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Design Management Academy conference 2017

Design thinking as a social technology: insight from the Design Management Academy Conference 2017

Design is in demand. Everyday, we see design thinking applied to new subjects in a wider range of situations. Human-centred design has the power to bring people together to create innovative approaches to the world’s most complex and challenging issues. 

The Design Management Academy is a global organisation which promotes sharing of design knowledge. Four ThinkPlacers were excited to attend its annual conference in Hong Kong in June, which gathered design practitioners and researchers from around the world.

Design as a social technology

A key insight for us came in the keynote address by Professor Jeanne Liedtka from the University of Virginia, titled ‘Beyond Better Solutions: Design Thinking as a Social Technology’. Professor Liedtka’s description of design thinking as an enabler of lasting change immediately resonated with us.

The value of design thinking is typically thought to be in the usefulness of the solution. Professor Liedtka’s research, however, indicates it delivers a much broader range of benefits.

Design thinking improves the quality of the conversations around complex challenges. It is a ‘collaborative social process’, which brings diverse groups of people together and fosters fertile discussion. 

‘With its core emphasis on broad stakeholder engagement, empathy and co-creation’, a design approach breaks down traditional barriers to cooperation and creative change. It fosters sharing of information and understanding of varied perspectives, supporting innovation in complex social systems.

More than this, the conversations sparked by design thinking continue long after the solution has been created, accelerating sustainable change. Through engagement, rather than direction, design thinking promotes alignment and commitment. 

Professor Leidtka’s research showed that ‘engaged and committed people seized the opportunity to act, while those operating from a sense of compliance hesitated’.

Through these effects, design thinking is a social technology. It enables the activities which are critical to addressing complexity and uncertainty, turning ideas into positive outcomes that last.

Cate Shaw's profile'
Cate Shaw
Mondy Jera's profile'
Mondy Jera
Design thinking as a social technology

Change in complex social systems

Professor Liedtka’s keynote address highlighted the power of design thinking. We see this power every day, in the work we do on complex social challenges.

A compelling example is the Australian Renewable Energy Agency’s A-Lab. Created through a co-design approach, A-Lab draws on a network of people to develop innovative ways to adopt more renewable sources of energy. It is in work right now, sparking mutual commitment to progress projects that, to date, have been pending.

By applying design thinking to the challenge of employment opportunities for refugees, the Regional Support Office for the Bali Process disrupted the typical structure of global, multi-stakeholder forums. Through an Innovation Challenge involving broad conversations between diverse attendees, the Office uncovered gaps in knowledge and new areas to direct attention.

The Department of Health asked us to help improve Australian aged care systems. By seeking input from a wide range of users and providing transparency in how their comments became tangible improvements, the Department built trust with consumers and service providers. Collaborative design work is improving relationships between the Government and the broader aged care sector.

These examples all show how design thinking enables lasting change in complex social systems such as national public services, multi-national forums, and systems with competing demands of governance, business and consumers. It gives us the tools to tackle some of the most difficult challenges faced by the world today.