Design Thinking unConference to bring no-holds-barred thinking process to Emily Carr University of Art + Design

Creative problem-solvers and innovators will be gathering at the Design Thinking unConference (DTUC) on August 19-20 at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design on Granville Island.

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While the issue is still hotly debated, Forth said that design thinking isn’t just a niche interest for design industry professionals, but an essential skill from which people on all levels of society can benefit.

“All of us shape our built environment,” he said. “Many of us take the built environment (our designed world) as if it is a given, not realizing how much of it is the result of human choice and historical accident, and how much of it can be changed.”

Judi Piggott, a co-organizer of DTUC, asserts that she is not a part of the “traditional” design community. But as indicated by the name she’s given her business, Synergy by Design, Piggott sees that design thinking is applicable in any field that requires innovative problem solving. Or, rather, "generative solution-finding," as she put it.

“People working in social change may not label themselves design thinkers,” she said. “But when you explain what it is, they say, oh that's what I do. That’s why I was immediately drawn to the Design Thinking group on Linkedin. It was the Thinking part of the concept that made the connection with me.”

Although it can be intimidating to read through the Linkedin discussions and see people debating about “design kata” and “model-based thinking,” the basic aim of design, according to Piggott, is fairly clear.

“Design happens when creativity meets constraint (I think I’m paraphrasing Clay Shirky here),” she said. “You can have all kinds of creativity going on, but it is the challenge of meeting serious constraints that requires the designing mindset. It’s the process that was used to save the lives of Apollo 13 astronauts, by prototyping on Earth with only the materials available on the spacecraft.”

“Creative ideas can’t succeed if you don't have resources, but design thinkers tend to see resources where others don’t. Perhaps this is the greatest identifier of design thinkers: we tend to see limitations as challenges and in some way this offers hope, where that may be in short supply, particularly with longstanding problems or entrenched issues.”

As a concrete example, she pointed to the WaterWheel, a simple, low-cost solution which allows women and children in developing countries to push up to 90 litres of water in a rolling container, rather than making multiple trips, carrying heavy jugs on their heads.

Design Thinking, she said, was the thinking process of coming up with innovative solutions for challenges like this. Design thinking is what enables us to accommodate pre-existing constraints such as the number of lanes needed for x amount of cars in Vancouver, and still provide alternatives that fit with changing needs. 

The high rate of poverty and addiction in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, according to Trevor Boddy, is a direct result of the concentration of bars and social housing projects in that one area of the city. If design played a large part of the problem, it could be by design changes that the community can begin to heal.

Bike lanes photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As an example of recent design changes that could impact the city, Forth points to separated bike lanes: how do they affect peoples' experience of a city? Should Vancouver continue to build separated bike lanes like Amsterdam, or follow the model of Copenhagen, where pedestrians, cars and bikes are all share the same road? Is it possible to mix the two in the same city? Without judging one solution to be better than the other, Forth suggested that people should be more engaged in exploring the options for design decisions that would impact their city’s future.

Customization, local production and Local Motors

Whether we realize it or not, Forth argues, design thinking is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century. After an age in which people defined themselves by consumption, he said, people are on the cusp of entering one in which they define themselves through social networks and by how they engage in design.

Signs of this shift are subtle, yet everywhere. He pointed to the increasing shift toward customization and local production, led by companies such as Local Motors, an Arizona-based company which allows users to design their own cars, built in the U.S. The cars not only more environmentally friendly, being built in regional microfactories, but also put the power of designing into the hands of people who use the products.

“We need to make much more control over the design of our built environment but we can't do that, unless we talk about it. We need a language that we share,” he said.

For Forth and for many of the design thinkers around the world, sustainability will be a key focus of using design thinking to change and affect the built environment.

“We need to find modes of economic growth that does not require vase increase usage of resources,” he said. “Our future economy depends on it.”

The Design Thinking unConference in Vancouver will take place on August 19-20 at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design on Granville Island.

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