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How the creative economy and design thinking are transforming Philadelphia

Leaders of major corporations, universities, healthcare systems, and technology firms are investing heavily and integrating processes called Design-Thinking, Creative Leadership, and Human-Centered Design. With so many dollars at stake, we’re asking the very simple question, “why?”

Jefferson University and Health System acquires Philadelphia University, a design school. Why? To “start a revolution in how students are taught … so they can deliver even more value to society,” says President Stephen Klasko, “in recognition that design and healthcare are inextricably linked.”

Chancellor Stephen Spinelli is bullish on “the robust value” of design and systems thinking, noting, “we’re thinking doctors who are designers…designers who are physician assistants, occupational therapists who are industrial designers…We will be an example from which a lot of people can learn.”

Electronic Ink, a design, research and content strategy firm sells to Liquid Hub a business technology solutions firm. Why? Design capabilities help Liquid Hub better “understand the human effect” of technology for clients. The firm now leverages designers, whose backgrounds range from architecture to anthropology, to do user experience and cognitive research. The result is a rich trove of data to guide design of the next product, platform and experience, a recognizable competitive advantage in the knowledge economy.

If it isn’t broken, break it,” says SEI’s CEO, Al West, on his approach to using art and creative to reinvent culture at the company every ten years. Why? Because the visionary behind the West Collection in Oaks, PA, believes a collection of 3,100 compelling contemporary art works by emerging artists—1,500 of which hang on the walls of SEI’s corporate campus at any one time—“challenges the SEI community and public to think differently about business.” With the help of Chief Marketing Officer, Mark Samuels, West has also evolved the SEI brand in ways that foster both organic and structured design-led innovation initiatives, including a new “Idea Farm,” meant to generate the next set of solutions to “drive lasting client success.”

Integral Molecular, a 16-year-old company located in uCity Square that focuses on antibody discovery for membrane protein involved in diseases such as asthma, Zika, cancer, and chronic pain engages with an artist in residence program with Orkan Telhan, Associate Professor of Fine Arts - Emerging Design Practices at University of Pennsylvania, School of Design. So why did the University City Science Center broker this “deal?” “The ability to interpret and communicate science to the larger community is an important goal of this program,” says Benjamin Doranz, President and CEO of Integral Molecular, as well as a part-time sculptor. Telhan adds he is excited to “make this invisible world more accessible to non-scientists.”

Philadelphia’s Mural Arts receives major funding from the Ford Foundation’s new $100 million Art for Justice Fund, aimed at investing in strategic efforts to reform the criminal justice system. Mural Arts’ long history of “incorporating art and social justice” has given rise to programs including the Guild, a paid apprenticeship program, giving formerly incarcerated individuals and young adults on probation the opportunity to develop job readiness skills as well assistance with access to GED and higher education support services. This funding catalyzes the launch of a major public art project in collaboration with the City of Philadelphia’s MacArthur Foundation-supported Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, a $3.5 investment in strategies that will safely reduce the average daily jail population over the next three years. The City is also doubling down in its investment in creative thinking, having recently launched a 10-month speaker series exploring strategic design and a multi-agency team called GovLabPHL using “the power and potential of human-centered design and behavioral economics to improve service delivery” across local government.

Are we just finally evolving into creative business people? Are we just realizing creative thinking is a new formula for innovation?

Is creative thinking trending? Is it revolutionary?

Yes, it is trending,

No, it is not revolutionary.

It is evolutionary.

In our steady climb for a competitive advantage in today’s rapidly changing world, each of us is wired to create new processes, products, services and experiences that differentiate us in the marketplace. When we do it well, we solve problems, help people survive and thrive, and create moments of joy. This is applied innovation. We have been doing this since our beginning.

I like to imagine that a thousand years ago a visionary thinker said, “geez it’s cold, we have to invent a method to create warmth rather than just sitting here in this cave”. An artist, whose process was using sticks to create cave drawings, noted that her sticks sparked and got hot after a while I imagine that in this moment fire making was born through the collaboration of this entrepreneurial and artistic duo.. Quality of life was enhanced, and a multitude of culinary concepts and manufacturing processes were born, creating a multitude of markets and products that followed. Dare we say this was early stage Design thinking? Imagine getting in on the ground floor of that cave!

If “creating something new or, more often, better” is one definition of innovation, aren’t we all capable of innovating? Of course! The Left-brains are analytical and the Right-brains are experiential. I refer to those generalizations only for discussion. I’d hate to think we only use one side of our brain. We are all innovators. We just approach it differently.

The word Innovation has become ubiquitous, which makes me shy from it. But someone said something to me the other day that made me rethink my resistance to an overused word. I paraphrase, “When a word starts to be used in almost every conversation, it means that we are trying to figure out what it really means”.

That is why we have joined forces to bring you a set of stories and strategies that bridge these seemingly distinct ways of thinking. Merging Karin’s research in the Creative Economy and background as an industrial designer-turned-business leader with Alan's career as a designer and business leader, Alan will author these editorials, while Karin will bring you a rich set of conversations with regional thinkers and doers at the critical intersection of design and business. Our aim is to provide you — the region’s top leaders and entrepreneurs — with key insights, habits and takeaways that give you a competitive advantage in the way you innovate.

Share Your Story: We also want to hear the ways in which you see this evolutionary trend unfolding in your own life, business and community. So at the end of each column or interview, we will prompt you with interactive exercises and creative processes to stir your imagination and build your innovation skills. We don’t know all of the right answers, or even all of the right questions, but we do believe there is value in starting a conversation on the real ROI of creativity.

Some of us are “experiential thinkers” (creatives, artists, designers, etc.) while others are “analytical thinkers” (accountants, lawyers, doctors, strategists, etc.). Most of us know exactly who we are and with whom we work best. Yet, every once in a while we come across the other thinker type and have an experience that produces a unique story.

Sometimes these encounters, like those examples noted above, produce game-changing results. So, we invite you to share an example of when you interacted with a different kind of thinker and how it impacted your results. E-mail your story to us at We will feature these stories across the Philadelphia Business Journal and Arts + Business Council social media channels as well as in Arts + Business Council email communications reaching upwards of 30,000 users.

Media Contact:

Kristen Fitch Headshot 2024

Kristen Fitch

Senior Director, Marketing