Design Thinking Tackles A Wicked Problem

More than 4 million premature or low-weight babies die each year, primarily from hypothermia when body temperature drops below a critical mark. High-tech incubators help babies in the critical phase after birth, permanently supervising their physical state. However, these devices are costly at around US$ 20.000 per device – too much for hospitals in developing nations.

To help the most vulnerable of our population, the medical industry tried to come up with a solution for a long time. Researchers tried to simplify the system, managers tried to negotiate lower prices for components – but ultimately failed to design a solution. To respond to this wicked problem, the research community around Stanford University kicked off a Design Thinking project.

Designing for the most vulnerable

Bringing together experts from diverse fields such as health care, mechanical engineering, chemistry, business and arts; the project team started by gaining empathy for the unique lives of newborns. Through speaking with parents, doctors, and observations in a broad set of hospitals, the Design Thinking experts identified the core human needs of newborns.

When these needs were linked to the “Why do these needs exist?”, a so-called point of view was defined. This problem statement was to be solved by a product, such as “New born babies need to be in a secure and caring environment with stable and warm temperatures, at an affordable price”.

How Design Thinking Helps To Engineer Products The World Really NeedsWith this understanding, experts started the creative process to come up with analogies and ideas like sleeping bags and ultimately began prototyping. After multiple tests the result is impressive: a low-cost baby incubator for only US$ 100 – a stunning 0.5% of the price of full-sized baby incubators. Today, the idea has grown to a product marketed by the startup Embrace. Make sure to have a look at their amazing story.

Love your users and get rid of the idea “I know how it works!”

You may pose the question what this example has in common with other disruptive innovations such as Apple iPod, Amazon Kindle, Cloud Computing and Wikipedia. What gives these innovations the power to change the way we have handled things for years, if not decades? They’re all having one, admittedly simple, thing in common: designers gained empathy for users by putting the desires, wishes, habits and needs of humans at the center. Interdisciplinary teams trying to see the world through the eyes of a child are ultimately more successful than teams doing what you may often hear in the office space: Our competitor brought XY to the market – we need a XY too!” or “Guys, we have this technology – what can we use it for?”.

How large corporations can escape organizational silos and creative barriers

The first important step is to open up your mind and try to define the scope of what you want to do in a very wide way. If you define your problem too narrow, you may end up with things that only sustain today’s business – instead of becoming a game changer. SAP is tackling this with the SAP InnoJam, where challenges as “Redesign the meat consumption experience in order to foster conscious consumption of meat” are posed. This March interdisciplinary teams of students only had 36 hours from first facing the challenge to designing a working prototype responding to this problem at University InnoJam in Hanover. Have a look at the results – they’re impressive.

As you can see, Design Thinking is a technique for everyone and any problem – be it managerial, strategic or in the area of products or services. By gaining empathy for humans, learning to walk in the shoes of your user and keeping an open, creative mind, you can make a difference.

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