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Ivey students use systems thinking to tackle Canada’s plastics problem

  • Communications
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  • Aug 17, 2021
Ivey students use systems thinking to tackle Canada’s plastics problem

NGen team - Top (l-r): Richard Chan, Akshay Seepala, Carol Zhang; Bottom (l-r): Deeksha Neekhra, Tijana Rajic

A new approach to problem-solving is helping an Ivey student team guide a Canadian non-profit organization in reducing manufacturers’ environmental footprints.

The students are applying the systems thinking framework learned through their MSc elective course, Systems Thinking, to help Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen) find ways to reduce single-use plastics. NGen is an industry-led not-for-profit organization that leads Canada’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster. NGen is working with a student team in a consulting capacity during the summer after previously working with the team on a course project earlier this year. The team will present its recommendations to NGen later this month.

“We have to figure out who are the players involved on the supply versus demand side in this industry, and how we can get the conversation and initiatives going to reduce the use and the need for single-use plastics,” said Tijana Rajic, one of the student consultants.

Advancing Canada’s manufacturing sector

Carol Zhang, another student consultant, said one of the biggest challenges of the summer project is to map out the entire plastics lifecycle to give NGen an accurate view of the landscape. As the lead on the Supercluster, NGen’s goal is to advance Canada’s manufacturing sector as a whole.

“We’re looking at it from a very bird’s-eye view to figure out what levers can be pulled. What sort of interventions can these collaborations actually foster?” said Zhang. “The process of investigating the problem more deeply and zooming out of a problem instead of zooming in is very novel for us.”

Fellow teammate, Richard Chan, said this approach has helped him to develop critical thinking.

“At Ivey, we do our case discussions and it’s a really linear way of thinking about the process. Being introduced to this whole systems thinking idea added another framework so you start to see the problems in a new perspective. It’s important to add more frameworks to overall enhance our critical thinking,” he said.

In addition to Rajic, Zhang, and Chan, the team includes Deeksha Neekhra and Akshay Seepala. All are MSc ’21 candidates, except for Seepala and Neekhra, who graduated from the MSc program in June.

A new approach to critical thinking

Mazi Raz, MBA ’05, PhD ’14, an assistant professor of General Management, teaches Systems Thinking, which ran from January to March. During the 12 weeks, the students worked with six organizations on real-life business problems as a course project. The organizations are Ivey’s partners in the Innovation Learning Lab, and the problems ranged from maintaining an organization’s identity during rapid growth, to the future of office work and the physical work space in the post-pandemic world. The teams received mentorship from Raz along with Tima Bansal; a professor of General Management, Sustainability and Strategy; and Valen Boyd, a PhD candidate.

Working on the project in conjunction with their coursework allowed the students to apply the learnings of the course and tackle the problems through various frameworks.

“There was no rush to just pick an idea and go with it to solve the problem. It kept building and building. We added on each week and kept coming up with new questions and new ideas,” said Rajic. “I haven’t experienced anything like this in the past either professionally or academically.”

The benefits of radical collaboration

Raz said the Systems Thinking course teaches students to see the whole, not just the parts, of a problem and to look at it from different points of view. It borrows the ensemble model from theatre, where each actor has a role to play, but must also learn everyone else’s roles.

“It’s not just a back-up model. It creates a sense of harmony in working that really propels the performance. We applied the same model here and students were frequently behind-the-scenes trying to get a sense of what was going on,” said Raz. “It was a new way of working, what we call radical collaboration. It may appear as inefficient because people have to get everyone else’s point of view, but in these cases, it’s actually very effective.”

Course project success story

NGen was so impressed with the students’ input that it asked for the team to continue working on the problem throughout the summer.

Bansal, who founded the Innovation Learning Lab, said the Lab has been working on a new approach to innovation that aligns business value with societal values. She said she was excited that NGen asked a student team to apply that approach to a real-life problem.

“A step forward can put Canadian companies and Canadians ahead of the race in solving a seemingly intractable problem,” she said.