Why the Best Strategy for Social Innovation is Design Thinking?

Humankind has gone a long way in innovation and problem-solving. Not only have we eradicated some of the major issues society faces, but social inventors are coming closer to solving burning challenges every day.

One of the approaches that enabled a huge leap in social innovation is design thinking. It’s being used by nonprofits to increase the efficiency of solutions for social issues. It also crosses the boundaries between the public sector, for-profits, and non-profits.

In this article, we will list some of the basic models of design thinking in social innovation and list some of the examples of best practices.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking has become a buzzword that encompasses everything that solves issues in a creative way.

However, the more narrow definition of design thinking implies human-centered thinking activities that rely on our intuitive abilities, recognizing patterns, asking questions, constructing functional ideas, and expressing ourselves.

“It’s a middle way between running an organization or an institution based on intuition and inspiration compared to reason and analytics”, says Diane Willows, a writer at GrabMyEssay, “the efficiency rates are much higher and the chances of success are significantly greater”.

According to Brown’s Change By Design, the term originated after David Kelley, the founder of Stanford’s Design Institute said that every time he was asked about design, he would use the word “thinking” in order to explain what exactly designers do. Eventually, the term became widely used.

Design Thinking Step-By-Step

Design Thinking Step-By-Step

This is the basic scheme that illustrates the intrinsic works of design thinking: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping, testing.

According to Stanford, design thinking keeps three spaces in mind: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

Firstly, inspiration is considered the issue that motivates design thinking, the search for solutions. Ideation is explained as the process of creating and testing ideas, while implementation is taking the project from an idea into reality.

In the following step-by-step presentation, we will take a look at how every phase of design thinking can help social innovation:

1. Emphasize

Design thinking is “human-centered” because it’s developed by humans for humans. This pre-condition of design thinking is one of the main factors why it’s a good approach to social innovation.

This type of thinking also implies that you know how to see “the bigger picture” and actually imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.

For example, if you’re an upper-class member of Western society, you need to have a high degree of empathy in order to do great social work. It’s not that you don’t sympathize with those less fortunate: rather, you would have harder time understanding issues and finding solutions without empathy.

2. Defining the Problem

After you and your team have used the power of empathy to see what the problem is and where there is space for improvement, it’s time to clearly define the problem.

You can use online tools that will help your team align your common goals, missions, and visions. There are such services as IsAccurate, Supreme Dissertations or Studicus (for verbalizing the issue and approaching the problem with a clear approach), Wrike (a free tool for project management), Odoo (to increase the efficiency of your team), and Upwork (to hire freelance experts for your one-off projects).

Clearly defining the problem will also result in the quality of your solution. If you misread the issue or don’t focus on the right segments of the challenge, the next steps of design thinking won’t go in the right direction.

3. Ideation

Brainstorming, developing, and tweaking an idea is the central part of the design thinking process.

There is also a great deal of improvisation and workarounds: for design thinkers, sometimes trial-and-error is one of the most effective solutions during the phase of ideation.

During the ideation stage, design thinking considers “the edges” – spaces where things happen differently: different living, thinking, and consuming. When you take edges into consideration, it’s much easier to apply an idea to an entire system, because positive deviants are a great signal that a solution is all-encompassing.

4. Creating a Prototype

In product design, a prototype is an important phase of the overall process, but design thinking in other fields is no exception.

In social innovation, a design prototype solution actually means a draft or a plan that’s supposed to be implemented in a given community.

The actual environment and surroundings where the prototype would be implemented are just as important as the solution itself. According to the Director of Positive Deviance Initiative Monique Sternin, “positive deviance and design thinking are relevant to a unique cultural context and will not necessarily work outside that specific situation.”

5. Testing

For most product designers, testing is the most nerve-wracking phase of design, but it’s even more so for social innovators. When you’re dealing with social innovation, testing is not as forgiving as it is in a clean, technological environment: you’re dealing with real people and their lives.

Social innovation design testing is usually done in extremely tiny phases: instead of applying a solution to, for example, an entire town, the “experiment” begins with only a couple of households and expands slowly.

This way, you can tweak anything that needs changes during the process itself. It also allows you to test out a solution on a very small sample before expanding it to a larger scale, which leaves less room for error.


Just like other areas of innovation, social changes and impacts are being increasingly driven by design thinking. By using some of the most positive examples of good practice, you can also improve the results of your social innovation efforts.

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