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Stuck in a trough of sorrow?

How South African companies can beat the downgrade blues through design-led innovation

Op-Ed by Richard Perez, d-school director

Published in Fast Company July 2017 

British R&B crooner Billy Ocean’s theme song from The Jewel of The Nile, “When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough get Going” comes to mind when considering the options of local business leaders following Moody’s recent assignment of a negative outlook to South Africa.

This blow comes hot on the heels of Fitch and Standard and Poor’s downgrade of the country’s investment rating to junk status  due to our President’s midnight cabinet reshuffle and firing of Pravin Ghordan as Finance Minister.

To survive and thrive through this doom and gloom,  it may be instructive to take a look at how some of the world’s leading companies lifted themselves out of their own “troughs of sorrow”, using the engineering inspired tools of design led innovation.

Design is often misconstrued as only relating to making things look good. On the contrary, design is as  Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs said: “not just what a product looks like and feels like, it is about how it works.” It was this philosophy which drove Jobs transformation of Apple when he returned as CEO in 1997 rescuing Apple from near bankruptcy and through consumer focused innovations like the ipod and iphone, growing it  into the world’s largest technology company in the world today with a market capitilisation of  $800 billion.  Jobs revolutionised the way we communicate, create and consume music and news by focusing on both design form and a holistic user experience, appealing to the emotional needs and desires of people as opposed to the companies needs.

The second largest technology company in the world according to Forbes 2017 list, South Korea’s Samsung Electronic, also followed a similar trajectory out of the doldrums of manufacturing inexpensive, imitative electronics for other companies.

In 1996, Lee Kun-Hee, the chairman of Samsung Group cottoned onto  the need for expertise in design, which he believed would become “the ultimate battleground for global competition in the 21st century.” After great resistence by executives who believed in chasing short term profits selling cheap imitations was more important than cultivating a company wide  design philosophy, Kun-Hee succeeded in transforming Samsung into a leading technological innovator which now has more than 1,600 designers. Before innovating new products the company researches users unmet needs using multidisciplinary teams of designers, engineers, marketers, ethnographers, musicians, and writers.

These two tech giants are not the only companies which have adopted design led innovation as an intrinsic part of their business model and organizational culture. The Design Management Institute and Motiv Strategies funded by Microsoft created the Design Value Index (DVI) in 2013 as a means to “measure the value of implementing best-in-class design management practices.” The Index tracks the value of publicly traded company portfolios that meet a set of design management criteria. It monitors the impact of these companies’ design investments on their stock value over a ten-year period, relative to the overall Standard&Poor Index. As illustrated by the massive growth in Apple and Samsung, the Design  Value Index found that over a ten-year period from 2005 and 2015 that companies which incorporated design thinking (or design-led innovation) in their business strategy outperformed the S & P by 228%.  As can be expected, Apple leads the pack of innovators but also on the list are soft drink giants Coca Cola and Pepsico, family friendly film producer Walt Disney and white goods manufacturer Whirlpool. The latest reported measurement by the index (measured in 2015) pegged the market advantage of design-centric businesses at 211% above the S & P.

Jeneanne Rae, founder and CEO of  Motiv Strategies observed that those companies that thrive in the DVI index have buy in for design led innovation, with designers sitting in top management structures and influencing organizational flows and structures from human resources to manufacturing. As Rae says: “With the right leadership and senior level support, an enterprise-wide design function that produces results can be built in less and less time.  Design thinking and co-creation isn’t a fad, but rather a new way for all problem solvers to put the user at the center of a problem to develop solutions from the outside in rather than the inside out.  As a result, we see design not as a pure factor that makes our DVI company’s stocks perform better on the stock market, but rather as a highly integrated and influential force that enables the organization to achieve outsized results.”  
If  user led design thinking is so fundamental to growing value and market share, how would South African companies fare on a Design Value Index? Not too good if   we look at a recent Stellenbosch University survey of South African managers who rated   their companies  innovation readiness. While 78 per cent of respondents confirmed that innovation was a strategic priority for their organisations and that innovation objectives appear in their organisations’ business plans, less than 70 per cent believe that their organisations have the right skills, processes and environments in place to ensure innovation success.

