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TEDGlobal 2009

Tim Brown: Designers -- think big!

July 22, 2009

Tim Brown says the design profession has a bigger role to play than just creating nifty, fashionable little objects. He calls for a shift to local, collaborative, participatory "design thinking" -- starting with the example of 19th-century design thinker Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

Tim Brown - Designer
Tim Brown is the CEO of the "innovation and design" firm IDEO -- taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'd like to talk a little bit this morning
00:12
about what happens if we move from design
00:14
to design thinking.
00:17
Now this rather old photo up there
00:20
is actually the first project I was ever hired to do,
00:22
something like 25 years ago.
00:25
It's a woodworking machine, or at least a piece of one,
00:27
and my task was to
00:29
make this thing a little bit more modern,
00:31
a little bit easier to use.
00:33
I thought, at the time, I did a pretty good job.
00:35
Unfortunately, not very long afterwards
00:38
the company went out of business.
00:40
This is the second project that I did. It's a fax machine.
00:43
I put an attractive shell around some new technology.
00:46
Again, 18 months later,
00:49
the product was obsolete.
00:51
And now, of course, the whole technology is obsolete.
00:53
Now, I'm a fairly slow learner,
00:58
but eventually it occurred to me that
01:00
maybe what passed for design
01:02
wasn't all that important --
01:04
making things more attractive,
01:06
making them a bit easier to use,
01:08
making them more marketable.
01:10
By focusing on a design,
01:13
maybe just a single product,
01:15
I was being incremental
01:17
and not having much of an impact.
01:19
But I think this small view of design
01:23
is a relatively recent phenomenon,
01:25
and in fact really emerged
01:27
in the latter half of the 20th century
01:29
as design became a tool of consumerism.
01:31
So when we talk about design today,
01:35
and particularly when we read about it in the popular press,
01:37
we're often talking about products like these.
01:40
Amusing? Yes. Desirable? Maybe.
01:42
Important? Not so very.
01:45
But this wasn't always the way.
01:48
And I'd like to suggest that if we take
01:50
a different view of design,
01:52
and focus less on the object
01:54
and more on design thinking as an approach,
01:57
that we actually might see the result in a bigger impact.
02:00
Now this gentleman, Isambard Kingdom Brunel,
02:05
designed many great things in his career in the 19th century,
02:07
including the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol
02:11
and the Thames tunnel at Rotherhithe.
02:15
Both great designs and actually very innovative too.
02:17
His greatest creation
02:22
runs actually right through here in Oxford.
02:25
It's called the Great Western Railway.
02:27
And as a kid I grew up very close to here,
02:30
and one of my favorite things to do
02:33
was to cycle along by the side of the railway
02:35
waiting for the great big express trains to roar past.
02:38
You can see it represented here in J.M.W. Turner's painting,
02:41
"Rain, Steam and Speed".
02:43
Now, what Brunel said that he wanted to achieve for his passengers
02:46
was the experience of floating across the countryside.
02:50
Now, this was back in the 19th century.
02:55
And to do that meant creating the flattest gradients
02:57
that had ever yet been made,
02:59
which meant building long viaducts across river valleys --
03:01
this is actually the viaduct across the Thames at Maidenhead --
03:04
and long tunnels such as the one at Box, in Wiltshire.
03:08
But he didn't stop there. He didn't stop
03:14
with just trying to design the best railway journey.
03:16
He imagined an integrated transportation system
03:19
in which it would be possible for a passenger to embark
03:23
on a train in London
03:26
and disembark from a ship in New York.
03:29
One journey from London to New York.
03:32
This is the S.S. Great Western that he built
03:36
to take care of the second half of that journey.
03:38
Now, Brunel was working 100 years before
03:42
the emergence of the design profession,
03:44
but I think he was using design thinking
03:47
to solve problems and to create world-changing innovations.
03:50
Now, design thinking begins with what Roger Martin,
03:55
the business school professor at the University of Toronto,
03:57
calls integrative thinking.
04:00
And that's the ability to exploit opposing ideas
04:02
and opposing constraints
04:05
to create new solutions.
04:07
In the case of design, that means
04:09
