On Impact Innovation: Can Design Thinking Help Businesses To Embrace A More Sustainable Future (Whilst Still Making Money)?

By Rob Pisacane

The evidence is clear. Impact investing is good for business. Whilst some of it is undoubtedly greenwashing, the performance of many ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance) funds are impressive. Even the big institutional investors are convinced. Harnessing the power of capitalism to deliver something more than profit — something socially, environmentally useful — is an inspiring prospect.

This got us thinking. What Impact could the Design Thinking community have in helping businesses pivot to more environmentally, socially-conscious versions of themselves? Can Design Thinking have a meaningful impact on the biggest problems facing us right now?

This is a big question. Too big for one report. So for this article, we’re focusing on the E of ESG (Environmental), because we think that failure to act quickly enough here will have the most severe consequences on society. Good examples of where new Design Thinking has a tangible effect on reducing society’s impact on the planet are lacking. Though climate change throws up billions of very human-shaped problems, are the toolkits of design thinking and digital product development suitable to help fix any of them? Would it be better if we all went to retrain as scientists, impact investors or supply chain experts whose work is having a visible impact in the fight against rampant climate change?

Creating An Achievable Vision For The Future

Scientists can show us what we should not do, but we often need designers to show us what we should do…

Babette Porcelijn

Whilst we might not crack the code to unlimited clean energy or reinvent global models of food production to be carbon negative, we think there’s still hope for us humble design thinkers to have a positive impact.

The vastness and interconnectedness of our climate often makes the problems with it seem insurmountable. In this context, what leverage do you or your business have to make a difference? This thought quickly leads to inertia and inertia quickly leads to inaction and all your good intentions come grinding to a halt. It’s a common story.

We think Design Thinking can help overcome this. The tools it provides — namely rapid prototyping and short feedback cycles with end users, whether that’s employees or customers — helps everyone in an organisation to visualise improved futures for their business. If you can visualise something, it instantly becomes more achievable.

In our experience, the power of prototyping in this story cannot be underestimated. We use prototypes to show how a low/no carbon future product or service might look. Creating a new perspective focuses minds. It helps people to look past the commercial, legislative and organisational challenges that stand in the way and get excited about doing things differently in the future.

Prototypes also help get everyone onto the same page. How often have you had the beginning of a great idea, only to see it slip away from you in a meeting where you’ve not quite communicated it properly to your colleagues? If you’re anything like us, it might happen quite often. Rapid prototyping is so important in creating a shared vision of a low carbon future. The tangible approximations of a solution help everyone to understand ideas in more detail before dismissing them.

“Rapid prototyping is so important in creating a shared vision of a low carbon future. The tangible approximations of a solution help everyone to understand ideas in more detail before dismissing them.”

Making A Low Carbon Future Pay

We think that Design Thinking can be brought out here too. Namely, by helping companies to take a broader view that gives the longer term impact of climate inaction a proper place at the decision making table. Externalities often make what was once viable today very much not viable in the near future.

All of the spinning plates only become clear when teams take stock of all stakeholders implemented in a particular ecosystem. This long-sightedness is nurtured by Design Thinkers, who consider interconnections between stakeholders across the value chain. For a recent client who specialises in technology solutions to facilitate plastics recycling, we ran a series of sessions with various stakeholders to understand their priorities, how they intersect currently and into the future. Putting the priorities of those existing along the value chain at the centre of our design work, we were able to craft a product that not only expresses the desirability of the client’s technical solution from multiple standpoints, but also inspires entire communities to enact change for the greater good.

Design Thinking helps the organisations that we work with to take the environmental, social and political drivers that will impact on their bottom lines into consideration. Our models of futures forecasting will help you to take a longer view. Focusing on innovations in the emergent opportunities areas that will be most likely to deliver against the new bottom line of people, profits and the planet.

So What Now?

Given the totally disruptive effects of COVID-19 we have a once in a generation chance to build back better. We don’t claim to have all the answers but we’re excited about starting a dialogue around impact innovation and what the future holds.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can communicate with reticent clients about the healthy impact that taking a wider view of the new bottom line — people, profits and planet — can have on the conventional metrics they worry about like sales and customer satisfaction? How might Design Thinking help clients to bring about genuinely impactful change?

HYD is a new type of digital consultancy. We create organisational change through designing great digital products. Find out more at: hyd.agency