Having started in April as managing director of Holland-based NewNorth Center for Design in Business, Jason Kehrer believes there’s opportunity to expand the nonprofit’s mission to K-12 education. While the “unconsulting” firm typically focuses on applying design thinking to business, government and nonprofits, NewNorth Center has turned its attention to working with teachers, administrators, students and family members at Godfrey Lee Public Schools in Wyoming, as well as other schools. Kehrer thinks that the design-centered thinking approach that’s popular with many private sector organizations has significant crossover appeal for the changing public education sector. Kehrer spoke with MiBiz on how this is playing out.
Broadly speaking, what is NewNorth’s approach to design thinking?
I think our first evolution … was really focused on helping to stabilize great companies in West Michigan, … to help them think in more of a creative fashion. In the second evolution, as the economy stabilized a bit, we started to really help businesses and organizations of all kinds to use design thinking or human-centered design — pick the term you like the best — and apply that process to not just product design but experiences and services and complex systems.
I think the third evolution, where we are now, is really seeing how the West Michigan community works as an entire ecosystem.
How does it play out across different areas of the economy and society?
We’re looking at cross-sector approaches to things, from businesses to education to government and the social sector. It’s realizing that sectors like education, particularly K-12, that haven’t typically applied the principles of design or design thinking — they have a lot to learn and a lot to benefit from. Businesses have seen the power of it.
How does design apply to K-12 education?
There aren’t many more complex systems than K-12 education, especially in the public sector. Applying these tools and this approach and these principles to that has been a really rewarding experience for us. And it makes our business work better, too. We provide kind of a hub, almost, to help people and businesses get connected to the public education sector and vice versa, which doesn’t always happen as smoothly as I think we all assume it does.
What makes Godfrey Lee an appealing place for this work?
What’s been nice about the Godfrey Lee projects is that it functions almost like a lab. It’s a small district that has leadership in place that wants to try stuff. My hope is that, and what we’ve pitched is, let’s learn from this. We’re not going to solve it here, but we might solve part of it. Holland Christian might solve part of it. Let’s make sure we’re at least providing a conduit for learning there. The second you decide you’re going to fix it all is the second it all falls apart.
What does NewNorth do to understand the kids and then design solutions?
In the case of Godfrey Lee, we had a group of teachers and administrators, about 20 we had been working with over the course of the last year. We basically taught them the 101 of human-centered design. What does that process look like? What does the toolset look like and more importantly what are the mindsets we need to have? Then we taught them how to do ethnographic interviewing, or design research.
What happened after that?
Then we sent them out into the community and they went into about 16 different families that they interviewed in small teams. They spent time in their homes for 60- to 75-minute interviews. And they listened. It wasn’t a focus group, it was just listening on their turf to understand what life was like — good, bad and ugly. From that, we gained a really good picture of their community and then we started to design, come up with great ideas of new ways to learn and what classrooms should look like and what the school could do for the community.
What makes an organization like NewNorth, which is populated with design-minded people, the organization to cut through the problems you’re trying to solve?
That’s something we wrestle with on a regular basis. We’re structured as a nonprofit, which is sometimes surprising to people. The benefit of that is we can be a relatively neutral, low-barrier-to-entry community resource. And because of the cross-sector nature of the work we do, from unconsulting work to innovation management certification, we’ve got people from all sectors — from small businesses to multinationals to the local police department.
What do you see as the threads that tie them together?
We’ve learned how big businesses are solving problems and there’s some insights we can draw from that. The police department is solving problems and there’s insights we can learn from that. So I think to position ourselves as a resource for the community is kind of our hope and our charter and our mission.
How do you aim to do that?
We formed as an economic development entity originally. I believe the next layer of economic development comes with developing great talent. The best outlet for that in my mind is working in K-12 education. Let’s get that pipeline, that supply chain functioning as well as we can. That will help develop our economy as a whole.