This “trough of sorrow” economic period we find ourselves in is a perfect opportunity for local companies to develop these skills, processes and environments to bring their organisations up to speed with the complexity, flexibility and  creativity a 21st century innovative culture requires.

Old Mutual and Standard Bank are two legacy local companies that have taken the plunge and used design thinking in their attempts to meet the needs of their clients.

Postgraduate students who attended the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking foundation course at UCT, (the d-school) inspired  Standard Bank to come up with a product to help finance entrepreneurs who couldn’t access loans through using social capital.

Both companies have partnered with the d-school to explore how design led innovation could change their organizational culture and assist them to come come up with new ideas and products for their markets.

Old Mutual’s digital manager Jikku  Joseph sums up the real value of  design thinking’s human-centred emphasis on engaging directly with customers before developing a concept. “You need to get out of the building. You need to spend time with customers. Because if you don’t you might release something to market that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t get buy-in.”

Perhaps now is the right time for the tough to jump out of the trough of sorrow and get going with some design led innovation which can beat the bad news out of S&P, Fitch and Moody’s.


How learning empathy can help build better community projects in Africa

Empathy is one of the most important skills any leader can have. A huge 2015 research project across 38 countries found that empathy makes leaders more effective and their businesses more successful. 

But how do you teach empathy? How can it be cultivated in students who will become leaders in future? And could it be done in a way that foregrounds ancient, indigenous knowledge and practices which might have been sidelined by colonialism?

For instance, in 2005 Unicef developed a plan to hand out mosquito nets to help curb malaria in Malawi. But instead of using the nets to cover themselves while sleeping, people used them for fishing – a phenomenon that’s been seen elsewhere in Africa, too.

Unicef assumed that the need for protection against malaria was among Malawians’ priorities. But actually, the most urgent need was for basic sustenance. This is an example of how developing a better understanding of the local context can assist in coming up with solutions that meet users’ needs.

Organisations also need to understand that knowledge already exists in communities which must be considered when coming up with solutions for social challenges. In parts of Africa like Kenya and Sudan, as well as in India, for example, villagers use cow urine around their houses’ perimeters to ward off the mosquitoes that carry malaria. Cow urine and dung is also used as a pest repellent mixed into the lining of houses’ walls. 

It’s these kinds of contextual considerations that have informed my work with Unicef in a design thinking programme that focuses on empathy and respecting indigenous knowledge.

Putting people first

Unicef deals with issues related to children all over the world. In 2016 it approached the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking (the d-school) at the University of Cape Town to develop more human-centred solutions to some of the complex challenges facing vulnerable children and families, particularly on the African continent.

Design thinking is a human-centred approach to problem solving. It develops an understanding of problems through engaging with those affected – the users. Its approach to solving problems is participatory, involving the users in finding solutions.

Unicef is involved in solving a number of complex challenges, and realised that it’s critical to put humans at the centre of that work. It wanted to ensure that the solutions designed would contribute to local communities’ sustainability and resilience. Unicef too often goes into communities offering solutions without considering local ideas, approaches and knowledge – as the Malawi mosquito net project showed. Its employees don’t spend time, really understanding the problems they’re trying to solve before designing solutions. 

That’s where instilling empathy comes in: organisations need an empathetic mindset that leads to better understanding not just of what the problem is, but also what caused it in the first place.

That’s what informed my ongoing design thinking programme with Unicef. It’s a customised programme that helps train organisations in design thinking. I’m working with Unicef Malawi and some of its partners – and developing empathy forms a big part of the course.

Empathy in design thinking

There are two types of empathy in design thinking: emotional and cognitive. Emotional empathy centres on instinct, emotions and shared experience. The emotional aspect includes assessing our own thoughts and actions for the purpose of personal learning and development. Design thinking encourages students to cultivate curiosity and challenge prejudice to discover commonalities with other people who may be different from them. Listening is extremely important, too.

Emotional empathy is a starting point for individual team members in any design thinking programme before they shift focus towards the user for whom they’re designing solutions.

The second dimension of empathy is cognitive. Here, one comes to understand how others may experience the world from their point of view. Cognitive empathy includes the mental process of acquiring and understanding through thoughts, experience and senses. It includes processes like knowledge, memory, judgement, reasoning and decision making.

