From Design Thinking to Systems Change

Rowan Conway, Jeff Masters and Jake Thorold (2017)

Achieving change in a world ever more defined by complexity is difficult. We face an array of complex ‘wicked’ problems, from an ageing population to climate change to intergenerational cycles of poverty. It can often seem that these challenges are insurmountable and that we lack the ability to make meaningful change. To find opportunity in challenge will require reimagining the ways that we currently think about innovation and design. The narrative around a ‘fourth industrial revolution’ risks narrowing the focus of innovation to technology which would locate innovation-led growth solely in the outputs of universities and research institutes, or technology clusters like Cambridge’s Silicon Fen. While these are a vital piece of the UK’s innovation jigsaw, they are not the whole picture. Enterprises large and small across sectors and regions need to also be part of the innovation mix. The UK has long been at the forefront of design, a rich heritage that permeates a diverse range of sectors. Design thinking methodologies are deployed in service, policy and governance design across sectors, not merely product design. Harnessing the power of this creative capacity will be crucial to generating the innovative solutions required to tackle pressing social challenges. But design thinking alone will not be enough. The core insight of this paper is that solving our most complex problems will require augmenting design thinking with a systems thinking approach as the basis for action. While design thinking has proved itself to be successful in the realm of creating new products and services, the challenge is how to support innovations to enter and actively shape the complex systems that surround wicked social challenges. Great design doesn’t always generate impact. As we show in this report, innovations attempting to scale and create systemic change often hit barriers to change, sending them catapulting back to square one. We call this the ‘system immune response’. The particular barriers will differ dependent on context, but might be cultural, regulatory, personalitydriven or otherwise. This report argues that innovations for the public good are susceptible to the system immune response because there is a deficit of systems thinking in design methodologies. This report introduces a new RSA model of ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ as a way of marrying design and systems thinking. At its most simple, this is a method of developing a deep understanding of the system being targeted for impact and then identifying the most promising opportunities to change based on that analysis – the entrepreneurial part. By appreciating factors like power dynamics, competing incentives and cultural norms, innovators can prepare themselves for barriers to change, and find the entrepreneurial routes around them to successfully affect system change.

Design Thinking
Systems Thinking
Fourth Industrial Revolution