The Future of Innovation: Design Thinking



The COVID-19 pandemic is a humanitarian crisis that is impacting all facets of society, from people's mental and physical well-being to shutting down economies. With fears of a global recession that's worse than the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, organisations have had to adopt new processes and practices in order to survive the pandemic. In essence, the pandemic has made society question the veracity of old patterns of thinking and behaviours. Consequently, organisations and individuals alike are beginning to seek out alternative strategies. This is the hallmark of Design Thinking.


Design Thinking is about taking a human-centric approach to problems and generating creative solutions.

Developed by IDEO, a design consultancy firm, Design Thinking is an iterative process that seeks to challenge assumptions and redefine problems in order to elevate the consumer experience. It does this by seeking a deep understanding of the users and how they interact with the product to bring about innovative ideas. This differs from traditional methods of innovation, whereby it is primarily driven by data and analytics. While scientific methodologies have merits, they'd often silo thinking and certain behaviours become very ingrained. Design Thinking breaks up these silos and helps organisations discover new ways of thinking.



Design Thinking does not always have to lead to big bold innovations. It can even be something like finding another way to continue serving customers. This is seen in the example of bubble tea shops in Singapore pairing up with restaurants so that costumers can continue buying from them.


When the circuit breaker extension was announced back in April, it came with stricter regulations such as the closing down of confectionary and beverage restaurants. This meant the closure of many bubble tea shops all around Singapore. With bubble tea being one of Singaporeans' most favourite food, it is no surprise that many people expressed sadness when the closure was announced.


As restaurants were not affected by the new restrictions, a few bubble tea brands decided to collaborate with willing restaurants so that they can continue serving their costumers. That way, not only can costumers get their favourite bubble tea, they are also exposed to new restaurants. Other bubble tea brands have even started selling DIY bubble tea-making kits for those who are interested in it. The reason why these bubble tea brands could do all that is because they put the needs of their users first. Their solutions were designed with the intention of elevating user experience even in the face of setbacks. In return, they continued earning revenue and even conferred benefits to other companies.


Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as functionality. - Tim Brown

It should be noted that as humans are creatures of habit, breaking out of old habits and thinking can be a difficult process. Especially during a crisis, most people have a tendency to stick to what's familiar and safe, even when it does not work. While it may sound counter-intuitive, providing a structure may just be what people need to help them think creatively. The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford has come up with a 5-step Design Thinking model that has been widely used by a variety of organisations, such as Apple and General Electric. The steps are as follows:


1. Empathise - Seek a proper understanding of users' feelings (both good and bad) when it comes to your organisation's product.


2. Define - Utilise qualitative and quantitative data to define the needs of your users, their issues and create your insights.


3. Ideate - Challenge assumptions of the problem and past processes. Challenge your own organisation's biases when it comes to addressing users' issues. This will help in generating innovative ideas. At this stage, all ideas are acceptable.


4. Prototype - Discern feasible ideas that meet the criteria of the users' needs and address their problems. Begin turning these ideas into solutions.


5. Test - Experiment with different solutions and keep perfecting it by monitoring user experience and gathering feedback.



Design Thinkers take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this problem statement might really be. - Don Norman

As your organisation becomes more familiar with this process, it will become more intuitive and iterative. In addition, it is important to understand that these steps are not a strict hierarchy and each step has an influence on each other. You may discover new ideas during the prototype phase or the testing phase uncovers new insights about users' needs and issues. In other words, Design Thinking allows organisations to think about issues from a holistic perspective.


If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed, it is the danger of silo thinking and continuing old behaviours even when they prove to be unfeasible. By employing Design Thinking, organisations can effect positive change and remain innovative in a VUCA world.

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