Understanding different points of view requires humility: we may have been trained as experts in our various disciplines but that hardly means we know everything. Each person possesses very little knowledge, which becomes valuable when a team comes together.

All the participants in a design team need to be empathetic with the users they’re designing for if their solutions are to be relevant. This informed my planning for the Unicef course.


The participants include Unicef employees and people from organisations that implement the solutions Unicef develops. I started by taking participants through a three day introduction to design thinking. They had to work collaboratively in a multidisciplinary team. They had to learn the value of empathy for the user – that’s, people affected by the problems they’re trying to solve.

They took part in an immersion experience at the Cape Town Society for the Blind. This took them into a very different context and forced them to experience the physical world as blind people do. It was a powerful way to help them understand the implications of navigating a world not designed to facilitate their access. They ate dinner in the dark and were forced to use all their other senses in the same way blind people must.

All this helped participants to understand that even those they might consider less knowledgeable have experiences, emotions and aspirations. This understanding helps with the development of true empathy.

Empathy for others and understanding their context could go a long way in helping organisations to come up with relevant solutions. An understanding of context allows us to learn from others’ experiences and to arrive at an informed solution with the users. This allows organisations to solve the right problems – and, in the long run, to help communities become more resilient and self-sustaining.


Africa's first multidisciplinary design school opens in Cape Town

Published by Creamer Media's Engineering News – 10 Mar 2017

Africa’s first multidisciplinary design school has been formally launched at the University of Cape Town (UCT). It is the first and only academic institution in Africa that focuses on Design Thinking for university postgraduate students and the private sector. 

“Our vision is to be a dominant player, a driver of innovation and new outcomes. We aim to have a reach beyond UCT and, ultimately, have an influence in sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world,” d-school director Richard Perez told launch attendees.

Design Thinking has emerged as a leading driver of innovation and new outcomes that integrates right-brain imagination and intuition with left-brain logic, analysis and planning. This creatively connects the dots to generate innovative solutions.

The school, based at UCT Graduate School of Business(GSB), kicked off with a pilot Foundation Programme in Design Thinking last year, drawing postgraduate students from departments as diverse as civil engineering, multimedia, health and rehabilitation sciences and international law.

Teams of four, guided by a professional coach, worked on real world challenges – from an online networking and matchmaking platform for small businesses to a peer-to-peer car rental programme and a new form of banking services.

GSB director Mills Soko said the d-school was attracting cosmopolitan, engaging and interesting students. University scholars, as well as leaders from business, the public sector and community organisations will be able to take courses at the d-school at the GSB Breakwater campus.

The school was founded with funding and academic support by Dr Hasso Plattner, the co-founder of global businesssoftware company SAP. It follows the establishment of the Hasso Plattner Schools of Design Thinking at Stanford, in the US, and at Potsdam, in Germany

Potsdam d-school director Professor Uli Weinberg said some people had been sceptical when the Potsdam school was set up ten years ago.

“We use playful tools, like Lego, to unlock innovation and creativity. But this is often when the magic happens. It helps people to rethink how they do things and how they run their businesses,” Weinberg told the launch.

At least 100 spin-offs and start-ups have emerged from the Potsdam programme. Weinberg said it had also helped small and medium-sized companies, as well as global technologyand services company Bosch to come up with new productsand systems.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology professor of industrial design Professor Mugendi M’Rithaa said problems of the twenty-first century such as urbanisation, migration and climate change could no longer by solved by looking through one disciplinary lens.

“We need to go beyond traditional disciplines to solve the problems humanity is grappling with.”

Perez said design thinking could also be used to tackle challenges such as food security and traffic congestion.

Design can play a role far beyond designing an object, by driving new innovations and coming up with completely new solutions that have never been found before.”


Design-led innovation brings city together in solving urban issues 

by Richard Perez - d-school director

Published by Business Day (Late Final), In-Depth –  6 Mar 2017

You would not be the first or the last to think that Cape Town, the city where I live and work, does not feel like an African city. This is because there are two Cape Towns-one that is framed by Table Mountain straddling the Atlantic Ocean, sandy beaches, fashionable design quarters, the waterfront, Long Street bars and restaurants, and sprawling luxury sea-front and mountain-hugging suburbs. The other Cape Town stretches away from the shadow of the mountain into the sprawling sandy plains of the Cape Flats, which are dominated by informal settlements and high density populations.

