Royal Roads takes Design Thinking Challenge 2020 online


This year’s Royal Roads University Design Thinking Challenge put the emphasis on “challenge” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. No one expected that the event, scheduled to run in Toronto in collaboration with Rotman Commerce, would become a fully virtual experience. Royal Roads organizers rose to the challenge and offered students from six competing teams across Canada a rich, interactive day of learning. The action-packed schedule included feedback sessions with judges, keynote speakers, and mingling activities for students and practitioners.

Challenge judge July Mellett, head of Telus’s Service Design and Strategy, was impressed by the pivot to an online environment.

“While I enjoy the live format of presentations and being able to interact in person with the teams, the quality and depth of work and the storytelling were not compromised,” she says. “It was inspiring to see the organizers and students adapt and work so flexibly to accommodate an unanticipated situation.” 

Chris Ferguson, Royal Roads Bachelor of Commerce graduate and founder of service design consultancy Bridgeable kicked off the event with a keynote address about the twists and turns that led to what he does today.

“In my twenties, I ran an organic farm on Vancouver Island, then I went to business school, and that led to another thing, and then another. It’s going to feel like there’s this pressure to decide your whole career. I would say it’s more important to know the next stop on your journey and how to do that well, but that’s all you need,” he says.

Student teams worked on the design challenge for the City of Toronto, engaging in creative work using virtual breakout rooms to prepare their ideas for the judges.

The challenge: finding solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by single family homes that could then be applied in Toronto, where the City wants to retrofit thousands of homes to help meet emissions goals.

City of Toronto Program Manager and challenge client Stewart Dutfield works on the residential retrofit program. He says the work of all the student teams was remarkable.

“As clients, I think we were really impressed by the research the students did, traditional and otherwise, that allowed them to generate the spot-on understanding of the key concepts and challenges we face day-to-day in developing policies and programming to support retrofitting.”

Zidulka says she is proud of the students for taking on the challenge in a new way, and thankful for the adaptability embodied by the event judges and clients.

“I feel particularly gratified that the event seemed to be the right thing to be doing during COVID-19, rather than it feeling like something we were muscling through despite COVID-19. I felt it was the right moment for students to hear the message that there are alternative ways of doing business that are more adaptive and more grounded and attuned to humanity,” she says.

Royal Roads University has been holding the challenge since 2018, and for the first time, the “home team” emerged victorious.

“Royal Roads’ background research was very comprehensive and established a solid foundation from which to build on,” Dutfield says.  “Their first presentation provided three very viable solutions and the one they chose to proceed with was very adaptable.”

Ferguson also addressed the unique situation and the challenge of global pandemic, pushing students to continue to find ways to do meaningful work.

“There are always opportunities to be helpful,” Ferguson says. “Be relentlessly useful.”