BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

Design thinking, a globally-practised creative mindset and approach to problem understanding and problem solving, is finding fans at educational institutions and workspaces via a specialised school in Cape Town. The Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town (UCT)—which goes by its shorter name, d-school—is a creative studio where wild ideas are encouraged.

At its location at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) at the V&A Waterfront precinct, the d-school has brought together diverse minds for workshops that offer training in design thinking tools and principles. These programmes for students include the four-day Design Thinking Week and the longer Foundation Programme in Design Thinking, spread across 12 weeks. The Open Course: Design Thinking in Practice is geared towards working professionals and tailor-made workshops are also offered to organisations seeking to become more agile.

Hasso Plattner, founder of the d-school as well as technology company SAP, had a vision to “unleash hidden creative potentials and help focus on human needs”. After establishing the d.school at Stanford University in the United States and another at the Hasso Plattner Institute (D-School) in Potsdam, Germany, Cape Town became the first Africa-based location where design thinking’s impact on the culture of work and education could be fostered. 

“Design thinking, during its first years, was mostly seen as a user-centred way of helping organisations get a better picture of their customers and—through early, cheap prototyping—shortened the development cycles and made it more efficient,” says Plattner. Since then, design thinking has been taken beyond boardrooms and into universities, the non-profit sector, and government departments. Plattner himself has invested funds in establishing schools to ensure design thinking is taught more broadly. “Our schools encourage collaboration rather than individual competition. They train a network mode of thinking and working, they unleash hidden creative potential, and they help to

focus on human needs. “Design thinking has the potential to change individuals, companies, organisations, and, with its radical democratic approach, even political structures.”

Plattner believes the d-school at UCT can “become a solution engine for some of the major social problems in South Africa, supporting companies and public organisations with their current challenges”.

The d-school’s founding director, Richard Perez, officially opened the school’s doors in 2015. He explains that design thinking is not about learning a process, but rather about adopting a mindset. “We are not trying to train people to become professional designers, but rather work with individuals that may not have followed a traditional design education and teach them how to approach and solve challenges within their field of expertise through the lens and mindset of a designer,” says Perez. “Design thinking exhibits a number of key attributes that include, but is not limited to, interdisciplinary collaboration; problem solving; tolerance of ambiguity and failure; user-centredness and involvement; creativity and innovation; and iteration and experimentation.”

The d-school has offered design thinking workshops to students registered at various higher learning institutions across South Africa. It has also integrated design thinking into the curriculum in some UCT and GSB courses. “We would like to see every student at the University of Cape Town exposed to design-led thinking. Its application is endless—from solving engineering challenges to designing your own life,” adds Perez. “We live in an ever-increasing world of complexity, where challenges cannot be understood and solved by a single discipline or traditional analytical approaches anymore.

“The need to be able to innovate in the face of this complexity, and do so in multidisciplinary and multicultural teams, is not a skill that is taught in higher educational institutions. This is a critical skillset we will need for the future world of work and, at the d-school, we develop this within our students.”

Perez says the d-school wants to create an African Centre of Excellence for Design-Led Thinking and be part of a leading design thinking network on the continent. The d-school has already worked in various African countries, including Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, and Morocco, and has partnered with an international non-governmental organisation in Malawi since 2016, adds Perez. This experience shows how local-led solutions can change the way donors design and implement programmes. It also offers insight into how African solutions need to include local contexts and input.

Through its work across the continent, the d-school has found that having people on the ground who are trying to find solutions in a local framework are integral to success while donor funding needs to be more human-centred and informed by the context of the environment. 

In Morocco, it was meanwhile discovered that design thinking could be taught in any context, even when no furniture or creative studio setup was available. The most interesting aspect? Design thinking became a common language for people who had diverse languages and backgrounds. 

While the d-school brought the process, tools, and technologies to help communities surface their own capabilities, people were also able to take ownership of solutions. Ultimately, the premise of design thinking then is in the value in the room and in the diversity of the people who come together. 

HOW IT’S DONE

1. IDEA GENERATION
Participants from diverse backgrounds gather at the d-school’s creative studio to use design thinking to come up with responses to real world problems. 

2. EXPERIENCE IS EVERYTHING
The d-school’s professional programmes help organisations understand their end users better to enhance their services.

3. WORKING TOGETHER
The d-school’s student programmes prepare students for the modern world of work that values creative thinking and collaboration.