This unAfrican feel of tourist and suburban Cape Town is largely due to the legacy of apartheid design and planning – which was very successful in achieving its goals of dividing citizens along racial lines and excluding black communities from access to resources which are concentrated near the mountain and harbour. This legacy is reflected in the continued spatial separation of communities and the disparate levels of access to services and opportunities citizens experience. Its consequences for the city is still felt in the service delivery protests that flare up in the townships and the continued contestation around land.

During the three years that I spent as a director of design-led innovation in the city administration (from 2012 to 2015) we attempted to change the legacy left by apartheid planning by adopting a process of co-design and co-creation, to help ensure that the city’s plans and delivery took better account of the needs and experiences of all its citizens.

This process leveraged the city’s annual allocation for independent ward improvements to each of its 111 wards throughout the metropolitan area projects. Our design-led innovation team worked with citizens of 81 wards over a period of 18 months, to conceptualise improvements in their areas. This co-creation process took the form of design thinking workshops with more than 1500 citizens, over 500 city officials and designers from all over the city. During these workshops, citizens, officials, politicians and designers worked together to understand the issues that people faced in the contexts in which they lived and to generate ideas for solutions from all participants that responded directly to the real needs and issues expressed by people. The value realized from citizens feeling they were listened to, and heard, was palpable.

The process culminated in 116 concept designs that would guide future budget allocation and spend. Most these related to improvements to parks, public spaces and vacant sites. They also included urban upgrade projects, urban agriculture initiatives, public transport interchange designs, arts and culture and sport and recreation facilities. In addition, there were plans for economic development interventions like skills development and trading facilities.

More important than these design concepts, was the design-led innovation template developed for engaging citizens meaningfully. Implemented, this process can help realize collaboration between citizens and government to advance a more equitable city where there are opportunities for development for all citizens. 

City administrations have traditionally focused on administrating from a “hard city” perspective i.e. building of infrastructure, roads, electricity, water, transport etc. However, these workshops in Cape Town highlighted the importance of the “soft city” aspects - the people that live in these cities and the intrinsic link to the “hard city”.

Cities are made up of people - it is not buildings, roads or the bridges but people who are the pulse and indeed the heartbeat of a city. Developing a city without its inhabitants’ perspective and ideas is a terribly short sighted thing to do.

What became so evident from the workshops in Cape Town was that as a city administration you cannot divorce the soft and hard city needs. In some ways administrators are aware of this, but they struggle to find the tools and frameworks to practice it.

The key is to create the platforms where citizens and officials can engage– where shared understanding of the challenges that the administration has are balanced with those of the citizens that live and work in the city. My biggest takeaway as well as those officials that participated in the workshops is that there does exist this approach called human centered design or what we reframed in the administration “citizen centric design”. And it comes with tools and frameworks that can move you from complex conversations into very tangible inclusive solutions (something they had struggled to do in the past). This should be the new form of true public participation when developing cities.

This kind of participatory work with communities and citizens requires a 360-degree shift from the top-down Big Man/Woman speaks to the masses engagements that have been a feature of government imbizos and community consultative forums. Working with the people as opposed to for the people requires empathy and deep understanding of the community members’ lives and concerns. It also demands an interrogation of the role of those typically deemed “experts” who are often in charge of government or NGO policy, planning and development. Politicians, officials, consultants and other experts’ familiarity and relationship (or lack thereof) with the local community might constrain their ability to understand the contextual challenges and opportunities, and their worldview/s might limit their capacity to act in the interests of the people affected.

In July 2015, I left the City administration to start the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town (d-school) which was established to make this human-centred, problem solving training available to African post graduate students, government officials and businesses. The overall objective of the d-school is to train and capacitate students and professionals in design thinking as an enabler of innovation and new outcomes that can meet the needs of users in complex socio-political and economic contexts.

