable people in Kibera to locate clean sources of water using mobile phones.

The d.school identifies problems and solutions by examining the intersection of human values, technology, and business. Jeon's project reflects this approach: a community focus, looking at underserved areas, taking advantage of mobile phones (the most common computer in many parts of the world), and aiming for low-cost solutions.

Professor Patell drills that last point home in his "Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability" class, one of d.school's original classes. This year, he's had 90 applicants for just 40 spots. Patell, one of the institute's seven cofounders, has been teaching students how to build products for underserved markets for eight years.

In the process, students have traveled to Ethiopia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal, and Rwanda for research and development. It's all part of d.school's "empathy driven" approach to business.

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