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Design thinking

6 September, 2009

Since I started, I have been looking for inspiring ideas in the field of social innovation. Naturally my thinking has been very much shaped by anthropology and thus I have followed with interest anything at the intersection between development and ethnography. Recently one of the useful (and fashionable) concepts has been design thinking.

Design thinking has many overlaps with the anthropological approach, such as starting out with as little preconceived ideas about the research topic  as possible and gaining an empathetic understanding through immersion during fieldwork. It has been pionieered by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO and institutionalised at the Hasso Plattner in Stanford (which has a sister institue at the University of Potsdam in Germany, around the corner from where I live in Berlin)

A few months ago IDEO published The Human Centered Design Handbook for NGOs, which

will help you hear people’s needs in new ways, create innovative solutions to meet these needs, and deliver solutions with financial sustainability in mind.

It is now available in a new, second edition and I highly recommend it to anybody interested in applied social innovation.

Among the many useful tools they advocate in detail is context immersion:

Meeting people where they live, work, and socialize and immersing yourself in their context reveals new insights and unexpected opportunities. Human-Centered Design works best when the designers understand the people they are designing for not just on an intellectual level, but also on an experiential level. Try to do what your constituents do and talk to them about their experience of life in the moment.

As an example of the benefits of immersion, the handbook has a number of good examples, among them this one:

On a project in rural India, people said that cultural tradition prevented women from touching men who are not immediate family members. However, by spending several days in a village, the team observed that there were many instances in which trained or uniformed women doing specifi c jobs were able to touch men without any serious problems. These gaps between what people say and what they do are not bad. In fact, seeing these differences may highlight new opportunities; for example, designing a new medical service that could be provided by uniformed women customs.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. ahmet permalink
    18 September, 2009 7:09 am

    since betterplace had a project with the d-school in the first year, i would love to know how that experience effected the way you work. are you using the principles you have come across in your projects? there should be a series of workshops for NGOs and Non-Profits to apply DT in their efforts

  2. 20 September, 2009 2:18 am

    Hi Ahmet,
    yes, you are right, d-school worked on a project for us, but as I wasn’t involved, I’ll have to ask Till or Moritz what we used from this cooperation. I hve just recently started something called the betterplace Lab and here we are defintely going to follow some of the principles advocated by DT. If you follow our blogs (for english:, you’ll find out more soon. Best regards, Joana

  3. 18 December, 2009 2:12 pm

    Can you explain more about the d-school project please.


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