Eric Anderson, FIDSA, right, one of three codirectors of the Integrated Innovation Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, teaches a visualization class that includes students, from left, Shreya A. Mantri, Swathi Veeraraghavan, Tessa Caudle, Beth Herlin, and Alec Wise. © CMU/Integrated Innovation Institute
New center builds on successful history of collaboration between engineering, fine arts, and business schools.
June 17, 2014—Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) formally launched the Integrated Innovation Institute in mid-May, building upon decades of success in bringing together students from engineering, the fine arts, and business to work collaboratively on the identification and development of innovative new products and services.
“Our goal [is] to cross-train our students so that they understand not only basic skills in the other disciplines, but how those other disciplines think, so that they can become part of a holistic team and become an elite innovator,” says Jonathan Cagan, Ph.D., the Ladd Professor of Mechanical Engineering in CMU’s College of Engineering. Cagan is a codirector of the institute along with Peter Boatwright, Ph.D., the Carnegie Bosch Professor of Marketing at the Tepper School of Business, and Eric Anderson, FIDSA, an associate professor in the School of Design and associate dean of the College of Fine Arts.
“This is a true partnership. We have a director from each program. Our classes are designed for our students so they can maximize their ability to be able to learn and work across disciplines, yet excel at their own discipline,” Cagan says. “Our whole process is first, how do you figure out what the real opportunity is? Then, how do you understand that opportunity? Who are the stakeholders? What are their needs and desires? How do you define what the product should do to be successful without even knowing what the product is?”
Cagan explains that halfway through the semester of the capstone class, the student teams haven’t yet developed a product rendering, but they do have a deep understanding of the problem and what a successful product must do to address that problem. “The product conceptualization process becomes very straightforward because you know what you need to do,” he explains. “I didn’t say it was easy, but it is straightforward.”
One of the innovations to come from the program recently began showing up on civil and structural engineering projects when MSA Safety Incorporated, an industrial safety company headquartered in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, brought to market a temporary horizontal lifeline system for projects in which workers are high above the ground. The patented product is the result of a safety issue that MSA brought to graduate students at CMU in 2009. When workers who are tethered to horizontal safety cables on a tall building need to cross paths, they often disregard safety policy, disconnect their lines, cross over, and reconnect. (See a video of its operation.)
“During that instant, they are not connected. And they can fall,” Cagan says. “Our students understood that problem and created an incredibly simple, elegant solution that geometrically allowed these two clamps to basically pass through each other. And so at no point are they ever disconnected.”
Another team recently designed an ingenious modular shoe for children in impoverished areas of the developing world. The shoe is constructed from exceptionally durable material and arrives as a kit. The sandal can be expanded several times as the child’s foot grows. (See a video of the project.) Projects have ranged from reimagining small appliances to developing more comfortable cabins for large trucks.
The Integrated Innovation Institute is the evolution of what began as a single course at CMU, and is now two graduate programs: a Master of Integrated Innovation for Products and Services and a Master of Science in Software Management; a third is on the way. Additionally, new courses are planned for undergraduates to encourage similar collaborations.
Currently students self-select for working collaboratively across disciplines by applying to the institute. Some students will have a major in one discipline and a minor in another. That wasn’t always the case; Cagan notes that when the first graduate program began more than a decade ago, crossing disciplines was a difficult concept for some students. “When we first started ...some people would come in and not get it. I remember a situation where we had an M.B.A. [student] who had started three companies after being a Top Gun pilot—a very intense guy, working at the time with a senior in design. That wasn’t a great mix. They learned how to work it out because we have a process. Even if they had a different perspective, we taught them a process,” Cagan says.
In fall 2013 the programs moved to new headquarters—a former bank building at the edge of CMU’s campus. The space is less than 3,000 sq ft, but enables a greater collaborative effort than former spaces, Cagan says. “Literally, a year ago it [was] a bank that was closing—including a bank vault and teller windows. Now it’s this really fantastic space,” he says. To achieve that transformation, workers gutted the building and removed the extensive vault structure. The new space includes movable walls of white board. “It is a very dynamic space,” Cagan says. “You can in one moment have a lecture format, and in just the next moment have teams broken out.”
Cagan says the greatest challenge in developing what has become the Integrated Innovation Institute was creating a curriculum that encouraged the students to cross boundaries while still excelling in their own field. “We devote a lot of time in understanding each other. It takes a real commitment,” he says.