Finding Opportunity in Crisis: designing a new world

10 June 2020 | Burlington, Ontario
Contributed by Laura J. Smith

Design thinking changes the way you think and the way you work, said Karel Vredenburg, Director of Global Academic Programs and Design, at IBM. Vredenburg spoke to Health Leadership Academy Co-Director Michael Hartmann for a McMaster Collaboratorium session “Applying Design Thinking Approaches to Find Creative Solutions to COVID-19 Challenges.” Vredenburg touched on the ways in which design thinking tools and methods can help designers and leaders tackle the current crisis climate and begin to anticipate and create the future.

Vredenburg, who teaches design thinking for healthcare in the HLA’s Emerging Leaders Program, and at the DeGroote School of Business EMBA in Digital Transformation program, credits a wide scale adoption of design thinking strategies and methods as the “forcing function” that helped IBM, a 109-year-old company, pivot. Design thinking helped IBM to focus on understanding deeply it’s clients’ needs, promote rapid innovation, and address areas of opportunity in delivering client-focused outcomes. IBM’s success is indicative of the way in which design thinking methods can promote intrapreneurship, and support creativity and innovation within existing organizations, including business, healthcare, and education.

Design thinking has broad application and can be used to get traction on big problems. Vredenburg is co-leading an exciting initiative, the COVID-19 Design Challenge, which brought together more than 200 designers from 33 counties to tackle challenges brought about by the global pandemic. Teams worked on seven challenges using collaborative and communication technology to work across 17 time zones. For Vredenburg the experience was rich and demonstrated once again that diversity within a team encourages innovation, but it also highlighted the degree to which designers must be aware of their cultural biases, and work to make their designs globally appropriate and relevant and sensitive to the local context for which the design is intended.

The COVID-19 Design Challenge also raised interesting questions about how design thinking might be integrated into remote and virtual work. For Vredenburg, the current climate is an experiment in determining what is important for communication whether in person or remote. He noted that while current video conferencing technology can obscure nuances of body language for example, it has also expanded communication channels greatly and made the playing field more level. Today, so long as language is common, one can gain insight from anyone, anywhere. Similarly, the lessons learned from the recent abrupt transition to remote work for millions of workers, will be important when we design the future of work, Vredenburg said. Designers will have to think carefully about how we communicate and intentionally design environments to reinforce and support both in person and remote communication methods and work.

The current crisis has revealed the relevance of the core principle of design thinking: empathy. Those leaders, whether in business or government, who are thriving in this environment are doing so because they have a deep understanding of clients’ hopes and needs and “empathy is driving their actions and decisions.” Combined with digital literacy, these leaders are experiencing a greater likelihood of success in this climate, Vredenburg added. Such indicators point to an exciting time for design thinkers and for the globe. The current crisis means we have a “huge opportunity to design a better world,” rethink our ways of doing, and to make things more equal and more diverse. Design thinking methods can be used to “design a new world,” Vredenburg concluded.

Click here to watch “Applying Design Thinking Approaches to Find Creative Solutions to COVID-19 Challenges.”

For McMaster students in all disciplines interested in learning and applying design thinking methods, Innovation by Design (HTHSCI 4ID3/6ID3) is currently accepting students for the Fall 2020 semester. See the Health Leadership Academy website for more details.

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