Designing a new way of thinking: A new approach to solving social problems

About this article

Text Size: A A

This past October 30, leaders from across Canada gathered at a hotel in Waterloo, Ontario for a week to explore new and innovative ways of measuring and improving child well-being in Canada. An initiative of UNICEF Canada, it was largely inspired by Canada’s mediocre ranking (17th out of 29 wealthiest countries) on child well-being, a reality that the organization wanted to tackle head-on.

“Most Canadians would assume we’d be in the top five,” says chief of development, Sharon Avery, evidently frustrated by a situation that has remained static for eight years. “We said, ‘we have to do something about this and it has to be radical. How do we get to the top five, what does that look like?’”

And so began the process. But it wasn’t your typical week-long conference or workshop that they ran in October. The Design Week initiative, a partnership with the firm Overlap, incorporated what’s known as design thinking. A way of addressing social problems by introducing practical, creative problem-solving, design thinking adopts an iterative process, with ideas tested, improved upon and tested again.

“It’s a method for solving problems but at its core it’s a solution-oriented way of thinking,” explains Overlap CEO, Brock Hart. “The task is to really understand the needs of the people you’re designing for and to imagine what “better” looks like for them, initially ignoring any constraints,” he adds. Once you know what better looks like, you then outline ways to get there. At the crux of design thinking is the user. It “brings people who are directly affected by the problems to the table with those directly responsible for the problems with a process that is neutral to everyone, that everyone can engage in, to investigate the problem and co-create a solution,” shares Zahra Ebrahim, principal and founder of design tank and consultancy, archiTEXT. “Without going to the user first, you’re not addressing the systemic issue, just band-aiding it over and over again.” By getting everyone involved and neutralizing any hierarchy, an intuitive process can emerge that allows for an understanding of how problems develop.

An old idea with a new vocabulary

It seems design thinking is playing a bigger role these days as nonprofits try to tackle social problems in fresh, new ways. Some would argue, however, that it’s been around in different incarnations for years. “They’ve been doing this all along but they didn’t have language to wrap around what they do,” argues Ebrahim. With the emergence of design thinking in other sectors, suddenly these efforts have a name. “It gave them a scaffolding to have this conversation more broadly.”

Others may have approached social problems this way years ago but then lost their focus somewhere along the way, thanks to a greater emphasis on growth and scale. “Some of the larger social sector organizations had forgotten that this is what they’re best at and this is where the social sector thrives - when they interface directly with those affected by a problem and bring that to solution-creation,” explains Ebrahim. “It’s a way of getting back to the intuitive way of working with the social sector.”

The uncertainty of it all

Perhaps so but design thinking has certainly brought a new reality to the equation: uncertainty. Hart cites renowned design thinker Roger Martin who said that nothing that was new ever had the benefit of truth in advance. “Sometimes when dealing with a vulnerable population that uncertainty is hard for people. But it’s the only way we ever get to something new and different.”

That uncertainty is not an easy thing, though. “We work in a sector that is pretty risk averse,” Avery explains. “Uncertainty is the single biggest internal challenge we deal with in doing design thinking,” she says, commenting on the difficulty she has had convincing her board that working without clarity and set, defined outcomes, can be positive - eventually.

“What’s refreshing about this approach is we’re not expected to know everything going in - learning is part of the process – and going to the end user and working backwards forces us not to make any assumptions,” says Avery. “What’s also fascinating for me is that every next step leads to more questions. And it is a really a journey of inquiry."

Establishing a children's observatory

UNICEF’s journey with Overlap actually began over 24 months ago when they decided to explore the possibility of establishing a “children’s observatory” in Canada to foster innovative approaches to child well-being. Overlap was asked to facilitate a conversation with senior leadership to determine the role UNICEF plays in this country. The firm has been helping UNICEF articulate what the observatory should look like and what it should try to achieve, identifying four possible ideas.

The Design Week was a prototype of a design lab for kids, an idea that emerged from those first-year discussions. Would a permanent design lab effectively tackle UNICEF’s most difficult problems, was the overarching question, viewed through the lens of the primary problem – youth wellbeing. The 30 cross-sectoral leaders came up with and designed ideas that they then presented to youth groups, received feedback on and improved upon. Out of over 100 ideas conceived during the week, five were prototyped and presented at its culmination to a diverse group, including funders of UNICEF. The chosen ideas are currently being further prototyped to take them to the next level.

The hope is also to have more concrete plans for an observatory by March 2016. Yet, no matter in which direction they head, says Avery, as a nonprofit, they will have an outcome to present this year, something to measure, though they may not yet know what it will look like, what tools it will use or who they’ll be measuring it with.

Considering future needs of the sector

For Tanara Ferguson, manager of human capital at Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), her foray into design thinking began a couple of years ago when the HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector (HR Council) program ended and its work transferred to the CFC. Once there, conversations were had on how to safeguard assets, make them accessible and explore what’s next. “It was exploratory,” says Ferguson of their design thinking process. The thought was: “We have an opportunity, some time, let’s push our imaginations to see how we can push talent outside of the box of the nonprofit sector.”

So this past March, CFC hosted a full-day foresight exercise to envision what talent would be needed and how it could be built to support strong and vibrant communities in 2040. Yes 2040. Thinking ahead – to a significant timeline - is part of the process. archiTEXT was engaged to enable discussion among 25 diverse folks across the country to help envision that future. A good portion of the group were made up of the younger demographic as it is their future at stake, after all.

The foresight exercises allowed them to create a few different scenarios of the future and for each, they asked themselves what talent would be needed. No matter which scenario resulted, they would be prepared. “They would know how the sector needs to invest to have talent to thrive,” explains Ebrahim.

Taking a leap of faith

Keep in mind that design thinking is based in some science but involves a huge leap of faith to see what the future holds. And creative problem-solving is key, says Ebrahim of the triangulation activities- saying, doing and making - that design participants are often asked to partake in. She explains the importance of actually building, creating something when grappling with finding solutions. “The “making” enables you to reveal tacit information that you don’t have the words for. Maybe you don’t know how to say it or don’t know what you’re feeling.” By producing something, you may find those words – and the solutions easier.

Ferguson says she approached design thinking without any expectations, without knowing what the end goal will be, an approach that was beneficial considering all the unknowns. The exploratory first step proved a very important component in determining their next steps, she explains, though she also used other methodologies. “It took me a while to get my head wrapped around believing we could think of things so far in advance,” she offers, explaining how she’s not used to not having a concrete 10-step plan. “I wasn’t sure there would be practical results that came out of it but then I realized it was about being exploratory.” Her advice for others thinking of adopting design thinking into their practice? “People should explore it but it is probably not right for everyone.”

Ebrahim would agree. In fact, any prospective client that knocks on her door gets asked the same question: Why? Why do they need change? Why do they need a new way of thinking? If they say they’re exhausted with their way of looking at a problem and need a new entry point, they’re onto something. “If they can answer the question for themselves, they’re ready,” she says.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at:

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

Go To Top