D-thinking makes people a priority

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking uses simple tools such as Lego to work out solutions to problems facing society now and their needs in the future.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking uses simple tools such as Lego to work out solutions to problems facing society now and their needs in the future.

President Jacob Zuma’s firing of finance minister Pravin Gordhan and his deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, and his latest Cabinet reshuffle, the shameful social grants payments debacle, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s insensitive “benefits of colonialism” tweets and the recent outbreaks of xenophobia in Pretoria feed into a growing narrative of South Africa as a venal, racist, intolerant banana republic.

It projects views of us as the kind of African basket case that Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah depicted in his seminal 1968 novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born.

Anyone watching our downward trajectory, from the miracle of 1994 to the sad sagas of 2017, might well wonder if there is any hope for us.

Fortunately the self-serving behaviour of our politicians is not the only narrative. There are others, less public, that are playing out and offer an alternate view of ourselves — less arrogant, less egocentric, less brash, less materialistic, more open, curious and humane.

I was recently privileged to experience such an alternative as a participant in a day-long design thinking camp at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking (the d-school) at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Graduate School of Business campus at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town.

The concept of design thinking has a much broader social reach than has been generally recognised. Richard Perez, the director of the d-school, defines design thinking as “a human-centred approach to understanding and solving problems; one which places people and their needs at the heart of any innovation”.

Tim Brown, the president and chief executive of the United States design company Ideo, says this approach uses the way designers think to “integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements for business success” .

Design thinking is playing a vital role in a worldwide movement that is shifting away from the take-make-dispose economy that profits at the expense of the planet and its people. Brown and Ideo have worked with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to come up with a model for an alternative global economy — dubbed a circular economy — in which products are so designed that they can be used again, and which is powered by renewable energy and is good for people, the planet and business.

At the d-camp, I saw how this collaborative, creative, constructive and innovative thinking is being pioneered in South Africa.

The students at the boot camp ranged in age from 28 to 47 and came from South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Italy, Botswana, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Spain, Egypt and Ghana. Their academic backgrounds included educational technology, city planning, law, social policy, economic history, digital forensics, politics, health, geomatics, neuroscience, architecture, geology, geography, journalism, business, sport, chemical engineering, history and marketing.

It was a smorgasbord of cultures and ways of thinking and seeing.  All of them are being trained in design thinking twice a week for 12 weeks.

Our challenge for the day was to improve the “way-finding” experience of the graduate school of business. In my group we had Mina, an Egyptian pharmacist, Daniel, a Zimbabwean built-environment engineering student, Paul, an Italian geography student who works in the agriculture and biodiversity sector, and three South Africans — Alison, an engineer, Valerie, an architecture student, and me, a journalism master’s student.

How does such a diverse group of people get to see eye to eye or agree on anything?

The answer is with difficulty, laughter, a common goal, playfulness, empathy and good facilitation. We had two coaches, Sharmila, an MPhil student at the business school, and Phuthehi, an international tax postgraduate student trained in design thinking by programme managers Rael Futerman and Keneilwe Munyai.

We started off by playing a complicated clapping exercise, which had everyone in peals of laughter and jolted us out of our comfort zones by doing something we had probably last encountered on the preschool playground.

We then did an exercise in listening — to our team members, about who they are, what drives them and what they hope to achieve, followed by a presentation of the challenge.

Our group interpreted “way-finding” very differently, ranging from the practical — how to create user-friendly signage to enable visitors to find the right venues at the school, to the more prosaic — how to enable anyone from any background to access the learning opportunities available at the school. After much debate, our group chose the latter.

Our next exercise was to establish exactly who would benefit from a better way-finding experience and we opted for two groups, students and traders.

Next we split up into groups of three to go out into the field to interview students and traders about how they viewed the accessibility of the business school and how they thought it could better serve their needs. Each group member had a turn to ask questions, while another recorded the interview and a third person observed the interviewee’s emotional responses.

Our foray into field research brought us face to face with traders at the Waterfront and students and lecturers at the business school.

We deduced from the jewellery and crafts traders that the university community could benefit from their experiences and the traders in turn could benefit from the networks and national and global teachings of the school.

We presented the idea (inspired by both the students and traders we interviewed) that the school should invite traders to give guest lectures and in turn the university should provide traders with affordable management tools by developing a prototype using Lego blocks, drama and role play.

This part of the design-thinking exercise, which focuses on the end user in the creation of prototypes, is the most revolutionary part of the process and might be anathema to the rigid hierarchical organisations that rely on expert knowledge and authoritarian power structures to function.

The problem with closed authoritarian organisations is that they are not open to innovation and change.

The beauty of this training is a wide array of postgraduate students are learning how to co-create with end users, how to collaborate with people from different disciplines and cultures, how to accept failure as part of the learning process, and how to innovate and iterate over and over again.

What I learnt most from the process was to shut up and listen to my fellow teammates and to listen to the traders. From this, we were all able to find a solution that not one of us would have reached by ourselves. This is a systematic way of thinking and working together that could help to address our bigger political and social problems.

UCT vice-chancellor Max Price first encountered design thinking at Stanford University where he was part of a global group of university leaders who had come together to talk about trends in higher education. The question they grappled with was: “What will people be doing in their jobs 20 to 30 years from now?”

Price saw the value of bringing design thinking to UCT to equip students with the skills to address the needs of the future.

When he returned, Price approached Hasso Plattner, a German businessperson and cofounder of the SAP SE software company, who has a home in George, and asked him to sponsor a school at UCT.

Plattner agreed and committed an initial R50-million. His trust is now also on the verge of investing in a permanent d-school building on the campus.

UCT’s d-school is one of only three Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) schools of design thinking and is the only one in the southern hemisphere. Its forerunners are at Stanford University and in Potsdam in Germany.

Professor Ulrich Weinberg, the founding director of the HPI School of Design in Potsdam, who was in South Africa recently to attend the d-school launch, says design thinking amounts to a paradigm shift in the way problems can be approached.

He argues that, although information technology has created a networked global society, culture has not caught up with the direction that new technologies is taking us. “New network technologies demand greater collaboration, but we humans continue to be individualistic and competitive,” he says. “Design thinking dismantles this behavioural trait by fostering greater collaboration.”

To watch the South African students hold their own with their fellow African and European colleagues, engaging with complex problems, learning to understand each other’s cultures and personalities by encouraging empathy, hearing them discuss and debate across disciplines and then laugh and clap when solutions and prototypes are created is to know that the beautiful ones have indeed been born.

Their voices just need to be amplified to sound around the country and the continent as a counternarrative to the moral bankruptcy that has plagued our political stage.

Heather Robertson is the director of Change Routes Development Communications and is assisting the d-school with media

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