The world is rapidly changing, in fact the world has changed. Therefore, innovation is not an option but a deliberate strategic choice for organisations wishing to gain comparative advantage and succeed in the 21st century and beyond. Innovative organisations, however, need innovative leaders who can collaborate, co-create and deliver impact.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is ambitious in nature, and calls upon all stakeholders to profoundly change the way they do business. It demands leaders who can apply innovative approaches to address complex global problems as highlighted in the Agenda. Traditional approaches that focus on individual sectors and patchwork policy-making are not enough to address the challenges facing the world today in a comprehensive way. Recognising that employing the same approaches repeatedly will not yield different results, the notion of sustainable development requires all-of-society to come up with novel, innovative and human-centred approaches. It urges us to go back to the drawing board and think creatively, innovatively and comprehensively.

This is specifically true for UN leaders working in the context of delivering on the 2030 Agenda. They must view the concept of innovation from a broader perspective and recognise it as “the ability to see change as an opportunity”. Innovation is not always about re-inventing the wheel or cutting-edge inventions; sometimes it requires more unlearning than learning, new ways of working or problem-solving rather than simply developing new solutions. An innovative mindset is as much about being able to change one’s perspective as it is about taking a risk. An innovative leader can embrace ambiguity and operate successfully in a “VUCA world” while constantly challenging the status quo including their own assumptions and adapting agility.

Einstein once said: “we cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. This is why Design Thinking comes into play. It can add significant value to how leaders think and address the challenges that their organisations face in delivering on the 2030 Agenda.

Design Thinking can:

- successfully catalyse a conversation for change;

- be a way to reframe problems, ideate solutions and iterate towards a better answer;

- encourage collaborative creativity and intelligence;

- provide a solution-based approach to solving complex problems in a collaborative fashion.

Design Thinking and Innovation go hand-in-hand. Innovation starts with people. The concept of Design Thinking focuses on the human experience. In essence, Design Thinking is a human-centred systematic method to problem-solving. It is not about being a designer but rather thinking like one. When applied in the context of the 2030 Agenda, this approach can result in local, collaborative, and participatory initiatives that are founded on the local context rather than being retrofitted to it. Grounded on key thinking paradigms of being holistic, uninhibited, collaborative, iterative, and visual, design thinking fosters integrative and cross-disciplinary thinking. The Design Thinking approach does not only encourage innovative thinking but enables successful exemplification of the four leadership characteristics identified by the UN Leadership Framework: focus on impact, driving transformational change, systems thinking and co-creation.

Understanding the five stages of Design Thinking: empathising, defining, ideating, prototyping and testing, will empower leaders (of the UN and other organisations) to apply Design Thinking tools and methods not only in their everyday work with their teams and other stakeholders, but to also strategically address the complex challenges of the 2030 Agenda. Although Design thinking is not a linear process, nor do the stages have to be followed sequentially, yet an important place to start is at empathy.

1. Empathise

The first stage of the Design Thinking process is to gain an empathic understanding of the problem we are trying to solve. Many leaders and organisations are keen to develop new ideas, therefore often miss out this vital first stage of the innovation process. Empathy is crucial to a human-centred design process; it allows design thinkers to set aside their own assumptions about the world in order to gain insight into users and their needs.

2. Define

During the Define stage, we put together the information we have created and gathered during the Empathise stage. This is where observations will be analysed and synthetized in order to define the core problems. Creating problem statements and systematically working through this stage will help leaders and their teams to gather even better ideas in the next phase.

3. Ideation

This is often the most creative phase. During the third stage of the Design Thinking process, we are ready to start generating ideas. We can start to "think outside the box" to identify new solutions to the problem statement we have created, and we can start to look for alternative ways of viewing the problem. There are hundreds of Ideation techniques such as Brainstorm, Brainwrite, Worst Possible Idea, and SCAMPER to stimulate free thinking and to expand the problem space. It is important to get as many ideas or problem solutions as possible at the beginning of the Ideation phase.

4. Prototype

This is a key element of the design process. Prototyping is a mindset and leaders must learn how they can apply it to their every day work.  It is often more accessible and less complex than we think. This is an experimental phase, and the aim is to identify the best possible solution for each of the problems identified during the first three stages. It is not about succeeding first time but about taking a risk and making all the mistakes now, that could be costly later, then seeking feedback and making relevant changes. By the end of this stage, one will have a better idea of the constraints inherent to the solution and the problems that are present.

5. Testing

Leaders who think like designers rigorously test. This phase is all about gathering feedback from stakeholders and maximising learning. Speed is of the essence here - being quick and efficient allows you to move rapidly from creating a prototype, to putting it out to test it, to gathering feedback, and finally to creating a new and improved iteration of your ideas. Even during this phase, alterations and refinements are made in order to rule out problem solutions.

The interconnectedness and indivisibility of the five critical components of the 2030 Agenda (namely: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnerships), and the realities of the world in which we work require leaders to deal with complexity at an unprecedented scale. We need to break down silos and embrace a different way of working. For this, we need to innovate and develop a new approach to solving problems. Design Thinking represents an innovative approach to innovation that has the power to advance the 2030 Agenda and promote leadership behaviour that is outlined in the UN Leadership Framework.

To gain a deeper understanding of applying Design Thinking and Innovation in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, join our course “Applying Design Thinking in Implementing the 2030 Agenda: An Innovative Approach to Innovation” in Bonn (Germany) from 25 – 28 June 2019. For more information and registration, please click here. Limited spaces left, please apply early.

If you have any questions, please write to us at sustainable-development@unssc.org.



The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.