Design Thinking for Social Innovation

 In Centre News, Mohit


Four years ago, two students at the University for Peace requested that I run a workshop on ‘Innovation in the Social Sector’ for a conference they were planning.  I said “Yes, of course,” thinking that I would simply share the stories of some innovative social entrepreneurs. But 24-hours before the workshop, I realized that the students had asked me to do a hands-on session in which participants would be able to practice the process of innovation. I was woefully unprepared, as I could not simply offer a ‘re-run’ of one of my existing workshops.

The stress kicked in. It was now just a few hours before I’d be standing in front of a room of eager social innovators, and I had nothing.  “Necessity is the mother if invention” the saying goes, and it was true on this day. I found the case of ‘The Shopping Cart’. This short video shows how the world-renowned design firm, IDEO, redesigns a traditional shopping cart to make it more user-friendly. It clearly demonstrates the different steps in the innovation process, which IDEO calls ‘Design Thinking’, and gets us inside this organization that has created a culture where “wild ideas” are encouraged and creativity abounds.  The workshop was a blast!

Over the years, I’ve become a fan of Design Thinking. Part its beauty lies in its simplicity. It can be summarized by a 5-step approach:

  1. Empathize: understand the user experience.
  2. Define: the problem that you’re trying to solve.
  3. Brainstorm: generate many possible ideas to meet the needs you identified.
  4. Prototype: create a sketch, a model, or even a role-play of your proposed solution
  5. Test: try it out. What worked? What did not? Iterate!

I’m a big believer in the “let’s learn by trying it out” approach, which this process really captures. Design Thinking is integrated into our Diploma in Social Innovation and our upcoming Positive Leadership workshop. I even got to try it with senior executives at Banco do Brazil at their offsite meeting in New York. It was fun to see the energy of these bankers in dark suits who has been lectured to for a couple of days and who now finally got a chance to play – they loved it and came up with creative prototypes within 90-minutes.

So, Design Thinking is essentially a methodology that encourages creative thinking and innovation in trying to solve challenges. It’s the idea of re-connecting with the 8-year old in you. What do you think? Is there a challenge you have that you’d like to apply some Design Thinking to?

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  • Katy Spicer

    I am working on my Master’s in Learning Technologies at the moment and my AR is applying Design Thinking to Professional Development/ Staff Development. Valerie Schmitz sent me a link to your work and I cannot get enough! I love what you are doing and am looking forward to applying Design Thinking to the challenge that is PD/SD.


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