History by design: RRU launches fifth Design Thinking Challenge

They’re the places you go to step into the lives and worlds of those who came before. Museums offer a window (or a display case) into the past. But they have the potential to be much more than a place to house archaeological collections and historical records.

They can be a home for new ways of thinking, too says Kim Gough, learning program developer for the Royal BC Museum.

“Some people think of museums as dusty places with only old stories and history in them,” says Gough, who began her role with the RBCM in 2007 after working for more than a decade in Alberta museums, heritage sites and interpretation centres. “But I think museums can be much more about our contemporary society. They can be about current issues and they can also be forward thinking.”

And that might mean thinking beyond a museum’s four walls and considering what can be offered beyond a physical exhibit or on-site program.

Designing our future to meet with our past

Ten teams of university students from across Canada and the US will grapple with how museums might do just that during the fifth annual Royal Roads Design Thinking Challenge, an online event where teams of business students compete against one another to create solutions to a real-world problem.

Using design thinking, an innovative approach to solving complex problems using empathy and continuous prototyping, students will step into an important public conversation at a unique moment in the history of both the province and the museum.

Museums across the country and around the world are at a critical time of “reckoning,” including dealing with issues of systemic racism, Gough says.

“We really need to address that head on and to think about how that is impacting our community and people who visit us and don't visit us,” she says. “We need to think in new ways, and this feels like a really wonderful opportunity to think in a new way.”

Teams will try to solve the complex problem of how this year’s client, the RBCM, might offer a more vibrant experience for the people and communities it serves.

The recent Museum of Vancouver exhibit c̓əsnaʔəm is an excellent example of that, Gough says. The collaborative, multi-site exhibit featured an important ancestral village of the Musqueam First Nation.

“They would have an artifact that was maybe 1,000 years old and talked about the impact of that artifact and that knowledge on the community today,” she says, noting that the storytellers were community members, rather than an unseen narrator.

“What I see are the best examples of museums trying to do is give space for communities to represent themselves and be their own storytellers,” she says.

A process that encourages courage

This year’s challenge question is an important one with layers of both complexity and opportunity, says DTC co-organizer and School of Business assoc. faculty member Michael Pardy.  It’s the kind of question with more than one answer – the kind tailor-made for design thinking.

“Design is a process that encourages courage,” he says. “These conversations can be heavy and very serious, but I think they can also be an opportunity for celebration and joy and excitement. We wanted a challenge that would allow us to really dig into those things.”

It’s a win-win opportunity for both the iconic provincial institution and for challenge participants who get the chance to have a conversation currently in the public domain, Pardy says.

“We like to think that students remember everything that we teach them. But when you run into a student from 10 years ago and you ask them, ‘what do you remember about what I did in class?’ It’s usually not the lecture on comparative ethics. It’s this kind of experience that sits with you and shapes how you see yourself in the world.”

And that experience is profoundly powerful, he says. In particular, this year’s challenge is an opportunity for students to experience what it feels like to support transformational change.

For RRU Bachelor of Commerce in Entrepreneurial Management student and DTC participant Mark Wyse, transformational change begins with value creation – something he employs in his role as a management consultant and what he hopes to bring to both his team and the challenge.

“I'm really excited about coming up with solutions that co-create value,” he says. “That's something that really interests me. I just think that this is a critical time to take a different mindset and think about value creation as opposed to just solving problems,” he says.

Fellow BCom student and teammate Amar Singh says design thinking lends itself perfectly to the process of discovering what it is that people value.

“I hope to develop and take away the skill of listening with empathy to others,” he says. “I guess what excites me the most is discovering different perspectives on the same matter by talking to others and having my own biases shattered.”

Gough can already imagine what role the museum might play in the years to come.

She sees a place that gives space for communities to represent themselves – one that helps British Columbians contemplate our past, while connecting it to the present and the future. And its reach would span well beyond its physical location near Victoria’s inner harbor.

“The museum would be an exciting place, not a quiet place. It might be buzzing, it might be loud — people laughing, crying and wanting to gather together. To me, that would be a beautiful place to work in and to be in.”

She says she has no doubt student teams will play a key role in making a vision like that a reality.

“I think the ideas are just going to be so creative and provide some new perspectives and I’m really excited about that.”

The preliminary round of the challenge began Jan 31. Rounds two and three will be held virtually over four days March 4 to 7, 2022.

The first Royal Roads Design Thinking Educators’ Conference runs parallel to the event from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, March 6, 2022. There will also be a pre-conference plenary event the day before from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The conference will include keynote addresses, networking opportunities and participant-led sessions. Register now.