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Creative Futures: Massey University's big bet

Creative Futures: Massey University's big bet
Massey University’s push to marry up business with creativity.

Should creativity always have a market-ready outcome, or is creativity for its own sake a worthwhile pursuit? For the students on Massey University’s inaugural Creative Futures course, the former is very much on the menu.

We’re still waiting for the Babel Fish translator (stick it in your ear and understand any language), pills that will grant eternal life, and Matrix-esque programmes to enable instant mastery of helicopter flying. Hey, dreams are free.

In the meantime, would-be entrepreneurs in Wellington are developing monitors to let parents keep a eye on their children’s whereabouts, healthcare based on natural plant-lore, apps that provide road rules for the hesitant driver, and social media that connects people living alone so they can dine together. It’s all part of a new academic offering out of Massey University.

Its Wellington campus has just come out the tail end of a new scheme called Creative Futures. It’s a paper, in its infancy, designed to push students from design school together with those from the business school and thereby enable them to create products with market-ready outcomes.

An intensive course, it weighs in heavily on teaching business rather than just design. Students must find their product idea in a week, carry out market research, design the logos and artwork to accompany the product, and enter the whole shebang in the Wellington competition for budding entrepreneurs, the Bright Ideas Challenge. At the end of it, they’re assessed in a Dragon’s Den-style setting. Phew.

For art’s sake?

Getting young creatives into a business headspace is all well and good. But beneath the surface of this seemingly innocous fusion of business and creativity brews a hot debate. Is commercialising – and academising – creativity in such courses a step towards negating the proverbial ‘art for art’s sake?’ Can’t we just make pretty stuff and have that suffice?

Connecting design with business is hardly relegating fine arts to the profit train. Fundamentally, design is founded on the identification and analysis of a problem or need, research is conducted, ideas explored and evaluated until the best solution is devised. When you boil it down, it’s not unlike the process that goes on in business.

Although this is a largely constructed debate, it’s an important one. In one camp live the stalwarts of academia, those who believe in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, of universities as the last bastions of the slow- moving generation and analysis of theory and of education as the evolution of the mind for the good of society.

And they have a point. Higher education is the basis of knowledge production. Making money is the aim of many students, but it’s a whole other kettle of kaimoana when the university promotes it directly.

In the other corner sit those who would label themselves more realistic about the multi-layered demands from the government and business for vocational degrees.

Academic courses that are close to industry and business – and are in sync with the requirements of a world where targeted entrepreneurial ideas and business profesionals – are in high demand.

Students have seen the realities of the global recession markedly worsen their chances of scoring their dream job. They want degrees that give them cold, hard, marketable skills, comprised of papers that provide contacts within industries and that have good reputations with employers.

Creative Futures student Saskia Wallace believes people don’t consider design relevant to entrepreneurship – a view not unique to universities, but rather a corporate attitude. “They place designers in a box, suggesting we can come up with creative ideas for ad campaigns but not for business strategies, or politics, for example,” Wallace says.

“This attitude seems to be changing, which will hopefully lead to opportunities for creative people to become recognised and used for their entrepreneurial potential.”

Ready for the real world

The Massey position is that rather than trophying business and entrepreneurship as the only realistic way for design students to make a buck, they are arming design students with the capabilities to find work in many fields.
Chris Bennewith, head of the Institute of Communication Design at Massey Wellington and the instigator behind Creative Futures, rejects the assertion that his department is trying to foster the notion that design is more worthwhile when profit is the outcome.

“It’s important to prepare students for the real world, university can be all nice and fluffy, and when they step out into the real world, they realise we haven’t prepared them for that at all,” Bennewith says.

“It was interesting to watch the design students constantly reaching out and the business students pulling them back so that the ideas were grounded in the possible. It was a great mix – there was middle ground between dry boring ideas and unfeasible ones.”

Bennewith reckons the course was a resounding success. It had a vision for broader curriculum development, and it achieved excellent recognition from the Wellington City Council, Grow Wellington and industry.

He laughs wryly when asked if the impetus of the course is in finding design students jobs in a rapidly decreasing job market.

“We have a moral responsibility not to flood the market with 200 design students every year, who are all trained in the same specific fields. But we’re not pandering to industry – we’re broadening the students’ skill set so it’s transferable into various different fields.

“New Zealand is on the cusp of doing some great things, and the collaboration of design, business and technology is helping to push things along.”

As Sir Peter Gluckman puts it: “We think we have highly creative people in New Zealand, and we have tended to think of the creative arts and technologies as being two different worlds separated by a gulf. But the reality is both science and the creative arts require the talent of the mind.

