Design Thinking Being Added to Business Schools’ Syllabi

Find out whether design thinking is here to stay

The number of UK homeowners aged 25 to 29 has dropped more than half since 1990, from 63% to 31%, according to the Social Mobility Commission, with sky high prices locking many out of the property market. So more than one-third of first-time buyers in England rely on their parents for financial help, up from 20% seven years ago. But buying a home together is a process fraught with bureaucracy.

So Henry Oakes, an Imperial College Business School MBA student, found a customer-centric solution: an artificial intelligence (AI) tool which, he hopes, will help people plan joint expenditures or secure loans more simply.

“We spoke to lots of people and repeatedly heard feedback that while the common workaround for sky-high house prices — buying together with family, partners or friends — makes it more affordable, it’s a tricky process,” he says, adding: “We want to tackle the problem of UK housing affordability.” 

Oakes and his classmate and co-founder Byron McCaughey used “design thinking”, a human-centered approach to solving problems which places customers at its core, to come up with the business plan for Kahoots, their start-up. At Imperial College, design thinking is a core module of the full-time MBA and is taught in optional elective courses in other master’s programs.

The idea was first pioneered by academics at Stanford University and employed by nimble start-ups who hoped to serve customers better than large corporations. But the concept has gained in popularity, with companies from Apple to Samsung using design thinking to find innovative solutions to challenges. That has prompted business schools to add it to their syllabi too. 

“Companies that innovate have always known the importance of design thinking. It’s a process that takes innovators out into the world to discover the problems real people face, so they can create new solutions, prototype them and finally bring them to life,” says Cyril Bouquet, at professor at IMD business school in Switzerland, who organized a week-long intensive innovation module for MBA students. 

Ileana Stigliani, assistant professor of design and innovation at Imperial College, agrees that design thinking is becoming more widespread in business education, but adds that there are challenges, with a perception among some students that being empathetic means “being weak”. 

“So far empathy has been an underestimated leadership skill, but as we hear more about it in the media and have examples from the corporate world, such as BMW and Barclays, some students are coming to Imperial College exclusively because we offer design thinking,” she says. With growing corporate interest comes growing demand for MBA graduates who can use design thinking to solve challenges. 

“Employers are looking for emotional intelligence in new hires, and this will grow as AI becomes more widespread in the workplace,” Stigliani says. “What differentiates us from robots is our ability to empathise and recognise emotions and act on them. It’s important to cultivate these skills even more moving forward.” 

The best way to teach design thinking is through experiential learning projects, say schools.

At IMD, students were signed up to a competition in which they came up with a solution to improve healthcare patients’ lives. They prototyped and pitched their products to a panel of judges, as part of the pan-school Debiopharm Inartis Challenge. Two teams of IMD MBAs were named as winners. One team’s project is a gripping device which allows patients with shaky limbs, due to diseases like Parkinson’s, to hold objects still. Another gives patients the chance to customize their hospital outfits, to increase their mental wellbeing.

“The annual challenge is generating more and more interest every year, from individuals who put their collective expertise and experience to use to benefit science broadly,” says Benoît Dubuis, president of Fondation Inartis, a non-profit which promotes innovation. 

At Imperial College, Oakes and McCaughey developed their venture through the Imperial Innovation Pitch Final 2017, which showcases enterprising student talent. As winners of the competition, the pair took home £10,000 to use to accelerate Kahoots. “The prize money will be used to build an alpha version of the Kahoots web app, our main product, in order to market test with users. It won’t have many bells or whistles, but it will help us to learn exactly what customers want and what we need to focus on,” Oakes says. 

“In a year, our aim is to have a live product in the marketplace and to have helped lots of people buy a house together. Who knows, we may have even made some revenue.”

Seb Murray
Written by Seb Murray

Seb is a journalist and consulting editor who has developed a successful track record writing about business, education and technology for the international press.

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