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Initiating design thinking with empathy

A few weeks ago I met a young entrepreneur from India who is hard at work to make school curriculum more fun for preschoolers. At the age of 21, right out of a technology school, this young man was thinking about how classroom teaching in Indian schools can be made less sedentary and more responsive to children’s different learning styles. These wanderings led him to create a new video game that now delivers curriculum in an interactive way at many schools in India. I am not many years older than him, and as he told me about his work, I sheepishly wondered what led him to think so differently and boldly at his age.

Little did I know that in my first week as an intern at SAP, I would be in a room with graduate students brainstorming solutions to social and educational challenges. Last week, our office in San Francisco hosted the Impactathon, a boisterous and lively workshop on “design thinking.” SAP organized the event together with Net Impact, a nonprofit of students and professionals using their skills for social change. Net Impact seeks to encourage young people to engage with social problems and SAP could introduce them to a rigorous, yet creative way of problem solving with design thinking.

Design thinking involves looking at a problem from the viewpoint of the end user to create a solution. At the Impactathon, participants used design thinking to solve challenges in motivating and enabling children from less privileged communities to stay in school. These challenges were drawn from the experiences of SAP’s nonprofit partners in education*. The hope was that participants would put themselves in the shoes of children struggling to keep up. Empathy is the first step to making a workable solution, said technology teacher Greg Stein from Sequoia High School, an SAP partner.

We need this kind of thinking everywhere, from social enterprises to business. In institutions, power is usually concentrated at top levels that are often removed from end users or consumers, explained Mike Youngblood, an expert in anthropology and design with gravitytank, who was at the competition to guide students. That’s why it is important to initiate young people entering the workforce to be design thinkers, said Mike.

Watching participants ask questions and pen down thoughts on whiteboards, I could see how experiences of empathetic thinking could spark new ideas. With more design thinkers at all levels, organizations will become empathetic, creative, and ultimately, more effective.

The young are not afraid to question and think out of the box. They just need the right experiences to initiate those ideas. Events like the Impactathon inspire new perspectives and connect young people to peers and mentors, laying the groundwork for creative and bold thinking. A participant said that he enjoyed working with an eclectic team and building on his teammates’ different ideas. For me, this was an inspiring and fun start to my internship with the message that it’s never too late, or too early, for innovative design thinking.

* British Columbia Institute of Technology, FSG, Jobs for the Future, Foundation for a College Education, and Sequoia High School

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