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A labor of love: 5 years of InnovationSpace

February 14, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: InnovationSpace is an entrepreneurial joint venture among ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the W. P. Carey School of Business. Its goal is to teach students how to develop products that create market value while serving real societal needs and minimizing impacts on the environment.

By Peter Wolf

In March 2005, just as a new product-development program known as InnovationSpace was beginning to make a name for itself, its visionary founder, Paul Rothstein, died unexpectedly. Among those hit especially hard was Prasad Boradkar, Rothstein’s friend and colleague in industrial design.

“Initially, I wasn’t even thinking about what would happen to the program,” Boradkar says. “All I knew was that my best friend had died and that my life would never be the same.”

The InnovationSpace faculty rallied overnight. As did Boradkar. He joined the team as the new project leader, taking on additional job duties mid-semester even though he was carrying a full teaching and research load of his own.

“I remember a colleague saying, ‘You’re fortunate that you can do something for your friend by picking up where he left off and continuing his program. So many people are helpless in similar situations,’ ” he recalls.

“Paul was really lucky to have Prasad and the other InnovationSpace faculty who were there to catch the baby just as it was being born,” says Adelheid Fischer, Rothstein’s wife of 25 years. Within a year, she too joined InnovationSpace, becoming program manager in 2006. Today, she oversees the program with Boradkar, researching new challenges for student projects, writing grants and developing InnovationSpace’s sustainability curriculum. Boradkar leads the program’s teaching team and solicits support from sponsors that have included such major corporations as Herman Miller, Intel, Procter & Gamble and Dow-Corning.

“We often ask ourselves: 'What would Paul think about what we’re doing?' Prasad thinks he’d be shaking his head and saying, ‘Jeez, it takes two of you to do my job,’” says Fischer, laughing.

InnovationSpace, now in its sixth year, has fulfilled Rothstein’s fledgling ambitions.

In 2006, BusinessWeek named InnovationSpace one of the top 35 design programs in North America. The following year, ASU recognized the program’s inventive approach to design education with a President’s Award for Innovation. Today, InnovationSpace is spearheading a biomimicry initiative on campus that has led to ASU becoming the only university in the United States to be accorded affiliate status with the Montana-based Biomimicry Institute.

Although InnovationSpace was officially launched in 2004, its origins date back to the 1990s, when Rothstein was working as an industrial designer in Minneapolis. At the time, Fischer, a science writer, was researching the fate of persistent toxic pollutants in the Great Lakes. This, she says, provided an unsettling contrast to the glossy design publications to which Rothstein subscribed.

“I would flip through the pages, and there were these incredibly beautiful, award-winning designs,” Fischer says. “But as a science writer and someone who grew up on the Great Lakes, I knew about the toxic legacy of manufacturing.

“I used to carp, ‘Don’t we really need to redefine what good design is if it’s harming the health of the planet, if it’s poisoning our water and our food? Doesn’t good design really have to be good for the environment?’

“It got to be such a regular harangue in our house that sometimes I think Paul created InnovationSpace just to get me off his back."

Boradkar was there from the beginning, too. The two met when Boradkar was hired as an assistant professor of industrial design in 2000.

“He and Paul became inseparable from the start,” Fischer recalls. “Prasad lived only a few blocks away and was over at our house all the time. Many a bottle of India pale ale disappeared in our backyard as the two of them jawed on into the night. They shared a passion for teaching and for ideas. To this day, so much of the joy of their friendship and their enthusiasm for doing good work lives on in the DNA of InnovationSpace.”

Rothstein incorporated some of these ideas, as well as his professional experience, in a new model of product development that he called Integrated Innovation. The methodology requires transdisciplinary teams of students from product design, graphic design, business and engineering to critically analyze projects not only in terms of aesthetic, technological and economic considerations, but also the associated social and environmental implications of their design proposals.

Boradkar is quick to credit the Integrated Innovation foundation for the enduring success of InnovationSpace.

“What I’ve discovered is that it’s quite pliable as a program," Boradkar says. "It allows you to do things that you would like to without sacrificing any of its core principles.” The structure of the program, says Boradkar, “is as strong as it is supple.”

Although the program has evolved since Rothstein’s death, the central vision remains intact.

“I have added things to the syllabus, I have taken things out, I have modified it – but it hasn’t sacrificed any of Paul’s vision. In fact, it’s actually grown the vision, if anything.”

Fischer agrees.

“I think what’s remarkable are the ways in which the program has not changed,” she says. “Paul was very frustrated with what he saw as an overabundance of superfluous products on the market while so many real human needs were ignored. The core premise of the program remains unchanged: that design should measurably improve the daily lives of people, especially needs that are routinely overlooked.”

Among the “real human needs” with which InnovationSpace students have grappled: access to printed materials for people with vision impairments, increasing the independence of elders inside and outside the home, and minimizing the risks of hospital-acquired infections, among a host of other health care issues. This year, students are developing therapeutic toys for children with autism.

Such challenges require a very different approach from the “lone genius” model that has dominated the design profession for many years.

“Paul would describe the enterprise that he was developing here as ‘a community of learners,’” Fischer says. “And I often feel that way, especially when I’m in studio exploring new areas such as biomimicry with the students. Because we tackle so many new challenges, I feel like we’re all learning together. And that’s really exciting.”

In addition to the students, faculty and teaching assistants, the InnovationSpace community includes sponsors representing various industries and entrepreneurial ventures both on- and off-campus.

Emily Callaghan, a master’s student in design, served as an InnovationSpace teaching assistant for two years. After graduating in 2008, Callaghan was awarded a prestigious research fellowship with Herman Miller, a longtime InnovationSpace sponsor. Today, she is pursuing her doctorate as an EU-funded Marie Curie Fellow.

“I got to be in the trenches in the classroom with InnovationSpace students for two years at ASU,” she says. “I understand what the program brings to the professional environment, and how it provides inspiration, excitement, and enjoyment.”

Callaghan credits Rothstein’s original vision for shaping the trajectory of her career.

“I have this immense gratitude,” she says, “for a man that I never met.”

Rothstein’s legacy, she adds, “continues to offer very beautiful experiences for people like me, and for everyone else in the InnovationSpace community, and I think it’s important to celebrate that.”