balancing desirability, what humans need,
04:12
with technical feasibility,
04:16
and economic viability.
04:18
With innovations like the Great Western,
04:21
we can stretch that balance to the absolute limit.
04:23
So somehow, we went from this to this.
04:27
Systems thinkers who were reinventing the world,
04:34
to a priesthood of folks in black turtlenecks and designer glasses
04:37
working on small things.
04:42
As our industrial society matured,
04:44
so design became a profession
04:48
and it focused on an ever smaller canvas
04:50
until it came to stand for aesthetics,
04:53
image and fashion.
04:55
Now I'm not trying to throw stones here.
04:57
I'm a fully paid-up member of that priesthood,
05:00
and somewhere in here I have my designer glasses.
05:02
There we go.
05:04
But I do think that perhaps design
05:07
is getting big again.
05:09
And that's happening through
05:11
the application of design thinking
05:14
to new kinds of problems --
05:16
to global warming, to education,
05:18
healthcare, security, clean water, whatever.
05:20
And as we see this reemergence of design thinking
05:24
and we see it beginning to tackle new kinds of problems,
05:27
there are some basic ideas that I think we can observe that are useful.
05:30
And I'd like to talk about some of those
05:33
just for the next few minutes.
05:35
The first of those is that design is
05:37
human-centered.
05:39
It may integrate technology and economics,
05:42
but it starts with what humans need, or might need.
05:44
What makes life easier, more enjoyable?
05:48
What makes technology useful and usable?
05:50
But that is more than simply good ergonomics,
05:54
putting the buttons in the right place.
05:57
It's often about understanding culture and context
06:00
before we even know where to start to have ideas.
06:03
So when a team was working on a new vision screening program in India,
06:06
they wanted to understand what the aspirations
06:10
and motivations were of these school children
06:12
to understand how they might play a role
06:15
in screening their parents.
06:17
Conversion Sound has developed a high quality,
06:22
ultra-low-cost digital hearing aid
06:24
for the developing world.
06:27
Now, in the West we rely on highly trained technicians
06:29
to fit these hearing aids.
06:33
In places like India, those technicians simply don't exist.
06:35
So it took a team working in India
06:39
with patients and community health workers
06:41
to understand how a PDA
06:43
and an application on a PDA
06:45
might replace those technicians
06:47
in a fitting and diagnostic service.
06:49
Instead of starting with technology,
06:52
the team started with people and culture.
06:54
So if human need is the place to start,
06:57
then design thinking rapidly moves on to
07:00
learning by making.
07:02
Instead of thinking about what to build,
07:04
building in order to think.
07:07
Now, prototypes speed up the process of innovation,
07:10
because it is only when we put our ideas out into the world
07:13
that we really start to understand their strengths and weaknesses.
07:16
And the faster we do that,
07:19
the faster our ideas evolve.
07:21
Now, much has been said and written about
07:24
the Aravind Eye Institute in Madurai, India.
07:26
They do an incredible job of serving very poor patients
07:29
by taking the revenues from those who can afford to pay
07:33
to cross-subsidize those who cannot.
07:35
Now, they are very efficient,
07:39
but they are also very innovative.
07:42
When I visited them a few years ago,
07:45
what really impressed me was their willingness
07:48
to prototype their ideas very early.
07:50
This is the manufacturing facility
07:52
for one of their biggest cost breakthroughs.
07:54
They make their own intraocular lenses.
07:56
These are the lenses that replace those
07:59
that are damaged by cataracts.
08:01
And I think it's partly their prototyping mentality
08:03
that really allowed them to achieve the breakthrough.
08:07
Because they brought the cost down
08:09
from $200 a pair,
08:11
down to just $4 a pair.
08:12
Partly they did this by instead of building
08:17
a fancy new factory,
08:19
they used the basement of one of their hospitals.
08:21
And instead of installing the large-scale machines
08:25
used by western producers,
08:28
they used low-cost CAD/CAM prototyping technology.
08:30
They are now the biggest manufacturer of these lenses in the developing world
08:34
and have recently moved into a custom factory.
08:38
So if human need is the place to start,
08:42
and prototyping, a vehicle for progress,
08:44
then there are also some questions to ask about the destination.
