Applying design thinking in social innovation and entrepreneurship

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I was first introduced to the concept of design thinking through a friend who’s fond of saying, “bad design!” to practically anything he sees as having an actual, bad design. For instance, something as simple as the oddly small sidewalks along certain streets in Metro Manila have a bad design, primarily because people have to squeeze through these sidewalks. These people also run the risk of getting hit by vehicles when they step beyond the sidewalk. A better design would be not just bigger sidewalks, but sidewalks that are designed by taking into consideration the safety and perspective of the people who will actually cross there. In a broader perspective, however, what is design thinking?

In an article by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt at the Stanford Social Innovation Review, they state that design thinking as an approach involves “capacities that we all have, but that are overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices.” The traditional design approach to business, for instance, has usually been on enhancing the look and functionality of products. Design thinking, however, goes beyond the façade of looks and functionalities, and places a heavy emphasis on creating products and services that are human-centered and solve a particular problem faced by people. The entire process itself integrates various human elements and cultural aspects.

Simply put, what design thinking aims to tackle are what one may call institutional voids or systemic problems that have been plaguing society for many years. Be it in the inadequacies of the Philippine government, our healthcare system, mass transportation system, and agricultural productivity, among others, design thinking can bring out new and innovative solutions. However, design thinking is obviously not easy as it involves a continuous articulation of the issue at hand and finding creative means to address that issue.

Moreover, the caveat is that not every individual or organization would immediately subscribe to the notion behind design thinking, as this typically involves veering away from traditional and well-established mechanisms. Like any radical or innovative change, however, a pinch of resistance is usually expected.

The compressed idea behind design thinking involves three aspects: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. This does not necessarily mean you have to undergo it sequentially, because these three aspects are treated more as a system with overlapping effects and interrelations.

In doing business, how do these three aspects come into play? Let’s take a look at one particular trend in the country that is slowly gaining traction: social entrepreneurship. In fact, in an October 2017 study by the British Council Philippines, there is estimated to be now over 164,473 social enterprises in the country.

The most common form of social innovation in the Philippines involve social enterprises that tackle marginalized groups or communities. For instance, Karabella Dairy, a social enterprise that produces dairy products from carabao milk, partners with carabao farmers in Bulacan and also has goals of scaling up its business. Another social enterprise, ANTHILL Fabric Gallery, partners with local indigenous communities across Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao to create beautifully handwoven products including fabrics, accessories, handbags, and dolls, among others. My last example is MAD Travel, a social tourism platform which offers travel packages that involve meaningful experiences with marginalized communities in the Philippines.

In these examples, design thinking comes into play with the fact that these are not just products or services created for the satisfaction of the consumers, but are also created to support marginalized groups by partnering and working with them. This is where the human-centered element of design thinking comes in. The inspiration involves the marginalized communities and their struggles, the ideation focuses on finding out creative means to help them through employment, and the implementation stage tackles the concrete steps that will be taken. Design thinking even goes beyond the usual operations of the business itself, and zooms further into how empathizing with stakeholders can bring about certain issues, and with it, simple and innovative solutions.

In a nutshell, what these social enterprises and many others in the Philippines are attempting to change is the systemic problem of employment and empowerment among rural communities. Design thinking has been applied for quite some time now, and as it is slowly gaining popularity in the country, the more we should take advantage of it to solve our societal ills.


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