Design Thinking for Social Innovation

by Apr 18, 2022

Business Innovation Brief Best Article

Social innovation is a means to develop and implement innovative and effective solutions to solve environmental or social issues. 

It is a new perspective that provides systematic and practical solutions that can be applied to ongoing social issues. The needs of society are given priority in order to improve things like infrastructures, housing, and healthcare.

Design Thinking has evolved over the years for social innovation focused on bettering society with a more human-centered approach to solving problems. 

Stanford Center for Social Innovation defines Design Thinking as “the ultimate solution that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just — than current approaches to resolve current challenges”

The Four Phases of Design Thinking for Social Innovation

There are four phases to Design Thinking for social innovation. They are as follows:

1) Discovery Phase

The discovery of social problems is the primary phase research. It enables researchers to deeply understand problems and identify people, their needs, and the barriers they face. 

This phase builds on the foundation of empathy by helping teams empathize with each other and gain new insights. In addition, questioning gives members a more profound perception of necessary solutions to pursue out of all the research.

2) Defining Phase

Defining the problem is the second phase of the Design Thinking methodology for social innovation. This is where the problem is determined and focused around bringing out a human-centered, valuable, and actionable question that aims to bring focus and clarity to the design space. 

This is where we ask the question that defines the problem and the impact on people. We are not defining solutions in this phase, we are exploding the exploration of the problem in a deeper more meaningful way, with the focus on the impact the problem has on people.

3) Development Phase

Development is the third phase of the Design Thinking methodology for social innovation. In this stage, the participants develop an idea based on the results generated in the earlier steps. 

In this phase we begin to inform the problem within the main idea with all the best views in mind. This can be done with a few tools or using a simple storyboard as the medium. The goal is to begin to explore the how to solve what has been learned.

4) Delivery Phase

Delivery is the final stage in the methodology. It starts with communicating the ideas within the team and to the people involved. Be it a community, a region, or even a country.

The delivery phase requires that we maintain openness in order to revisit where appropriate the prior phases. While the goal is to deliver a solution, you want to stay open to the possibility that something may have been missed, or that reality isn’t matching the design on paper.

A very effective way to apply Design Thinking social innovation is by establishing social innovation labs.

Social Innovation Labs

A social Innovation Lab refers to the place or incubator where members across different fields, sectors, and socio-economic organizations collaborate to bring out solutions based on design thinking and innovation processes.

Social Innovation Laboratory (SIL), as an example began as an idea to fuse innovative, research-driven practices and the non-profit format, with the end goal being to improve social programs that benefit the disempowered, disenfranchised, and at-risk populations.

Innovation Is Important

In our modern world, environments and/or nations are hyperconnected. Therefore, what happens in one country can concern other countries as well. 

Today, nations face political, economic growth, financial stability, poverty, hunger, disease, and many more challenges all happening at the same time.

These ongoing issues require attention that can be solved using Design Thinking social innovation by the private sector. 

Solving societal problems can also generate business opportunities. Applying new knowledge and innovation can generate as much as 80% economic growth.

Yesterday, countries were considered prosperous if they were economically and socially prosperous. It was assessed through its GDP. However, in today’s time, a country must have peace, happiness, freedom, and financial well-being to be considered prosperous.

When we assess prosperity from these lenses, we perceive that a prosperous society needs an innovative approach to resolving complex problems with new and relevant solutions.

How Design Thinking Can Help Society

A well-known example from Wyatt and Brown can be cited to display how Design Thinking can bring social innovation.

A young woman, Shanti, who lives on the outskirts of Hyderabad India, fetches water from the local borehole that is about 300 feet away from her dwelling. She can easily carry 3 gallons of water even though she knows drinking the water has made her family sick multiple times.

She could not use safe water from the Naandi Foundation run community treatment plant. Opting for the local borehole over safe water is due to only one reason. 

The plant requires her to use a 5-gallon rectangular jerrican. This is simply too heavy and bulky to carry, even if it is a walking distance from the plant. In addition, she is forced to buy 5 gallons every day even though she does not need it and for which she needs to pay more. 

In this situation, Design Thinking has not been applied as they failed to understand the issue of the dwellers and fix it according to their needs. It has resulted in Shanti forcing herself to use the dirty water even if they had the facility of using safe drinking water nearby.

The treatment center was able to produce safe and potable water but failed to address the community’s water transport challenges. Thus, the traditional problem-solving method could not find systematic solutions needed by the consumer.

Design Thinking now allows us to investigate people’s insights in-depth. It aims to assume practical and relevant solutions by closely examining the product and services and the infrastructure that enables it to deliver the required product and services.

Businesses are taking in Design Thinking to provide products and services by going into the depth of problems and allowing high-impact solutions to bubble up rather than just imposing them from the top, which does not necessarily help the community in the case of Shanti.


Design Thinking has progressed over the years in such a way that now it can be used in addressing social issues, such as improving infrastructure to provide required services, in a way that meets people needs on their terms.

This methodology has proved effective for profit and non-profit organizations as they could understand social problems, unlock innovative ideas, and create better outcomes for people by leveraging the most important pillar of Design Thinking: empathy.

“Empathy in Design Thinking informs us to better understand issues by asking the question why in a deeper and more meaningful way.”

Five levels deep of asking why, will reveal the truth of what the real challenge and possible solution can be. This approach requires being willing to go deeper, and having the patience to gain the necessary insights, to develop appropriate solutions to the challenges we face in society.

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