Royal Roads turns Design Thinking Challenge 2020 into a virtual success

May 12, 2020
Lisa Winbourne
Royal Roads Design Thinking Challenge

This year’s third annual Royal Roads’ Design Thinking Challenge put the emphasis on “challenge” when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The event was scheduled to run in-person in April collaboratively with the University of Toronto’s Rotman Commerce school. When it became apparent that would be impossible, Royal Roads organizers rose to the challenge and offered students from six competing teams across Canada a rich, interactive day of learning. The action-packed schedule included feedback sessions with judges, keynote speakers, and virtual mingling activities for students and practitioners.

The Royal Roads Design Thinking Challenge differentiates itself from traditional business case competitions through emphases on empathy and deep analysis, problem framing, prototyping (trying various solutions and evaluating through feedback), collaboration and citizenship. This year’s challenge was, "How might municipal government nudge homeowners to retrofit their homes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?", that could be applied in Toronto, where the City wants to retrofit thousands of homes to help meet emissions goals.

Chris Ferguson, Royal Roads Bachelor of Commerce graduate and founder of service design consultancy Bridgeable kicked off the event with a keynote address about the twists and turns that led to what he does today. From farming through business school he felt pressure to decide his life’s career. Ferguson’s message to the student competitors was to keep appreciating and learning from the stops along the journey and not worry about the destination.

Challenge judge July Mellett, head of Telus’s Service Design and Strategy, was impressed by the pivot to an online environment where the depth of the students’ work and the storytelling were not compromised. The organizers and students adapted quickly and worked flexibly to accommodate the unanticipated pandemic.

Student teams used virtual breakout rooms to hone their ideas for challenge solutions for the judges. The client, City of Toronto Program Manager Stewart Dutfield of the residential retrofit program found the work of the student teams remarkable. The students’ impressive research - traditional and otherwise - allowed them to generate a keen understanding of the key concepts and challenges faced in developing policies and programming to support retrofitting.

Lead organizer and RRU School of Business Associate Professor Amy Zidulka is proud of the students for taking on the challenge in a new way, and thankful for the adaptability embodied by the event judges and clients. “I feel particularly gratified that the event seemed to be the right thing to be doing during COVID-19, rather than it feeling like something we were muscling through despite COVID-19. I felt it was the right moment for students to hear the message that there are alternative ways of doing business that are more adaptive and more grounded and attuned to humanity,” she says.

Royal Roads University has been holding the challenge since 2018, and for the first time, the “home team” emerged victorious with the Rotman Commerce team placing second. The RRU teams’ background research was comprehensive and established a solid foundation on which to build. Their first presentation provided three very viable options including an adaptable solution that they took forward for the win.

The unique situation and the challenge of global pandemic, pushed students to continue to find ways to do meaningful work, find opportunities to be helpful and relentlessly useful.
Want to learn more about the Royal Roads Design Thinking Challenge? Read more about our full news release here about and about past challenges here.