Design thinking might be the answer.

An approach to solving societal problems

Joshua Crownwell
4 min readJan 31, 2021
wicked problems everywhere!

From the dawn of time, Man has been plagued by problems. Man has had to think through problems and proffer solutions to progress; He’s survival depended on it. However, solving problems, especially human issues, is not an easy task.

We, Humans, employ different ways of thinking to solve problems in various spheres of life. However, one area that presents a significant challenge for us, especially in our mostly globalised world, is societal problems.

A social problem is a one that influences many citizens within a society. It is a group of common problems in present-day society and one that many people strive to solve. It is often the consequence of factors extending beyond an individual’s control.

Social problems include poverty, inequality, Educational issues, racism, access to adequate health services, crime, terrorism etc. The advent of globalisation further amplifies these problems. In a world connected by the Internet, global transport and social media, our challenges are becoming more intertwined with the systems that join us all.

Like those listed above, social problems all have a few things in common; they are inherently human and messy and have no clear criteria for success. They are subject to real-world constraints which hinder attempts to find solutions without incurring significant risk. In short, these problems are wicked. How would you try to solve global issues such as climate change, and access to clean drinking water? It’s hard to know where to begin. That’s because they’re all wicked.

We can see that traditional problem-solving techniques just aren’t going to cut it when dealing with such problems. We need to develop empathy for the people affected by the situation and gain a much deeper insight into the problem and reframe the problem entirely if you are to have a chance at coming up with a valuable solution.

To solve these types of issues, we need a new kind of thinking, a new approach towards innovation, we need an answer that helps us break out of the old moulds of thinking we’ve become stuck in, to take a fresh look at the world around us.

I dare say; the answer can be found in Design Thinking!

The Design thinking mindset promotes “outside the box” thinking, enabling innovators to develop new ways of thinking that’s most suitable for the problem at hand and don’t abide by the dominant or traditional problem-solving methods. This approach provides the novelty needed to tackle social problems whose solutions are continually changing and are often not reusable in other contexts.

Design Thinking mindset is beneficial in combating ill-defined problems by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways. It embraces the ambiguity that comes with social problems and seeks to build a way forward by assessing known aspects of a problem and identifying the more ambiguous or peripheral factors that contribute to a problem's conditions.

There’s no clear, definite path towards finding solutions to social problems. Hence, their solutions are often “one-shot operations”, offering no opportunity to learn by trial and error without causing significant change to many people's lives. We have no way of knowing whether the path we take to seek out solutions is mere fantasy or a practical and viable route to take. Design Thinking gives us the tools to explore What Could Be.

We can now see how this approach contrasts with the traditional Technical/Engineering approach, where the concrete and known aspects are tested to arrive at a solution. Design thinking often starts with a desire, a curiosity towards a better outcome, towards a more improved reality.

Design thinking recognises that social problems are inherently human and employs empathy and a human-centric approach to understand the people involved. It also recognises that the solutions to social problems intersect a future that none of us knows about. It tackles this ambiguity by employing rapid iteration and prototyping to sneak up on the future and find out WHAT COULD BE.

Prototyping isn’t used to prove that a solution works because, we have no idea what that solution is, remember the problems are wicked. Instead, prototyping is employed to find out what is needed to be done. It takes on a curious approach to the problem.

This rapid iteration and prototyping process provide feedback on what reality truly is and brings you further to find a unique solution to the problem. The design thinking mindset allows you to ask insightful questions, learn about problems, expose assumptions and let you sneak up on the future.

“Get curious, ask a question, understand the problem, try something, learn from it, do it again, do it again, till you get enough of an idea that you can implement and actually solve a problem.”

— Dave Evans

It’s important to note that design thinking is an innovation methodology and not a craft; hence, it is easily transferable to all life works. So, the next time you want to solve world hunger, remember it’s alright not to have all the answers, keep asking questions and keep iterating, after all, Life is all about ‘not knowing’ but still doing something anyway.