If You Build It
Concurrent Session 8
In 2017 Houston Community College opened the West Houston Institute (WHI), an innovation campus designed to change the way the system of 75,000 students looked at teaching and learning. This session will apply a systems thinking model developed by Donella Meadows to examine the successes and failures of the first year of operation. The presenter was Design Team leader for the project and has spent the last year teaching in it.
In 2017, Houston Community College opened the West Houston Institute (WHI), a campus whose business plan describes it as, "an intentional design to best facilitate innovation, creativity, design thinking, and entrepreneurship in a holistic manner" and which, "will facilitate diverse collaboration among all constituencies who use it, and in the process, will result in a more creative college that is focused on innovation to ensure institutional relevance and advancement." The team that developed this project were not naive about the challenges that would face the realization of these goals. The building and, more importantly, its programs, would serve to challenge a range of systems throughout HCC and the wider education community. It's one thing to talk about how these things need to be challenged. It's another to actually build a set of initiatives that do so on a systemic level.
There is a widespread consensus that the kind of changes in thinking outlined in the WHI business plan need to happen in order serve our students in a world of changing requirements. This may represent an existential challenge to higher education itself as it risks becoming irrelevant in a world characterized by an intolerance for traditional for traditional structures such as semester credit hours and degree programs that seem increasingly out of touch with reality. The WHI represents a clear challenge to a range of this kind of thinking. Chief among its design goals were to facilitate lifelong learning in a direct way by opening it up to community members throughout out their lives; to create an iterative program of reinventing teaching and learning through an iterative design thinking model of faculty-driven change; to create a "Medici Effect" by breaking down silos between divisions and departments to create serendipitous opportunities for students and faculty working within the space. In its first year of operation there has been some progress on some of these goals but it has been uneven and some initiatives have worked better than others.
In this session we will attempt to grapple with these issues. Since the initial development of the WHI and its systemic challenges the author has discovered the literature on systems thinking, particularly the work of Donella Meadows. In 1999, she published a short article entitled, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. In it, she described 12 "leverage points" that are opportunities to influence the nature of an organizational system. They are (in increasing orders of difficulty):
12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.
The presentation will outline some of the initiatives in an analytical fashion and to indicate future strategies to realize the WHI's intended outcomes. Participants will be encouraged to brainstorm in groups prior to the QA session to discuss the example of the WHI and to analyze their own planned and realized innovation initiatives in light of lessons learned and using the Meadows framework. Depending on the size of the group, specific brainstorming technologies and techniques may be used. (I would be happy to consider turning this into a workshop if the committee feels that that is a better format for this presentation. I intend to keep the talk under 30 minutes as I set up the problem and framework for the audience.)