08:46
Instead of seeing its primary objective as consumption,
08:50
design thinking is beginning to explore the potential of participation --
08:55
the shift from a passive relationship
08:58
between consumer and producer
09:01
to the active engagement of everyone
09:03
in experiences that are meaningful,
09:05
productive and profitable.
09:07
So I'd like to take the idea that Rory Sutherland talked about,
09:11
this notion that intangible things are worth perhaps more than physical things,
09:14
and take that a little bit further and say that
09:17
I think the design of participatory systems,
09:19
in which many more forms of value
09:22
beyond simply cash
09:25
are both created and measured,
09:27
is going to be the major theme, not only for design,
09:30
but also for our economy as we go forward.
09:33
So William Beveridge, when he wrote the first of his famous reports in 1942,
09:37
created what became Britain's welfare state
09:41
in which he hoped that every citizen
09:45
would be an active participant
09:48
in their own social well-being.
09:50
By the time he wrote his third report,
09:52
he confessed that he had failed
09:55
and instead had created a society of welfare consumers.
09:57
Hilary Cottam, Charlie Leadbeater,
10:03
and Hugo Manassei of Participle
10:05
have taken this idea of participation,
10:07
and in their manifesto entitled Beveridge 4.0,
10:10
they are suggesting a framework
10:13
for reinventing the welfare state.
10:15
So in one of their projects called Southwark Circle,
10:18
they worked with residents in Southwark, South London
10:20
and a small team of designers
10:23
to develop a new membership organization
10:25
to help the elderly with household tasks.
10:29
Designs were refined and developed
10:32
with 150 older people and their families
10:34
before the service was launched earlier this year.
10:37
We can take this idea of participation
10:42
perhaps to its logical conclusion
10:46
and say that design may have its greatest impact
10:48
when it's taken out of the hands of designers
10:50
and put into the hands of everyone.
10:53
Nurses and practitioners at U.S. healthcare system
10:56
Kaiser Permanente
10:59
study the topic of improving the patient experience,
11:01
and particularly focused on the way that they exchange knowledge
11:06
and change shift.
11:11
Through a program of observational research,
11:14
brainstorming new solutions and rapid prototyping,
11:16
they've developed a completely new way to change shift.
11:19
They went from retreating to the nurse's station
11:22
to discuss the various states and needs of patients,
11:26
to developing a system that happened on the ward
11:28
in front of patients, using a simple software tool.
11:31
By doing this they brought the time that they were away from patients
11:34
down from 40 minutes to 12 minutes, on average.
11:36
They increased patient confidence and nurse happiness.
11:40
When you multiply that by all the nurses
11:44
in all the wards in 40 hospitals in the system,
11:46
it resulted, actually, in a pretty big impact.
11:49
And this is just one of thousands
11:51
of opportunities in healthcare alone.
11:53
So these are just some of the kind of basic ideas
11:59
around design thinking
12:02
and some of the new kinds of projects
12:04
that they're being applied to.
12:06
But I'd like to go back to Brunel here,
12:09
and suggest a connection that might explain why this is happening now,
12:11
and maybe why design thinking is a useful tool.
12:15
And that connection is change.
12:20
In times of change we need
12:23
new alternatives, new ideas.
12:25
Now, Brunel worked at the height of the Industrial Revolution,
12:29
when all of life and our economy
12:31
was being reinvented.
12:33
Now the industrial systems of Brunel's time have run their course,
12:35
and indeed they are part of the problem today.
12:39
But, again, we are in the midst of massive change.
12:41
And that change is forcing us to question
12:45
quite fundamental aspects of our society --
12:48
how we keep ourselves healthy, how we govern ourselves,
12:50
how we educate ourselves, how we keep ourselves secure.
12:53
And in these times of change, we need these new choices
12:57
because our existing solutions are simply becoming obsolete.
13:00
So why design thinking?
13:05
Because it gives us a new way of tackling problems.
13:07
Instead of defaulting to our normal convergent approach
13:10
where we make the best choice out of available alternatives,
13:15
it encourages us to take a divergent approach,
13:19
to explore new alternatives, new solutions,
13:22
new ideas that have not existed before.
13:24
