Partners by Design


Kent State’s Design Innovation Hub is setting the stage for transformative research and innovation across disciplines.

By Dan Pompili

Kent State broke ground in April on the Design Innovation Hub, a $44.5-million renovation of the former Art Building on the Kent Campus. J.R. Campbell, MFA, appointed last year as the inaugural director of the Design Innovation (DI) Initiative, recently discussed how it fits into Kent State’s broader research and innovation goals.

“The DI Initiative is much more student-focused but has some pretty deep implications for research as well,” he says. “The core goal of DI is to build a supportive ecosystem for students to become involved in collaborative,
cross-disciplinary challenge-based innovation activities.”

While researchers ask questions about why something works or why a
phenomenon occurs, Campbell says design innovators ask
“how can we” questions.


“It implies, obviously, collaboration; the ‘how’ implies that we don’t have a prescribed plan for addressing the challenge, and it incorporates the idea that you don’t have to always be an expert to be involved in creating compelling solutions.”


Supporting Collaborations

Campbell says collaboration is just as vital to the design innovation process as it is to Kent State’s strategic research institutes and initiatives, all based on interdisciplinary partnership. “The Design Innovation Initiative is not about advancing any particular research agenda, but supporting all possible agendas, using DI as the mechanism for challenge-based innovation, and for testing and tackling some of the messier multidisciplinary problems.”


DI is expected to form a kind of research and innovation ‘trinity’ with the Brain Health Research Institute and the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute, but Campbell hopes to participate in addressing challenges connected to each of the research initiatives and driving Kent State’s research efforts across all of the Kent State campuses.


“I can imagine a scenario where a couple of researchers from the Brain Health Research Institute, possibly based in different academic units, would say ‘we have this idea but we’re not sure about it,’” Campbell says. “Through DI, faculty might be able to run their ideas as student-based challenges or design short-term proposals for experiments in the Hub’s shared faculty labs, helping to launch their concepts into more definitive research projects.”


Campbell says the DI Hub will include a large makerspace that supports most entry-level maker/prototyping/innovation needs. The Hub also will host some specialized high-tech equipment unavailable elsewhere on the Kent Campus, like a flexibly designed multimodal visualization space and a large-format waterjet cutter. These would be supported by in-house student and staff design experts.


Project-based rentable space in the DI Hub will accommodate cross-disciplinary faculty projects that require space to pull together a range of tools or technologies, says Campbell. “The idea is to stimulate cross-disciplinary research, then also use it as a way to sponsor challenge-based projects that could involve students.”


“We can mix in these pieces of specific equipment that intentionally draw cross-disciplinary teams to the DI Hub, and we will focus on building the kinds of kinetic collisions that happen in the building. DI is more about coordinating and collaborating than about being a makerspace.”


Building Connections

In addition to the main hub, Campbell says there will be at least 25 other “DI Nodes” across the university’s eight campuses, where students and faculty can gain support to test ideas and design disruptive technologies to solve real problems.


These nodes will include several of the “collaboratories” planned for the terrace of the Integrated Sciences Building, where many faculty members in the Brain Health Research Institute (BHRI) and the Advanced Materials and Liquid Crystal Institute (AMLCI) will conduct research.


“A good example is in AMLCI with Mourad Krifa, PhD, [an assistant professor in Kent State’s School of Fashion Design and Merchandising], who is experienced in fiber science and electrospinning of fibers,” says Campbell. “He can work collaboratively with AMLCI faculty to further investigate the incorporation of liquid crystal materials into textile fibers  during the spinning process.”


JR Campbell

“Design Innovation is more about coordinating and collaborating than about being a makerspace.” — J.R. Campbell, MFA, Director, DI Initiative


With these types of connections, cross-disciplinary teams utilizing DI resources can more effectively address novel applications of technology. That idea, in concert with all of the DI Node resources across the university, is what makes Kent State’s model different from other universities, says Campell. “Most of the time, those big shared-resource makerspaces are tied to a school or college of engineering or business.” 


Such models often skew the focus toward innovation in those contexts, sometimes unintentionally, to the exclusion of other disciplines.


“As an initiative, DI will never do something on our own as a single sponsor to an event or project,” he says. “Instead, we will always work in partnership with others, because we’re not trying to propagate content, we’re actually supporting process. In that sense, for us no topic is out of bounds, and that makes it open to anyone.”


Campbell hopes DI can set the stage for more transformative research into products and experiences, as well as social innovation. “In that context, DI also helps to leverage Kent State’s unique voice. We know we have strength in areas like brain health and liquid crystals, but as a university we also have a unique heritage and strength in areas like social justice and peace and conflict studies. These are things we can build on and address differently in an innovation context than a lot of other universities.”


Playing off Collisions

Campbell’s vision has worked for Kent State at least once already, when he was director of the School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, where he spent nine years before becoming DI director.


“When I arrived [at the Fashion School], we created the TechStyleLAB. My goal there was to put all the digital input and output technologies that can be used in the context of fashion into one space, so both students and faculty would have access to it all at once.” 


The move marked the first time in 30 years that Rockwell Hall saw computer science students hanging out in the building. “There were tools in there they knew how to use, and they were curious, and then all of a sudden that dynamic changed the culture of the building,” Campbell says.


“Our fashion students started hanging out with computer science students and thinking about wearable technology. About that time, we launched the ‘Fashion/Tech Hackathon’ with LaunchNET’s help.” The event is now in its seventh year and has earned national renown.


Campbell hopes the “hang out” model will have similar results in the DI Hub. “On the third floor of the DI Hub we’ll have essentially the largest dining facility on the north side of campus, which means we’ll have students from multiple disciplines hanging out in the building.”


With plenty of glass, the dining space will provide multiple views into several work areas, and Campbell also plans to create multiple mini “pop-up challenges” each semester that will spring up in the common areas throughout the building. “When you’re in there just having breakfast, you’re going to feel like you’re connected to a makerspace. Throughout the building, we’ll be creating various things that get students interested, get them hooked, then get them involved in the sponsored projects we do.”


The building, projected to open in fall semester 2020, also will include a retail pizza restaurant, multimodal visualization space to accommodate individual and group-based augmented and virtual reality experiences and other immersive projects, a bay with a gantry to support robotics designing and testing, and “DI Hatchery” spaces, where student teams can further develop their concepts for implementation before deciding to launch into the incubation stage.


Says Campbell, “It’s about bringing people to the building to play off of the kinetic collisions that we can create.”


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POSTED: Monday, September 9, 2019 02:11 PM
Updated: Tuesday, November 19, 2019 12:20 PM
Dan Pompili