Design thinking is social, enterprising and good for your health!

Written by: Catherine Docherty – Senior Research Fellow, Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health & Managing Director, Journey Associates

Collective Futures

Designing collective futures

The title of this blog may have you asking questions, not least, “can you prove it”? Well, that’s exactly what we hope to achieve with GCU’s Growth at the Edge and Age Unlimited projects that form part of CommonHealth – a pioneering research programme to develop new ways of measuring the impact of social enterprises on health and wellbeing.

So, what is design thinking? Much like trying to pin down a single definition for social enterprise, I’m sure it comes as no surprise that there is no universally applied definition of design thinking. Its origins have been traced back to the late 1960s. However, it was IDEO (now the world’s leading design and innovation consultancy) who pioneered its application and brought design thinking to the attention of business in the 1990s, connecting it inextricably to innovation.

The lack of consensus on exactly what makes up design thinking means that it is considered an elusive and ‘fuzzy’ term. However, in my experience, it is an effective and engaging means of developing innovative, co-created solutions and is founded on three underlying principles:

  • user/stakeholder engagement: involving those who benefit from or are impacted by the experience, product or service. This could be existing or potential customers, suppliers and/or a cross-section (diagonal slice) of staff from directors and managers through to customer-facing employees and volunteers.
  • structured co-creative process: putting in place a structure or framework helps guide the process and ensures that the creative energy and outputs are channelled in a meaningful way. The process has a number of stages and involves divergent (idea generating) and convergent (solutions-focused) thinking as well as visual aids and design tools to facilitate creative thinking.
  • testing and refining: the iterative process of prototyping ideas enables learning from failure by making ideas tangible. By testing the viability of ideas, those that are unworkable can be discarded early on in the process and potential solutions can be refined leading to options that are relevant, reducing the risk of failure at the point of implementation.

Benefits of Design Thinking

Over the last 20 years, I’ve used design thinking to co-create new strategies for academic, public and private institutions; to enhance residential care homes for young people and day care centres for vulnerable adults; to improve online access to mental health services; to develop entrepreneurial toolkits and economic development programmes to support innovation among SMEs; to develop new services in public libraries and to enable collective working. Here are some of my reflections about using it and why I think it is social, enterprising and good for your health…

Flexible and Enterprising: design thinking is suited to small or large-scale projects and can be used at a strategic or project level, leading to real change. A participant in Collective Futures, a programme to support creative entrepreneurs by building capacity for collective working, commented:

 “…it [the process] could provide tangible and ongoing benefits – actions and not just words!… has certainly focused me personally on how to relaunch our local collective…”

Inclusive and Equitable: the approach nurtures an empathic understanding of different perspectives. Participative workshops allow contributions to be made more easily than other methods such as interviews or focus groups. One participant on Learner Journey Project for Glasgow School of Art, which aimed to enhance the student experience, suggested workshops are an: “Open and approachable way to express opinion and changes.

Diverse perspectives stimulate informed discussion and offer a holistic approach to address issues or identify opportunities.

Shared Understanding: open participation and valuing all opinions equally engenders empathy and trust, enabling appreciation of the diversity of views and a shared purpose or collective vision to emerge.

Motivating and Empowering: participants can be deeply motivated knowing their opinion is valued, particularly where they are not the usual suspects: where staff and students contribute to the strategic direction of their institution; or mental health service users participate in the development of online services.

At a professional level, staff from the Future of Public Libraries project, which explored innovation in public library services in Scotland, felt empowered to introduce new services in three local authority regions. In Collective Futures, which explored business models of collectives, strategic and operational changes were enabled.

Embedding Learning: project participants have applied the design thinking approach and tools more broadly across their organisations. One library manager noted:

“Staff have developed as employees through the workshop. They have used the tools to bring other staff on board.” Future Libraries Project

An industry leader who participated in the Design Innovation Support Programme, a pilot programme for Scottish Enterprise, commented that the lasting impact of his experience had led to “a design thinking transfusion”.

Energising and Fun: workshops encourage active participation and creative thinking stimulated by visual approaches and design tools. They are energising, fun AND meaningful. Participants have described the experience as “therapeutic” and “healing”.

Design Thinking and CommonHealth

So, how does DT fit with CommonHealth? The answer is two-fold: firstly, in both Growth at the Edge (focused on rural, remote and fragile communities), and Age Unlimited (involving older people) we can use design thinking to assist organisations that are at a critical point in their development. This could be at set up stage where they need to define the product or service offering or develop a business plan. If well-established, they may have encountered a barrier, pain-point or identified a new opportunity and want to develop a new strategy, review an existing product or service or develop a new one. In all of these cases, design thinking can be used to facilitate co-created solutions.

Secondly, the design thinking approach is closely aligned to the stages for action research: it is staged, iterative, participatory and reflective. With Growth at the Edge and Age Unlimited we will map design thinking onto the action research methodology.

Working with social enterprises presents a novel application for design thinking in Scotland. We hope that through their experience of the process, this sector will value the approach as a mechanism for enhancing the sustainability of their organisations. Design thinking can enable this by supporting a socially inclusive approach, enabling social enterprises to be entrepreneurial and fulfil their social mission and, ultimately, enhance the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve.

Thanks to Catherine Docherty for taking the time to contribute her thoughts on design thinking – for more information about any of these projects please visit the CommonHealth website or Journey Associates.

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