Four scenarios that show us the future of design thinking

designer writing on glass with marker

I’ve been thinking about the future of design thinking. I’m not much into predicting, but I am into scenario planning, identifying multiple possible futures and starting with big “What if…?” questions.

I first learned about design thinking 15 years ago. At the time I felt like I had found the lid to my pot. “Finally,” I thought, “a more integrative approach!” Design thinking is 50 percent qualitative research and 50 percent application of design principles like prototyping, visualizing data, lateral thinking, and story.

It is a problem-solving process that starts first with empathy. It assumes that if we begin with a laser focus on the people who consume our products and services, then we will ultimately be more profitable, efficient, and productive. Plus, our employees and customers will be a lot happier.

Today, design thinking has become a commodity. More companies have innovation centers where design thinking is an embedded, if not overt, methodology. Most of the traditional management consultancies have incorporated design thinking after they realized they needed more than a SWOT analysis to build strategy. There are more companies offering certifications in design thinking. And some people even believe they are proficient after having taken a couple of workshops. 

That last assumption is both the gift and the curse of design thinking. As someone who built an entire executive MBA program grounded in design thinking, I shudder at such shortcuts. Design thinking requires time on task, reflection and can ultimately contribute great value to the company. It is deceptively simple because it is so intuitive. But its complexity comes in figuring out which tools and frameworks to use for which contexts — and how to scale them.   

In the September-October 2018 issue of Harvard Business Review, Jeanne Liedtka outlined the business case for design thinking. Liedtka is a strategist and business professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. She calls design thinking a “social technology”. This is a spot-on description because ideally, design thinking is a tool that will help us bridge what’s human and what’s digital in the future of work. Liedtka sees design thinking as a structured intervention for businesses to balance customer needs along with business deliverables such as lower costs and dynamic solutions. 

As augmented reality expert Galit Ariel likes to say, in this current Fourth Industrial Revolution where technology is ubiquitous, the opportunity is to amplify what it means to be uniquely human. And design thinking can do that. 

Here are four possible scenarios that illustrate where design thinking could land in 10 years.

young man writing on glass with marker

1 Design thinking for days
In this scenario, design thinking has taken off in the most mainstream of businesses, in government, health care, and finance.  All public schools require that first graders learn design thinking alongside the alphabet. Given the increasing uncertainty that people must navigate, a non-linear process is welcomed. 

Ryan Baum, Principal at Jump Associates hopes that design thinking tools will help leaders focus on the right questions. But he forewarns that design thinking, 

… loses a lot of potential when it is confined to a group that is using it as a process or method to complete tasks. Design thinking becomes far more valuable to organizations when it is used as a tool to help leaders frame the right questions to ask of their people.  That way, the whole organization gets focused on solving the right problems. A single leader who is more effective at focusing people on the right questions, can help unleash the collective potential of an entire company.

We see companies like Independence Blue Cross, Fidelity Bank, FedEx and IBM heading in this direction. IBM has an entire cohort of designers, design researchers and social scientists who make up their Enterprise Design Thinking. Their job is to integrate design thinking into the work of IBM employees to ensure a client-centric approach. And they share: free online courses, materials and activities are available to the public on their website.

2 Scarcity mindset abounds
Due to economic collapse, a pandemic, and a scarcity mindset among leaders, design thinking is considered a luxury in this scenario. People err on the side of efficiency and pragmatism. But in the process, they lose sight of the human element in business and in governing. Design thinking becomes an afterthought.

This COVID-19 epoch is a living case study of this scenario. Many businesses are digging their fingernails into what they deem practical. They are in triage mode. But they forsake also making time to pause and identify opportunities for reinvention. The thing is, reinvention is not a luxury. It is exactly what needs to happen- and often happens by default- when crisis hits. However, if design thinking is not institutionalized into a process, then companies risk myopia. They won’t be able to zoom out and see new opportunities. This happens when applying design thinking because of its insistence on making big bets with “What if…?” thinking.

3 Trust the process… and play!
Legacy institutions are diminished. The education system as we know it has completely collapsed. Traditional educational institutions as we knew them have either become decentralized or dismantled. As a result, people take advantage of all sorts of cool AR and VR platforms and engage in lifelong learning. Design thinking certification takes off. Traditional institutions as we knew them have either become decentralized or dismantled. People have fallen in love with the process, not the solution. 

We are seeing hints of this in offerings such as Seth Godin’s AltMBA and the viral adoption of Masterclass.

More interestingly, gamification will be a leading dimension in design thinking. As Valerie Jacobs, Chief Growth Officer at LPK reminds me, “The digital natives are all growing up gaming and our processes have yet to reflect the skills, rules and immersion of gaming.” Additionally,  futurist Bob Johannsen refers to this future trajectory as “gameful engagement” where there will be an embrace of more test and learn experimentation. Play will no longer be reserved for the cool kid companies in Silicon Valley. Because play cultivates executive leadership skills like collaboration, negotiation and envisioning, it will come to the forefront in this scenario.

4 Nimble visionaries
In this final scenario, design thinking has morphed and transformed into foresight practice and strategy through XR (extended reality). We will no longer even use the words “design thinking” because it becomes the behind-the-scenes implementer of foresight. Still, principles like lateral thinking and continue to be used as people engage much more regularly with the practice of foresight.  Keep in mind that foresight is not about predicting a singular future. It is about identifying multiple, possible, future scenarios.

Related to this scenario, Valerie Jacobs envisions the future world: 

Design thinking will be far more immersive and vivid; literally solving problems in simulations of real contexts and inviting others in with you. We won’t be sketching and using low fidelity prototypes to communicate a “concept,” but using alternate realities to build and experience high fidelity solutions in real time.

But principles like lateral thinking and prototyping are used all the time as people engage much more regularly with the practice of foresight.

The future of design thinking is a masked one. I lean toward a combination of the “Trust the Process… and Play!” scenario combined with the “Nimble Visionaries” scenario. Our environment is becoming more uncertain and chaotic, I’m thinking of the trio of pandemics that are COVID19, systemic racism, and climate change. We will need to embrace all tools that help us be more discerning and attuned to people’s needs.

About Futurithmic

It is our mission to explore the implications of emerging technologies, seeking answers to next-level questions about how they will affect society, business, politics and the environment of tomorrow.

We aim to inform and inspire through thoughtful research, responsible reporting, and clear, unbiased writing, and to create a platform for a diverse group of innovators to bring multiple perspectives.

Futurithmic is building the media that connects the conversation.

You might also enjoy
a teen wearing VR goggles while sitting on stairs outside
Can immersive technology help us create a less biased reality?