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The Role Design Thinking Plays in Sustainability

The Role Design Thinking Plays in Sustainability

Before sustainability: Design Thinking, in a nutshell

Design thinking is an innovative, creative approach to solving some of today’s most complex problems. The goal of design thinking is to develop creative and user-relevant ideas in an effort to find a resolution that have a positive impact on the future. Design thinking is also referred to as “solution-focused” thinking.

Today, design or solution-focused thinking plays a crucial role when dealing with projects or issues that can impact the future. As a result, the design thinking approach is adopted by many managers, leaders, and teams in various projects, organizations, and businesses all over the globe.

Many might wonder how design thinking is different from analytical thinking or critical thinking. Design thinking involves thinking of a solution to a long-term problem. Analytical thinking often involves defining and solving the problem upfront. The overall end goal of design thinking is to find a long-term solution to a problem without fully defining or knowing exactly what the future will look like.


How Design Thinking Plays a Role in Sustainability


One of the best examples of design thinking at work is human-centered design. Human-centered design specifically addresses human wants and needs. Good design thinking processes aim to serve and address unmet human needs over the long term rather than focusing on “band aid” solutions.


Furthermore, as human-centered design becomes more popular and widespread throughout organizations, the importance of adopting this approach and fine-tuning this skill becomes even more important, particularly as it relates to human needs and sustainable issues.


However, there is some confusion surrounding sustainable and unsustainable issues. For example, there is a strong universal voice for human “sustainability” today. The most common examples are how humans currently interact with society and the environment, overcome challenges and obstacles. Some examples include renewable energy resources, recycling, and “going green”.


Many believe that sustainable issues have to do with conserving and protecting the planet. Although this is true, there is another layer. “Sustainable” issues relate more to sustaining human existence, which is a major human need and therefore a solid example of human-centered design.


Furthermore, by using design thinking or human-centered design, forward-thinking through the next hundred years, today’s professionals and organizations will be able to effectively address and satisfy human, business, existence and technological needs.

Solving Sustainable Issues


Solving sustainable issues begins with asking the right questions and achieving a full understanding of those issues and how they impact humans.

Here are some questions asked by many true design thinkers:

  • Does this project contribute to a future that addresses and satisfies human needs?
  • Is the goal or purpose of the project centered around a positive existence for humans and their environment?
  • How can sustainability be measured?
  • As a designer, what can I do to help my world become more sustainable?

If a project or goal is not designed with sustainability or the human in mind, then the purpose of the project is moot. This is an incredibly difficult design for design thinkers to make, especially for those who are under societal or organizational pressures to “do what the boss wants”.

Here are some things for design thinkers to keep in mind:

1. Asking the Right Questions. Sustainability often sparks questions surrounding society, the environment, business and the world as we know it. It often requires asking questions that require hefty solutions, thinking outside the box, and considering the common good or overall human impact.

Some common sustainable topics include the subject of waste, using natural resources, recycling and reusing products and resources, purchasing and using locally-grown and produced items, and the impact of human activity (carbon footprint) on climate change.

  1. Learning About Sustainability. Before design thinkers can begin to take steps to help save the world, they first need learn more about sustainable issues and topics. Furthermore, learning what humans as well as design thinkers can do to help make an impact each day can also allow them to take one step closer to a more sustainable future.

All in all, the more we learn, and the more questions we ask, the better position we are to come up with creative, out-of-the-box, long-term solutions to our world’s biggest challenges.

  1. Sustainable Costs. Design thinkers can’t very well ask questions related to sustainability without considering the costs of such projects. Unfortunately, sustainable projects often require sizable investments and rising costs. Therefore, part of the challenge for design thinkers is to think of a solution that not only reaches sustainable goals but that also effectively using resources, including costs.
  2. Sustainable Strategies. Once designer thinkers fully understand the impact of sustainable solutions and associated costs, only then can they develop strategies that allow organizations to reach project goals. Over time, designers will be able to integrate their strategies into their projects and their work.

Again, as mentioned above, sustainable solutions aren’t meant to be solved in a short amount of time, or even immediately. There also isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

  1. Involving Stakeholders. Once design thinkers begin developing their own strategies, and becoming advocates for them in their own projects and organizations, the next step is to involve internal as well as external stakeholders. It is easy for design thinkers to achieve their project and organizational goals towards sustainable change when all team members and stakeholders are on board. However, this isn’t always possible.

Ultimately, sustainability is most powerful and effective when it becomes a core part of the organizational mission.

The Best Strategic Design

Not only do internal and external stakeholders need to be on board with projects and initiatives focused on sustainable change, stakeholders and organizations also need to follow their own sustainable practices in daily operations. For example, this could include adopting recycling habits, using and reusing resources, and using more efficient energy sources.

In summary, design thinking plays a crucial role in addressing and solving sustainable issues today. The purpose behind design thinking, or human-centered thinking is taking an “agile” approach to solving problems effectively.

Taking an innovative approach towards your own projects and in your own organization can be a challenge. However, having an external team on your side can help.

Growth Adviser, Innovation Catalyst, Branding Architect, International Expansion Consultant. International change agent and leader, launched growth consulting boutique in 2012. We have four principal areas or intervention 1) Branding (e.g., positioning of new brands, re-positioning of existing brands, brand architecture and design) 2) Innovation (e.g., co-creation with consumers and experts, ideation, business planning, concept validation and fine-tuning) 3) International Expansion (e.g., countries screening and development of expansion plan, route to market strategy, portfolio) 4) Route to Market (e.g. marketing and commercial planning, portfolio analysis).