A design thinking approach can help collective impact initiatives synthesize complex issues and deeply engage stakeholders in their work.

In the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region, well paying, salaried jobs in advanced manufacturing remain unfilled. At the same time, thousands of families struggle with poverty, with one in every three individuals living below the federal poverty line.

Research shows that when we connect mothers experiencing poverty to well paying career pathways, the ripple effect can extend beyond the individual to the family; and potentially future generations. This leaves the question: how do we encourage more women to enroll, and succeed, in advanced manufacturing careers?

Design thinking is a creative approach to problem solving where the wants, needs and limitations of the end user are in constant focus…

After multiple years of various attempts to get more women into advanced manufacturing, a different approach was suggested: design thinking. Design thinking is a creative approach to problem solving where the wants, needs and limitations of the end user are in constant focus, with a particular emphasis on building empathy with stakeholders. Practiced historically by business to uncover latent consumer needs, design methodologies can also be used to uncover new approaches and solutions to complex social challenges (See “Design thinking for Social Innovation”, Winter 2010.)

Partners for Competitive Workforce, the region’s workforce development collective impact leader, brought Design Impact on board, a Cincinnati-based social innovation and design firm, to lead the design process. Funded by the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and the Ascend Fund at the Aspen Institute, Design Impact worked closely with members of this collective impact group that included members from the United Way of Greater Cincinnati and Gateway Community and Technical College among others. Adding a Two-Generation lens to their work, they asked:

How might we involve the whole family to increase the number of women in advanced manufacturing careers and increase participation in STEM learning among their children?

To learn more about this particular project, check out the case study: Two-Generation Design Project: Uncovering new approaches to Advanced Manufacturing workforce development.

While this particular project focused on workforce development, it’s important to note that the process of design can be used to drive innovation on any issue. Learnings from this work can be extrapolated to inform any collective impact or two-generation project. These learnings include:

  • Design research can synthesize complex issues like these into bite-sized opportunity areas. The process of design starts with curiosity and inspiration, gathering hundreds of data points from research, observations, and stakeholders on the issue. At first, drawing conclusions from the vast amount of data can seem insurmountable, but through the careful and sometimes messy process of synthesis, teams can uncover clear pathways forward that have well-defined implications for specific and feasible action.

  • Emphatic approaches, such as the consideration of user experiences among systems, can play a crucial role in uncovering gaps. By taking a user-centered approach to problem solving, the team was able to uncover pain points among systems that often do not integrate or streamline their services for users (ex: the experience of taking the bus in the early morning to drop a child off at day care, then to a remote manufacturing job).

  • Engaging community voice in solutions thinking is a) easier than you thought and b) the right way to work. The “ideation” portion of design process can be a space for anyone and everyone who has a stake in an issue to have a voice in designing solutions. By including often-unheard voices as we generate ideas, we uncovered answers that we might not have arrived at previously–and move beyond feedback into true co-creation.

  • When the problems are complex, remember to invest in multiple solution-areas. While we dream about “silver bullet” solutions, we know that systems change requires investment in the “silver buckshot”. When working in the resource-scarce mindset of the social sector, it is easy to short-change the importance of prototyping multiple solutions before investing deeply. When digging into the design process, be sure to consider and allocate the adequate budget and timeline required to test several interventions.

From workforce development to educational environments to health care delivery, design thinking processes can provide clarity in the midst of complexity, generate multiple possibilities for moving forward, and engage beneficiaries in authentic dialogue. By flipping the narratives and encouraging divergent approaches in social sector challenges, design thinking inspires imagination and re-ignites a sense of ‘what could be’ on today’s toughest issues.