SILT: Design Thinking and Problem Solving

Inspired by a design-thinking workshop held at the Ashoka U Exchange*, SILT decided to host a similar workshop series here on our campus. The initial motivation was to create a space where students would be challenged to come up with creative solutions to a wide range of problems, ranging from “how might we get students excited about recycling on campus?” to “how might we empower women in Nigeria?” However, we realized that merely posing problems and asking students to debate would not be enough — there had to be a more methodological, efficient way of approaching the problem. This is where the design-thinking process came in.

The concept of design thinking may sound vaguely familiar. By definition, design thinking is a collaborative, human-centered approach to solving complex problems by going through specific stages: understanding human needs (empathize), framing the problem (define), generating ideas (ideate), building models (prototype) and getting feedback to refine models (testing)**. While this process seems relatively easy to follow, you may be surprised to find that when we look back on our own experiences, we rarely succeed in moving beyond the first two stages. As students, we engage in passionate debates in the classroom and talk about the kinds of changes we want to see in the world, yet when it comes down to practical, applicable solutions, we are at a loss. This could be because often we aren’t confident enough, or because we don’t take the time to tap into our creative reserves and structure our brainstorming process in a systematic way to generate deliverable ideas, a process which takes place during the third “ideate” stage.

In many ways, this “ideate” stage is the crux of the design-thinking process. How can we push ourselves to generate creative ideas, instead of being daunted by the vast canvas that suddenly opens up before us when we start brainstorming? Often times, we feel too much pressure to be innovative and we don’t give ourselves enough time to explore our creativity. It turns out that the best ideas come at the end of perseverance. Dev Patnaik, founder and CEO of Jump Associates, speaks from his own experience from facilitating brainstorm sessions: “Out of a hundred ideas, the first sixty ideas produced five that were actually new or different, the next twenty produced nothing but laughter and ideas eighty to a hundred produced another ten that were amazing. Thankfully, we didn’t give up when the well ran dry around idea number sixty.”

The two design-thinking workshops that SILT hosted this semester were structured around engaging our creativity and learning how to productively and comfortably engage within that space. The first workshop was hosted in a relatively relaxed atmosphere where students could engage in a series of mini-exercises, including 100-lines, the silent game and the marshmallow challenge. The 100-lines game was a series of short brainstorming sessions in which students were challenged to give 100 lines each a different name within three minutes. The purpose was to get an idea of how our thought process flowed and to identify which areas we would become fixated on or branch out from.

During the silent game, three people teamed up to engage in a hands-on Lego activity to learn about how each person came with different perspectives and would develop varied interpretations after observing the same Lego structure.
Lastly, the marshmallow challenge provided students with tape, 15 spaghetti sticks and a single marshmallow to see which team could build the tallest structure that would support the marshmallow. Although these tasks might have initially seemed silly, participating students felt challenged to perform well on each of these tasks and were able to gain insight on how we could more actively engage in creative thought processes.

The second workshop was more experiential, based on a role-play activity designed by the D-lab at MIT called Wheelchairs for the World. Each student took on the role of a different stakeholder involved in the distribution of a grant given by a large funding foundation for disability assistance in Central America. The purpose of the activity was for students to gain insight into the different factors influencing funding decisions and to experience the tensions that come into play when multiple stakeholders with varying objectives are working together to determine the outcome of a project. The activity reminded us of how easy it is to forget the very people we are solving the problem for, when we get caught up in the logistics and clash of interests that take place in the real world. This was especially an important reminder of the human-centered approach that the design-thinking process emphasizes.

Design thinking presents us with a method to systematically approach problems, taking our inspiration one step further to develop creative, productive solutions. We need to learn not to just rely on intuition and emotions, but to recognize patterns and construct ideas that are meaningful as well as functional. As inventor Thomas Edison once said, “genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” We can all be easily inspired and passionate, but translating that inspiration and passion into creative, actionable ideas is an entirely different story.

The Idea Lab that SILT will host on April 20th takes the design thinking workshop series to the next level, by challenging students to incorporate elements of design thinking and systematically tackle four issues affecting the Amherst Community: How might we address racism in Amherst public schools? How might we address homelessness in the Pioneer Valley? How might we engage Amherst students in green initiatives? How might we create a platform to increase transparency between college students and administration? Students will engage in lightning brainstorm rounds to generate ideas, get feedback and develop a two-minute pitch about their solutions. Once again, we all have our individual inspirations and passions, maybe even the beginning spark of what could be a great idea — but it shouldn’t just end there. As Amherst students, we should learn to not just talk about problems, but also be able to creatively answer to those problems.

*An annual global conference for incorporating social innovation in higher education
**Taken from the D.School at Stanford University