Design can be used for many things, or so designers say. “Design is about more than making things look cool and pretty. You have companies that use design thinking as a way of creating their future,” according to Tim Brown, president of Ideo, a US-based design firm, who is running this workshop that stretches late into Friday evening.

Brown cites several examples to prove his point. Kendall Jackson has used design thinking to create two new wine brands. JP Morgan has used design thinking to connect with its customers and sell them pensions products. Kraft has used design thinking to rework its supply chain. Hospitals are using it to improve their patient care. “Design thinking is an approach to innovation,” he says.

According to the design gospel, it is a way of looking at the world through other people’s eyes: it draws inspiration from empathy. Designers also try to draw lessons from analogous situations. The worlds of Nascar racing and hospital emergency wards might not seem to have too much in common – unless one leads to the other. But one member of the pit crew’s job is to reassure the driver while the engineers are fiddling under his bonnet and to tell him when to go. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone like that standing by your hospital bed? Insights can also come from extreme users: a man with no teeth can tell you a lot about the importance of smiles.

Intriguing, you might think, but what on earth has all this got to do with the World Economic Forum? Well, the participants in this workshop are asked to apply design thinking to a practical problem: design a new company that encourages collaborative and creative thinking and makes its teams work well.

The participants are given a methodology to go about their task. First, they must come up with ideas (Inspiration). Second, they must think of ways of making these ideas tangible (Ideation – a term surely invented by Martin Lukes). Third, they must think of ways of turning these ideas into practice (Experimentation). Videos are shown recording how the employees of a US toy invention studio and a restaurant kitchen work in teams to produce new products and meals. There is also a short film showing children building forts in a wood, illustrating how natural hierarchies form. Inspired by these examples, the participants break out into their groups.

When they reported back there were several innovative ideas for how to build a more collaborative and creative team. One participant suggested a technique of reverse improvisation. The team assumed that an ideal solution was true and then worked back to find out how they got there. “You can flip between improvisation and experimentation very quickly,” it was explained.

A second idea was to create a Wikipedia of ideas within the organisation. Employees would be encouraged to post ideas on a website that could be added to or amended by their colleagues. It could provide a focus for the collective wisdom of the crowd. A similar notion, developed from an idea shown in the toy invention studio, was to build a magnetic ideas wall where employees could post their ideas. This could then be transferred into the digital domain.

Another team suggested working on a totally unrelated idea to create the right brainstorming dynamics before moving on to a more controversial subject closer to home. Building a bridge out of spaghetti was one idea to help develop creation and collaboration.

Brown suggested that one technique to foster creativity was to force teams to devise rapid prototypes. It was vital to build a model – no matter how crude – that could provide the basis for further improvements. “Learn as fast as you can,” he said. Chief executives, however, should make sure to look at these prototypes early in the game to bring their own intuition to bear. Many a company had persevered with a project for far too long without realising that it was a dead duck from the start.

Just before the participants headed out to Davos’s bars, they were left with one sobering thought. There are 4,000 industrial design students in the US. There are 200,000 in China. “It would be interesting to think about how we could unlock that talent over the next few years,” Brown suggested optimistically. That’s design thinking for you.

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