July 5, 2021

Why We Need More Than Design Thinking for What’s Next!

We’ve all seen the pledges. Net-zero by 2030. Carbon positive supply chains. Gender balance and transparency in the workplace. Flexible working hours and hybrid – perhaps even fully remote – working practices. In the last 15 months, our collective experience has been one of massive change. In disrupting “business as usual”, the global pandemic has created a context in which we can think critically and objectively about how the world works, and an opportunity to reimagine things for the future. It is enabling us to reframe – and accelerate – our thinking around a number of discrete topics, covering everything from environmental and sustainability concerns, to human relationships and our understanding of society and culture, and the role that government policy plays in bringing about successful outcomes (or not). It’s been a crazy time, with an endless slew of corporate commitments being made to tackle thorny challenges, and with increasingly ambitious deadlines.

To take just one of these issues: When you start to dig into the subject of Environmental, Social and Governance, ESG for short (and often simply called sustainability), a wealth of issues to be solved are immediately apparent. It is a topic at once both immense and overwhelming. There is much to be done, and there are no comprehensive guidebooks on how to do so. Moreover, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions; every company or party will face their own unique challenges, and success will be swiftest for those who can be nimble, innovative, and embrace ongoing change (not simply express the right sentiments in their annual investor reports).

Critically, the winners will be those who acknowledge and embrace the dependencies and relationships between all of these highly interconnected topics. Sustainable businesses – and I mean this in every sense of the word – will be those that recognise that meaningful innovation does not necessarily happen during normal business hours. That it comes from highly effective teams comprising people from diverse backgrounds (often with conflicting views on, or experiences of the world). And that it is operating in an increasingly complex commercial and regulatory environment that is taking, slowly but surely, a longer view on things.

In short, success will come to those who realise the opportunity lies not in one area or the other, but in all combined. Along the way, they will need to understand how to harness inclusion to unlock different ways of working and thinking; how to create governance structures that empower and enable; and how to manage myriad different factors, both human and environmental. 

We are all involved, in ways we are only just beginning to truly understand. This is our opportunity to innovate in the way we work and develop new approaches to the design of our businesses, services, products, and ecosystems. Method literally wrote the book on Experience Designand now it’s time to write a new one.

As designers, it has long been our role to embrace the new, to see change as an opportunity, and create compelling experiences that explore the intersection of people, technology, and business. Certainly, our practice of design has changed significantly since its earliest days. And most recently, user-centered and Agile approaches to ideation, discovery, and iteration have been appropriated by big corporations and commodified as “Design Thinking” (for better and for worse). 

But the design practiced in many large organisations still tends to reduce solutions to Minimal Viable Products with a focus on UX and UI. Now our role is to move beyond the user and the human to the systems and the ecosystems that support us. While still perfectly relevant to many near-term challenges, design thinking and Agile practices fall short when faced with the interconnected issues that the complex landscape of ESG presents. 

Let’s take a challenge faced by the beverage industry, by way of example, and its commitment to collect sustainably one used bottle for every new one sold. Tasked with transforming a wasteful industry into a circular one, where would you start? It could be with collecting the raw materials used, but then what do you do with them? 

Where do they go? 

Once you have a destination, what’s next? What’s the impact of people returning them, or the impact of them being shipped to a centralised redistribution centre? How are all the existing stakeholders invested in the current system? And within that, what are all the reasons why the attempt to create a new one might fail? 

The answers to these questions are, of course, multi-faceted and interconnected, and pull on everyone from procurement to manufacturing, distribution, sales, marketing, collection, and waste management. There are opportunities to innovate and design new ways of interacting at every single step in this process. 

But design thinking alone won’t get us there — we need to add Systems Thinking to our skillset.

As we tackle complex sustainability challenges such as this one, designers will need to augment practices of user-centered design with a more systemic approach. Systems thinking can help us make sense of the real challenges at hand at both a micro and a macro level. It exposes opportunities to solve them creatively by mapping out the human – and non-human – actors within the system; and unpack the behaviours, requirements, and expectations of both. It creates a canvas on which to map out rich and interconnected problem spaces and elevates the conversation around what, where, and when. And in so doing, it reveals new, and genuinely game-changing, opportunities against which we can take action and iterate for change, using all the tools in our toolbox, both existing and new. 

Joining the dots across complex systems is already yielding change in all manner of weird and wonderful ways. How might we use sensors and real-time traffic data to reduce the carbon footprint of refuse collection

How might we extract pollutants from the air to produce a fabric dye that results in a net positive clothing line? 

And how might we turn waste heat into an asset, using server farms and data centres to keep greenhouses warm in the cold winter months? 

Method is evolving its design practice to understand how business design, data design, experience design and speculative design can come together to address tomorrow’s problems today. And over the next few months, we will be sharing our take on alternative futures and using designed artifacts to help you think and refocus your own mindset and attitude. 

We don’t, and we won’t, have all the answers, but we will be sure to ask the right questions. We invite you to come along on this journey with us and share your own learnings and discoveries along the way.