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Business unusual at UCT’s d-school

Tuesday, 26 April 2016   (0 Comments)
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The media statement announcing the arrival of the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town (UCT) describes it as “an education, training and research institute that will offer programmes in Design Thinking to undergraduate and graduate scholars, executive professionals in the private and public sectors, and community-based development practitioners.

Established in August 2015, the official description of what the institution does is an accurate, yet arguably restrained, way of describing how its work could fundamentally reconfigure the way that the private and public sectors approach problem-solving.

Led by founding Director, Richard Perez, the d-school – to coin its more colloquial title – is in the hands of deeply passionate design thinkers who are driven by the many exciting possibilities that the institution’s work can offer.

We spent some time with Programme Managers Keneilwe Munyai and Rael Futerman and Lorelle Bell, Communication and Stakeholder Relations Manager, to find out more.

Munyai encapsulates the potential impact that the d-school could have in the unique South African socio economic context: “South African society is made up of many diverse groups, but we see a very siloed mentality in many areas of, for example, education and industry. Design Thinking brings a new way to look at problem solving from a different perspective and to encourage cross-silo collaboration as a mechanism to improve understanding of what lies at the root of a problem.”

Futerman continues along the same vein: “Design Thinking is about shifting from business as usual to business unusual; going from problem solving to problem finding.”

In an environment that seems awash with problems, why would you want to find more?

Futerman explains: “Design Thinking is a method to explore real needs as a transversal, multi-disciplinary team and to develop new ideas around those needs, to foster empathy and understanding for what people really experience - and what they really want.”

This is what the d-school does. It does not train designers. Rather, it uses the Design Thinking methodology to train people to look at wicked problems differently. With empathy and user-centeredness as the base, design thinking enables people to see an issue through different eyes.

“No-one,” says Futerman, “experiences the world in the same way. What is comfortable for one person may be a hostile environment for another.”

Munyai continues: “If we understand each other, we can build a shared identity, whether in our communities, cities or even our country. Design Thinking has the potential to create a new national mind-set.”

With such a noble long-range vision, we talked about the d-school’s early days.

The first 10-week pilot programme started in early March. The students are drawn from diverse UCT faculties ranging from law to engineering and health sciences; psychology to accounting and drama. Using the Design Thinking methodology, their challenge is to develop human-centred solutions to real-world problems laid down by the d-school’s project partners. In the current pilot the project partners are a peer-to-peer tech start-up operating in the sharing economy; a public sector transport concern and a financial institution.

As with any tried and tested Design Thinking process, the most critical part of the students’ learning journey is their interaction with end-users. Equally profound, however, is the way in which the process can extend people’s thinking far beyond what currently exists. While Design Thinking isn’t a silver bullet to all the world’s wicked problems, it offers a robust framework to break a major issue – such as HIV/AIDS, for example – into containable parts. Solving smaller issues through the design thinking process can make a significant contribution to solving the whole.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the courses is that students will come away with greater creative confidence. “We encourage students to explore and build, and to manage uncertainty. South Africa’s context is very complex. You need to be comfortable with uncertainty to bring about real change,” says Munyai.

The d-school’s courses are devised by the programme managers and facilitated by trained coaches who drive the trans-disciplinary work. The institution also offers customised programmes and executive training for corporate and public sector clients. And it practices what it preaches too: their programmes are developing as they’re being implemented, as the teams learn from the experience and needs of their end users.

For more information about the d-school’s courses, contact Lorelle Bell, at

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