How Design Thinking Can Contribute to Community Flourishing

Seven years ago I started reading everything I could find on “design thinking." It has changed how I approach my work. It's not just a tool that should be in the toolbox of every community leader; it's a pair of glasses that can help sharpen our view of our neighborhoods and the good things we are trying to do there.

Design thinking is a structured approach many designers use to generate and develop ideas, products, and innovations. It’s often associated with IDEO, the well-known design firm that created the first Apple mouse, and Stanford’s Institute of Design (a.k.a. “”). But what began as a process to guide the development of new consumer products is now being applied, often by non-designers, to business (including Apple, Target, and Proctor & Gamble, as well as social entrepreneurs like the d.light company highlighted in “This Is Our City”), nonprofits, health care, government, and K-12 education. The visionary designer Bruce Mau is even using design thinking to help a community group in Sudbury, Ontario, a city blighted by decades of nickel mining, to uncover hidden assets and reimagine itself for the 21st century.

The stages of design thinking are sometimes laid out like this:

  • Empathize (or Observe)

  • Define (or Interpret)

  • Ideate (or Brainstorm)

  • Prototype (or Experiment)

  • Test (then Improve)

One of the reasons I’m attracted to design thinking is that it seems to take seriously Einstein’s warning that we can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Design thinking is relevant to our work in our communities because it is empathic and human-centered, action-driven, multidisciplinary, collaborative, and conversational. It takes physical space seriously.

It also strikes me as a powerful complement to community strategies like asset-mapping and appreciative inquiry, useful as we develop networks of care in our neighborhoods. Here, too, is something I appreciate about design thinking: its emphasis on serendipitous connection-making. Warren Berger writes in Glimmer,  his book on design thinking:

The best designers seem to have a natural eye for spotting patterns and discerning possible relationships between things that most of us view as being separate and unrelated. Once they see a possible relationship, they work to make the pieces fit.

When we gather as leaders and community practitioners, design thinking is a powerful process to collaboratively address the needs and opportunities of our particular places. It also happens to be a lot of fun. 

Design thinking is one way collaborators can work together to address some of the persistent challenges faced by rural communities like the one I live in. Someday I want to do an experiment. I want to invite a diverse group of friends to my house for pizza cart pizza, beer and soda, and a design thinking crash course. I’m hoping we can identify a need or opportunity in Silverton, and (far more quickly than is ideal) capture our observations and analysis, brainstorm ideas, and then prototype our proposed response.

Design thinking is controversial even among designers, not least because it focuses on a process rather than on innate creative intelligence, and because it is being “given away” by prominent designers to non-designers. But my hunch is that design thinking holds a lot of promise for our communities.

Questions: Have you used design thinking (or a similar process) in your own work as a community leader? What potential do you see with design thinking?

I will eventually put together a free e-book on my favorite design thinking resources. To tide you over, here are a few of the books and websites I've found to be especially helpful so far.


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