New 'design thinking' can lead to a more sustainable world

Design thinking can harness innovation in a more sustainable way.

Design thinking can harness innovation in a more sustainable way. Image: Unsplash/Jezael Melgoza

Jens Martin Skibsted
Partner, Manyone A/S
Christian Bason
CEO, Danish Design Centre
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  • Innovation is becoming narrower and faster, confined to Silicon Valley's outlook and locking most people out as it outpaces smaller players capacity to input.
  • Examples around the globe show a rich diversity in technological advancement, which can be channelled by taking “design thinking” further.
  • In this book extract from their new book, authors suggest that in the face of accelerating global challenges, innovators must embrace “expansive” ways of thinking to create a more sustainable world.

In this extract from their new book, Stretching the Future by Design, Jens Martin Skibsted and Christian Bason suggest that in the face of accelerating global challenges, innovators must embrace “expansive” ways of thinking to create a more sustainable world.

In an increasingly regionalized multipolar world and accelerating global challenges, innovators must embrace new ways of thinking to create a sustainable world across unaligned cultures.

Machines aren’t something that happen to us; they’re something we make. And yet, as the scope of our problems is expanding, with ever greater consequences for people and the planet, the scope of innovation has been getting narrower. In fact, it’s worse than that. Innovation is getting faster, allowing those of us outside the mono technological bubble of Silicon Valley little chance to keep up, to monitor, to choose and express their own values.

It's time to take back control of our future – and design holds the key. Too many people talk about technological developments as though they’re inevitable. They’re not. It’s always a matter of choice. We can change the course of the future – but only if we want to.

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Return to a multipolar world

It’s worth recalling that Silicon Valley hasn’t always dominated the debate. Yet for more than three decades, we have lived in a unipolar world dominated not only by American economic, political and military power, but also by a largely US-centric vision of the role that technology can play in driving business and societal innovation. For a long period of time, we lived in a mono-technological world.

Today, the world is once again becoming multipolar, certainly in both the political and economic sense. Politically, alternative centres of power have emerged and asserted themselves, including the European Union, Russia, China and India. Economically, the EU already represents a larger market than the United States and China will likely soon surpass the latter as the world’s largest economy.

Along with this renewed political and economic multipolarity, there is a parallel shift in the forces of innovation. When it comes to visions for how emerging technologies can serve people, businesses and society at large, there are more alternatives out there, including in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Nordic countries.

For instance, some African countries are pioneering the use of drones to deliver humanitarian supplies to far-flung rural areas. In India, the notion of frugal innovation has led to radically more efficient models in health care, such as eye surgery.

Japanese firms have paved the way in bringing augmented reality (AR) to computer gaming. China has stolen a march in the application of digital facial-recognition technology. Iran has taken a lead in developing ground-effect vehicles and now uses this technology in its armed forces. And the Nordics are arguably front-runners when it comes to sustainable energy solutions.

Design thinking

Drawing inspiration from alternative models of society and innovation doesn’t require us to endorse a particular political system or ideology. The point is that we ought to diversify technology, widen the bandwidth of innovative resources available to decision makers and embrace a multipolar world once again. And to do so, we need to revisit one of the most influential business ideas in recent years: design thinking.

For more than a decade, design thinking has been a hallmark of creative problem solving in a business context. However, the concept has increasingly been reduced to a simple set of methods and processes that anyone in principle can apply as a way to empathize with users, cocreate new ideas with others and build prototypes of potential solutions. Design thinking has served to democratize the field of design in ways many professional designers had never imagined (and many are uncomfortable with).

On a positive note, this has propelled an understanding of basic design concepts into C-suites around the world. On a negative one, it risks projecting a limiting and reductive image of what design not only is but can be. The era of design thinking is behind us and a new era of design is ahead of us. We believe that design, in its broadest meaning (which includes design thinking), has further to go if it is going to drive meaningful societal change, address our future challenges and foster happy, healthy, sustainable and prosperous lives.

[Expansive thinking] means innovating on a more systemic level, figuring out what people, communities and ecosystems need as a whole, and testing, improving and scaling new approaches.

Jens Martin Skibsted, Global Partner, Manyone | Christian Bason, CEO, Danish Design Center

Stretching imaginations

We propose going further and maintain that we ought to challenge the idea of what it means to design – including where design activity can take place. That is, we believe we need to expand the field of design and stretch it even further across the realms of business, politics, society, and beyond. And that by thinking differently, especially about design – including how we design, what we design, who we design for and how long we design for – we can develop tomorrow’s truly innovative ideas and create a better world.

Expansive thinking means imagining alternative futures and going beyond the safe, stale and culturally determined mindsets that typically take root in existing systems, sectors, and organizations. It means innovating on a more systemic level, figuring out what people, communities and ecosystems need as a whole, and testing, improving and scaling new

Expansive thinking means challenging assumptions and preventing intellectual inertia. In short, we must not shy away from navigating complexity and ambiguity or from working creatively with knowledge gaps and the world’s wicked problems to come up with new insights.

To do so, we will need to advance from a mono-technological culture to become more technologically diverse, expand and transcend the current reality to explore unforeseen possibilities, going beyond what is already there or is thought to be predetermined. That is the essential transformation challenge that we face.

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