Apart from being key to innovation in technology and business, design thinking is probably the most powerful when driving social innovation. It is naturally suited to solving social problems because the user here needs real help and has every reason to adopt a well- designed solution. More importantly, it is difficult to solve social problems using conventional methods because these require lot of money, effort and navigation of complex ecosystems. Nonprofit organizations have started using DT extensively because it often leads to cheaper and simpler solutions.
Here are a few examples of successful application of design thinking to social problems:
1. In 1990, 65% of Vietnamese children suffered from malnourishment. When Jerry Sternin, founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative, and his wife Monique arrived there, they found that children whose parents (“positive deviants”) fed them readily available shrimps, crabs, and snails from their rice paddies along with sweet potato greens, were adequately nourished. They invited the positive deviants to offer cooking classes to the parents of malnourished children and had an 80% rate of success within a year of administering their program in the group of 1000 children they treated.
2. When IDEO designers worked with VisionSpring, a low-cost eye care provider in India, they realized that children who otherwise refused to cooperate, complied with eye testing when they could play doctor and patient and test each other. This strategy helped VisionSpring successfully conduct 10 eye camps and screen 3,000 children by September 2009.
3. Mobisol is a highly successful startup which has received many awards including the UN Momentum for Change Award. It’s goal was to provide clean energy to households living off the electric grid in sub-Saharan Africa. After extensive use of DT, they developed solar panels which were big enough not just for lighting, but for bigger appliances like radio and TV, and chose an unconventional rent-to- payment model. Their unique approach revolutionized the energy sector in rural sub-Saharan Africa. In my opinion, DT should be made the standard problem-solving tool in all sectors. In fact, it is a skill that should even be taught to college students.