DESIGN

Focus on design thinking

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The annual UCT GSB Conference on the Business of Social and Environmental Innovation will focus on how design thinking – a process of creating new and innovative ideas to solve problems – can provide answers to complex social, economic and organisational issues.

Africa’s top business school, the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB), will this year focus its annual flagship conference – the Conference on the Business of Social and Environmental Innovation (BSEI) – on design thinking in an attempt to help find solutions to the most challenging problems facing the continent.

“This conference is important because we are beginning to really question fundamental assumptions engrained in institution processes that drive delivery to affect social and economic conditions,” says UCT GSB Professor, Kosheek Sewchurran, conference chairperson and a design thinking expert.

“The BSEI conference series sets out to create a better understanding of the role of business and research in solving societal challenges – like health, hunger and unemployment - by generating social and environmental innovation, especially from an African perspective.

“As Cape Town is the 2014 World Design Capital, it made sense to align the conference – with its focus on innovative thought processes – with the methodology of design thinking. In essence, this means to encourage greater consultation with end users and consumers, involving them in the creation of services and products they will be using and allowing for lots of testing and experiencing before implementing any new systems or ideas,” says Sewchurran.

Key speakers include Richard Perez, Programme Director for World Design Capital at the City of Cape Town and Nonhlanhla Mkhize, Chief Director: Innovation for Inclusive Development at the Department of Science and Technology, whose current role in government focuses on ensuring that innovation contributes to inclusive development.

“Design thinking may sound abstract but it’s not sitting in a chair thinking of solving problems. It is actually doing something, helping you to come up with ideas, prototype them, test and reflect on them,” says Perez, who has seen design thinking at work in the City of Cape Town.

The World Design Capital initiative within the City of Cape Town administration has identified a sample of 76 design-led projects and programmes aimed at uplifting and improving conditions for citizens of Cape Town. Some of these have included upgrades to healthcare clinics, new parks for urban areas, youth skills development programmes and improvements to traffic and transport dilemmas.

Professor Sewchurran explains that South Africa and the African continent, as well as the rest of the world, are experiencing persistent and increasingly urgent economic, social and environmental challenges, which call for corporate and organisational innovation.

“This kind of organisational innovation often leads to tension, for example between new business models versus exploiting traditional approaches. That is why this year’s conference theme puts particular emphasis on ‘Design thinking to balance stability and change in organisational innovation’ and will provide business people and individuals in the private or public sectors, NGOs or big corporations with new ways and fresh ideas to implement innovation at structural levels.”

Expert opinions will also be shared by Dr Lindi van Niekerk on healthcare innovation and Dr Francois Bonnici on innovative finance mechanisms. Both Van Niekerk and Bonnici work with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, a UCT GSB think tank dedicated to research, teaching, dialogue and support of positive social innovations.

After the conference there will also be a series of master classes available for anyone who has finished a Masters of Business Administration (MBA) or Executive MBA at the UCT GSB or at another business school, developing on the ideas presented at the conference.

Perez says design thinking provides a framework and process structure, which ensures greater success and more effective implementation as there is more engagement with end users. “Really at the end of the day, the focus on design-led thinking as a methodology should be seen as a tool; a technique to help people think like designers around the challenges they are facing – whether in the private or public sector, within budgets or existing systems.”

“It is also about allowing for the solution to emerge, rather than defining a solution upfront. Design thinking includes a co-creation process, which can be used to imagine and create almost anything. That makes it quite powerful.”

Anyone interested in attending the Business of Social and Environmental Innovation 2014 conference on 23-24 October may contact the UCT GSB on BSEI@gsb.uct.ac.za.

Niémah Davids

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