“We have not brought these two domains together – and we need to. Design is what really sells, be it in software or in gadgets.”

The same goes with business. More collaboration is needed for New Zealand to see the growth of innovative business it so earnestly speaks of. Creative Futures is fostering such a partnership. The combination and exchange of intellectual resources leads to the development of intellectual capital.

As for the future of Creative Futures?

“The designer is the new engineer, the new driver for innovation, and not because they can make pretty things,” says Bennewith.

“Give them something and they and can turn it into anything.”

THE PROJECTS

APPEASE - A wristband that lets parents know when their kids stray too far away

Saskia Wallace and Pam Ward, among others, noticed a trend of modern-day parents becoming increasingly concerned about the safety of their children.

They sought to tackle the issue by developing products that would allow parents and caregivers to monitor their kids via a wristband or badge, worn by the child, to let parents monitor their whereabouts.

“We wanted to use contemporary technology parents are already familiar with, creating a product that’s fun and appealing to kids,” Wallace says. “Our product comes in the form of smartphone applications that interact with a wristband or badge worn by the child, allowing parents to monitor where their kids are.”

The child can also alert their parents if they’re in danger, or they can be located through the smartphone application.

Ward says the group had come across many parents who had found themselves buying cellphones for their children at a very young age, simply because they are concerned about safety. But with that option comes other repercussions such as txt bullying.

Appease has plans to work with Grow Wellington in 2012 to find funding to make the first prototype.

LORATEINE - A plant-based nutraceutical painkiller that could take the place of paracetamol in your bathroom cabinet

Sick of popping endless paracetamol tablets and worried about putting drugs into your body? So are many others.

 One of the groups came up with Lorateine, a mainstream, plant- based nutraceutical painkiller, as an alternative to your usual pills.

 The idea arose from friend who had an interest in natural medicine derived from native plants.

 The group decided to capitalise on their knowledge of the market trends toward natural and holistic products.

 Group member Niko Leyden said doing the Massey paper definitely showed them how much the business environment can mould an idea.

 “We all learned a lot about the legal and scientific realities of product development, with huge help from Industrial Research Limited,” Leyden says.

 She believes there’s always a need for a creative design process in the development of a new product, but the Creative Futures paper definitely focused more on the business side of things.

 “We were lucky with our idea but many other groups were disillusioned with the lack of design teaching the paper offered.”

However, Massey has taken this into consideration and is already making improvements to the paper.

ROGER ROAD ASSISTANT - A combination between a GPS and an audio road rules tool to help learner drivers stay safe on the road

Learning to drive can be a scary business, particularly for young people on a restricted licence. Yet others aren’t so confident, even after they’re fully licenced to drive. And even the most car-savvy among us can get flustered at times, particularly at unmarked intersections when everyone thinks they have right of way.

To solve that, one Creative Futures group set up the Roger Road Assistant, half GPS and half audio road rules tool, which gives solo drivers an audio narration of road rules applicable to any given situation as they go.

It works through a smartphone (doesn’t everything, these days?) and is therefore transferable to any car.

It also includes a database tool and log book.

Group member Rebecca Hoang says it’s for the benefit of other road users, not just the learner driver.

“We aim to raise the confidence of drivers using the app, so that they and other drivers sharing the road with them feel safer,” Hoang says.

“We’re targeting restricted drivers as there’s been a strong focus on improving the safety of restricted drivers on the road during their first few months driving alone.”

The group also have tourists and overseas drivers visiting New Zealand in the crosshairs as a potential market.

“We conducted surveys for young drivers, as well as their parents, and completed other market research into the percentage of smartphone use.

“We researched similar product such as e-driving courses and GPS apps but found that, as far as we know, our product is original.”

KNIFE AND SPORK - A social eating movement to create connections between
people who’d otherwise be eating alone

A team of designers with one business student, the scribbling on the ideas board resulted in Knife and Spork – a ‘social eating movement’.

The idea was to allow people who’d normally be eating alone to connect with others and instead dine together.

The Knife and Spork website will provide a platform for at-home social eating arrangements, bringing together hosts and guests, with the necessary organisation and payment infrastructure, says group member Sam Bonney.

“We want to encourage people, particularly university students, to cook extra servings of the food they normally would and then list the extra servings – and places at their dining table – on our website for friends and those they might not know who live around them.”

Bonney says Knife and Spork is the crossroads of a number of emerging trends – an increasing interest in food and cooking, for example, the slow food movement, the popularity of shows like Masterchef, rising food prices, eating behaviour that has become more solitary and a desire to harness the power of social media to organise more traditional gatherings.