Founded in 1991, the global design firm IDEO has created radical and useful products ranging from Apple’s computer mouse to insulin-delivery systems for Eli Lilly. The firm has also become perhaps the best-known practitioner of “design thinking,” a collaborative approach to solving business problems that delves into the interactions of worker and technology, customer and product, in innovative and creative-block-busting ways.
In his 2009 bestseller, Change by Design, IDEO president and CEO Tim Brown, with IDEO fellow Barry Katz, evangelized design thinking to the business world. In an updated edition, to be published in March, they make the case that the practice can scale up to tackle even society’s most intractable “wicked problems.”
When we published Change by Design a decade ago, we set out to make two points. First, design thinking expands the canvas for design to address the challenges facing business and society; it shows how a human-centered, creative problem-solving approach offers the promise of new, more effective solutions. Second, design thinking reaches beyond the hard-won skills of the professional trained designer and should be available to anyone who wishes to master its mindsets.
Since then, the cluster of approaches we call design thinking has been embraced by businesses, social organizations, and academic institutions in every part of the world. Some of the most influential technology companies—Apple, Alphabet, IBM, SAP—have moved design to the very heart of their operations. Designers are part of the founding teams of disruptive startups across Silicon Valley and around the world. Health care systems, financial services firms, and management consultancies now regularly employ designers, while teachers are bringing design thinking to kindergarten classes, senior high school courses, and everything in between.
Design thinking has truly come of age. And yet we should not rush to congratulate ourselves, for we are rightly asked what it takes for such thinking to truly have significant impact.
That question has particular resonance at the intersection of design and technology, as the business models of social media, artificial intelligence, and the Internet reveal their dark sides. Design thinking is not “the invisible hand”: Design thinkers have a responsibility to understand the outcomes they are designing for. This is a moment for “the visible hand” of design to make intentional choices about how we wish technology to serve humanity.
What are the problems to which designers, in partnership with the broader population of design thinkers, should be directing our energies? As we dive deeper into the 21st century, it becomes clearer that the majority of our societal systems are no longer fit for their purposes. They were designed to meet the requirements of the first machine age and have remained essentially unchanged since the 19th and early 20th centuries. What might be the impact if we can successfully apply our design-thinking skills to today’s truly “wicked problems”?
Through the lens of IDEO’s project work over the past decade, we can identify a cluster of dilemmas for which design has begun to chart promising solutions, even at this vast and open-ended scale.
One such opportunity came to us in 2011, in the form of a request from a Peruvian businessman, Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor. Peru consistently ranks near the bottom on global measures of science, mathematics, and reading proficiency; lacking an educated workforce, the country was at risk of squandering the opportunities afforded by its rapid economic growth. Rodriguez-Pastor wanted nothing less than to design a new education system, accessible to an emerging, but not yet affluent, middle class and scalable across the country.
The first phase of any human-centered design process is to understand the scope of the problem. In Peru, this required fielding a research team whose members embedded themselves in the lives of representative stakeholders: teachers and administrators; business leaders and Ministry of Education officials; parents and, of course, the schoolchildren themselves. Using in-home observations, group interviews, stories from the field, site visits, and hard data, the team formed an assessment of the problem, the constraints surrounding it, and the opportunities it offered. Then they got to work.
Reaching deep into the designer’s toolkit, an expanded team created not only a strategy but the means of implementing and managing a scalable K–12 school system: the curriculum, instructional techniques and resources, teacher development, buildings, operational plans, data dashboards, and knowledge-sharing systems, and a financial model designed to allow the schools to charge a modest $130 monthly fee. (A visionary idea that cannot be sustained through normal market mechanisms is likely to remain just that: a vision.) The 2018 school year opened with 49 Innova Schools across Peru, enrolling more than 37,000 students and employing some 2,000 teachers; an adaptation is being piloted in Mexico.
What we learned in Peru was the value—indeed, the absolute imperative—of integrated whole-systems design, of understanding a problem at its most fundamental level, locating it within its broadest context, and mobilizing the fields of expertise necessary to tackle it. Another key insight: Schools, no less than sunglasses, street signs, or electric scooters, are designed—and like any other artifact of our civilization, they may be designed well or poorly, or may simply have been designed to meet challenges that are no longer relevant.