Training in design thinking at the d-school develops competencies in design-led innovation and practice in working in inclusive and diverse, multidisciplinary teams. Participants in the d-school’s training programmes leave the training having been exposed to:

  • Collaborative empathy in multidisciplinary teams

  • The practice of core design thinking processes and methodologies

  • Reflective practice as a continuing learning process

  • Methodological approaches to exploring complex problems

  • Abductive reasoning for creative problem solving

  • Design of human centric solutions.

The d-school at UCT is the first design thinking academic institution on the African continent, following in the footsteps of similar schools at the University of Stanford in the USA and the University of Potsdam in Germany.

I believe that design-thinking has the potential to transform cities where there is widespread inequity in access to services and resources, like we have in Cape Town and South Africa, if the experiences, understanding and agency of local people are taken seriously and their participation in the development of solutions is facilitated.

The philosophy underpinning our design thinking methodology is that innovative solutions to complex challenges is sparked by the creative teamwork of a diverse range of people from across the spectrum of race, class, gender, discipline, experience, expertise, skills and perspectives. Taking our programme participants through our design thinking process harnesses this diversity and unlocks the creativity necessary for generating new solutions and outcomes. Students learn to understand the challenges from the perspective of the people most affected and learn, through empathy, to anticipate and evaluate the potential impact of any solutions.

These issues are vital considering the myriad complex challenges we face in African cities which have faced a rapid pace of urbanisation second only to Asia. Our cities’ infrastructural and economic development have not kept pace with the urban influx, creating a massive challenge for African city administrations. The pressure for service delivery and equal economic opportunities makes it even more urgent for city administrations to co-create and collaborate with citizens to understand and address their needs.  

Future-ready African cities need design thinking or design-led innovation with its strong human-centred approach to ensure that people and their needs, are at the heart of any solutions. 


Different design plans

Published by Saturday Weekend Argus, Life – 4 Mar 2017


Launch of Africa's first design thinking institute

Published by Bizcommunity – 3 Mar 2017

The d-school was founded in Cape Town in August 2015 with funding and academic support from Professor Dr Hasso Plattner, cofounder of global business software company SAP AG. It is the first and only academic institution on the African continent which offers academic training and capacitation in design thinking to university postgraduate students and the private sector.

The speakers at the launch include Director of the UCT Graduate School of Business Mills Soko; d-school director Richard Perez; director of the Potsdam d-school Uli Weinberg; and Professor Mugendi M’Rithaa, professor of  industrial design at Cape Peninsular University of technology.

Professor Soko has a rich background in political economics as head of policy and legislative research in the National Council of Provinces. He is a research associate of both the South African Institute of International Affairs and the Institute for Global Dialogue.

Prior to his appointment to the d-school, Richard Perez spent three years as a director at the City of Cape Town where, he pioneered innovation as a strategy and management tool to advance the creation of effective human-centred development models. Before his city experience, Perez spent 10 years as a partner and director in XYZ industrial design. Perez is an industrial design engineering Masters-graduate from the Royal College of Arts in London, who also holds an engineering degree and a MBA from the University of Cape Town.

After 25 years of innovation work in the field of film and 3-D, of this - 13 years as professor at the University of Film in Babelsberg - Uli Weinberg leaped at the opportunity to visualise innovation in an even greater way as the director of the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking in Potsdam.

Speaking at Berlin’s social innovation conference, the Vision Summit, about the future of society last month, Weinberg  explained the evolution of design thinking in a nutshell: “From IQ to WeQ thinking,” emphasing the fundamental importance of creative collaboration across disciplines and cultures.

Dr Mugendi K. M’Rithaa is a Professor at the Department of Industrial Design, Faculty of Informatics and Design at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Educated in Kenya, the USA, India and South Africa, he has a keen interest in socially responsible design with respect to majority world contexts.



Design thinking can prepare graduates for the real working world

Published by The Conversation – 15 Feb 2017

At first glance, it looks as though the group of young adults is building Lego. But these are actually students at the University of Cape Town’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking, and they’re using the colourful blocks to design a prototype. It represents policy reform ideas around transitioning from informal to formal economies. It’s a complex system represented with very basic materials.

This is design thinking in action: human-centred, problem solving activities that ground design thinking in practice. It helps students to understand and innovatively solve challenges. 

