Design Thinking for social innovation, the “third way” to empower the Third World

The issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review was on a corner of my desk for a while, but I finally managed to find the time to read this article which makes the cover-story of Stanford’s journal : Design Thinking for Social Innovation, by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt. Both are executives at IDEO, a global Design design firm which has worked with notorious companies like Kaiser Permanente or Shimano (see this previous blog post). In this article, the authors highlight the social scope of Design Thinking, explaining in what way it can help very poor people to improve their lives.


Design For The Other 90%, an exhibition gathering numerous social design projects in New York's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (retrieved from

There’s maybe no other domain in which human-centered design is as important as in social issues. As the article says, “social challenges require systemic solutions“, because these problems are wicked, and demand to adress peoples’ real needs, in the most effective possible way. Look at d.light, created by two students of Stanford’s Institute of Design : what started as a way to provide affordable and safe light for people without access to electricity has now become a global company with an efficient distribution, sales & marketing strategy. And they want to “have improved the quality of life of 100 million people” by 2020.

“Design thinkers […] consider what we call the adges, the places where “extreme” people live differently”

But in what is Design Thinking responsible for improving poor peoples’ lives ? The innovation approach has already been embraced by successful companies like Procter & Gamble or RIM (Blackberry), as one of the theory’s fathers Roger L. Martin describes in his book The Design of Business. Nonprofit organizations are discovering Design Thinking as a way to find “high-impact solutions [that] bubble up from below rather than being imposed from the top“. An interesting example is provided by the authors when they depict Jerry and Monique Sternin‘s approach to decrease malnutrition in Vietnam in the 90’s. They found so-called “positive deviants“, people whose behaviors revealed a viable solution to overcome nutritional flaws : they added tiny shrimps, crabs and snails from rice paddies to the food, and they fed the children multiple smaller meals. By offering cooking courses to families, 80% of the 1,000 enrolled children became adequately nourished. Design Thinking is about finding creative ideas, including those of deviants who may have viable solutions to problems too.

The approach relies on thinkers being “T-shaped“, an expression introduced by Berkeley-professor Morten T. Hansen (the article was already published in Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge in 2001). This means that beside having a deep knowledge of a specific field, the design thinkers has a broad understanding of other disciplines, as well as being open, curious, optimistic and practice-oriented. This last point is important because the implementation-part of the problem-solving system requires prototyping and trial-and-error experimentation to get to a solution. When VisionSpring asked IDEO designers to help them to design a low-cost eye-screening process for children in India, it took them long to discover that the children were intimidated by the pressure of the experience. The system was designed accordingly and VisionSpring since conducts numerous screenings with children and adults. “VisionSpring’s design efforts included everything other than the design of the glasses”, say Brown & Wyatt, thus focusing on marketing and implimenting their program.


The automotive industry has adopted a Design Thinking approach since decades, spending tromendous amounts of money in prototyping and testing. Here's the interior clay-modelling process of Audi's Le Mans Quattro presented in 2003 (retrieved March 2nd from

This culture of testing with prototypes aims to find the best possible solution by finding unforeseen problems and anticipating unintended consequences in order to achieve a viable product. In has book The Designful Company, Marty Neumeier encourages companies to think wrong, because “hundreds of ideas ranging from the absurd to the obvious” finally make up a team’s strength and creativity. Sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2008, IDEO designers developped a methodology by which organizations can apply Design Thinking themselves. You can download the Human-Centered Design Toolkit free under

By the way, the term “third way” used in this post’s title is used in the article to describe the alternative that Design Thinking represents to:

  1. Feeling & intuition and
  2. Rationality & analytical thinking.

Check out the Wikipedia article if you want to find out more… or read Tim Brown’s Change by Design.


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