strategic design & innovation

Evolving Design Thinking for Sustainability and Equitability

design insight shared value & ecosystems value creation

The great success of design thinking has been to instil, in corporate innovation teams and entrepreneurial start-ups alike, the need to consider the triumvirate of Desirability, Feasibility and Viability.

Established businesses are prone to focusing primarily on viability, requiring lengthy business cases that indicate the potential for a new product, service or venture to generate a profit, accompanied by feasibility studies that outline how that product or service can be created, ideally using resources and technologies either resident within the organisation, or acquired from or through partnering with others.

Start-ups can be prone to focusing on the feasibility of a new product or service that an emerging new technology might confer, but are prone to failing to evaluate whether their envisaged new proposition is sufficiently desirable to drive customer adoption at a scale and profitability to make it viable.

Given the extraordinarily high failure rate of new products and services in either setting, during this century, ‘design thinking’ has permeated the business thinking of leaders across the globe. Successful entrepreneurs and organisations have embraced the notion that establishing desirability, the extent to which the intended user or target market sees value in the new proposition, is prerequisite to any in-depth evaluation of feasibility or viability.

design thinking sustainability equitability feasibility viability

But we now inhabit an infinitely more connected world than we did at the turn of this twenty-first century. And we are now reflecting critically on the unforeseen impacts that many of these new digitally enabled products and services and disruptive innovations have had, not just on our own lives, but on those of others and on our economic and ecological environment.

More than ever before, we are beginning to appreciate that we all live and work within a nested series of ecosystems: our organisations sit within local and allied industries or bodies, global supply chains and economies; we interact within our local communities, broader society and as global citizens. More than ever before, we are beginning to understand that the sustainability of multiple systems is now threatened.

The future does not invent itself. We humans are the designers of every artificial construct in our world, the inhabitants of these ever more interconnected ecosystems. So how might we ensure that what we design for the future is desirable for not only for the intended consumer, but considerate of the impact on all stakeholders, on society and sustainable within the broader system?

Focusing on desirability for a discrete intended group of primary users or consumers is clearly necessary but not sufficient. Considerations of Equitability  and Sustainability demand explicit attention.

For a new product or service to be equitable, it must deal fairly and honestly with all concerned. In essence, it must consider how might shared value and future benefit will be created for all those impacted by the provision of the new product or service, not just the intended user or consumer.

And for a new product or service to be sustainable, it must not harm and hopefully improves the environments within which it is generated and consumed.

Equity is not the same as equality. Systems with a focus on creating equality aim to ensure that the inputs are equally distributed. Systems with a focus on creating equity are those where the outcomes are fairly shared, either through inputs being appropriately distributed, or through the removal of systemic barriers. And the creation of equity in a system must be sustainable as the environment changes.

For many design practitioners,sustainability and equitability may have been an implicit consideration within desirability. But for commercial organisations, explicitly elevating Sustainability and Equitability to the same level of consideration as Desirability, Feasibility and Viability may be essential to assure their 'license to operate' in the future, and in shifting our thinking from human centred design (HCD) to ecosystem-centred design (ECD).

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