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This piece is part of By Design, a Globe and Mail/OCAD University summer series highlighting design thinking, issues and innovation.

Jutta Treviranus is director of the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. She established the school's inclusive design masters program in 2011.

For each of the past six summers, a new group of unique students has gathered at OCAD University to participate in an unusual course called Unlearning And Questioning. This begins the most difficult part of their two-year masters study in inclusive design: to question assumptions, unlearn conformity and remove boundaries to thought.

To help this process along, the students in each class are as diverse as possible. A refugee grandmother from Iran, a recent graduate of quantum physics from Romania, a retired judge, a journalist who navigates the world without sight, a software programmer from Asia who is transitioning from male to female, one of the youngest self-made millionaires, a professor of advanced math who credits her success to neuro-diversity, a musician who knows what it's like to be in a Canadian residential school, an African NGO director with a background in economics who reads lips, a dancer and choreographer who dances using a wheelchair – as many as two dozen such students with personal insights into the broad facets of the human experience may find themselves in this class together.

There are no taboo subjects, sacred notions or authoritative experts in the class. Everything is open to constructive critique and thoughtful examination, including the educational experience the students help to co-design and the university process they are engaged in.

The most important question the students relearn from their time as toddlers is "Why?" The most meaningful progress they make is to step back, focus more broadly and reflect. The most significant skill here is self-awareness and an understanding of personal biases, blind spots and the value of unique perspective. One of the biggest challenges is unlearning the fear of "drawing outside the lines" – the compunction to label, sort, rank, filter and conform. They relearn the priceless value of mistake-making and failure.

The ultimate learning outcome is a "radical form of inclusive design" that is seen as the next generation of design thinking. These students have participated in research for and have been hired by entities as diverse as Microsoft, Uber, the U.S. Department of Education, banking associations, the World Economic Forum, Google, the European Commission and international cybersecurity organizations.

Innovation is one of the topics of reflection. Rather than analyzing Canada's competitive weaknesses, reviewing comparative data or identifying promising global trends, the class has stepped back and asked more fundamental questions.

What is the definition of innovation? What is the goal of innovation? How do we measure innovation and why? What would we gain if we ranked atop current measures of innovation, and what would we lose? Does the innovation race benefit humanity or the environment? Do the measures of success reflect Canadian values? Do we need to invent, mass produce and market more shiny gadgets and is it ultimately productive to pit our bright young minds against each other in highly competitive, time-pressured contests?

The inclusive-design students imagine scenarios of successful innovation agendas, stretching into several successive generations.

They consider the potential impact on the complex adaptive system that is our global society. They ponder how to avoid creating "cobra effects" – the unintended negative consequences of overly simplistic solutions to complex problems.

Scott Page, a University of Michigan professor and researcher, has shown that diverse perspectives are better at prediction, risk aversion, planning and innovation than a group of the "best and brightest minds." The potential scenarios the successive classes have explored are hugely diverse and nuanced – they leverage the understanding that comes from a wide range of educational backgrounds, cultural perspectives and life experiences.

The conclusion each inclusive design class has collectively arrived at is that we need to rethink innovation.

Canada needs to strike out in a better direction because the ultimate destination of the global innovation race is not to our benefit. We need to find better answers to what we're competing for and how we measure success. We need to ask how we support Canadian values and leverage Canada's distinct strengths.

The students from around the globe generally agree that diversity is Canada's most valuable asset, and collaboration and inclusion are Canada's most relevantly important strengths. We need to value and leverage these.

The class soon discovers that if we are rethinking innovation, we also need to rethink common assumptions about entangled factors such as markets, customers, employment, design, research and development. The old formulas treat human beings as a mass. We design for the largest customer base to take advantage of economies of scale, mass marketing and mass production, but economies of scale are dependent on a uniformity that is not the Canadian or global reality. As Todd Rose has recently pointed out in his book The End of Average, there is no average person.

Our existing business strategies leave out a large and growing group of customers. We compromise the fit for any customer who doesn't conform to the mass-produced design. The number of customers who experience a misfit often far outnumber the "largest customer base." And with demographic aging and global mobility, we are all diverging further from the imagined average – a recent Gartner study estimated that there is now an $8-trillion global market for people with disabilities.

This misfit – mass design for a diverse population – leads to vicious cycles of exclusion and disparity, especially as products and services are depended upon to take part in education, employment, civic participation and social engagement. This is compounded by our methods of research, evaluation and evidence gathering: We ignore the outliers and norm the "noise" out of the data set. Our entrenched systems of assessment and proof are not tolerant of diversity. However, lasting prosperity requires inclusion and cannot survive significant disparities or growing gaps between "haves" and "have-nots." As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett pointed out in The Spirit Level, an inclusive society is healthier, wealthier and wiser.

Lucky for Canada, we can opportunistically take advantage of the monumental socio-technical changes the world is experiencing.

Lagging behind in innovation may give us an opportunity to leapfrog countries that have established innovation agendas and infrastructures – or start our own race.

We can forgo investments in established strategies and invest in emerging opportunities brought about by converging disruptive technologies – or as one of our celebrated sons, Wayne Gretzky, might put it: Let's go to where the puck is going to be.

Our rethinking should consider a number of socio-technical disruptions: the move from ownership to access (sharing rather than owning cars, for example); personalized manufacturing (3-D printing); connected communities of interest, maker culture and citizen science; collaborative mashups (music, apps, videos); responsive interfaces and portable automated personalization; open data and open government; and new forms of investing (crowdfunding) and the emerging value exchange without intermediaries (enabled by blockchain technologies).

Part of the exercise is to design an innovation strategy that does not depend upon big enterprise companies, large-scale and risky investments, cutthroat competition, king-of-the-hill dominance or iron-clad defence of intellectual property. Instead, it should leverage Canada's assets: communities, resourcefulness, opportunistic responsiveness, small enterprise, cross-sector collaboration, indigenous knowledge and, of course, diversity.

The cohesive learning community (that the diverse inclusive design students become) ponders many gnarly challenges. How do we transform our institutional hierarchies and rigid silos of expertise? How do we move from standardized jobs that demand conformity to jobs that fit diverse people and their lives? Can we create manufacturing systems that engage the customer in design and development, moving from pushing products to responding to consumer pull? What are the benefits of agile, iterative development that values failing early and often, over traditional "waterfall" development that completes a product and waits for customer response at a big reveal?

Can we create research methods that are designed for diversity and complexity and that do not depend on statistical power or finding large representative groups, especially for individuals so diverse and unique there are no representatives to be found?

Each candidate response is more than a mental exercise. The diverse team of students and the broader community afford a rich toolbox that can be applied to iteratively implement and refine the proposed designs.

Invariably, our inclusive design students propose that the innovation race we should embark upon is not against other countries but a race against escalating economic disparity and environmental deterioration. They conclude that collaboration and inclusion are good economic strategies – and challenges that Canada is uniquely prepared to accept.

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