The Center for Creativity and Innovation may be 15 years old, but it’s still an idea whose time has come. “In the late ‘90s, companies recognized the need for agility to compete in global, fluid markets,” says Lisa Gundry, director of the center and a professor in the Driehaus College of Business. “Now those pressures are even more intense. Companies, large and small, need to embrace constant change. Doing that requires creativity and innovation. In the center, we’re helping prepare students for the reality of working in our highly competitive world.”

The center does this by hosting guest speakers in classes, sponsoring problem-solving projects that bring together students and companies, and offering extracurricular programs, seminars, and workshops. Its annual Student Innovation Awards is a showcase of student talent and initiative, and its new Design Thinking Group (DTG) is a cutting-edge experiment in giving students real-world exposure to collaboration in the work place. “We give students a lot of opportunities to become purposefully innovative,” says Gundry. 

Javier Monllor, an assistant professor in the Driehaus College of Business, agrees:  “The center is a great resource for helping students make the jump from idea to execution. With its programs, courses, events, and Innovation Lab, the center shows students how to put their imaginations to the test. As a result, our graduates are innovative in the real world; they’re using their creativity to go out and do things, to solve problems and change the world.”

Imagination at Work

That pragmatism is apparent in the center’s annual Student Innovation Awards.

For 2016, students were asked to come up with solutions for challenges posed by three companies: SAP, the global market leader in enterprise application software; UI Labs, an “innovation accelerator” that enables collaboration among companies, researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors; and Nervana, a digital design and interactive technology startup.

SAP asked for a solution that would improve the flow of information to its 80,000 employees and 320,000 customers. The winner, Gerardo Garza, Jr. (BS ’16), proposed a mobile phone app that would provide current, constant access to news about products and services. “The app connects people—everyone, everywhere, all day,” he says. “Just as important, it’s easy to make and maintain. ” When discussing the value of the competition, Garza says he put everything he had learned in class into action. The enterprising student was also named the Dean’s Outstanding Senior, an award reflecting scholarship, leadership, and service.

Teri Hamann, the Global Head of Go-To-Market & Growth Initiatives for SAP and a DePaul alum, says that “innovation matters a lot at SAP. We’re not a startup—in fact, just the opposite—but there’s plenty of room for innovation in a big company, too. We must innovate to remain relevant, and execution has to be flawless. In a global business like SAP, creativity is collaborative and borderless. However, having an idea is not enough; the ability to implement and execute on that idea matters just as much. The center gets that: More universities should have a center like this, with programs like the Student Innovation Awards.”

UI Labs wanted a way to make urban transportation systems more efficient. The winner, Morgan Schulhof (BS ’16), designed an app that would reduce congestion by offering alternatives for getting from point A to point B. “Moving through the city, with as little frustration and hassle as possible—that affects me personally, every day,” she says. “My solution considers travel preferences—comfort, speed, and price—to recommend a ‘best option’ based on the time of day and traffic conditions. I enioyed having a chance to suggest a solution that would really help people.” 

Nervana asked the students to address one of the world’s 10 most pressing problems, and Evan Bennett (MS ’16) tackled “Growth for Good,” which refers to sustainable business activity that creates social, environmental, and economic value. He designed a model for community-supported agriculture which requires collaboration among small farms, grocery stores, transportation providers, and non-profits such as the Garfield Park Conservatory Alliance and Local Harvest. “My experience at DePaul, including this contest, was transformative,” he says. “I was encouraged to invent, explore, and start new things. As much as I was willing to put in, I got more out.”

The “Next Thing”

The center’s newest program is the Design Thinking Group, which enables students to work on short- or long-term projects. “DTG is real, hands-on work in which our students collaborate with participating businesses in the development of effective products, services, technologies, and processes,” says Gundry. The methodology of ‘design thinking’ begins with an understanding of consumers: What are users’ needs and expectations? Armed with insights, the team generates ideas and solutions. Then during the prototyping stage, the designers get feedback from potential users. And finally, the product is launched.

“We’re inviting students from business, public policy, computing and digital media, health and science, communications—from everywhere and anywhere in the university community,” says Gundry. “Participating in such a dynamic, complete process will give our students unmatched experience, far above and beyond what’s typical in a university setting. The center has always been distinctive, but this really puts us on the map.”

DePaul University is one of the country’s most innovative schools, according to U.S. News & World Report. This story highlights one way that faculty innovate in research, in the classroom, and in the community.