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The Role of Design Thinking in Social Enterprise

By Dr. Gor­don Adomdza

It was the morn­ing of July 29, 2013. SEI stu­dents on the South Africa field study were gear­ing up for their “10 Meter View” pre­sen­ta­tions – a “birds eye view” analy­sis of their respec­tive client orga­ni­za­tions, mark­ing the con­clu­sion of an inten­sive ten-day design-driven project. Each team of five stu­dents uti­lized design think­ing to present inno­v­a­tive solu­tions to their clients: a cohort of orga­ni­za­tions work­ing to address some of the tough­est social prob­lems in South Africa.

The design think­ing por­tion of the field stud­ies started three years ago when Pro­fes­sor Den­nis Shaugh­nessy envi­sioned con­clud­ing each pro­gram with a project that allowed the stu­dents to ‘invent’ new solu­tions to the social prob­lems they encoun­tered in the field. We have since col­lab­o­rated on both the field stud­ies with some inter­est­ing out­comes. Notably, in 2012, a team of stu­dents devel­oped a hybrid enter­prise and micro-savings pro­gram for the South African Red Cross Soci­ety to employ HIV/AIDS patients with vary­ing dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties to make prod­ucts for dis­as­ter relief. 


We employ the design-thinking method­ol­ogy for these projects; a way of think­ing that is more focused on the search for inspi­ra­tion in the research process than on hypoth­e­sis test­ing. Design experts describe the con­cept as a com­bi­na­tion of induc­tive and deduc­tive rea­son­ing to cre­ate a fresh approach. Specif­i­cally, abduc­tive think­ing, which focuses on ‘what could be’ is help­ful in sit­u­a­tions where tra­di­tional meth­ods of research are not very useful. 

Design-Thinking in South Africa 

Over the years we have uti­lized two vari­ants of the design process for the spe­cific local con­texts of South Africa and the Domini­can Repub­lic: empathic design in South Africa and par­tic­i­pa­tory design in the Domini­can Repub­lic. Empathic design assumes basic under­stand­ing of the user sit­u­a­tion but requires the team to ‘step into the shoes’ of the user in order to con­struct needs and preferences. 

This year, stu­dent teams pre­sented com­pelling ideas such as a “pay-it-forward” stu­dent engage­ment pro­gram for our part­ner insti­tute, TSiBA, a train­ing and micro-franchise model to engage women to upcy­cle bill­boards into bags, and a plat­form for fos­ter­ing com­mu­nity engage­ment and mit­i­gat­ing the effects of high lead­er­ship turnover in youth-focused urban farm­ing projects.

Design-Thinking in the Domini­can Republic

Another method of design think­ing called the par­tic­i­pa­tory process has proven to be effec­tive in the Domini­can Repub­lic field study when inno­vat­ing for “bateyes” and other impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties such as Mata Los Indios. Com­mu­ni­ties like Mata Los Indios have been ‘trained’ by West­ern phil­an­thropists to respond to groups like ours with the goal of secur­ing short-term cash gifts. As a result, this atti­tude makes it chal­leng­ing for empathic research because it’s never clear what shoes the design team is step­ping into.

The par­tic­i­pa­tory design process is there­fore more effec­tive here because it allows the design team, the tar­get group and other stake­hold­ers to co-create under­stand­ing of the prob­lems faced, co-analyze the poten­tial solu­tions, co-test and val­i­date the solu­tions. One team devel­oped a multi-tiered Rotat­ing Sav­ings and Credit Asso­ci­a­tion (ROSCA) pro­gram to be sup­ported by income gen­er­a­tion from a pro­posed sewing coop­er­a­tive while another built a cow-sharing pro­gram designed to return value through the sale of milk and calves which are passed on to new mem­bers through a lot­tery system.

Out­comes of Stu­dent Projects

The com­mon feed­back we receive from the field study par­tic­i­pants is that the projects pro­vide an oppor­tu­nity to put what they have learned into prac­tice. Our clients also express their sat­is­fac­tion of the student’s work. In fact, each client rep­re­sen­ta­tive expressed inter­est in pur­su­ing the sug­gested solu­tions the stu­dents devel­oped. In the Domini­can Repub­lic, even the final pre­sen­ta­tions pro­vided an oppor­tu­nity to use the co-create method of design-thinking as com­mu­nity mem­bers some­times dis­agreed with cer­tain aspects of the pro­posed models. We look for­ward to learn­ing about the imple­men­ta­tion progress of these orga­ni­za­tions next year. 

The Role of Design-Thinking in Entre­pre­neur­ship and Acad­e­mia 

The design-thinking process pro­vides a new par­a­digm for busi­ness projects as it brings together sys­tems design engi­neer­ing and anthro­pol­ogy to busi­ness prob­lems. In the past few years, it is increas­ingly becom­ing pop­u­lar in lead­ing entre­pre­neur­ship pro­grams such as Bab­son Col­lege, Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, and Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia. The D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness started teach­ing design-thinking courses about five years ago and cur­rently run four ses­sions of 160 stu­dents on cam­pus in addi­tion to two con­cen­trated design pro­grams on SEI field stud­ies each year. In our world of increas­ingly com­plex cir­cum­stances under­ly­ing prob­lems, we as edu­ca­tors have no choice but to equip our stu­dents with skills that can han­dle the com­plex­ity. The title of a recent Wall Street Jour­nal arti­cle “For­get B-School, D-School Is Hot” sug­gests that we are on the right path.