Design Thinking and the Dreaming New Worlds Ideathon

design thinking © Goethe-Institut Nigeria

Despite the interminable Lagos traffic, I made it just in time for the opening session of the Goethe-Institut’s Dreaming New Worlds Ideathon. The Ideathon was the next phase in the ongoing Dreaming New Worlds (Insert hyperlink to How to Change the Future Article) project, conceived by Geothe-Insitut Nigeria’s Program Coordinator Oluwadara Omotosho and curator, Chinyere Obieze. The two-day event was held from the 14th -15th of September 2023 and brought an eclectic group of people from the variegated strands of the art industry. Artists, curators, researchers, teachers and practitioners whose vocations cannot be contained in a single word came together under the roof of the Goethe-Institut to learn from, socialise with and challenge each other. In addition to presentations from a panel of professionals in the arts and technology industries, the participants were sorted into smaller groups and tasked with developing ideas for projects that would see them utilise technology in their art.  They were then given the opportunity to pitch said projects to the panellists to get grants to fund their ideas. 

The sessions went wonderfully; the panellists were engaging, the artists were creatively charged; an hour spent exploring the world contained within Imisi 3D’s VR headsets was affecting and moderator Tony Agbapuonwo (curator, consultant) balanced the conversation expertly. Amid the high levels of participation and energy I couldn’t help but notice something. The Dreaming New Worlds project had been clear about its intent to encourage participating artists to use design thinking in their ideation approach but it occurred to me, sitting in on panellist Charles Udeh’s fascinating presentation that explored the manner in which technological advancements have affected art practices on the African continent for centuries, that the entire conceit of Dreaming New Worlds itself was emblematic of the design thinking process. Not only were the artists going to carry out some design thinking, but their very participation in the project was also part of the design thinking process itself.  

It is ideas within ideas; dreams within dreams; a fascinating, multi levelled approach to the convention of artistic and technological collaboration. 

It would be beneficial at this point to talk a little bit about design thinking: it is a problem-solving model popularised by David M. Kelley, Tim Brown and Roger Martin that aims to allow its users to arrive at efficient solutions to singular problem statements. It is typically broken up into five stages: empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test and the Dreaming New Worlds project follows this arc.  
“Empathise” refers to the stage at which the designer is to research the needs of users. It requires one to put themselves in the shoes of members of the public and not only reflect on needs they’ve had in the past but be able to predict their future desires; desires that they themselves might not even be able to articulate. DJ Irawo, a participating artist, displayed a perfect example of this during her group’s idea generation meeting. She is a musician trained in the traditional art of the Yoruba talking drum and she complained about the declining numbers of those like her. “The young people would rather learn to play other modern, trendy instruments and not the talking drum, so it is dying.” She had empathised with these people and intuitively picked up on a desire they had: a talking drum for the modern world. In much the same manner, Dreaming New Worlds began with a research gathering effort: from the keynote speeches to the curated film events earlier in the year provided a funnel through which the anxieties and desires of the continent's creative and tech sectors could be heard. It may not have seemed like such at the time but that was Dreaming New Worlds going through the first stage of the design thinking process in the way only a conceptual project can. It was a medium for empathy, but it was also empathising.  
The next stage is simultaneously the most difficult and the simplest. The design thinking model requires the problem to be “defined” in one single statement. Dreaming New Worlds (“we need to figure out technology’s place in the future of the African creative sector and vice versa”) had an easier time than some of the groups with defining its problem statement. This is by no means intended as a slight on the participating artists. It is difficult to pick just one defining statement when one has the capacity to not only notice but care deeply about the infinite problems that plague our society. One group, containing the sculptor Ugo Ahiakwo, an artist whose work is crafted from discarded materials (abandoned chassis, broken helmets etc) felt very passionately about the waste epidemic in Lagos. They knew they wanted to do something about it, but their process required back and forth amongst members of the group. The issue is so vast that it can be easy for proposed solutions to become unfocused and imprecise. Only after each member expressed their own keen point-of-view were they able to arrive at a precise statement that could reflect the depths of their feelings on the matter. This is often how it goes but they were all the better for the effort as having a clear problem statement makes subsequent stages easier.  
The ideation stage is where the meta-narrative of two concurrent threads of design thinking is at its most obviously mind-bending. It is clear to see when the participating artists are ideating in their groups; when artist Sigil suggests to their group members that they do something with beadwork to raise awareness about the plight of Warri communities suffering through flooding, it is clearly the genesis point of what is to become an exciting idea. What is not clear at first blush however is that the ideation stage in Dreaming New Worlds’ design thinking process is made up of all the ideation stages going on in the four different groups of participating artists. It is ideas within ideas; dreams within dreams; a fascinating, multi levelled approach to the convention of artistic and technological collaboration.  
“Prototype” is complicated. The participating artists weren’t expected to get to this stage on that day. They were to pitch their project ideas to the panellists and if awarded the grant, they would be able to develop prototypes which they will present at the Dream Materialisation showcase in October. However, the endlessly wondrous pitches (DJ Irawo’s talking drum-accompanied presentation was particularly memorable) served as the prototype stage for the overarching Dreaming New Worlds project. Here was the product: Nigerian artists and technologists with what they believe to be the projects that will in essence definitively answer to the initial problem statement defined by the Dreaming New Worlds project. 
The final stage, “test”, has been realised by neither the participating artists nor the project as a whole. When that time comes though, I have no doubt in my mind that the outcomes will be cause for celebration. Four remarkable projects, announced by ideathon facilitator Seju Alero Mike, will see the light of day before the year runs out and we could be on the precipice of what might come to be seen as an edifying approach to solving one of our most impactful modern problems. Writer and panellist Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu said, “the technology is here to stay” - so it is crucial we can show others the ways it can be used to better our art and our world.