Design thinking can be used very successfully as an academic programme that goes beyond traditional university practices. It allows universities to prepare a more resilient, adaptive student cohort. These graduates are more competent to enter economies that are constantly changing. This is particularly important when higher education institutions are training students for jobs that might not yet exist or that might have changed or become redundant by the time they graduate. 

We’re living in a time of rapid transformation in terms of what’s required for a country’s workforce.

As the World Economic Form has put it:

…five years from now, over one third of skills (35%) that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed.

Design thinking programmes that nurture both creativity and critical thinking around complex challenges offer students an opportunity to develop core skills for the workplace of the fourth industrial revolution.

Useful tools

There’s a major skills mismatch between graduates and the workplace in South Africa. A 2016 report identified three areas in which these mismatches exist: demand mismatch (skills gap between existing education and emergent job needs); education supply (producing fewer graduates than a field requires), and qualification-job (people moving into fields different from what they have studied for). 

Higher education institutions need to improve their academic responsiveness to increasingly complex labour market needs and industry requirements. They must also develop graduates with more entrepreneurial mindsets. Design thinking is a very new addition to the country’s higher education landscape. But early indications suggest that it might provide some of the tools to help universities in these tasks.

I lecture and manage the academic programmes at the Hasso Plattner Institute, which we call “the d-school”. It is only the third Institute of Design Thinking in the world and, having opened its doors in 2016, is the newest. The others are at Stanford University in the US and Germany’s Potsdam University. Both are more than a decade old and have brought academic rigour to design-led innovation practice. They also make training programmes in design thinking available to academic scholars and leaders in the private and public sectors. Our aim at UCT’s d-school is to better prepare students for a changing workplace by nurturing design thinking mindsets.

Different approaches to education

Design thinking embodies three core approaches to education for a changing workplace:

  • a shift toward interdisciplinary and and collaborative learning;

  • an alignment to student-centred and adaptive learning pathways; and

  • experiential learning 

These approaches facilitate students’ readiness for the working world. This is done by exposing them to a variety of mindsets and world views through interdisciplinary, peer-to-peer learning. Students are also given a better understanding of contextual issues through exposure to various lived realities.

For example, if a project focuses on exploring informal economies, students will actually get out of the classroom and into the spaces these economies occupy. They talk to informal traders and spend time observing their day to day activities.

Importantly, they’re also immersed in the labour market’s emerging realities through embedded applications of knowledge in real world projects. 

Students are introduced to a rich blend of governmental, industry, academic and social challenges. They navigate these, building internal and external understanding of business practice and human relationships.

These partnerships with business, government and academia are centred on real challenges. And they have a dual purpose. Students get workplace experience, which can ease their transition from university to the job market. Employers can also foster working relationships with possible future employees.

Graduates for the future

Design thinking aims to improve students’ empathy, their comfort with ambiguity and their ability to resolve conflicting ideas through solutions that are stronger than individual ideas. Students are also equipped with the ability to produce new knowledge through creative mental leaps. 

One student project involved reimagining banking services that embrace informal economic requirements. The project also looked at how social capital can lead to financial capital. Another project was for a small business called Rent-my-Ride, which offers an online peer-to-peer car rental platform. The students designed a secondary platform that would support small business development among car owners. Yet another project, for Transport Cape Town, saw students developing a social network platform that would support community input in the redesign of transport nodes.

The field of design thinking does not lay claim to inventing these new educational approaches. But it does present a cohesive methodology through which to explore them, and to prepare graduates for a world that’s changing all the time.



Design thinking helps executives find solutions

Cutting-edge innovation management strategy gets school at UCT

Published: Business Report / Business Life (published in Sunday Independent – national, Sunday Tribune – KZN and Weekend Argus – Western Cape) 21 February 2016

Lorelle Bell

BEFORE the new school of design thinking at UCT even had office space, its director Richard Perez was asked to develop and deliver a training programme for a major South African financial institution; one of several enquiries from business and the government.

Design thinking – already a leading-edge innovation management strategy internationally – is making its presence felt among South African executives. As the pressure to innovate in dynamic, complex environments increases, they’re looking to design-led innovation to unlock new solutions.

Complexity and rapid change were amplified in the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2016 theme – “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, described as the “digitisation of industry... characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres”.

