OCAD launches grad program to meld design with Canada’s tech future

With Canada consistently receiving poor grades in world innovation reports, the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) is the latest of several organizations looking to tap design talent and ensure the country’s relevance in an increasingly digital world.

This September, OCAD will begin its first year of the Digital Futures graduate program, which will include both a part-time graduate diploma course and a master’s degree program.  Courses include material on research and business creation, along with innovation.

The new program involves a partnership with the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) Media Lab, a think-tank that trains emerging new media content developers, where Digital Futures students will work for six weeks intensively on project prototyping.

“What’s going to make new media products successful is the integrity of the design,” which is why partnering with OCAD was critical for the program’s success, says Ana Serrano, founding director of CFC.

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Founded in 1997, the Media Lab has since worked to give students the skills they need in digital media, she says. Now, the second phase of its evolution has begun and it is working to help entrepreneurs understand how to commercialize a product, Serrano says.

OCAD was also the first Canadian university chosen to participate in Microsoft Corp.’s Design Expo, a research forum where small teams of students showcase their prototype interaction design ideas as part of a semester long course.

On April 19, four student teams from OCAD presented their ideas in Toronto, based on the 2011 theme “Being Connected, Staying Connected.” Within the next few weeks, those students will find out which team has been selected to go to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash. to present their idea to other teams from universities from across the globe.  

“We are so rich in talent; it’s invigorating,” Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said of Canada during last week’s event, where he was a panellist. Buxton is one of the fathers of multi-touch technology and an advocate for interdisciplinary innovation.

“At OCAD there’s a lot of really interesting things happening,” says Spencer Saunders, a student at the university who presented a design idea this month. “One of them is this bridge between the academic world and the business world,” he says.

His team of four created “Knock” a mobile phone application where users can add context to their phone calls by creating subject lines and time frames for the call-for example, a business call may take five minutes.

Users can also forward their “knocks” on to a more appropriate person for dealing with the call. “It adapts technology to social graces,” Saunders says. Several technology developers have already approached Knock’s team, he says.

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While many people still think of OCAD as strictly an arts school in the traditional sense, the university has been making efforts to develop its technology talent for at least five years, according to Saunders. He is part of another relatively new OCAD program, the Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation.

British Columbia’s Great Northern Way Campus, a partnership among several of the province’s universities, has a Master’s of Digital Media program that also takes an interdisciplinary approach, accommodating students from various academic backgrounds. Sheridan College in Ontario also offers an interactive multimedia diploma program.

But despite several colleges and universities offering similar programs, Canada is still often criticized for lagging behind other countries in terms of innovations.

“As Canadians, I think we’re a bit more demure,” Saunders says. “We don’t shout our successes from the rooftops.” But many success stories in technology and innovation over the last 20 years come from Canada, he says, citing Buxton’s achievements as an example.

There have been various ideas about what Canada’s problem actually is, but playing it safe is one agreed-upon cause, not a lack of talent.

“No one is successful without incalculable risk,” Buxton says. “We should be putting more dangerous playgrounds in our schools,” he laughs.

“We have talent but our entrepreneurial culture is not as risk taking as it is in other jurisdictions,” Serrano agrees. “We need to create a culture of risk,” she says.

Hopefully, with the creation of programs like OCAD’s Digital Futures, entrepreneurs will feel more confident in their skill sets and ability to commercialize products, she says. “We have to start creating the conditions to make investing in risk a normal mode of behaviour,” she says.

Harmeet Singh is a Staff Writer at ITBusiness. Follow her on Twitter, and join the IT Business Facebook Page.

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