Kevin Popovic has been named the director of the Zahn Innovation Platform Idea Lab.

Facilitating Creative Thinking at SDSU

Kevin Popovic sits on a padded rolling chair at a small table typing on a laptop. Aside from a generic-looking wall clock and white board resting on the floor near some empty glass shelves, these are the only furnishings in the vacated fourth-floor conference room that will be the physical center of his universe for the next couple of years.

The College of Business Administration’s management department lecturer was recently named the director of the Zahn Innovation Platform’s (ZIP) newly created Idea Lab. In a written statement to San Diego State University faculty and staff, SDSU Vice President for Research Stephen Welter announced that the new position “will include designing and launching the ZIP Idea Lab on the SDSU campus, and guiding its advancement to national prominence and leadership in the areas of creativity, collaboration, and innovation.”

No pressure.

But first, this design thinking instructor must think about designing a space to serve as the Idea Lab’s base until its permanent home in thenew Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex is completed.

“The first thing we have to do is get a facility in place because people have to gather somewhere, so we are going to create an environment at the Idea Lab that will facilitate this,” Popovic said.

The facilitator

The 52-year-old Popovic is good at facilitating, which is his primary task as Idea Lab director.

“My role is to facilitate creative thinking,” he said. “Design thinking is a very prominent current creative process and it’s a very empathetic approach. It’s about helping people solve problems for other people.”

In his announcement, Welter described Popovic’s role as working “with university leaders, faculty, students, and community partners in the establishment, organization, and management” of the new laboratory.

“In Kevin, we are very happy to find such a highly qualified and energetic person to design and launch the ZIP Idea Lab, and serve as its founding director,” Welter said.

A keen intellect

There may be no one better qualified for the position. Popovic is founder and director of Ideahaus®, an award-winning, Pittsburgh-based creative communications agency.

Popovic displays a keen intellect and easy-going demeanor that makes him a natural for gathering representatives of disparate disciplines to create, innovate and problem-solve together. He is on campus to help others generate better ideas and strengthen their own creativity.

“This is exactly what my job is,” he said. “I have a student who says, ‘I need to learn more. I want to do more. Can you help me generate better ideas?’ And she’s not looking for me to do it, she’s just looking for me to help point her in some direction.”

Stimulus, stimulus, stimulus

So where does SDSU’s idea guy get his ideas?

“I answer that differently depending on the people I’m talking to,” Popovic said.

“For instance, when I talk to people in a similar position or I talk to other creatives, we don’t necessarily have to give the same explanation or background that we do to non-creatives because I think with creatives, the ideas just come to you in a number of ways.”

Popovic recalls growing up in suburban Pittsburgh and being 12 years old when his family first got cable television. He remembers it as a sort of revelation.

“My mom had bought me a 12-inch black and white television and when cable got connected to this box, I got all this new influx of data, images, sounds, people and experiences and things that I had never had before,” he said. “Prior to that I had lived in a small neighborhood where my points of reference were quite limited, so when cable came in with all this new influx of ideas, it was a stimulus, stimulus, stimulus. When I saw something, it made me think of how I could use this something or what I could do differently with this thing and it was very exciting.”

What if?

Through the ZIP Idea Lab, Popovic wants to do for others what he remembers his first cable television experience doing for him. He hopes to expand what the Zahn family started through the Zahn Innovation Platform.

“What started as a concept has turned into a real facility here,” Popovic said. “It is becoming a staple for student entrepreneurs and innovators, and even faculty are using it to say, ‘How can I take this idea I have and do something with it?’ I’m very honored to be able to try and build off of what the Zahn family has provided the university.”

Popovic says he views his new opportunity less like a clean slate, and more like an Etch-a-Sketch. He’s taking what’s already there and shaking it up to create something similar, but different.

“With the Idea Lab, I’m privileged to do not only what I’m good at, but what I really enjoy, which is helping people generate new ideas,” he said.

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