Bob Fisher, Editor-at-Large, DesignIntelligence

Design Thinking Goes Viral

by Scott Simpson
Senior Fellow, DesignIntelligence

What do Black Swans and viruses have to do with design?

The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus is a true “black swan” event. It was entirely unexpected, there is no effective treatment or cure yet, and nobody knows what will happen next. But we do know this: while eventually things will settle down to some semblance of normalcy, our lives going forward will never be quite the same.

There is no shortage of expert opinion about what could or should be done. We’ve heard from the usual suspects: physicians, economists, and politicians, etc., some of whom offer conflicting opinions. The stock market has tanked; schools, restaurants, and businesses are closed; sports stadiums are empty; and some store shelves are bare. The prospect of massive unemployment, at least in the near term, looms large. While all this gets sorted out, the biggest enemy is uncertainty.

Here’s the good news: this is the ideal time for design thinking. After all, design thinking thrives on uncertainty. It’s when we don’t know what we don’t know that the creative juices get flowing. For designers, thinking outside the box and going beyond conventional constraints is what powers innovation. It’s how we discover new ideas and methods that will lead us in surprisingly productive directions.

The short-term focus is relatively straightforward: find ways to stop the rapid spread of the virus, treat those who fall ill, and figure out how to prevent similar outbreaks in the future. Once that’s done, attention can be turned to the longer-term effects. Much of the burden for short term results will fall on healthcare and biotech industries professionals, who are best equipped by expertise and experience to deal with the underlying medical issues. This will also require the active support of business and political leaders as well as the public. There are plenty of ways for design thinkers to help.

Design thinking starts with questions rather than answers. It goes both deep and broad. It consciously crosses standard boundaries into uncharted territory. It overlooks assumptions. Very often, it works backwards: imagining the most ideal outcomes and then swimming upstream to the source. Design thinking often combines ideas that appear to be polar opposites in new and unusual ways. That’s where the good ideas tend to hang out.

So for starters, how can we keep people both separated and connected at the same time? How can people not go to work and yet still earn a living? How can schools be closed while still providing a good education? How can businesses thrive when they have no customers? How can we go places without traveling? How can we make sure that public spaces are actually the safest places to be? How can we see that sick people get the care they need without going to doctors or hospitals? What are the hidden benefits of social distancing and working from home? Design thinking believes that there are real answers to all these questions, and more.

Pragmatic & Practical

To be effective, design thinking must also be pragmatic and practical as well as idealistic. It must propose solutions that are both implementable and demonstrably better than the status quo. For this, design thinking depends on data as much as it does on imagination. Data is the best way to combat the biggest obstacle, which is fear of the unknown. The current data suggest that a certain segment of the population is particularly vulnerable: the elderly with underlying medical conditions. Fortunately, for most people, the danger is statistically small, and many infected persons may actually experience few ill effects. Learning why some people stay healthy while others fall sick will provide important clues about what to do.

The longer-term implications are intriguing. As with any crisis, difficulty breeds opportunity. In 2008, when the economy was in near-collapse, businesses were forced to learn some hard lessons about how to stay competitive under radically different circumstances. They learned how to do more with less by restructuring operations, investing in technology, and shedding non-essential staff. In a surprisingly short time, things rebounded, sparking the longest-running economic expansion in history. Trillions of dollars of new value was created, shrinking the unemployment rate to historic lows. Such an outcome would have been unimaginable in 2008, but it did happen.

Design Thinking and Crisis Management

And what of the current crisis? Thinking backwards, what needs to be done today so that six months or a year from now we can say we made the right moves? Which conventional practices, now suddenly outmoded or ineffective, should be discarded in favor of new and different ways of doing things? As a bonus, how can the lessons learned be applied to other kinds of seemingly unrelated problems going forward, such as income inequality or global warming? How do we make lemonade out of lemons? Design thinking is the key.

Some fundamental changes are easy to imagine. If people can work effectively from home (at least part of the time) then the demand for conventional office space is likely to change, the time & cost of commuting will go down, traffic and parking congestion will ease, and there would likely be a spike in the demand for remote conferencing technologies, opening up new opportunities for telecommunications firms. As schools become more adept at delivering quality instruction online, the education industry, which today operates primarily on a nine-month schedule from September to May, could conceivably evolve to a twelve-month business model, making its products and services more widely available at lower cost. Automated factories already operate at higher capacity with fewer personnel, and this trend is likely to accelerate. A factory that can run with little or no live staff can produce goods on a 24/7 basis, immune from the biological threats that are posed by pandemics. Autonomous trucks could deliver goods more efficiently, programmed to eliminate traffic accidents and to use highways and city streets during off-peak times, thus reducing both travel time and congestion, not to mention fuel cost. And so forth. The implications for design thinking are huge. Here are a few quick ideas:

1. Design ventilation systems for airplanes that eliminate the virus.

2. Design extra-large mailboxes that can handle bigger deliveries (food, cleaning supplies, etc.).

3. Design doorknobs and gas pumps with built-in hand sanitizers.

4. Mobilize food trucks to provide widespread delivery of meals-on-wheels.

5. Broadcast educational programs for K-12 students to supplement home schooling.

6. Open stores 24/7 but limit the number of customers who can shop at any given time.

7. Invent a toothpaste that kills the virus on contact.

8. Design a walk-through screener for airports that identifies potentially infected people.

9. Use large parking lots at shopping centers to set up automated curbside pickup.

10. Broadcast “virtual vacations” that can be enjoyed from home.

The bigger and more important questions have to do with sociology rather than technology. Human beings are wired to be social animals. How will the “new normal” affect relationships in families, communities, companies, cities and even nations? How can we design systems and physical spaces that promote a genuine sense of intimacy without actual physical contact? What is it about the current crisis that will bring people together, operating in common purpose, rather than driving them apart? How can diverse individual interests, which may appear to be at cross purposes or even diametrically opposed, be woven together so that the body politic is strengthened rather than weakened? Some means and methods (such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram) already exist, but they are far from ideal virtual communities. The upside potential is huge.

If we can design therapeutics to cure biological ills, why not apply design thinking to tackle critical social issues as well? That may be the most intriguing question of all.

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