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David Van Zandt

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Universities Are Engines for the Creative Economy

Posted: 03/20/2012 6:10 pm

When New York City recently announced the creation of a major new applied science and technology campus, it was hailed as a transformative event with the potential to spur economic growth, job creation and high-tech entrepreneurship. While no one can argue about the value of developing the city's strengths in the science and technology sectors, there is another sector that brings tremendous opportunities to the city's growth and development: design. A new report by the Center for an Urban Future brings to light the important, yet undervalued, role that design schools have and will continue to play in strengthening the innovation economy.

From my vantage point at The New School, one of the world's only design-led universities, the report was naturally pertinent. But there are lessons here for anyone invested in the future of American higher education -- and in the next steps for our recovering economy. The report found that design schools are not only a major source of new talent for the economy's rapidly growing creative sector, but are critical catalysts for entrepreneurship.

A significant number of graduates from our design school, Parsons and Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts -- nearly 20 percent -- start their own businesses. Parsons students have established some of the world's leading design companies, particularly in the area of fashion, from stalwarts Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs to rapidly growing ventures such as Proenza Schouler and Alexander Wang. In addition, new start-ups in the areas of interactive design, product design and game design are areas of growth for our alumni and the economy. This includes Hyperakt, an interactive design studio with a focus on social change, and Large Animal Games, a leading game design company.

What does this mean for higher education? First, universities must embrace interdisciplinary learning on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Even for students who are not focusing in the arts, some experience and literacy with design will prove crucial in an increasingly creative economy. While design is a concept that is often assumed to be about engineering and high-tech applications, it is only a small part of its focus. Design, broadly defined, is an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving that seeks to develop more effective products, environments, and organizations. At its heart, design is about understanding people and how they interact in the larger world.

To date, most design schools have been stand-alone enterprises. Parsons, however, lives together with strong social sciences and other liberal arts. In that respect, The New School is uniquely positioned to address these aspects of the design process. Our students spend a lot of time at the intersection of the social sciences, design, management and public policy. For instance, our public policy and management school, Milano, has collaborated for a number of years with Parsons on economic development projects. Through the Chase Community Development Competition, our students earned first place for their proposal for the Fortune Society, which included the design of a new building and also a financial plan that would enable this nonprofit to generate new revenue. In the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition, our students and faculty partnered with Habitat for Humanity to design a new model for energy-efficient affordable housing, and are also helping to change public policy in Washington, D.C., and provide Habitat with a business plan for future growth.

Second, consistent with a focus on problem-solving, design schools have long been at the forefront of fostering connections between the academy and the industry -- connections that go much deeper than internships. Parsons famously offers instruction from teacher-practitioners, professors who are active, influential members of the design world. By leveraging the connections this teaching model fosters between the university and the business sector, we have been able to launch new programs that anticipate industry needs, including degrees in design and technology, urban design, cross-disciplinary design, and design and management. These programs teach design thinking as an approach to solving complex problems such as improving our cities, addressing major public issues such as health and the environment, and building new business models for the kinds of groundbreaking companies that will reinvent our economic and cultural landscapes. Other disciplines can learn from this, fostering a greater give-and-take with future employers. For instance, The New School's environmental policy and management programs work closely with industry experts to build an education that tackles the intersecting demands of ecological, social and financial sustainability.

The humanities and the social and natural sciences have long been the foundations of higher education, and deservedly so. But as the nation's economic success hinges increasingly on innovation across industries, it is time for design to become the fourth pillar of university learning. By leveraging design thinking and its intersections with other disciplines, American universities will continue to serve as the incubators of creative innovation.