Questions on the WEF agenda illustrate its implications. How will it transform industry sectors, including health, mobility, financial services and education? How can technology be deployed in ways that contribute to inclusive growth rather than exacerbate unemployment and income inequality?


How can breakthroughs in science and technology help in solving problems from climate change to public health? How will emerging technologies transform the global security landscape? How can governments build institutions capable of making decisions when the challenges they face are more complex, fast-moving and interconnected than ever before?

While local Davos talk barely out- lasted its four-day run in January, South Africa’s 53-strong contingent was the largest to date. Seven ministers accompanied the president. The economic triumvirate – Pravin Gordhan (finance), Rob Davies (trade and industry), and Ebrahim Patel (economic development) attended. As did Naledi Pandor (science and technology), Aaron Motsoaledi (health), Nomvula Mokonyane (water and sanitation), and Tina Joemat-Pettersson (energy). Governor of the Reserve Bank Lesetja Kganyago, and billionaire Patrice Motsepe also went,along with the leaders of some of South Africa’s largest companies, banks and media houses. The implications of digital innovation must have made an impression on the government and business.

Design thinking is an important driver of innovation, as well as a manager of risk for innovation.

Against this background, design thinking addresses complexity and change through its human-centred problem-solving process; and offers a discipline that underpins innovation. It allows solutions to emerge from the process, and helps to generate new outcomes (products, services or systems) that are uniquely suited to the needs of users in the contexts in which they’re applied.

The process begins with research and observation focused on human needs. The empathy and insights developed allow the team to really understand the problem and to develop responsive solutions. Low- resolution prototyping, testing with target users and refining, ensure that solutions are desirable to users, as well as financially viable, and technologically feasible.

Design thinking breaks down silos (an acknowledged, though tough-to- break, reality for many organisations); and facilitates collaboration, through its techniques for working in diverse, transdisciplinary teams. Inclusive teams make a broad range of perspectives and skills avail- able to solve complex problems.

Unlocking innovation

Perez explains that design thinking provides a set of tools, a process and, ultimately, a mindset that unlocks innovation.

The mindset he mentions is evident in Intuit, a billion-dollar California-based software company. Intuit revolutionised its business and embedded an organisation-wide culture of design-led innovation when it adopted design thinking in 2007 as the learning process to understand its customers, and rapid experimentation became the basis of its product development process. Intuit’s success is reflected in its second placing on Fortune’s Most Admired Software Companies and rise by 27 places on Fortune’s Top 100 Best Companies list, in 2015.

Intuit is one of the companies featured in a research report titled

“Parts Without a Whole?: The current state of design thinking practice in organisations” by Jan Schmiedgen, Holger Rhinow, Eva Köppen and Christoph Meinel of the Hasso Plattner Institute.

The authors comment that, “Oftentimes, management focuses on the final innovation outcome. How- ever, design thinking is a journey: Teams or whole units change the way they work and how they approach problems along the way... the introduction of design thinking needs to be accompanied by additional changes in leadership and innovation capabilities.”

The training for the financial institution, mentioned earlier, included its innovation team and a business unit. The aim was to learn how design thinking could help the innovation team better serve its in- house clients.

Practical case

The group learnt to work collaboratively in teams, researching and observing customer needs; sharing ideas and solutions; and developing and testing low-resolution proto- types with users. In addition to realising the training objectives, several solutions were generated. As the head of the business unit reflected, “I think we got more out of this than anyone else because we also got the solutions for our unit. We had four prototypes coming out of this. Every single one of them is valid.”

This year sees the formal establishment of the Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) School of Design Thinking at UCT. Funded by the Hasso Plattner Trust, it joins the HPI Schools of Design Thinking at the universities of Potsdam (Germany) and Stanford (US) in offering programmes in design thinking to scholars and executives.

Perez says, “Design thinking is an important driver of innovation, as well as a manager of risk for innovation. Training in design thinking plays a significant role in entrepreneurial and leadership skills development. The competencies developed include an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to work and life that is valuable in education from preschool to executive level.”

Lorelle Bell is a consultant to the HPI School of Design Thinking at UCT. She writes on design, innovation, technology and sustainability, and is an aspirant impact entrepreneur. Contact her at