When can Design Thinking Fail & how to Succeed?

The photograph shows the some of the top executives who gathered at the Aspen Design Summit in early August 2010 to solve complex social problems.

This was covered by Helen Walters, the editor of Innovation and Design at Bloomberg Businessweek, through her article “Inside the Design Thinking Process”: Change Observer: Design Observer:(3rd August 2010)


Some relevant excerpts from her critical but interesting article.

“The Aspen Design Summit brought together 60 top executives to apply design thinking to large social problems.”

“The 64 invited attendees, including Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, Chris Hacker, chief design officer at Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), and Ted Chen, director of learning and innovation at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Divided into five groups, each team was tasked with coming up with a solution to a specific problem. To try to prevent participants from being creative but impractical, the organizers told us our solutions needed to include a clear plan of action, with a goal of implementation within 24 months.”

“Not surprisingly, team members brought their individual areas of interest and expertise to the table. Dr. Jay Parkinson is the co-founder of Hello Health, an online network that connects doctors and patients. He was keen to use Web 2.0 principles and techniques to create a virtual community for Austin, featuring videos of local heroes taken by school children and including a diary of local wellness-themed events. By the final presentation, he had even mocked up a prototype of what the Web site might look like. It was a bewitching concept, and Parkinson put together a beautiful piece of design. It was also the idea that stopped me from sleeping.”

“My suspicion, as I thought about it in the middle of the night, was that we were falling into a trap. Our intentions could hardly be faulted. But without deep understanding of the community we were trying to serve, our efforts seemed doomed. After all, a brilliantly creative idea in the eyes of Aspen Design Summit attendees, most of whom live and work in large cities on the coasts of the U.S., might seem like entirely inappropriate bunk to those actually living in Austin. We didn’t know, for example, whether the area had broadband Internet connection. Moreover, many of Austin’s residents are non-native English speakers. Yet here we were, conspiring to offer them a Web experience freighted with bells and whistles?”

This case resonated with my experience. I saw exactly the same design done by my friend Sanjay Banerjee in 1998 — an web based design that connected patients and a group of doctors whom the patients might call up anytime in case of a problem or an emergency. He even empathetically named the experience as ‘Ah! Doctor’. Needless to say that it too failed miserably and my friend lost a lot of good money on this design and venture.

It appears that it is a different cup of tea when we apply Design Thinking to solve social problems.

My friend Paula Thornton says:

“Indeed IDEO themselves will admit that they too had to evolve to embrace the larger realm of design thinking to apply it to things like services, originally being focused only on product.”

When the context changes from product to social problems I think the approach has to change. I feel that some of the earlier attempts of IDEO to apply DT to social issues and challenges serve as examples of failures.

An example that readily comes to mind is when IDEO claimed that they have solved the problem of women carrying water in rural India by designing special containers (changing shape, form, materials and strength) that makes the deary and useless job easier. Was that a solution? Definitely no.

The problem is how to stop the massive wastage of manpower (womanpower in fact) and time involved in carrying water from a distant place. Some of the other problems that need to be solved are — a) how to protect the water source and b) keep it clean and potable.

As soon as a social problem is ‘defined’ DT or any thinking for that matter would fail and lose its power. For example, ‘War on Drugs’ — 9 American presidents in a row have had pursued various solutions till 2009 when it they realized that drugs can’t be stopped in the way they thought it could be and all the so called ‘solutions’ have come to naught. It is now sort of funny that in 2010, California legalized the drug trade and taxes it too to bolster additional income for the state.

Similarly, climate change issues were taken up and discussed for a fairly long time in the UN Security Council till they realized that it is not a security issue at all.

DT or any thinking would fail in taking up social challenges once the social challenge or problem is ‘defined’ to limit or narrow down the scope. This is a fundamental flaw, which interestingly, is not a flaw when this principle is applied to product design.

It appears that Design Thinking (DT) would often fail in addressing social challenges when the solution is not a tangible product or when tangible products occupy a very small part of the solution space. So a ‘product challenge’ and a ‘social challenge’ would need different treatments in terms of application and principles.

Other examples would highlight the issue;

a) When Coke came to India their tag line thinking was that they would make Indians forget about drinking water. Today they are in rough weather. No amount of advertisements and lowering prices or making smaller bottles or family pack seem to be working.

b) Similarly Kellogs thought that they would change the breakfast habits of the country. They are now thinking of making some Indian dishes to keep floating.

c) Rayban had to close shop in India. The solution did not appeal to Indians.

d) Nike and Rebok are also thinking of folding up.

e) My friend Dan Strongin adds: In Greece, in the 1970’s, the world bank, at the behest of its “donors” GE and the Petro’s, financed a project which cut down all the olive groves leading to Athens leading into the city and replaced them with the king of input consumers, corn. When the corn was ready to be processed they spent 14 million dollars on an Ad campaign trying to get the Greeks to switch from Olive Oil to corn oil and margarine. It flopped.

f) He also adds: In the Dominican republic, General Mills tried to get people off their traditional diets for breakfast, with some effect, but at a tremendous cost.

So, is there a common thread that links these examples? Surely, it is a matter of collaborative choices not affordability. Social problems are much more broad based and mucky. It would need a lot of deep understanding before one strikes out for a solution.

Paula’s take on this is: “those looking for a prescribed way to implement design thinking are destined to be disappointed. It’s a messy, opaque process that depends as much on group dynamics as intellect or insight.”

What we also see is the collective thinking that goes on in a society or community based on tradition, culture and the benefits people have seen and felt over generations. It gets deeply embedded in the collective psyche. Hence the ‘local’ wins over the global designs to solve social and economic problems. Well, almost always.

What then would be the way forward to solve complex social problems?

To my mind, we would have to combine the principles of Design Thinking, System Thinking and the ideas of Social Sustainability to come up with viable and acceptable solutions for social problems — solutions that would be engineered by the people of a community for them through a service or business locally created of the people of the community, which may, if the need arises, extended to help other communities.

So, for success in solving social problems and bringing about social changes it is ‘BY the PEOPLE, FOR the PEOPLE, OF the PEOPLE’, under democratic set up.

Think Global: Act Local would be the mantra. This is because the ramifications of a social problem is always global but the solution to such a problem always have to be local.

Therefore, the industrial age mind set of ‘scalability’, ‘standardization’ and ‘globalization’ is to be summarily dismissed and discarded for good, when it comes to solving social problems. This is precisely because this mindset actually caused most of the social problems that we face today.

Can we solve the problems with the mindset that created it in the first place?


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