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.