Does design or design thinking change the world?

I completed my Ph.D. in 2015. In my Ph.D., I applied design thinking as a research process, with the aim to understand humanitarian action. The main message became, during my research, that the humanitarian system is a wicked problem. It is currently a barrier in itself, because it currently is made up by donor countries’, humanitarian organizations, companies’ interests;  and not the disaster victims’ needs. Design thinking helped me refine how we could understand it better; in order to do something about it and to make a system where it might be possible to have impact on ‘the real needs’.

Now, I am applying design thinking as a transformative research methodology, on smart cities. On one side, I apply design thining as an approach to retrieve insights into the challenge of designing more integrated and smart energy communities. On the other hand, I try to design new tools and approaches, based on excisting practices, to help city planners achive their goals of bridging social needs with environmental objectives. Currently, city planners find it hard to both meet the high technological standards of zero emission neigbourhoods and keep a socially sustainable neigbourhood, while avoiding urban sprawl. Through a series of design thinking workshop, we design a new planning approach for multiple stakeholders and a broader objective.

If we succeed, was it design (thinking) that makes this change happen?

After studying and applying design thinking for a while now, and observing who and what makes change happen, I must admit that at the current moment I am not so convinced. I mean, I am not so convinced that it is our methods or approches that make things more likely to change.

Let me take an example from smart cities. In the studies of strategic measures for smart city planning, the discussions in the network Annex 63 Implementation of Energy Strategies in Communitieshave centered around this core issue; that we currently cannot find a set order of implementing measures that will ensure the success over one project rather than the other. Instead, success seems to come down to a person, a coordinating office, or a composition of people who are commited, have a shared vision, and a passion. This or these people are very active, look for lessons in other municipalities and connect people who need to talk to each other across cities and nations.  This relationshop and the ability to find them makes the big difference for a city or a district, and its development. These passionate and ambitious people (with a feeling of ownership), do apply strategic measures, of course. But they do not necessarily do it in a ‘right’ order or apply specific decision support tools that make them better.  It is what I some years back decided to call ‘Relational design’ – being close to understanding how people’s relationships shape a phenomenon or how people together solve problems. I later found the term applied by an architect firm in Stavanger, Norway, and they describe it pretty much the same way that I do:

“relational-designs and design capacities”– meaning conceptual, organizational, structural and material propositions that are allowing feedback loops to influence while at the same time guiding us through a process towards a more sustainable project. Design is then not merely a solution but a vehicle for an interdisciplinary process that could lead to a more sustainable development, and which necessarily includes a learning process for the parties involved” (Helen & Hard)

I am convinced that the same may be true in design and design thinking. A passionate and ‘driving champion’ or a ‘driving champion’ group of people that come togheter to solve something with a true drive, will make stuff happen.  It doesn’t really matter which tools they have in their pockets; but that they apply them with confidence.  We can see the same approaches as in design, in many research and professional practice fields, it is just not coined as ‘design’ or ‘design thinking’.

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We who have a design background with design (thinking) tools in our pockets, however, are a group of people who together have this ‘design mindset’ in common that makes us feel a bit like Harry Potter wizards. The wish to change and shape, at the same time as understanding, is a common denominator for design thinking methods.  And it’s important that we have confidence in our approaches; they are after all, our magic wands. Perhaps it is this inner drive in designers or design thinking that make them think that it is design itself that makes the difference. It’s just so very difficult to pin down and put in a box. But if we do, we’ve failed.


About Brita Fladvad Nielsen

I'm a Postdoctoral researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. My focus is on Smart Energy Communities in urban settings as well as design of energy-devices for emergency settings and design for humanitarian markets, especially for refugee camps in rural areas of Africa. I blog about my research approach Design Thinking on and about humanitarian design at . I am also a mother of a child who is deaf, and I blog about her language development on
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