But before we go through that process of divergence,
13:28
there is actually quite an important first step.
13:30
And that is, what is the question that we're trying to answer?
13:33
What's the design brief?
13:36
Now Brunel may have asked a question like this,
13:38
"How do I take a train from London to New York?"
13:40
But what are the kinds of questions that we might ask today?
13:44
So these are some that we've been asked to think about recently.
13:48
And one in particular, is one that we're working on with the Acumen Fund,
13:54
in a project that's been funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
13:57
How might we improve access to safe drinking water
14:01
for the world's poorest people,
14:04
and at the same time stimulate innovation
14:06
amongst local water providers?
14:08
So instead of having a bunch of American designers
14:12
come up with new ideas that may or may not have been appropriate,
14:14
we took a sort of more open, collaborative and participative approach.
14:17
We teamed designers and investment experts up with
14:21
11 water organizations across India.
14:24
And through workshops they developed
14:27
innovative new products, services, and business models.
14:29
We hosted a competition
14:32
and then funded five of those organizations
14:34
to develop their ideas.
14:36
So they developed and iterated these ideas.
14:38
And then IDEO and Acumen spent several weeks working with them
14:40
to help design new social marketing campaigns,
14:43
community outreach strategies, business models,
14:48
new water vessels for storing water
14:51
and carts for delivering water.
14:53
Some of those ideas are just getting launched into the market.
14:56
And the same process is just getting underway
14:58
with NGOs in East Africa.
15:00
So for me, this project shows
15:03
kind of how far we can go from
15:06
some of those sort of small things
15:08
that I was working on
15:10
at the beginning of my career.
15:12
That by focusing on the needs of humans
15:14
and by using prototypes
15:18
to move ideas along quickly,
15:20
by getting the process out of the hands of designers,
15:22
and by getting the active participation of the community,
15:25
we can tackle bigger and more interesting questions.
15:28
And just like Brunel, by focusing on systems,
15:31
we can have a bigger impact.
15:34
So that's one thing that we've been working on.
15:37
I'm actually really quite interested, and perhaps more interested
15:40
to know what this community thinks we could work on.
15:43
What kinds of questions do we think
15:47
design thinking could be used to tackle?
15:50
And if you've got any ideas
15:53
then feel free, you can post them to Twitter.
15:55
There is a hash tag there that you can use, #CBDQ.
15:57
And the list looked something like this a little while ago.
16:00
And of course you can search to find the questions that you're interested in
16:03
by using the same hash code.
16:07
So I'd like to believe that design thinking
16:09
actually can make a difference,
16:13
that it can help create new ideas
16:15
and new innovations,
16:17
beyond the latest High Street products.
16:19
To do that I think we have to take a more expansive view of design,
16:21
more like Brunel, less a domain of a professional priesthood.
16:25
And the first step is to start asking the right questions.
16:31
Thank you very much.
16:34
(Applause)
16:36

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Tim Brown - Designer
Tim Brown is the CEO of the "innovation and design" firm IDEO -- taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface.

Why you should listen

Tim Brown is the CEO of innovation and design firm IDEO, taking an approach to design that digs deeper than the surface. Having taken over from founder David E. Kelley, Tim Brown carries forward the firm's mission of fusing design, business and social studies to come up with deeply researched, deeply understood designs and ideas -- they call it "design thinking."

IDEO is the kind of firm that companies turn to when they want a top-down rethink of a business or product -- from fast food conglomerates to high-tech startups, hospitals to universities.

IDEO has designed and prototyped everything from a life-saving portable defibrillator to the defining details at the groundbreaking Prada shop in Manhattan to corporate processes. And check out the Global Chain Reaction for a sample of how seriously this firm takes play.

Curious about design thinking? Sign up for an IDEO U design thinking course or check out this free toolkit: Design Thinking for Educators.

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