Leveraging Design Thinking to Meet the Challenges of Our Climate Crisis

August 5, 2020 | FEE Content, FEE Posts


by Bob Leonard and David Ross


Organizations are finding it difficult to successfully address climate issues, and to take advantage of the opportunities inherent in our climate crisis, while relying on legacy thinking… mindsets that worked effectively in less turbulent times. Design thinking enables new, innovative approaches.


The development of effective business strategies, at the best of times, encounters a myriad of challenges. Experienced and successful members of the C-suite are often reluctant to embrace change and favor analytical thinking over intuition, losing sight of customer needs. Strategic leaders know that innovation and disruption are key to staying relevant. The C-suite can benefit enormously from the inclusion of design-oriented thinkers.



Design Thinking is a requirement for a post-carbon world. As our climate crisis is a global, extremely complex systemic problem, it cannot be solved by individuals using siloed legacy thinking. Instead, designing a low-carbon future requires unprecedented levels of collaboration, creativity and imagination.


What is Design Thinking?


“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” – Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO


Successfully addressing our climate crisis requires a holistic view. Our climate crisis is a manifestation of unintended consequences of past designs. Today, we have the tools, research and science available to model our design decisions more intricately, limiting the instances in which the solution to one problem creates new problems somewhere else. By analyzing whole systems and understanding interconnections, we can minimize the negative effects of the solutions we create.


Design thinking is an approach to business that helps solve complex problems and solutions in any industry. While design is often used to describe an object or end result, it actually is a process for discovering new opportunities. When applied properly it can be a powerful tool for business and brand success.


What are the benefits?


Much of what we need to do to successfully address our climate crisis (and innovate to profit from it) is related to design. The 20th century was left brain, the 21st century is whole brain. The right brain leads with design, creativity and humanity. The left brain engineers and executes on the right brain’s design/redesign thinking.


So many of the design decisions made every day have a climate implication: each one can help promote a low-carbon future that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. Those who create the products and built environments of everyday life – from engineers to architects – have an important role to play by designing solutions to our climate crisis.


Designers naturally strike a balance between right-brained and left-brained thinking. They are practiced in dealing with the analytical side of business one minute — like systems design, functionality, and sophisticated technical problems — and with the more intuitive, creative side the next.


Designers are also able to balance perspective when chaos abounds. You need that kind of lateral thinking on your team to wrangle the ambiguous into an effective approach. Design thinkers focus equally on creative and business concepts and have the ability to provide a holistic perspective that can lead to deep and successful insights.


Designers often act as the middleman, and as such have to juggle the interests of multiple stakeholders. They are tasked with finding common ground between disparate opinions, which is a valuable tool for the C-suite. Design thinking by nature encourages the exploration of many possibilities that can lead to fresh solutions, enliven the boardroom and develop proactive strategies that connect with consumers.


What does it involve?


Designers and engineers who use the process of whole-systems problem solving consider the relationships among complex systems, instead of focusing on individual parts of systems. This is important because challenges such as our climate crisis represent a set of interconnected issues that can’t be solved in isolation. By taking a big-picture view and considering the whole system, the best opportunities often arise, and can be incorporated, early in the process.


This type of systems thinking leads to holistic design. Holistic design sees a problem or a system as part of a larger, interconnected whole. Given that Nature is the most complex, integrated, holistic design humans have ever experienced, it is obvious that systems thinking and holistic design are core to the redesign of how we live.


Bill McDonough, the architect and designer, has formulated a design principle which he lays out in his book Cradle to Cradle. He demonstrates that our current production systems are based on a ‘cradle to grave’ design model that dates to the Industrial Revolution. This process casts off as much as 90 percent of the materials it uses as waste, much of it toxic. McDonough challenges the notion that human industry must inevitably damage the natural world.


Could we model our own product design on Nature’s? A tree produces thousands of blossoms in order to bear fruit, yet that abundance isn’t wasteful. It’s safe, beautiful and highly effective. The blossoms fall away to biodegrade and enrich the soil. If not picked, the fruit is eaten by birds and seeds are distributed to produce more trees. Products might be designed so that, after their useful life, they provide nourishment for something new – either as biological nutrients that safely re-enter the environment, or as industrial nutrients that circulate within closed-loop production cycles, feeding the manufacture of other goods.


Nature has her own waste disposal solutions. In nature nothing is wasted. All things that were once alive eventually become part of the earth again, returning usable resources. So why not study how nature produces abundantly without waste?


There’s an established science that analyzes nature’s ideas and adapts them for human use. It’s called biomimicry. So far, most biomimicry breakthroughs have been designed and deployed to build better products – lighter, stronger, faster, etc. What if biomimicry scientists (biomimicists?) tackled Bill McDonough’s closed loop, zero waste, cradle to cradle design challenges?


At the core of all design and redesign projects will be several tenets:

  • approach each design problem from a holistic perspective using systemic design principles,
  • lower greenhouse gas emissions as quickly and completely as possible in every facet of the supply chain and production processes,
  • restore as much of the natural world as possible through clean-up, restoration and conservation,
  • create direct linkages between what people do and the consequences they unwittingly create,
  • replace quantity with quality,
  • look to Nature for elegant design solutions,
  • design all products to have a long life of utility, and to be easily disassembled and reintroduced into the production life cycle when their useful life is over.


How can it address our climate crisis?


We need to redesign all forms of industry, transportation and daily life from being powered by fossil fuels to being powered by clean, non-polluting energy sources. It’s a gargantuan (and exciting) design effort.


Here are just some of the energy and technology redesign transitions:

  • developing distributed energy models to coexist with the current grid model,
  • redesigning the refueling infrastructure replacing and/or supplementing gas stations with electric charging stations,
  • retrofitting and redesigning outdated 20th century real estate (especially retail outlets and office buildings) for energy efficiency and new uses,
  • moving from a society designed for the one car per person ownership model to one where there are ever more short-term rentals, ridesharing apps and autonomous vehicles,
  • the design and deployment of “moon shots” such as Space-based Solar Power and Atmospheric Cleansing technologies.


What does it mean for business leaders?


Design thinking isn’t new, but many people are still unsure of how to leverage it. Design minded executives focus on what ultimately matters the most: the customer. Customers drive the business (or at least they should) and directly affect top line revenue. Finding new ways to engage, retain, delight and convert customers is the key to a sustainable business, and the core of design thinking.


One of the difficulties for executives is the willingness to accept and embrace failure. Company cultures are traditionally driven by the endless expectations to beat last quarter’s results. Innovating faster is not only about scaling up R&D investments, but understanding that uncertainty foreshadows opportunity. Innovation drives company value and design thinking gives a structured, yet humanistic approach to new innovation and problem-solving.


Members of the C-suite often are risk-averse. Conversely, design thinkers seek out and advocate for bold new ventures. A designer’s raison-d’être is finding new and innovative ways to attract, engage, retain, surprise, and delight the people who purchase products and services. This customer-centric perspective can help the C-suite uncover clearer audience insights and develop innovative solutions.


Executives don’t need to become designers in order to create conditions where innovation can thrive. Design thinking can offer a process for cultivating an innovation mindset for everyone. By relentlessly applying the principles outlined above (engaging more people in the design process, understanding the impact of our decisions, and rapidly iterating until we arrive at optimal designs) we can create elegant solutions to our climate crisis.


Design thinking – to inform new product development, to reinvent corporate processes, to incorporate customer-centric strategies – is essential to success in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.





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