— By Vikash Singh (Acara Corps Fellow)

Design Thinking

Technology Transfer is an idea which keeps culminating in the minds of the champions of ‘Sustainable Business Development’ (SBD). Climate Change discussions are filled with ideas for technology transfer and are discussed as potential solution to SBD.

From decades of attempts at building sustainable development, one can be only so sure that technology transfer is, at best, a mixed blessing. Too often it is based on an old idea that has not yet been retired as it should have – that technology is good and will bring economic growth and development and that technology is transferable. But technology is not always transferable. And that includes ‘renewable energy technology’, a favorite among Sustainable development folks.

Let’s take the example of cooking stoves. Rural communities in India chop down trees (or gather dead wood if it’s available) for fuel to cook food, especially those for whom other cooking energy sources are too expensive. This contributes to deforestation and, when the cooking is done indoors, it can increase respiratory illness. Not a great situation for people or planet. For the past decade, there have been various attempts to change this pattern to enhance sustainable development. They have been successful but not to the required extent.

Most of these ‘technological fixes’ have come from the West, designed in American or Dutch laboratories and then taken down to Third World Countries. There are problems of uptake, problems of usefulness, of familiarity, and of countless little things those who designed these new stoves didn’t think of. People prefer the taste of food made with fire. The new designs (there have been several of them) break easily, or take more time, or are not suited to other aspects of the culture.

So what does work? One really had to get to the heart of sustainable development. Technology should not be designed far away and then assumed to work. It needs to be designed with the local people as much as possible. The answer somewhat lies in Design Thinking- Simply put as a set of principles, from mindset to process, that can be applied to solve complex problems.

As IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown begins to frame this within the opening pages of his book Change By Design:
What we need are new choices – new products that balance the needs of individuals and of society as a whole; new ideas that tackle the global challenges of health, poverty, and education; new strategies that results in differences that matter and a sense of purpose that engages everyone affected by them.”

The outcome of the application of Design Thinking to create Design Models, to create actual solutions for a social cause, is not been explored much. Being in a country like India, where there is a certain amount of Social Innovation happening at the Base of the Pyramid, we stand a good chance to see the applicability of Design Thinking and its measure its success.

Design Thinking however need not be culminating in Social Innovations in the form of products only. The outcome could be an interface, it could be a service that is designed, it could be a model etc. Because Design Thinking itself tends to see its application in different areas, the outcomes vary.