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The Innovators' Compass Finds Its Way

This isn’t the first year that Ela Ben-Ur and her Innovators’ Compass have made an appearance at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin, Texas, but it may have been the most meaningful.

“The dream behind Innovators’ Compass is making creative problem solving accessible for any person in any moment,” said Ben-Ur, an adjunct assistant professor of design at Olin College.

At its most basic, the Compass is 5 powerful questions — distilled from practices including design thinking and Ben Ur’s 20-year journey through MIT, the design firm IDEO, and Olin, in collaboration with educators around the country.

There is a numbered path to follow for people seeking to utilize the Compass: 1) “Who’s involved?” (People) 2) “What’s happening? Why?” (Observations) 3) “What matters most?” (Principles) 4) “What ways are there?” (Ideas) 5) “What’s a step to try?” (Experiments). Ben-Ur also urges her Compass community to “go [on the Compass] wherever moves you forward.” People, then, can follow the numbered path or forge their own. 

The goal of the Compass is to nurture the roots of powerful practices while “unsticking” everyday challenges, big and small. “Many educators have plenty of challenges in and around their schools to tackle — they don’t need to invent projects to work on,” said Ben-Ur.

In Austin, Ben-Ur co-facilitated a workshop titled “5 Questions Empower Everyone with Design Thinking” with Dr. Dawn McWilliams, principal of Fulton Academy of Excellence, an 89 percent free-and-reduced lunch charter school in Aurora, Colorado, and Dr. Dan Coleman, chief learning and design officer of the new Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning at MIT.

The session offered a quick introduction to the Compass, a deep dive with partners, a walking reflection through a room-sized Compass and stories voiced by 6 Compass-using educators at SXSW.   Fortunately those who couldn’t make it in to the popular workshop could access the Compass in the three-day SXSW EDU "Playground" reserved for just 20 highly interactive displays.

In the Playground, participants streamed through the Innovators’ Compass space. On digital displays, visitors played with the free resources at, including a web-based app designed and built by Olin College senior Hieu Nguyen. Many visitors “unstuck” challenges, using different Compass tools as springboards for inspiration — individually, with Compass worksheets, cards, stickers or other prompts; or in groups at an easel with stickies. These visitors ranged from a deputy commissioner of education tackling a governance issue to a student working on a roommate challenge.

Compass-using educators Denise Kern, Dylan Ferniani, and James Campbell volunteered shifts to help. Dan Ryder, well-known design-thinking educator and co-author of Intention: Critical Creativity In the Classroom, stopped by the display and jumped right in, helping a participant work through a challenge with the Compass — on a sticky note.

In the weeks leading up to the SXSW event, Ben-Ur spent a few days at Olin College running designs by Associate Professor of Practice in Design Tim Sauder and Adjunct Professor Daniel Koff, prototyping the Playground space in the Olin Library with ideas from Director Jeff Goldenson, and bringing the Compass and its impact to life in two powerful posters with technical help from Customer Service Manager Mary Fitzpatrick. “In all my years at MIT and IDEO I have never worked this hard!” said Ben-Ur.

The Innovators’ Compass allows all people — not just academics and students — to   more easily access the pillars of 21st century learning — communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity — in their decision making and problem solving. 

In the past year alone the Compass has been used in preschools, the US Conference on AIDS and by educators around the country. And now, after SXSW, its problem-solving power is in the hands of hundreds more.

 “Overall the question of this whole work is can we help people get unstuck and move forward,” said Ben-Ur. “It was truly inspiring to see it all come together and have it resonate and work for all these people.”