Multi-college student collaboration will attack ‘wicked problems’


When the world has a problem, who you gonna call?

The answer might be students at Kendall College of Art and Design, or students from any number of other regional colleges and universities.

KCAD is partnering with the Wege Foundation to host a new event called the Wege Prize, which encourages collaborative design and thinking among students from various colleges and disciplinary studies to tackle a complex problem.

Not just a complex problem, but a “wicked problem.”

A Wicked Problem is defined as resistant to resolution and, due to its complexity, often gives way to additional obstacles when brainstorming business models, products, or services, according to

The Wege Prize is a three-year project designed to put collegiate brainpower to the test. The yearly competition is designed for six teams, consisting of five members from different regional academic institutions.

This year, the task is to create a realistic and thorough solution to implementing a circular economy. Each team has three months to develop a way to implement an economic model that allows resources to be re-adapted for use without eliminating quality of products or loss of revenue.

The top three winners will receive cash rewards. The first-place team will receive $15,000 divided among the five members, and the second place team will be given $10,000 to split among the team. In addition, there will be a People’s Choice award of $1,000 for the team awarded the most votes from the public at The prizes are part of the grant from the Wege Foundation.

“Wege Prize is the start of something big, something that will begin in West Michigan and ripple out across the globe,” according to a statement from KCAD.

Gayle DeBruyn, chief sustainability officer and chair of collaborative design and furniture/design studies at KCAD, said the premise of the competition is, of course, to solve the problem, but also to encourage students to intentionally engage with their peers from other disciplines and academic institutions.

“The collaborative process looks at an integrated design approach where we bring as many voices, experiences and backgrounds to the table to help solve the problem,” said DeBruyn.

KCAD promotes innovative design and collaboration as an integral part of its educational program. The partnership with the Wege Foundation was a natural progression, DeBruyn said. The Wege Prize event allows the community at large to see the principles executed by the “area’s brightest collegiate minds.”

DeBruyn said organizers want “people in the community to hear what their students are doing, see what they are doing and to have access to that information.”

Teams will submit their proposals by Feb. 16, and the top five solutions will be available for public viewing by Feb. 19 on The finalists’ projects will be voted on by the public, as well as presented in front of a panel of judges March 3 at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.

The judging panel consists of: Colin Webster, education program manager at the U.K.-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation; Gretchen Hooker, designer and educator at Biomimicry 3.8 Institute; Michael Werner, chemist, engineer and sustainability strategist with Haworth Inc.; Nathan Shedroff, chair of MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts; and Ellen Satterlee, CEO of the Wege Foundation.

The Wege Foundation was founded in 1967 to assist with philanthropy locally. Areas of focus include the environment, education, arts and culture, human services and health care. While the foundation provided the grant on which the competition is built, DeBruyn said the project will have a much broader objective over the next three years.

Beginning in Grand Rapids in the first year, the focus is on regional colleges and innovative teamwork. However, the intent for the second year is to go nationally so students can build teams with peers across the country. DeBruyn said it will be interesting to “watch to see what a little seed in Grand Rapids can do.”

If all goes well, the plan is to take the competition to the international level in the third year, with the help of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation based in the U.K. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation created the first circular economy innovation program with its global partners in 2013, and is sending Colin Webster to be on the judging panel.

“MacArthur will be an important catalyst to move this forward to an international competition,” DeBruyn said. The foundation has connections across the world and will help open doors for the Wege Prize competition.

To participate in the event, each member must be a full-time undergraduate student enrolled in 12 credits or more per semester, and each team must represent at least two different institutions and three or more academic studies. DeBruyn said students chose their own teams “through the equivalent of speed dating.” Most of the selection process took place through social networking, she said, in which students had to seek out, select and encourage others to participate with them on their idea.

“I suspect they all have some interest in taking it forward if the feasibility piece comes together,” said DeBruyn, regarding what will happen to the proposed solutions. She said that in addition to the cash prize, students can use the opportunity to build on their own entrepreneurial ideas, network and receive feedback.

The competition for the next year will be announced in March after the Wege Prize winners are named for 2014.

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