Studying how innovation works to facilitate new product design and development
In the face of looming challenges like childhood obesity, environmental collapse, and soaring healthcare costs, we need dramatic, sustained, and collaborative innovation. Dr. Liz Gerber, Professor of Northwestern University who specializes in human-computer interaction, design, and management, studies how new technology can support innovation work, develops practical tools, and provides resources for beginning entrepreneurs. In particular, Dr. Gerber examines collective innovation, an innovation process that harnesses the diverse and untapped human, social, and economic capital from distributed networks to discover, evaluate, and implement new ideas. As innovation is a challenging endeavor, collaboration is critical for drawing diverse insights, but is also difficult especially for novice entrepreneurs who don't have experience, networks, and knowledge of different technical languages. To this end, Dr. Gerber gathers interdisciplinary teams in the context of social computing, crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding to help novice innovators solve problems in domains anywhere from medical device design to toy development and entertainment.
Some of the products Dr. Gerber has studied and helped design include a medical device to improve hand hygiene in hospitals and Jerry the Diabetes Bear, a teddy bear with an interactive screen that was designed to help children with diabetes learn about their disease and how to take care of themselves by taking care of the bear. The hand hygiene product, in particular, was designed to help clean doctors’ hands in hospitals to avoid any unnecessary infection, and demonstrated a huge success, raising over $9 million and winning over 45 awards. Moreover, much of Dr. Gerber’s work have been featured in the media including Forbes, Fast Company, and on The Oprah Winfrey Show. With an interdisciplinary team of two co-PIs trained in computer science, learning sciences, and economics and 11 graduate students trained as social and computer scientists, she collaborates with researchers at Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, MIT, and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign as well as industry at Facebook, Microsoft, and Adobe. To help derive creative, sustainable, and practical solutions to today’s societal challenges, Dr. Gerber continues to study innovation processes and develops design principles and novel socio technical infrastructure that supports and drives innovation forward.
Current projects include:
- Crowdfunding: Innovation depends on financial investment, and crowdfunding, or the request of resources through social media, plays a huge role in channeling billions of dollars into innovation projects each year and expanding the populations of people who participate in the innovation process, both on the founding and the funding sides. While crowdfunding is dramatically changing who can participate, we poorly understand this social phenomenon, and Dr. Gerber is working to understand this new and important platform, addressing how technology enables, motivates, and alters human interaction. Dr. Gerber’s future work in crowdfunding involves building new tools to improve performance for novices based on the community process model and distilling key design principles produced from her pioneering research.
- Digital Loft -- Scalable Social Computing Systems For Early-Stage Innovation Work: Dr. Gerber’s research into crowdfunding revealed that many crowdfunding participants underestimate the skills and amount of preparation necessary to run a successful crowdfunding campaign. In fact, successful campaigns are increasingly led by seasoned innovators with extensive, project-relevant professional networks to provide support at critical stages of the campaign. To help fill a need for targeted support among novice innovators who make up the vast majority of crowdfunding campaign creators, Dr. Gerber’s team developed the Digital Loft as an open, scalable, crowd based support system that was designed to make crowdfunding more effective. Not yet even in beta release, over 580 novice and expert innovators are using the Digital Loft, and Dr. Gerber and her team are currently preparing the system for use by two national non-profits with more than 8,500 members each, radically increasing their ability to collect data.
- Innovation Methods: Collaboration is key to successful innovation, and Dr. Gerber develops work practices to support group collaborations and networking in the innovation process. These work practices provide methods around idea generation, prototyping, and group work at the early stages of innovation. Novice and expert entrepreneurs can implement these research-driven, empirical principles in their product design and development processes to advance their products.
- Design for America (DFA) -- A National Laboratory for the Study of Collective Innovation: Through rigorous research, Dr. Gerber has found that existing infrastructure fails to support collective innovation in several key ways, particularly by neglecting the pressing needs, attitudes, and skills of novice innovators. Dr. Gerber is thus devoted to understanding and resolving these infrastructure failures, by not only advising top performing crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to refine their system for increased performance, but also by designing and implementing infrastructure with her own lab. In this way, she will be able to adjust the design in order to assess the relationship between infrastructure features and innovation outcomes. While the Digital Loft project emphasizes scalability, DFA emphasizes the research value of having rich, multi-modal data for grounded theory-building in a novel empirical domain. DFA is now made up of more than 3000 student members (52% women) from a nationwide network of innovation studios hosted by 24 universities, and pulls together interdisciplinary teams of students, faculty, professionals, and community partners to tackle social challenges they identify through an empirically studied innovation process.
Dr. Liz Gerber is Associate Professor at the Northwestern University in departments of Segal Design Institute (School of Engineering), Mechanical Engineering (School of Engineering), Technology and Social Behavior (School of Communications), Industrial Engineering & Management Science (School of Engineering) by courtesy, Management & Organizations (School of Management), by courtesy, and Learning Sciences (School of Education & Social Policy), by courtesy. She is also the Founder of Design for America and has won numerous awards. She received her Ph.D. in Management Science & Engineering at Stanford University in 2007, M.S. in the Joint Program in Product Design, Art and Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University in 2003, and B.A. in Studio Art & Engineering at Dartmouth College in 1998.
Growing up, Dr. Gerber was raised by a loving family who had a big passion for social justice. Her grandfather, for example, was a volunteer fireman in Central Vermont. Also a farmer and a real estate agent, her grandfather always did what needed to be done to fill the society’s lack, and had moved from Pennsylvania to rural Vermont in the mid-40’s with his wife because they felt that it was an underserved state that needed more attention. Here, he helped people by starting a summer camp for students who couldn’t afford to attend one, and facilitated after school programs and other extracurricular activities. Moreover, Dr. Gerber’s father, who was a doctor, also walked the walk and not just talked the talk, and was once featured in a newspaper article that showed a picture of him biking to work in his lab coat during an oil crisis in the 1960’s.
Motivated by her parents and grandparents who thought deeply about how to help their community thrive, Dr. Gerber wanted to understand and design solutions to make people's lives better. It wasn't enough for her just to understand them, or study them so others could design better solutions, nor was it enough for her to use someone else’s research to inform the designs. She wanted to do both so that she could use the behavior science to understand the design and the design to understand the behavioral science. She conducts this type of unique design research -- both producing theory and designing products -- because it results in empirically driven design and applied theory.
Dr. Gerber is a mother of two beautiful children, and loves to spend time with them outside of research. As a family, they do everything together, camping, biking, and enjoying the nice weather at the beach.
For more information, visit www.lizgerber.com
In the News
IEEE’s Computer Science and Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award, 2014
Chosen for Design for America, her paradigm shifting extracurricular design initiative that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration and learning
Crain’s 40 under 40 List of Chicago’s Next Generation of Leaders, 2013
Chosen by Crain’s
Public Interest Design Top 100 People, 2012
Acknowledged by Public Internet Design blog as one of 100 advocates, communicators, funders, makers, and others shaping our world
Allen K. and Johnnie Cordell Breed Junior Chair in Design, 2012 – present
Appointed as an Endowed Chair in Design in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science
OpEd Project’s Public Voices Thought Leadership Fellow, 2012 – 2013
Selected as one of twenty faculty at Northwestern University to dramatically increase the public impact of our nation’s top underrepresented thinkers, and to ensure our ideas help shape the important conversations of our age