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Is design thinking the key to successful innovation?

July 23, 2008

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Design thinking in innovation, explored by students developing the Massive Change exhibition, 2003

How can we better understand the mysterious process of innovation? At the Beal Institute for Strategic Creativity we believe that the key, capable of unlocking some of innovation’s hidden secrets, is design thinking. In the coming months, we’ll be doing a series of guest posts in which we’ll aim to explain the role of design thinking in innovation, point to some of design’s triumphs, and seek to raise awareness about design’s dependencies and limitations.

Let’s begin by making a distinction between innovation and invention.

Invention is the act of creating an advantageous and unprecedented new device or method, whereas innovation is the process of devising an invention or improvement and successfully fitting it into the market or context of use. The first step in creating an innovative product or service may well be a promising medical, bioscience or technological discovery or invention. However, an invention is essentially an uncharted volcanic island that has no traffic connection with the mainland – its desired market – until it is spotted on radar, drawn into maps, seen to offer something needed or wanted, and made accessible by air, sea or land. Implicit in this metaphor are notions of awareness, opportunity, desire, accessibility and infrastructure that begin to explain the purpose and value of design thinking in achieving innovation.

So what exactly is “design thinking”? Design may be understood as an evaluative, ideational and adaptive process that puts the real needs and wants of users and groups, and thus market demand, at the centre of all creative and organizational effort. If and when we can fashion something that compels attention, attracts interest, sways decisions, and delivers value to the user (including the value of a distinctly rewarding and even delightful experience) — only then can we say we have designed a solution. Design thinking has been defined as a “process for practical, creative resolution of problems or issues that looks for an improved future result.” (Herbert Simon, The Sciences of the Artificial.)

Techniques for developing and testing product and service solutions have become increasingly sophisticated against a backdrop of globalization and increasing technical mastery. Even as production and distribution costs and turnaround times have dropped, tastes and expectations have risen in all the advanced economies, giving rise to a near-deafening call for “innovation” in everything from office furnishings to hair-care products. The answer we propose is to cultivate strategic foresight through design thinking.

The Beal Institute is a think tank dedicated to this pursuit, founded in 2005 at the Ontario College of Art & Design. In our work we develop and apply proprietary methodologies along with more traditional approaches such as market research and ethnographic observation in order to underpin, clarify and sharpen the “fuzzy front end” of innovation through strategic foresight. We use creative and divergent thinking processes balanced by rational analysis and informed critique to reveal and maximize the opportunities present at the intersections of human behavior, technology and organizational capacity.

In future posts we’ll look at examples and case studies, go into more detail about how strategic foresight underpins innovation and introduce our theory of designing for emergence in the era of open systems and participatory co-creation.

Along with Executive Director Lenore Richards and Chief Scientist Bob Logan, I’d like to thank Cathy Bogaart, Linda Quattrin and Ilse Treurnicht for their warm invitation to engage with the MaRS community through these blog posts, our piece in an upcoming newsletter, and workshops planned for the coming season.

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  • http://www.wowgreatidea.com ed bernacki

    It is long overdue for Canada to take on the challenge of design.
    I live overseas for many years and realized that our companies seem unable to create and design consumer goods that sell to the world. I lived in New Zealand for many years and rarely saw a Canadian product in NZ, Australia or any other country I visited.
    One thing we should learn from the Kiwis is how they focus on design – check out http://www.BetterbyDesign.org.nz

Greg Van Alstyne

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Greg Van Alstyne is an Associate Professor at the Ontario College of Art & Design, and Director of Research at the Beal Institute for Strategic Creativity. An experienced creative director and design strategist, he was formerly the inaugural director of the Institute without Boundaries, and founding head of the Department of New Media at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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