Designing for the digital society: unveiling the opportunities embedded in digital technologies through Design Thinking

Nowadays, digital technologies are providing incredible options; we live in a world where technological opportunities are cascading over society at an unprecedented speed. Humans are central to understanding how the technology can be better aligned with end-user needs and their willingness to adopt it. Design Thinking is an approach that looks at value and change from the perspective of people


Claudio Dell’Era, Associate Professor of Design Strategy at School of Management, Politecnico di Milano
Stefano Magistretti, Assistant Professor of Innovation and Design Management at School of Management, Politecnico di Milano

We live in a digital society where digital technologies are all being used for work, monitoring health and habits, staying connected, seeking information and getting the news, shopping for groceries, travelling, managing finances and more. Digital technologies are widespread throughout the world, and their presence in our daily life is booming. In the last few decades, several different digital technologies have reshaped the way people live and the way companies develop new products and services. Nowadays, digital technologies are providing incredible options; we live in a world where technological opportunities are cascading over society at an unprecedented speed.

A world awash with technologies and information. But humans do not use digital technologies or data; they need products and services. Artificial Intelligence (AI), in particular, has the potential to transform our world for the better: it can improve healthcare, reduce energy consumption, make cars safer and enable farmers to use water and natural resources more efficiently. AI can be used to predict environmental and climate change, improve financial risk management and provides the tools to manufacture  products tailored to our needs with less waste. AI can also help to detect fraud and cybersecurity threats, and enables law enforcement agencies to fight crime more efficiently. AI can benefit the whole of society and the economy. It is a strategic technology that is now being developed and used at a rapid pace across the world.

Nevertheless, AI also brings new challenges for the future of work, and raises legal and ethical questions. To address these challenges and make the most of the opportunities which AI offers, the Commission published a European strategy in April 2018. The strategy places people at the centre of the development of AI — human-centric AI. According to the report “Tech for Good – Smoothing disruption, improving well-being” developed by McKinsey, the development and adoption of AI-driven solutions has the potential not only to raise productivity and GDP growth, but also to improve wellbeing more broadly, including through healthier living and longevity and more leisure.

Technology has for centuries both excited the human imagination and prompted fears about its effects. In this changing context, the challenge is to build AI solutions to improve and not damage wellbeing. Researchers and practitioners are acknowledging that this is a problem of design, which acts as a driver of innovation and change and which is able to keep humans at the centre when building solutions. Humans are central to understanding how the technology can be better aligned with end-user needs and their willingness to adopt it.

Design Thinking is an approach that looks at value and change from the perspective of people. Or, even better, from the perspective of what is meaningful to people. Similar to many other approaches, Design Thinking also combines three factors: (i) technologies, how things are made and their improved performance; (ii) people, how these things are valuable for customers; (iii) business, how organisations can profit from offering them.
The perspective embedded in Design Thinking makes it unique: Design Thinking starts with people. This approach allows leaders to look at value created for individuals and assume their perspective, conceiving innovation not primarily as a source of competitive advantage and profit, but as a means to generate value for end-users.

Design Thinking is usually characterised by three traits: a human-centred perspective, where innovators build empathy with users; the leverage of creativity as a driver of innovation (sometimes even in contrast to assets as knowledge, technology and competitive positioning); and an intense use of prototyping as a rapid and effective source of communication and learning among stakeholders.

Human centeredness in Design Thinking means that what drives the entire innovation process is the identification and satisfaction of user needs. The success of any innovation depends on simultaneously achieving user desirability, technology feasibility and financial viability, yet Design Thinking almost prescriptively instructs innovators to address desirability first.
By continuously involving end users in the iterative co-creation and testing of ideas and prototypes, design thinkers ensure that the outcomes of their innovation effort add value to the human experience and are meaningful and affordable. In so doing, Design Thinking overturns the traditional business perspective that is technology driven: companies first determine what is feasible for them to develop and then push their new products and services through marketing campaigns hoping that they address people’s search for value and meaning.

The need for a human-centred approach also stems from the wicked nature of the problems addressed in Design Thinking projects. Wicked problems are defined as a class of social system problems that are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, and where many customers and decision-makers have conflicting values. These types of problems should be addressed with a human perspective to grasp their complexity, make sense of them and make them tractable.

Human centredness in Design Thinking is achieved through the innovator’s empathy with users. Empathy consists of perspective taking, namely the ability to adopt the perspective of another person or recognise their perspective as their truth, be open to various inputs, suspend judgement, recognise other people’s emotions and communicate by mirroring back.


Favourite bootcamp: Design Thinking

After the first few months of intensive classes, the bootcamp season has paved the way for a very different style of learning: week-long specializations dealing with the main and most relevant themes in the business world. Every candidate can choose from amongst courses such as Big Data, Entrepreneurship, Sustainability and Circular Economy, and Global Management, to plunge into a fully-immersive environment of seminars from scholars and professionals, hands-on labs and company presentations by managers in which to both learn and put the acquired knowledge into practice.

Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, this year the experience for my class was for the most part conducted remotely online, but normally the Biomarketing bootcamp, for instance, offers the opportunity to visit the Politecnico Pheel lab, where students have the chance to learn how to conduct and execute some real research based on techniques such as eye tracking and ECG (electrocardiogram recording).

Fortunately, my favourite bootcamp was held at the end of January and I am very glad it was done in person because, given its very practical nature, it was a great opportunity to have a hands-on approach. I am speaking of Design Thinking, a topic that I didn’t know anything about before the MBA but that I immediately fell in love with for its immense versatility and because of a set of skills and insight it provides that can work in any kind of environment, both in and outside of the business world.

Design Thinking is a methodology that provides a hands-on approach to solving problems stemming from the understanding of human-based needs. Hybridized with creative brainstorming, design, ethnographic research, prototyping and usability testing, this approach has gained so much momentum in recent years that consulting companies as BCG, PWC, Deloitte and Capgemini have acquired Design Thinking divisions -for the most part working in the digital area – to produce oblique solutions to business problems.

For someone like myself, coming from the humanities and with a background in qualitative methods, crossing paths with a subject like Design Thinking proved extremely relevant and immediately familiar as a way to reengineer my research experience in academia to business-focused issues. The bootcamp was conducted with the supervision of the team of scholars working in the Design Thinking for Business observatory at the Politecnico, who organized a real experiential gym for our class, to put the methods learned into practice. Activities such as “diverging” and “converging” during brainstorming phases, prototyping objects like a new wallet that would suit our desk-mate’s desires prior to an in-depth interview with our user, and ethnographic research through a “retail safari” aimed at scrutinizing, discussing and improving the user experience of some of the city’s famous retail spaces, were just a few of the awesome experiences that punctuated a very unusual but memorable week.

One of the takeaways that I evaluate as standing out from this bootcamp is how transversal Design Thinking is. In the past few weeks, as the other bootcamps have been taking place, I have found myself using some of the tools of this methodology more than once, for instance to brainstorm an idea or to get out of a blind spot when working on a project in teams with my classmates. The wide array of applicability makes it without any doubt my favourite class in the MBA and a valuable resource that will for sure help me in both my professional and personal life down the line.


About the author
Marianna Trimarchi
I am a candidate of the International Full Time MBA at MIP. I have a background in academia as a PhD in Communication and Strategic Analysis and a career as content producer in the Media Industry.I have worked for the Italian Television as author and assistant producer for cultural programs as well as for other media outlets as journalist. I am passionate about understanding complex phenomena particularly related to internationalization and global development from a multidisciplinary perspective.