Launch of a School for Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town introduces a new way of problem solving and solution finding for business and government.
The Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town Max Price was on stage playing around with Lego blocks, pipe cleaners and Post-it sticky notes with Kenyan professor of design Mugendi M’Rithaa and Kristina Plattner, daughter of German software billionaire Hasso Plattner.
This was the launch of Africa’s first Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town, (UCT) the top ranked university in Africa.
Based at UCT’s Breakwater campus and officially launched at a function held at the UCT Graduate School of Business on Thursday night 9 March 2017, the new school, also known as the d-school, is pioneering a new approach to creative problem solving in South Africa.
The approach, known as “Design Thinking”, has its roots in industrial design and was originally established as an education programme at Stanford University. Design thinking is a human-centred approach to developing solutions because it ensures problem solving and solution finding focuses on people who are the end users. At its core are multidisciplinary teams working together highly collaboratively in a six-step process that d-school programme manager, Dr. Keneilwe Munyai, described as understand, observe, acknowledge user point of view, ideation, prototyping and testing.
Culture, innovation and strategy are key elements of Design Thinking, which builds confidence. Nevertheless, teams embrace failure as part of the learning process, said the director of UCT’s d-school, Richard Perez. The idea is to fail early, learn quickly from mistakes and move on. This is integral to the iterative process, which is central to Design Thinking.
Using the Design Thinking approach, teams are encouraged to work with visual aids and be more tactile in their approach when imagining solutions for all manner of social and business problems. This is where the use of Lego comes in. The development of tactile models in the design phase is vital for right brain stimulation, which of course encourages creative thinking. These prototypes are vital for testing assumptions early with users.
Price, talked about how the d-school came to be launched in Cape Town. Price was exposed to Design Thinking at Stanford University when he was part of a group of leaders from global universities who had come together to talk about trends in higher education. The question they grappled with was, “What will people be doing in their jobs 20-30 years from now?” Price admitted that UCT is generally a “conservative institution”. But he saw the value of bringing Design Thinking to UCT to address the needs of the future. Upon his return to South Africa, Price set off for George where Hasso Plattner the German businessman and co-founder of SAP SE software company, also has a residence, to ask him to sponsor a school at UCT. The rest, as they say, is history.
UCT’s d-school is one of only three Hasso Plattner Institute (HPI) schools of design globally. It is the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere. Its forerunners are based at Stanford University and Potsdam, Germany.
Professor Ulrich Weinberg, founding director of the HPI School of Design in Potsdam Germany who visited South Africa for Cape Town launch, explained why Design Thinking is so important in today’s world. For Weinberg, Design Thinking offers a paradigm shift in the way problems can be approached. He argued that whilst information technology has created a networked global society, human culture has not caught up with the direction that new technologies are pushing us in. So whilst new technologies demand greater collaboration, humans continue to be competitive. But Design Thinking dismantles this behavioural trait by fostering greater collaboration.
This is why “empathy” is a core value of Design Thinking. It prioritises an appreciation of different perspectives, taking time to learn from others as well as understand them. This feeds directly into the prerequisite for working in multidisciplinary teams, which was strongly in evidence in the first two cohorts that successfully registered for the 12-week programme offered by the d-school in Cape Town. Students, who must be post-graduates, came from backgrounds as diverse as Mechanical Engineering, Film and Media Studies, Speech and Drama, Medical Microbiology, International Law, Environmental and Geographical Sciences, Business Administration and more.
Such diversity is bound to result in extremely innovative responses, as evidenced by one of the cases the teams had to deal with. The d-school was approached by one of South Africa’s major banks grappling with how to make credit available to underprivileged individuals with poor credit profiles living in areas, such as townships, that have been historically red-lined by the banks. One of the teams responded extremely inventively by proposing stronger links between one’s social profile and one’s financial profile. This would essentially allow the bank to identify people who have a good standing in their community.
Design Thinking is certainly something that the South African government is taking seriously. Two government ministers attended the d-school launch. Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor and Minister of Economic Development Ebrahim Patel, both responded very positively to the innovative programme launched by UCT.
Minister Pandor was very complimentary about the multidisciplinary aspect of Design Thinking. What appealed to her was that it forced people out of their individual silos into more collaborative spaces. She felt that Design Thinking could be employed successfully to government programmes, such as Operation Phakisa (Sesotho for “hurry up”), which is a results-driven, multidisciplinary approach embraced by government to speed up the achievement of government targets.
The minister of Science and Technology was extremely prescient in her appreciation of Design Thinking. In her estimation, “Design Thinking is well positioned to give us the tools to re-imagine the future.”