The graduates are groomed to go forth as leading innovators and become the next James Dyson, Clive Sinclair or Buckminster Fuller. What has been gratifying in my first term there is the willingness of students to learn the tools of innovation. And with great success. So much success in fact that the process seems suspiciously quick. How is it done?
Wind back to our days as toddlers. The world of a small child is all about creative problem solving. Everything in the world is new and a challenge: what's that metal thing that sticks out, oh it opens the door! And so on. This stuff gets increasingly sophisticated until we think we've got it. At some point we know why the sun rises, the tide comes and goes, light bulbs glow, bridges stay up. And then, I think, the problems set in.
Our brains are wired to draw overall conclusions from little pieces of information. Trouble is, time goes by and we increasingly demonstrate to ourselves how correct we are with our conclusions and assumptions – self-congratulatory wisdom at its worst.
A colleague of mine is a company chairman. She told me she doesn't like surprises in business. This only works if a new venture is modelled exactly on a previous venture and all the variables have the same value. Of course this never happens, but the closer the venture is to the plan the better she'll feel.
We thrash the living daylights out of any remaining inclination to innovate – we unlearn it
And that tends to be our modus operandi. We like projects to be on time and under budget. We like the works packages carried out by the multiple disciplines to go together neatly. And to do this, we thrash the living daylights out of any remaining inclination to innovate – we unlearn it. But then we don't get angry about the results that are mediocre and designs that are derivative.
So, I think now that the reason my students make so much progress is that they are relearning, rather than learning, how to innovate. And my task is to help them to do this by recreating, to some extent, the world of the toddler – exposing them to change, uncertainty but also joy, playful silliness and much of the nonsense that catalyses children's creativity. Hence I'm buying them a football table from eBay and a coffee machine so they have eyeballs on stalks by 2am – when the really good stuff tends to happen.
Meanwhile, I've noticed that there is a collective desperation in the industry to do funky design using the grown-up, low risk, derivative approach, which is often promoted by the designers themselves (or their back catalogue, that is). But as an eternal optimist, this is no way to end an article, so here's a quick review of what is really hot just now: Zaha Hadid, the new Pritzker prize winner, ignored convention and look where she is. Herzog & de Meuron, who snatched the Tate Bankside from the British and didn't do the space planning conventionally. Now they have created a Prada store in Japan with more innovation than most architects produce in a lifetime. Richard Rogers Architects is accelerating past Foster and Partners once more, and a new interest in materials and forms is seeing an almost Moorish design for the Welsh assembly, a stunning airport proposal for Shanghai with a park, and a raft of forthcoming product designs using incredible materials and technologies. And let's not forget industrial design. There's a fantastic show for designer of the year now at the Design Museum in London. And my money is on Sam Buxton.
Tom Barker is professor of industrial design engineering at the Royal College of Art and a director of B Consultants