Dean Logan holds the supremely undesignerly title of Los Angeles County registrar-recorder/county clerk. In that capacity, he oversees the biggest voting jurisdiction in the U.S., with a voter population larger than that of 42 of the 50 American states and which must be supported in more than a dozen languages. Logan sought us out with a straightforward question: “Could we design a new voting system, one that works for all voters?” Redesign democracy? No problem!
In the past, that might have meant framing the problem as the redesign of a 50-year-old voting machine. While there is no designer who does not honor the artifact, designers today are learning to think not only in terms of stand-alone products but also of systems, the complex social networks of meaning, behavior, and power within which products are embedded. We are learning to think not about nouns (“How might we design a better voting machine?”) but of verbs: “What would be a better way to enhance the democratic experience?” When we focus on nouns, we lock ourselves into an incremental mindset: a better toothbrush, a more comfortable desk chair, a quieter air conditioner. But when we think about verbs, we blow the roof off the problem and are able to approach it in all of its wicked complexity, which has always been the condition of real innovation.
The reference design we ultimately created, in partnership with Los Angeles County and Digital Foundry, is as much a study in the social and behavioral sciences as mechanical and software engineering. The team spent hundreds of hours observing, listening, interviewing, and conducting user-testing sessions in order to understand the motivations people bring to the ballot box. They met with voters who are confined to wheelchairs, who are developmentally disabled, and who are blind (even Stevie Wonder weighed in to help validate one of the models). They observed the workers who load the machines onto the trucks that will deliver them to 4,800 polling locations, and interviewed the volunteers who will assemble them once they arrive. They identified physical obstacles as well as the intangibles of security, privacy, and trust, and learned to navigate the fraught political, legislative, and regulatory environment. On the basis of this far-flung research, the team articulated a set of design principles, tested them on dozens of prototypes, and ultimately created a working model guided by a single, overarching philosophy: one machine for all.
Will “Project Vox” solve the malaise afflicting American democracy? Probably not. But we’ll learn a lot when 31,000 new voting devices are rolled out in time for the 2020 elections.
Redesigning design itself
The continuous eruptions of new technology and the relentless integration of today’s connected universe are driving us to apply design thinking to ever more complex systems. IDEO’s “Future of Automobility” team has set out to grasp the underlying technologies of the autonomous vehicle—what it realistically can and cannot be expected to do—and to consider the ways the technology could reshape our cities. With Datascope, a data-science company we acquired last year, we have launched a new practice we call D4AI, or “Design for Augmented Intelligence,” which aims to ensure that the next generation of smart products—our phones, our cars, our clothing, our medications, our services—will engage us in ways that are dynamic, flexible, and responsive to the rhythms of everyday life. We’ve even begun to apply design thinking to reimagine the end-of-life experience.
But perhaps the most daunting task on the agenda of designers—and design thinkers—is enabling the “circular economy.” The modern world was founded on the assumption that our resources are infinite and inexhaustible: Who could have imagined that we might one day run out of oil? Or forests? Or fish? Or empty places to dispose of the by-products of our material prosperity? But that is precisely the predicament in which we now find ourselves, locked as we are into a linear economy that begins in a mine, quarry, or oil rig and ends in a landfill.
A circular economy, in contrast, aims to retain and recover as much value as possible from products, parts, and resources. Our ability to redesign industrial systems to be restorative and regenerative, to transform waste into a nutrient for the next generation of industry, and to rethink the assumption that product life cycles must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, will be the measure against which our generation will be judged.
The transition to a regenerative circular economy is now a declared objective of the European Union and of China, and a growing list of companies with global reach, such as Apple, Philips, Steelcase, and L’Oréal, have committed themselves to its implementation. In 2017, IDEO partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation with the goal of producing a practical road map for businesses. Through our Circular Economy Guide (freely available online), we have begun to engage industry leaders in the pursuit of a business model that creates new value, delivers long-term economic prosperity and ecological stability—and turns a profit. And we are now in a position to propose concrete, practical measures that can be prototyped, piloted, and scaled.
Who would have thought, when the first industrial designers hung out their shingles, when the first graphic designers laid out a printed page, when the first generation of digital designers grappled with the mysteries of the Internet, that by virtue of their unorthodox training and their frequently antiestablishment practices, they would also one day have a major role to play in addressing challenges so urgent and complex?
But that is exactly what has happened, and we are now face-to-face with the biggest challenge of them all: to redesign design to meet these needs.
Tim Brown is the president and CEO of IDEO. Barry Katz is an IDEO fellow and a professor of design at California College of the Arts.
A version of this article appears in the March 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “The New Blueprint.”