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Social problems are complex, ill-defined, wicked problems. Finding effective ways to tackle and deal with them is often quite difficult. Because of that, organizations and practitioners recently started embracing design thinking as a preferred approach to address similar challenges. But what exactly is this design-driven approach, known with the name of “design thinking”?

Design Thinking: an overview
The term “design thinking” has gained momentum and popularity over the past decade. Although a unique definition is still missing, we can describe design thinking as a problem-solving process that brings design principles, methods and tools to fields afar from more traditional ones. As a matter of fact, design approaches have long been confined within the boundaries of architecture and engineering. However, such attitude turned potentially beneficial to other fields too, making design thinking a cross-industry, problem-solving methodology.

In its essence, design thinking is an iterative process that aims at “changing existing situations into preferred ones” (Simon, 1996). In her book “Designing for Growth”, Jeanne Liedtka describes design thinking as a four-step model corresponding to four basic questions:

  1. “What is?” phase, which explores current reality and seeks to gain a deep understanding of customers’ lives and struggles.
  2. “What if?” phase, which envisions opportunities and translates the insights collected into new possibilities to pursue.
  3. “What wows?” phase, during which the concepts previously developed are culled down to a manageable number. Here, designers create “low-fidelity” prototypes to rapidly test and improve their ideas.
  4. “What works?” phase, in which the product/service is actually launched and brought to the real world.

Design Thinking for social innovation
Now that we know what “design thinking” looks like, let’s go back to our starting point. As said, design thinking has been recently embraced to tackle social problems too. But why so? In an article written for Stanford Social Innovation Review, Tim Brown discussed the reasons why this approach can benefit the non-profit sector too.

For instance, DT tools such as journey mapping and field observation can provide practitioners with a faster, deeper and better understanding of specific issues people and communities are experiencing (“What is?” phase). Furthermore, design thinking relies on creativity as a generative force able to lead to disruptive solutions. In this sense, setting up interdisciplinary teams to brainstorm and envision wild, innovative ideas (“What if?” phase) can indeed help non-profit organizations avoid “restricting choices in favour of the obvious and the incremental “.

Also later phases of design thinking (“What wows?” and “What works?“) can bring significant benefits to social innovators. “Quick, cheap and dirty prototyping” can in fact solicit beneficiaries’ feedback early on, improving the overall problem-solving process. As a result, concrete action plans get conceived only for the best, validated ideas, which end up heading towards real-world implementation.

As we have seen, design thinking is a creative, problem-solving process originating from the application of design principles and tools afar from more traditional fields. In recent years, this methodology proved to be effective for both profit and non-profit organizations. As a matter of fact, design thinking allows social entrepreneurs and organizations gaining deeper understanding of social problems, unlocking innovative ideas and ultimately “creating better outcomes for organizations and the people they serve. “

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