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March 4, 2013 12:06 am

Australia must embrace design thinking

The country needs to adopt this topic if it wishes to produce the innovators of the future

Design thinking – a creative approach to solving problems – is top of the agenda at many leading global organisations. Such organisations view design thinking as an innovative tool that will help them evolve because it allows them to adopt a different approach to solving old and new management and market challenges.

Globally there is a small but growing number of universities and business schools that offer courses on design thinking. Places are limited and demand is high. At the forefront of this movement are institutions such as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University in the US, the HPI school of Design Thinking at Potsdam University in Germany, the Rotman School of Management in Canada and the Design Factory at Aalto University in Finland.

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In Australia, however, business and education institutions appear to be much slower to appreciate and adopt design thinking and are well behind the rest of the world.

Designers, by the very nature of their professional practice, solve complex problems. This involves in-depth analysis of many factors and a consideration of the options that could be adopted to resolve such problems. It is solution-focused and action-oriented. Design thinking draws on this process and is applied more broadly in the context of business, by people who are not necessarily designers.

As more organisations uncover the benefits of applying design thinking to all kinds of strategic and operational complexities, they seek employees and external consultants familiar with the technique. It is up to the education system, and particularly business schools, to produce graduates with the necessary skills to meet a growing demand.

A recent study* undertaken at Macquarie Graduate School of Management explored the opportunities for design thinking and the barriers to its adoption in Australia. The results demonstrate that businesses in the country are often unaware of how design thinking can help with innovation. The study also revealed that even when businesses are aware of the potential benefits of design thinking, they struggle to recruit appropriately skilled staff in Australia.

As a result, forward-thinking Australian companies find themselves hiring senior “design thinking professionals” from overseas to obtain the skills and experience they require. The lack of expertise in Australia not only threatens the country’s ability to compete globally in design thinking, but also sends a strong signal to Australian business educators to pick up the loose ends. Notable initiatives of business schools in Australia, such as the u.labprogram at the University of Technology Sydney, demonstrate how the country’s business students can learn and apply the skills that are in high demand

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As business education internationally integrates design thinking into curriculums and begins to deliver skilled graduates, Australian schools and business will find themselves falling behind. Proponents of business education in Australia need to embrace and promote design thinking in their curriculums quickly if they wish to educate the innovators of the future.

Now is a good time for educational institutions in Australia and internationally to investigate design thinking’s place in contemporary business management education and MBA programmes. Furthermore, design thinking can and should be used to innovate the very education that is being created for students. This includes rethinking course delivery, curriculum development, the design of classrooms and feedback systems – all in the pursuit of innovative education.

Business schools that dare to integrate and apply design thinking principles in this way do so in the interest of their students, business and on a grander scale the economies of their countries.

For design thinking to gain momentum in Australia it needs to be promoted at government level, at design industry level, at business level and in the education sector.

Business schools have the opportunity to lead this approach by providing the platform, forum and model for successful implementation. It is going to be a long road to change the mentality of most educators, so no time should be wasted.

*Design Thinking: Exploring Opportunities for the Design Industry and Business in Australia.

Dr Lars Groeger is a lecturer in management and Leanne Sobel is a graduate at the Macquarie Graduate School of Management

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