DEC Fellows Workshop Emphasizes Collaboration and Innovative Thinking

“What’s wrong with this picture,” Mike Leonard, interim academic dean of the School of Design and Engineering and associate professor of industrial design, asked a few colleagues at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia on June 30. He pointed to several rows of sparsely populated benches. “They’re all facing the wrong way.”

Potentially afraid of missing their trains, the majority of passengers were crowded in seating around the terminal’s big board of train schedules, located in the center of the main atrium.

Leonard and several colleagues in the new College of Design, Engineering and Commerce (DEC) spent the afternoon observing the station. As part of the DEC Fellows program, two industry experts, Sarah Rottenberg, a directing associate at Jump Associates, and Kipp Bradford, founder of Maker Faire RI, led a faculty development workshop to encourage creative thinking and collaboration among the professors who will be teaching the first DEC course, Integrative Design Processes (IDP), in the fall.

The faculty conducted a site audit of 30th Street Station, analyzing everything from pedestrian traffic flow and seating to the ticketing process and connections to SEPTA trains. Following Rottenberg’s guidelines, the professors split into small teams and jotted down everything they saw and heard over a few hours before convening the next day to analyze the data.

Rottenberg works as an innovation coach with Jump Associates, finding creative business strategies to meet clients’ goals. But, she also has a background as a social science researcher and utilizes a mix of ethnography skills and business knowledge to produce creative solutions to business problems. She encouraged the professors to focus on observing in detail, without judgment, in order to have sufficient data to analyze in the following day’s session.

The observation and analysis process, called a user experience audit, acknowledges that large-scale problems are not easily fixed through narrow thinking. Instead, like the philosophy that drives the DEC curriculum, the analysis draws on perspectives from multiple disciplines to see problems holistically. The challenge for the faculty was to observe a large-scale environment, in this case a transportation center, and define areas that could be improved.

Bradford helped the group democratically sift through the many ideas and thoughts they had gathered. In a collaborative environment, there is always a risk that the loudest voice will overshadow equally valid but softly spoken ideas. Bradford emphasized a systematic approach, defining criteria that can be applied to all ideas to determine their merit, rather than loose discussion. The process helps the analytical phase of the audit focus on the best material.

After synthesizing their findings, many of the faculty groups focused on the lack of easily accessible information about train schedules throughout the station. A central board displays incoming train schedules, delays and track boarding information, but there are very few alternative ways to receive the same information. This creates crowding around the central board and makes it risky to leave the main atrium to buy food or other amenities.

The professors proposed a few solutions — more display kiosks, a restaurant reservation-inspired buzzing ticket that goes off when your train arrives, among others — but the workshop focused more on the process of finding opportunities for improvement rather than specific brainstorming solutions.

“In this process, we were working on teaching the teams to distinguish between needs, which are verbs, and solutions, which are nouns. Once teams phrase the problem in terms of the need — for example, the need to know the status of your train — they can see that there are many different solutions that can meet that need, including new products, services, environments or entirely new businesses,” Rottenberg said. “The need becomes the starting point that people from a variety of different backgrounds can engage with.”

Collaboration and careful observation alone can yield surprising results. After all, sometimes fixing a problem starts with noticing that everyone is facing the wrong way.


The DEC Fellows program invites experts in the fields of design, engineering and business to conduct workshops on campus with faculty and students. Kipp Bradford and Sarah Rottenberg are among the first DEC Fellows to conduct workshops in the College of Design, Engineering and Commerce, and several others will share their expertise throughout the upcoming academic year. Drawing on their wealth of knowledge and experience, the DEC Fellows will enhance the curriculum and give students fresh perspectives on some of today’s real-world challenges.

Bradford, is passionate about the Maker movement and is the founder of Maker Faire RI and online editor for Make Magazine. Since its founding, Bradford has been an active leader in the Better World By Design Conference.  He is currently a faculty member in engineering at Brown University where he teaches social entrepreneurship and senior design studios in their integrated program: Commerce, Organizations and Entrepreneurship. Previously Bradford was chief technology officer at Bionica, a hearing aid company he founded; chief scientist at Q-Labs, a dental diagnostic firm that performed mechanical-failure analysis of dental implants; and vice president  of engineering at Providence-based Design Lab Inc., an industrial-design firm and an incubator for start-up companies. Bradford has a degree in biomedical engineering from Brown University.

Rottenberg is a directing associate at Jump Associates and co-leads the New York office. An experienced innovation coach and business strategist, she regularly writes and speaks about how organizations can create new experiences for their customers that increase top-line growth. Rottenberg guides teams to desired outcomes by facilitating them through the learning process and shaping deliverables to maximize organizational impact. She is also a part-time lecturer in the Integrated Product Development program at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to joining Jump, Rottenberg worked as a Research Manager at Doblin Group (now part of Monitor), a strategic planning firm in Chicago. She has a Master of Science in Social Sciences from the University of Chicago and a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown University. Prior to her career in consulting, Rottenberg worked as an assistant to the cultural attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

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