“Design Thinking” The Potsdam Think Tank

HPI logo; © HPI
HPI logo | © HPI

What might be the best way for online supermarket customers to get their orders? How can single-person households reduce their food waste? How can cycling in the dark be made safer? These are just a few of the questions the students at the HPI School of Design Thinking in Potsdam, for short D-School, have to deal with.

They do not just puzzle over a task all on their own behind closed doors, but get together in teams to find solutions, for example, medical doctors together with business graduates, educators with IT experts. Even the rooms in Potsdam have been designed to inspire the students with food for thought rather than stifle them. The director at D-school, Ulrich Weinberg, explains that design thinking can only work if the three core elements are right - the place, the process, the people.

Understanding, observing, developing

In order to develop an idea students have to make use of a multi-phase process. The language of instruction is English, so all the phases have English titles, like the first one called design challenge. Let us take cycling in the dark as our example. In the first phase the students acquaint themselves with the problem. Do the cyclists feel unsafe because the roads are unlit and they might fall off their bikes? Or because they are afraid of being attacked? The students evaluate statistics and try to establish what the main problem is. The next phase is field work, “The students observe people and talk to them,” explains program leader, Claudia Nicolai, “and then decide who they want to find a solution for.” Is it to be for people who cycle alone from one place to another? Or is it to be for extreme cyclists like bike messengers? “The aim is for the students to empathise with the people and to develop a solution from their perspective,” says Claudia Nicolai.

Back in the seminar room the students then report on their findings, filter essential insights from photos, interviews and their observations and then decide on the target group they want to find a solution for. “The next step is “ideating” or the generation of ideas,” explains Claudia Nicolai, i.e. the creative phase. The students write down every idea they have, no matter how bizarre. They stick “Post-its” on boards or write their ideas on the washable walls. “We select several concepts from this pot-pourri of ideas - concepts that we might be able to put into reality,” says Claudia Nicolai. These are then put into prototype form and tested.

The course is luring students from all over the world

The HPI School of Design Thinking has already come to the notice of quite a few companies. “All kinds of people are interested - from doctors’ practices to NGOs, and even a few major corporations,” says Ulrich Weinberg. In a project for the Metro Group, for example, students have been pondering the question of how online customers at REAL supermarkets can best pick up their orders. “This is how the first drive-in service came into being,” reports Ulrich Weinberg proudly.

Every year 120 students are trained in developing ideas. The one-year course is free of charge. In the meantime there are students from all over the world attending the course, like Juliana Paolucci, a student from Brazil. She really likes the D-School approach because it is so different from the teaching methods she has experienced at school and university. “We don’t just sit there and stare at the teacher, we become active ourselves,” says the 24-year-old, “we learn so much from the input of the students from other disciplines.”

The focus is on the team and not the individual

The school does in fact aim to create a new impetus, explains Ulrich Weinberg. People from disciplines of all kinds ought to work more closely together and start developing an idea together on the basis of what people need, “At school and at university we are subjected to the training of the individual,” he says. There team work and creativity played a subordinate role - this is why there was no room for new ideas.

The school opened in 2007 on the initiative of entrepreneur, Hasso Plattner. Two years earlier and with the aid of a 29-million-euro donation he had opened the “Hasso Plattner Institute of Design” at Stanford University. The approach seems to have taken off all over the world, a new ideas school has just opened in Beijing. In Paris, too, students can attend courses in design thinking, talks on cooperation are also being held in Malaysia. “Peanuts”, says Ulrich Weinberg, when he compares the D-School course to those with all the millions of students studying natural science, law or economics the traditional way.

The way he sees it, design thinking is an approach for the future. It does not just provide an innovative forum for generating ideas, but it can also take some of the pressure off - pressure that so many people are under these days. “We are living in a world that is changing at breakneck pace,” says Ulrich Weinberg, “people notice this every day both in their jobs and in their daily routine.” This is why it is not such a good idea to focus on one specialised field alone, for example, human organs or the workings of a computer. “We have to change the way we think and to have the courage to get into more networking,” assures Ulrich Weinberg, “this means the educational infrastructure and corporate culture are going to have to change drastically.”