Design Thinking and Sustainability

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Design thinking is critical to creating a sustainable world.

Design thinking is a field that uses designer’s sensibilities and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and viable to create innovations. Designers use all sorts of methods to empathize with people, create definitions of problems, craft prototypes, and gain feedback from those who will use the end product.

One exciting design trend is to mimic nature to take advantage of the millions of years of R&D that nature has conducted- this technique is called biomimicry. For example, consider how to improve a water turbine using the principles of biomimicry. In one study, designers were inspired by a snail and leaf that eventually led to the creation of a water turbine that reduces energy by 85% and noise by 75%.  They mimicked the way snails take in and expel water and looked at how a leaf is efficient in collecting and using water.

Wake Forest University’s Charlotte Center offers a certificate program called Design Thinking for innovative Business Problem Solving. The program includes eight sessions during which participants learn about design thinking, its methods, and hear from experts about their use of this important way of thinking. The program includes a jazz band (to discuss collaboration), artist (to talk about presenting information visually), a theater director (to discuss how to make a play or presentation compelling), and a designer (to talk about prototyping). 

This way of thinking can be applied to new products, services, processes, and even becomes a way of doing business. For example, we can find ways to improve the ways in which we work by looking for more user-friendly environments. The designers observe how people interact at work and attempt to discover ways that work environments could be made more appealing, productive, and where people use less resources that deplete the earth’s natural capital. 

Two methods I like are looking at a situation and asking questions of “what?” “where?” “who?”  “when?” “how?” “how much?” and “why?”  These observational questions can lead to understanding about a situation – for example, a work situation. Using this lens to observe work can then be followed with interviews of workers. All of the time the designer is looking for ways to create desirable, feasible, viable, and sustainable ways of improving work situations. Another method is develop prototypes of the intended innovations. These prototypes could be physical products, flow-diagrams or even a small skit to portray the intended improvement. Prototypes are then presented to clients and users for their feedback.  In fact, every innovation can be considered a prototype – something that can be continuously improved.

Lest you think this is a fad, consider that many large organizations have embraced design thinking. Among the firms most involved are Pepsi, Siemens, Procter and Gamble, Kaiser Permanente, IBM, and many more.  Design firms such as IDEO and Continuum are becoming involved with corporate consulting. IDEO even help to set up at Stanford University.  This “school” involves students from business, engineering, art, and architecture who work on problems using design thinking. Additionally, the University of Toronto Rotman School of Business uses design thinking as the basis of its MBA program. 


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