Beale Airmen, Stanford Design School professors collaborate to inspire creative thinking, innovation

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Eboni Prince
  • 9th Intelligence Squadron

BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --  More than two dozen Airmen walked into the conference room and were greeted by their instructors-- three Stanford University Design School professors. In eager anticipation, they took their seats at various tables. Each table had an assortment of scratch paper, sticky notes, pens and pencils—essentials for brainstorming and creative thinking.

These Airmen had the unique opportunity to participate in a design thinking seminar during the inaugural Design Day, Dec. 11.

“Design Day’s premier focus was innovation,” said Senior Master Sgt. Matthew Phillips, 9th Intelligence Squadron operations superintendent. “As a part of a larger effort to continually develop Airmen, the goal is to transition from the mindset of leaders telling Airmen what to think to those same leaders teaching Airmen how to think.”

This new thought process will empower Airmen to think critically and better prepare them for different situations.

“The focus on innovation has been a topic of conversation within the military and specifically the Air Force for many years,” said Phillips. “We are constantly looking for ways to be smarter, faster and better through the innovation of our Airmen. Design Day seemed like an opportunity to provide a spark to those who already expressed an interest in creative thinking.”

Design Day was open to all Beale personnel. The professors introduced numerous methods normally taught in their academic curriculum to tap into each individual’s creative potential.

According to their website, the Design School or, believes everyone has the capacity to be creative and their lessons on design thinking help people develop their creative abilities. The professors used what they refer to as ‘radical collaboration’ to inspire creative thinking amongst the group of military personnel that attended the seminar. The’s goal is to help its students use design to make changes in their environment. During the seminar, the attendees heard success stories about real-world projects, participated in group activities, and discussed problem solving techniques.

For decades, the Air Force has done a methodical job of outlining a clear, concise problem solving process. This process includes observing a problem, orienting oneself to the issue, deciding and developing countermeasures, and putting solutions into action.  

Jeremy Utley, Stanford University Design School executive education director, clarified the purpose for design thinking and how it lends to innovation.

“Design thinking is more than just finding solutions to problems,” said Utley. “When finding a solution, one should ask themselves, ‘what will my solution do for the user?’ If in answering that question, you discover a problem, then there is room for innovation.”

Senior Master Sgt. Eric Cox, 9th Force Support Squadron career assistance advisor, attended Design Day and suggested the mindset is gradually changing across the Air Force.  

“Innovation will be the new normal and simply looking for solutions will be a thing of the past,” said Cox. “We’ve been solution-oriented in the military for so long that traditionally we would look at an issue and immediately just look for the quickest solution to give the requestor what they need. As we experience constraints, it then becomes a supply issue.”

Cox expressed that normally constraints would lead to more searches for quick solutions, but things are changing.

“Now we are experiencing a paradigm shift to where we can start asking ‘If I don’t have the solution, then what? What is the underlying problem? How can this be better?’” said Cox. “The younger generation, who is open to learning and making things better, are now helping us answer these questions.”

Design Day was just the first of many opportunities to explore Airmen’s creative capacities. There are plans to continue to utilize the resources of the to further develop Beale Airmen.

“As technology improves throughout the world, in order to continue to successfully combat our adversaries, the need for innovation increases and becomes essential,” said Phillips. “Design Day was just the first of many things to come in order to continually cater to the Air Force’s need for improvement.”