Inspiring Social Innovation using Design Thinking

What is Social Innovation?

According to the Stanford School of Business, Social Innovation is a “novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions”. Put simply, it is an outcome or solution that is produced by using innovative approaches and technology.

One of the approaches to Social Innovation is adopting the Design Thinking framework to brainstorm ideas. The Design Thinking framework is a human-centred focused approach in solving problems within a business context to life-threatening issues in underprivileged communities. This framework originated from the at Stanford. David Kelley, founder of IDEO, popularised the methodology and adopted it in business uses.


Design Thinking is not just for artists or designers. David Kelly, also author of Creative Confidence states that everyone can be creative. The Design Thinking framework was designed to be use by everyone, from students to world leaders. It follows an approach of firstly empathising with the individuals that you are solving the issue for, then ideating your solutions, prototyping and testing your ideas. You will find that the ideas you come up with will be more impactful and targeted solutions. The key to this framework is understanding the human needs. However, it is not purely doing what the ‘user’ wants or having to produce a brand, new product. It is very much focused on enhancing the user experience of individuals.

An example of Design Thinking being used is the Embrace Infant Warmer. 4 students from the Stanford Business School found during their trip to Nepal that there was a shockingly high mortality rate among premature babies due to hypothermia. The students visited the hospitals and villages to investigate deeper into this issue. What they found was that the incubators in the hospitals were too costly and hospitals were located too far away from the villages, where many premature babies are being born. Hence, the students used the insights that they have found to brainstorm solutions. Following the Design Thinking framework, they focused on the mothers and families of the premature babies as the end users. After rounds of prototyping and improving their design of the infant warmer, the final product was being tested with the families. The final design of the warmer is like a sleeping bag, which has a pouch that can be heated and lasts for 4 hours. There is also a temperature indicator that shows as “OK” when the warmer is being heated to the right temperature. The idea for the indicator was a result of speaking to a mother that was concerned of not knowing how much to heat the warmer up for. Hence, the meaningful impact of this baby warmer led to the establishment of a social venture selling the infant warmers. This success story shows how impactful using Design Thinking is as you are hearing insights directly from individuals affected by a problem.

So how do you apply Design Thinking into your volunteering journey? A key example is when you are teaching or working directly with young or special children. They will have different needs that you need to pay attention to and empathy is a key skill required here. You should try and observe the way the children are learning and adapt your teaching approach to their learning needs. In addition, you can also look out for some issues that the local community is facing during your volunteering day out while cleaning the canal or the woodlands. You can also use this to brainstorm ideas for the type of lessons to conduct to the students. This is not only restricted to when you are working with young children, as even when you are interacting with the elderlies, you can use Design Thinking to help you generate more thoughtful ideas and games that the elderlies will enjoy.

Start inspiring each other to use Design Thinking now, within volunteering or in your academic studies.

Jane, Vice-President

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