Embracing Complexity to Foster the Blue Economy
Capstone course challenges students to explore a holistic view of innovation
What does it take to make an impact? The term is frequently used, but few have attempted to define it and try to understand how it happens.
Work completed by the Purdue Innovation Science Team, led by Joe Sinfield, professor of civil engineering, indicates that impact can be framed as the achievement of shifts in the paradigms underpinning one’s field; influence on the human condition along dimensions such as health, culture, the environment and economics; reach in the sharing or effects of ideas across individuals, groups or society as a whole; and change that has lasting effect. And, it turns out, there are patterns to the ways impact is achieved — patterns that are rooted in means to navigate the complexity of socio-technical systems.
The fall 2020 semester provided undergraduates with an opportunity to apply these patterns in the course “Breakthrough Thinking for Complex Challenges,” which is the capstone to the University-wide Minor in Innovation and Transformational Change also led by Sinfield who serves as the director of the College of Engineering Innovation and Leadership Studies Program. Students in the course worked in close collaboration with representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy Water Power Technologies Office, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Pacific Northwest National Lab to help define a comprehensive strategy to foster the Blue Economy — that is the socio-technical ecosystem enabled by Marine Renewable Energy (MRE).
“What we’re trying to do with this capstone class is to get students to think about what it takes to manage the full pathway from an idea to impact,” Sinfield said. “You can have a great idea, but if you cannot prioritize among potential solution paths, potential users won’t adopt the solution, or you can’t realize the concept in a sustainable manner, it won’t scale; and many of the decisions made at the outset of an effort significantly alter its potential.”
The theory and methods students learn throughout the minor’s curriculum and apply in the capstone course are designed to equip them with the tools they need to assess this full suite of issues.
“A lot of ambitious and well-intentioned projects fail because we’re not looking at the problem broadly enough,” Sinfield said. “We often try to simplify problems to make them tractable, but this is actually where we can miss critical details that make all the difference in connecting a problem and a solution in a viable manner. The minor, and the ‘Breakthrough’ course in particular, encourages students to embrace this complexity and provides students with the experiential learning opportunity that can help them apply their knowledge of innovation science in their future careers.”
Civil engineering undergraduate Sean Murphy said the lessons he learned through coursework in this minor greatly enhanced his understanding and approach to his other classes.
“When you first look at a complex problem it can seem overwhelming but when you break it down systematically, the pieces start to come together,” he said. “And what I’ve taken away from this minor, I’ve used in my other engineering classes and projects. It’s really helped me take my understanding and approach to problems to a higher level.”
The work was supported by a grant from the DOE’s Water Power Technologies Office and results of the effort are being incorporated in the WPTO’s annual strategic planning process.
Sinfield is excited about the quality and comprehensiveness of the class’s output and believes that the project showcases what students can achieve when equipped with the powerful methods of innovation science.