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Design thinking is a powerful tool for problem-solving and value creation, and helps advance the UN’s SDGs

Design thinking is a powerful tool for problem-solving and value creation, and helps advance the UN’s SDGs
A child holds a banner with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The author argues that the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outline clear targets that focus on achieving transformative change but neglect to provide businesses with the vehicle to achieve them. (Photo: Supplied)

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were important pre-pandemic, but now we know they’re crucial to the health of our communities and planet, and the longevity of our businesses — and time is running out to act.  

More than ever, business is being expected to square up to the challenges facing the world today. From addressing climate change to bridging the inequality gap, what was once considered a discrete part of a company’s mission to “do social good”, is now a business imperative, with customers, employees and stakeholders alike voicing their strong desire for sustainability impact. But how companies can achieve this is less straightforward.  

The United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development has provided leaders in both the public and private sectors with a roadmap. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline clear targets that focus on achieving transformative change, but they don’t provide us with the vehicle to get there. For the most part, while more business executives are engaging with the SDGs, this does not always translate into impact on the ground. A recent PwC study shows that just 1% of companies surveyed reported quantitative measures to show their progress towards achieving SDG targets.  

To help businesses move sustainability impact up the agenda, business leaders may need to recalibrate their thinking to unlock fresh approaches to innovation. The UN itself recommends Design Thinking — a human-centred and collaborative process to realise new solutions to difficult challenges.

A powerful tool for problem-solving and value creation

That design thinking is a powerful tool for problem-solving and value creation is clear. In one of the most comprehensive design studies to date, McKinsey & Company found that businesses that score highly in design performance also outperformed industry-benchmark growth by as much as two to one, regardless of which sector they were operating in.

The McKinsey Design Index (MDI) tracked the design practices of 300 publicly listed companies over a five-year period in multiple countries and industries measuring four design areas: analytical leadership, cross-functional talent, continuous iteration and user experience.  

Since the study was published, all indications are that the design thinking movement is gaining ground rapidly. According to the Global Design Thinking Market 2021-2030 forecast report, the Middle East and Africa design thinking market is expected to grow in revenue from $167.5-million in 2020 to $554.1-million by 2030 — at a rate of 13.1%. Growth is being driven largely by a demand for forward-looking technology and an awareness of how design thinking can advance organisational goals in complex environments. 

There are plenty of examples of organisations that have embraced human-centred design to create a positive, sustainable impact for customers and enhance their creativity so that they can repeatedly design standout products and services that also advance the SDGs.

Ubongo, a leading producer of edutainment for kids based in Tanzania, could have created a typical action cartoon-based television show. Instead, they applied design-led thinking and a human-centred approach to create content that focused on the learning goals of their audience and how best to meet them. This led to a number of ongoing product innovations. The Ubongo Kids educational TV and YouTube show now stream high-quality educational content to 440 million children across Africa.  

Overcoming the many obstacles to innovation

According to Jeanne Liedtke, Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, design thinking is able to deliver these kinds of results because not only does it offer a structured way to reframe problems, ideate solutions and iterate towards better answers, but it also provides a route around the many obstacles that can get in the way of creative thinking and problem solving including human biases, fear of failure and lack of employee buy-in.

For example, design thinking has been successfully used to identify and minimise the impact of implicit biases in the workplace by giving leaders insight into the aspects of their culture and decision-making practices that may be driving biased outcomes and then helping them to redesign their environments from the bottom up, starting with people.

A well-known example of this kind of intentional re-design to overcome hidden gender bias can be found in the case study of how orchestras in the US managed to shift the number of female professionals in their ranks from 5% to 50% simply by putting a screen between auditioning musicians and the selection committee and asking applicants to remove their shoes to eliminate the distinctive sound of women’s footwear.

This approach could apply not only to gender equality, but to internal processes and policies around other SDG-themed targets such as clean energy practices, consumption and production, innovation and infrastructure, and contribution to building sustainable cities and communities.

A case in point is the recently developed Clean Cooking Systems Strategy. Facilitated and driven by the Clean Cooking Alliance (an initiative hosted by the United Nations Foundation) the process followed a pioneering design-led approach to gain insights and needs that were used to co-create, action and launch a number of initiatives with partners across the global clean cooking ecosystem.

What’s more, because many of the SDGs are interconnected, progress towards one goal can lead to gains across many of the other goals. This means that if we design solutions well for one goal with the end-users and key stakeholders in mind, we can accelerate progress in all the goals. 

As the 2030 deadline for meeting the SDGs draws near, there is more urgency than ever to push ahead, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic has seen an erosion of development gains of the last 20 years.

The magnitude of the challenge ahead should galvanise business to build the critically important soft skills of design thinking into their operations in a deliberate, structured and dynamic way that will help reimagine our vehicles for change so that we can more confidently navigate complexity and accelerate progress towards the SDGs. DM 

Richard Perez is the founding director of Africa’s first school dedicated to Design Thinking, the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at the University of Cape Town which offers the Foundation Programme in Design Thinking.


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