Design Thinking vs Innovation vs Technology

I’ve mentored and worked with students and professionals for a number of years now and am always reading about these topics to gain alternate perspectives on design thinking.  One thing I frequently see is confusion between design thinking, innovation, and technology.  All of these terms are well overused by many people who don’t understand them or their application.  I wish to discuss these topics to provide clarification from a practitioner’s viewpoint.

Innovation can be described as the act of introducing something new.  This could be a completely new concept, a blue ocean project for a business endeavor, the combination of old concepts or components to make something new, or an alternate way of doing something.  The product of innovation, in my opinion, should result in an improvement to life in some form.  Innovation can also be seen as the application of an invention.

Technology is the application of scientific discovery resulting in practical outcomes.  It does not need to involve computers.  Technology anciently certainly did not when simple tools were created from the basic science of experimentation even when the science behind the innovation was not understood (think of the use of fire).

Design thinking is a problem-solving tool that seeks to understand the problem from multiple perspectives, generate a variety of solutions, prototype solutions to learn from failure and improve the result, test final ideas, then create a better or new product or service.

I’ve now worked with several groups of students (and listened to several authors speak) that have tended to confuse the outcomes and process of design thinking with technology.  In one instance where I was mentoring, the solutions generated were low-tech, involved human relationships, politics, and health solutions that fixed the problems identified in novel ways.  These were innovative ways that had never been done before.  Yet some of the students argued that the solutions were not innovative because there was no app involved.  They decided to add an app to their solution which caused confusion amongst the panel members they were presenting ideas to.  The panel members (various academic and industry professionals), saw the innovative solution and saw the app as just a nice to have add-on.  In this case, design thinking created an innovative solution that was not technology related.  The solution had never been done before but used existing, low-tech resources, so it was innovative.  The app the students added was merely a superficial, technological convenience but was not the heart of the innovative solution.

In another case, two authors argued that design thinking was a tool to create new innovations only.  For two hours they argued this point indicating that companies must do more than just innovate to placate stock analysts, they must also do other functions in a business.  Again, these authors missed the role of design thinking in helping with a variety of areas of a business.  Design thinking can be used to conjure up new products and services and new technology, but a HUGE benefit to design thinking is that design thinking can help bring problems to older systems.  Here are a few examples:

The national infrastructure in North America and parts of Europe has faced a neglect of maintenance.  Deferred maintenance (arguably procrastination without funding) that has occurred based on the premise that growth will bring more money and more money can fix infrastructure later is resulting in increasingly large maintenance and replacement costs.  I saw this first hand in several locations in North America where government buildings were not being maintained and consequently either they had to be torn down or have major renovations.  How do we solve the problems of a lack of funding, an imbalance in new project vice maintenance funding, and tackling the issue of deferred maintenance?  Design thinking may be one method (and the one I would use) to solve this problem of underfunded infrastructure maintenance.  Perhaps the regular way we look at maintenance could be improved to be more cost effective and perhaps how we build could be adjusted to reduce future operating costs.  Or, perhaps we readjust how infrastructure funding is allocated with more going to maintenance rather than new builds.  These are just a few examples of perspectives.  A bit of design thinking will undoubtedly save lives and future costs.  In this case, the solutions may be innovative, but not technological in nature (e.g., how to fund from alternate sources) or they could be higher tech solutions (e.g., use of polymers, financing options based on data from tech systems) and be innovative.  Or they could be neither innovative nor technologically related (e.g., change the government budget).

The second example is with supply chains.  Supply chains may or may not have technological advances but improvements in basic warehousing, distribution methods, alternate ways to employ contractors, overcoming trucking problems with fewer drivers, and green initiatives may or may not use technology but could be innovative.

Finally, overcoming the high cost of housing in certain cities could benefit from design thinking that is or is not innovative and with or without technology.  Examples could include repurposing of buildings in dying city centers (innovative, low tech), private public partnerships (not innovative and low tech but an answer from design thinking), changes to zoning (not innovative and no tech), micro buildings such as tiny homes (innovative, moderate tech), or high rises funded through unique methods (moderately innovative as it is copied from other industries, low tech as there doesn’t need to be high end tech).

In any case, design thinking is a tool to generate suitable solutions.  Technology applies current scientific knowledge.  And, innovation is introducing new ideas or concepts to solve the problem.