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Design Network a Move in the Right Direction

By Catherine Livingstone

Design thinking can help Australia change its approach to innovation.

Australia needs to get very practical and very real about the way it shapes its future to be competitive. The establishment of an Australian Design Integration Network looks to be a step in the right direction.

Australians should have great expectations about the future, but we need to face the fact that our great expectations should not be about entitlements received, but rather potential achieved.

To achieve our potential as a nation we (including government) have to be smart, creative and nimble in securing a competitive advantage. Traditionally this leads to a call to be innovative, but innovation is one of the most overused and least understood words in the national lexicon.

Calls for innovation are like calls to be healthy. There is violent agreement, much virtuous intent but no clear path to action. We need to change our approach.

We need to deconstruct “innovation”, recognising that, at its heart, innovation is about finding creative solutions to problems.

Design thinking is the process underpinning innovation. Through its discipline of upfront probing, it ensures that the problem to be solved has been correctly identified from the user perspective, and then applies systems thinking to find a solution.

Patterns of innovation are culturally dependant, so it’s helpful to explore innovation in the context of the Australian culture. There is strong anecdotal evidence that Australia has a cultural predisposition to solving problems – there seems to be something about the way we think. Perhaps it derives from a persistent lack of resources; perhaps from ingenuity necessitated by geographical isolation; perhaps diversity of thinking deriving from patterns of inward migration; perhaps from the attitude of defiance that says, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done”.

In the context of innovation, Australians are very capable amateurs but are increasingly facing sophisticated competitors. We need to get very specific – particularly about the key role of design in innovation and the role of design thinking, which goes beyond form and structure and, at its most successful, leads to better social and economic outcomes. Design thinking is multidisciplinary and occurs at the intersection between art, craft, science and business savvy. Really good design has emotional appeal and meaning.

Regardless, we need to progress this skill from the amateur to the professional level, and in a systematic way. Applying the rigour of design thinking could be just the catalyst Australian business needs to help us move through our fear of failure and yet build on our ability to find pragmatic and valuable solutions.

Other countries think this is important and believe you can stimulate people to encourage design thinking. Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and the United States have programs directed at promoting design thinking. The majority are government policy initiatives – and many make explicit reference to the importance of design thinking to innovation.

The realisation that the nation needs to look at design thinking as a core of its innovation drive, and the establishment of an Australian Design Integration Network by the Commonwealth is a valuable step towards developing and promoting design-led innovation.

The Australian Design Integration Network is intended to link design-related activities across Australia’s innovation system – industry, government, universities and public sector research agencies. This is an encouraging development because Australia needs to link all sources of creative thinking – and myriad other groups and individuals into a design thinking “movement” that can get traction right across the nation.

Only time will tell whether the Australian Design Integration Network will achieve its stated ideal to promote access to world-class design integration programs, education, skills development and research opportunities for Australian industry to lift industry competitiveness. For that ideal to be realised, the concept of design thinking needs to be widely embraced.

Catherine Livingstone AO FTSE is Chair of Telstra Corporation Ltd, a director of Macquarie Group Limited, WorleyParsons Limited, The George Institute for Global Health, and Saluda Medical Pty Ltd. She is also a member of the NSW Innovation and Productivity Council and President of the Australian Museum Trust. She was Chair of CSIRO (2001–06), President of Chief Executive Women (2007-2008), and the Chair of The Australian Business Foundation (2002-2005). Catherine also served on the Boards of Goodman Fielder Ltd and Rural Press Ltd.