Can Design Save the World?

06 Sep 2010|Darrel Rhea

A small elite community from around the world is forming that sees the potential for Design Thinking to help address some of our most challenging and intractable social problems.  Drawing from the experience of designers and their sophisticated private sector clients, a broader spectrum of practitioners are now beginning to apply this systems design approach to help government and NGOs tackle wicked problems.

At a conference sponsored by the Finnish Innovation Fund in Helsinki this week, an incredibly diverse group of people explored how Design Thinking could be applied to transforming sustainability, aging, education, healthcare and other critical issues.

The event drew politicians including a former Prime Minister, Ambassador, US Congressman, and Ministers and government officials from many countries.  There were people like the former Secretary of the VA and a couple official advisors to Obama.  We had top academics, wealthy industrialists, architects, designers, journalists and CEOs. Every continent was represented. A typical conversation might include a Korean, an Australian, a Chilean, a West African, a Russian and an American.

One of my jobs was to give the group some common language on the subject of innovation.  I talked about the different kinds of innovation and distinguished between the typical approached to problem solving and the ones used in Design.  This involves looking at the problem in different scales, zooming out wide before zooming in, defining the “architecture of the problem,” and then reframing the problem in a more holistic and powerful way.

I also moderated a panel and a group of 40 people that discussed redesigning education for the 21st century.  It was challenging to keep the group focused with so many passionate and thoughtful people.  The founder of Fast Company would debate the President of the European Parliament, a CEO from India would counter, the head of the top B-School in Moscow would reply, and Obama’s policy advisor on healthcare would expand on it. With that kind of diversity, it wasn’t likely we would solve the problem in the meeting but it was an exhilarating session.

Why is this happening in Finland? It is a remarkably progressive and enlightened country to sponsor such a community.  Probably the most important outcome was not what happened in the sessions. It was the relationships and networks that were developing in front of my eyes.  People who are doing some of the most inspiring work in the world on addressing cancer, homelessness, aging, disaster relief, and climate change were feeding off of each other’s energy and learning how design-led innovation can help their cause. The Finnish government certainly learned a lot too.  I can’t think of a more satisfying way to use what I have learned about innovation over the years.

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