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As the issues society faces become more complex, companies will need to develop new ways of thinking. Some companies are turning to design-driven thinking, a framework that enables radical innovation based on design principles, to give them a leg up.

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By incorporating design into the innovation process, companies can develop new products, services, and experiences that stand out from competition and solve problems in a completely new way.

At the 2022 G1 Global Conference, Takram Japan Inc. CEO Kinya Tagawa joined panelists Miles Pennington, Yoky Matsuoka, and John Maeda to discuss the importance of design-driven innovation and how business leaders can take advantage of it.

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What is design-driven innovation, and how are you teaching the next generation of designers about it?

Miles Pennington: We have a design lab at the University of Tokyo that we call design-led innovation. And I think the core reason for doing that is design is often seen as a kind of finishing process or a backroom activity, whereas we see it very much as the driver for change, creating new ideas and navigating new ways in society and new uses of technology.

My background originally was in engineering, and I went to study design at the master’s level. I’ve always been interested in mixing disciplines that are useful for creativity. I ran a master’s program in London for many years called Innovation Design Engineering, which was to encourage students essentially to become entrepreneurial and use designers as the driving force for catalyzing new change and starting new businesses.

What I’m doing here at the University of Tokyo goes deeper into fundamental exploration. We’re interested in exploring the very fundamentals of research, science, technology, and engineering that’s happening at the university, mixing designers directly with those researchers to see how we can create value more directly and bring that work more quickly out into society.

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It started as an experiment. I think it’s quite an unusual place for design to be. It’s different from incubation or accelerating centers. But I think fundamentally, we see a design-driven or design-led innovation as using design to drive innovation.

It’s not the only way of innovating, but I think the processes and approaches of design are incredibly useful for driving new ideas forward successfully.

How do design-driven companies aim to solve problems?

Yoky Matsuoka: My mission has been building technological solutions for people who can benefit from improving their everyday life. I started building devices for people with different kinds of disabilities when I was a professor. And I’ve moved on now to building this thing for everyday families.

The insights that came into this product have a lot to do with first identifying the target audience. The target audience of those busy families who are out there struggling. This was heightened during the pandemic.

We have conducted user studies in China, Japan, and the US to acutely understand what those pain points are. And as the product matured, we kept asking over and over. But I do have to say that a lot of insights came from myself as well, which I think is an incredibly important part of product design.

I also have four kids. I have a job. I juggle it all. Most of the time failing. But because of that, there are pain points that I just know that a lot of families are going through.

So the combination of the study and personal anecdotes. For example, I struggle with dinner. You probably all have this problem with kids asking, “What’s for dinner tonight?” And then you feel extremely frustrated.

It’s like, well, I have to worry about that again today, and it just keeps coming. It’s going to happen tomorrow again. So that’s one example of a cognitive load we realized people in every country struggle with that we’re trying to solve.

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How can we use design-driven innovation outside of the typical design process?

Pennington: From an educational perspective, what’s exciting about design or utilizing design in education is the trajectory that it’s been on in the last thirty to forty years.

Forty years ago, it was about making things. Sketching a new power drill, being able to model it and make a physical model and paint it up. It was a very product-focused type of activity. A kind of craft in a way.

I think as design education has evolved and design itself has evolved, it has become very much more complex. Now we have service design and experience design, and it’s drifted into and focused on more intangible aspects, which I think is very important.

The next step for me for that kind of progress is for designers. And I think this is where we’re really stretching the definition of design.

It’s already a very elastic word that covers far too many things. There should be fifty words that actually mean design, so we can have much more resolution.

But I think the next generation of educational task is to move design into high-level policymaking, where it can have absolutely the highest level of influence on societies. It’s helping to make the policies that we live under and that could be influencing business and the environment and everything else to do with the way that we live.

There are policy labs around the world. People are interested in this. It is starting to happen. But I think the same kind of tools of, you know, being imaginative and being unafraid of failure and creating ideas and trying them in that way of design, and always keeping people in society at the center of what you’re doing are very useful.

And I think in the future, we will see people creating policy that we won’t recognize as designers. There are many people in design now that don’t label themselves as designers.

At the end of the day, I think we can cast aside the worry about the definition of what the word means and thinks about how this amazing process can influence the way that countries and nations are built. And I think that’s what we need right now for the emergencies around climate change. There are many societal challenges that need that approach.

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