How design thinking can help beat a crisis

In this opinion piece, Associate Professor Kate Tregloan, Director of the Built Environments Learning + Teaching (BEL+T) group in the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, considers the value of design thinking in these topsy-turvy times and beyond.

two designers working with instruments

In Australia and elsewhere, 2020 is delivering challenge upon challenge. From our summer bushfire disaster to the unprecedented scale of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the human and economic fallout for the nation has been vast and the impacts both far reaching and likely longstanding.

Analysis and conversation around foresight, flexibility, preparedness and decision-making is relevant to all of these, from individuals and businesses all the way up to governments and global bodies. One particular area of interest amongst all this is the potentially radical role that design thinking can play in how we approach exploring, addressing and adapting to major and even monumental challenges such as these.

In a world almost constantly disrupted in one way or another, organisations not embracing some degree of new and innovative thinking when seeking to design better, swifter solutions, will be less likely to cope with change and more likely to lag competitively. Adopting design thinking approaches can counter this by working to extract maximum benefit from minimum time and resource investment.

Constantly seeking solutions

To me, design thinking is a way of engaging with the world and particularly its challenges. It asks ‘How?’, a key question that must be addressed in all crises, large or small, professional, personal or communal. It’s motivated by a desire to make positive changes to a part of the world, and by caring about the form that improvements might take.

The practices and thinking skills developed through learning to design have been the subject of significant study over the past century. Key insights include problem versus solution-focused preferences that distinguish architecture and science students’ problem-solving orientations. The active, skillful application of design expertise for strategic engagement with ‘ill-defined’ or ‘wicked’ problems is especially relevant to a crisis. Phases of activity often identified with design thinking include analysis and synthesis, as well as inspiration, ideation, testing and communication.

In my experience, design thinking can be exciting, disappointing and challenging in itself, but consistently rewards the optimistic and the tenacious. While there may be general patterns, its phases, perspectives and refined practices are personal and individual.

Challenge(s) accepted

Design-led thinking has been enthusiastically embraced by business as an alternative to the slower and high-investment ‘predictive’ development of product ideas, and as an approach that can be applied to a wide range of current challenges. It offers faster, cheaper and more responsive iteration, through ‘failing fast and often’ via prototype and market testing. In a challenging economic climate, design thinking can guide business towards valuable new concepts, where understanding and deeply engaging with the iterative nature of design allows potential solutions to be tested and refined while they arrive in market.

At a systemic level, responding to society’s economic (and even environmental) challenges might benefit from another of design’s fundamental qualities – the use of modelling media for engagement with a problem. Descriptive economic behaviour models have been debated over many years, from Adam Smith onwards. Applying design-led approaches to investigate and test economic scenarios may offer different insights into identified challenges and potential responses. Examples include the consideration and support of frameworks for social innovation.

two designers working on paper

When speed is of the essence

Design thinking really can deliver fast responses. In recent times, the BEL+T group has been challenged to support the move of faculty subjects online due to COVID-19. Our group operates in a number of ‘modes’ but in this situation, our behaviour as a design studio allowed us to share ideas collaboratively, to engage quickly with an emerging challenge and shifting context, to draw lessons from surprising sources outside of academia, including community groups and IT firms, and to design, test and refine a strategy and supporting resources in a matter of weeks.

When time allows, a conscious focus on user experience through practices such as persona development and journey mapping has offered much of value as well as scope for ongoing advancement of service and other design concerns. These approaches have been applied in interdisciplinary research focused on housing for people with disability, such as My Home Space. A truly human-centered approach calls for sensitive and deep user engagement, so inevitably isn’t as swift.

Real-world responding

Human-centredness provides an important lens for designing, but we must also note that human action can have a significant impact in a world where complex ecological crises are affecting others in different ways. Not all problems have humans at their core, no matter how important we believe ourselves to be! Design thinking offers a means to explore the issues, and also challenges us to expand our design learning practices.

The Melbourne School of Design is deeply engaged in research that responds to significant contemporary challenges for our built environment. This includes a focus on design and its approaches.

The work of the BEL+T and LEaRN groups in the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning includes imagining improvements to education in universities and Australian schools, whilst projects by the InfUr- group develop and test models of the balance between formal urban systems and urban informality for marginalised populations. The challenge of understanding and addressing housing affordability has delivered Affordable Housing tools and other outcomes, and the Connected Cities lab has brought action-focused approaches to research partnerships and key urban challenges for city leadership.

In these, and many other ways, we are creatively responding to real-world and real-time challenges by applying the lessons of design. To learn more about the design thinking discipline and other ways that innovation and creativity are colliding, consider Melbourne MicroCerts from the University of Melbourne. These industry-aligned microcredentials allow you to upskill in subjects critical to career excellence and future workplace relevance, today.

With special thanks to:

  • Associate Professor Kate Tregloan, Director – Built Environments Learning + Teaching, Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning incorporating the Melbourne School of Design.


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