What is design thinking? A look at universities

Our principal, Dr. Cameron Norman, was recently interviewed for University Affairs magazine on the topic of design thinking. Speaking with journalist Tim Johnson, Dr. Norman discussed what design and designers offer those seeking to tackle complex, thorny problems.

[Dr Norman] notes that designers, especially product designers, are typically experts in conceptualizing problems and solving them– ideal skills for tackling a wide range of issues, from building a better kitchen table to mapping out the plans on a large building. “The field of design is the discipline of innovation,” he says. “[Design thinking] is about taking these methods, tools and ideas, and applying them in other areas.”

The concept of design thinking is something that’s quite new within the academic world and Johnson’s article highlights some of the academic work that is taking place in universities and beyond to understand the role that design thinking can play in tackling complex, even wicked problems.

What presents challenges and opportunities for academia is that problems and design thinking require, by necessity, collaboration and interdisciplinary contributions:

Proponents of DT posit that, with its emphasis on teamwork and its problem-based approach, design thinking is particularly well-suited to solving “wicked problems” – those big, ill-defined, complex, multi-faceted issues that don’t have a clear solution. U of T’s Dr. Norman points to climate change as an example. “There’s no climate change discipline,” he says. “We need everyone from scientists to citizens to politicians. And within universities, you have geography and sociology and biology – you name it – there’s somebody who can play a role.”

However, it’s the approach to the problems itself that also changes the perspective as noted by Greg Van Alstyne from OCAD University’s sLab:

[Design thinking] focuses on collective goals and places a premium on sustainability, community, culture and the empowerment of people, says Greg Van Alstyne, director of research and co-founder of the Strategic Innovation Lab, or sLab, at OCAD University. “It means you go about your problem-solving in a more holistic way. We can say ‘human-centered,’ but it’s actually ‘life-centered,’

By taking a systems perspective on the problem, the problem solvers and the solutions, design thinking is opening up new opportunities for academia and business alike. Indeed, the future of both institutions might be designed quite differently as design thinking moves between them, through them and from the outside to the mainstream.

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