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I was lucky enough to have the privilege of holding a 1 on 1 interview with Jonathan Cooks about the innovation space he helped develop at Grand Valley State University. He took me through his amazing story of how he did it with many insights and suggestions for future fellows who want to do the same.

The innovation space he helped create is around the size of a conference room, but has high end innovation technology, such as 3D printers, Microsoft HoloLens and HTC Vive. As well as the innovation space, he helped introduce design thinking to his university and ‘inject’ it into lectures which will be taught to the new 4,500 incoming freshmen. 

Starting Off

Having an innovation space on campus was not a completely new idea and it did not happen overnight. Jonathan was a huge advocate for the space, although not alone. Jonathan first started working towards the space roughly 2.5 years ago, he tried to bring it up with the academics and higher ups of his university, but found that it was too big of a risk for them to spend money on. The university didn't want to be guineapigs for an experiment. This meant that progress was extremely slow.

After these setbacks, Jonathan decided to try and tackle the problem from a completely different angle. Jonathan realised that he needed more support from the student body and the faculty to make this happen. 


Design Thinking

The new Angle Jonathan worked on was building support for his case. Some of the academics where supporting innovation and he used this as leverage to base his thesis around teaching design thinking. He partnered up with one of his friends and did 'pick up' classes for an hour and a half to teach students the basic concepts about innovation. 

They would volunteer to go to classrooms and teach a lesson on innovation. The lessons they taught were based off what they would want to learn as students. They introduced small innovation games like getting the entire class to partner up and share their daily morning routine and the partners would have to think creatively of how to improve their partner’s routine. This lead to such suggestions as 'taping your alarm clock to your ceiling' or 'drinking a cold glass of water to wake you up'. Simple interactive games like this really got the ball moving in terms of creative thinking around the university.

The two of them constantly changed what they were teaching the students based of feedback at the end of each lecture. Jonathan admitted that he was very lucky that his thesis supervisor was so well respected, that he was able to convince other professors to allow Jonathan to do this. This meant that he was able to reach a large range of different faculties and spread the idea of innovation through the student body during his 7 month thesis exercise.

Translating into Support

Jonathan was constantly giving out surveys during his thesis. He used this to collect a lot of data that backed his proposed solution to build an innovation room. One of the major contributing factors was that he'd basically helped university students start on random innovation projects only to realised that they didn't have the resources to go through with them, which in turn put a lot of pressure on the university to provide the facilities necessary to continual.


The Room

The first department to offer a room was the math department, where the head of the department was very pro-innovation. A tech room was also developed, which students run. Funding was secured from the university, which is in turn donated by a local tech company. This lead to the purchasing of impressive high tech equipment for the room.

The room is used for interactive workshops, but it is also described as ' flexible', as anyone can go in there and use it for their own projects and use the technology provided. The room is maintained by students who are paid by the university and have 2-3 hour shifts between 11am-8pm. 

The space is 're-launched' every semester to help highlight the technology and the benefits it provides to all freshmen. 

Tips and Advice

Jonathan had a lot of advice and good insights to give to anyone trying to develop a space at their own university. The most significant was that an innovation space didn’t have to be a physical one. Even going to classrooms and teaching as you go helps the community a lot. No university wants to spend money on something no one wants, so you must start small and adapt it to the needs of your university.

He also gave some very practical advice to anyone stuck trying to convince their academic community to take on a project. He suggests researching and getting data from other Fellows or universities about their own spaces and the impacts it has had. This data and information will greatly help strengthen your own argument.


What Jonathan helped achieve at his university is absolutely amazing and he practically outlined how anyone here can do something similar. Start small and build your case and slowly work towards the innovation space you want. 


by Peter Cole