Tim Brown calls for a shift to local, collaborative, participatory “design thinking”


Starting with the example of 19th-century design thinker Isambard Kingdom Brunel. He didn’t stop with just trying to design the best railway journey. He imagined an integrated transportation system in which it would be possible for a passenger to embark on a train in London and disembark from a ship in New York.

Now, design thinking begins with what Roger Martin, the business school professor at the University of Toronto, calls integrative thinking. And that’s the ability to exploit opposing ideas and opposing constraints to create new solutions. In the case of design, that means balancing desirability, what humans need, with technical feasibility, and economic viability. With innovations like the Great Western, we can stretch that balance to the absolute limit.

Design is getting big again. And that’s happening through the application of design thinking to new kinds of problems to global warming, to education, healthcare, security, clean water, whatever.

The first of those is that design is human-centered. It may integrate technology and economics, but it starts with what humans need, or might need. What makes life easier, more enjoyable? What makes technology useful and usable? But that is more than simply good ergonomics, putting the buttons in the right place. It’s often about understanding culture and context before we even know where to start to have ideas.


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