Design Thinking (DT) is a participatory approach that focuses on understanding user-design problems with a variety of “products” and to create and test innovative problem solutions - these may include physical goods but also non-physical products such as services, policy instruments etc.

As such, DT is a human-centred approach (Bloomkamp 2018; Micheli et al. 2018; Roaynor et al. 2018; Weeby 2018) to problem definition and solving, typically achieved through iterative innovation.  DT can be seen as a tool for social, technical and socio-technical innovation as it aims to design solutions within set framework conditions. At its core, DT assumes that current solutions are and have proven to be inadequate and thus aims to disintegrate and reconfigure problem understanding as a prerequisite for innovative solution finding. The process is made up of five steps that must be implemented in order. It further allows, indeed it is encouraged, to revisit previous project steps until a solution is found. 

Design thinking process © adopted from Institute for Design

Five-step Design Thinking process. Source: Adopted from Institute for Design (n.d.) 

co-design workshop picture © Jenan Irshaid

Co-design workshop picture

Design thinking as a co-production method in coDesign

In the coDesign project we worked with two climate and energy model regions (KEM Baden and KEM Freistadt). Our aim was to determine the root causes and possible solutions for the implementation gap, which exists in the Austrian energy transition between goal setting at the national level and the local implementation. For this purpose, we adapted a typical DT process to enable co-production. This required carefully selecting diverse stakeholders to participate in the project. We mapped stakeholders based on publicly available documentation of the KEM region and local media. KEM managers reviewed, adapted and confirmed the maps. Based on these maps we interviewed relevant stakeholders at the national, federal and local levels for each KEM.  The interviews were semi-structured and elicited perceptions and experiences regarding the challenges of implementing energy transition measures as well as determining institutional framework conditions, which may facilitate of deter successful implementation (see Irshaid et al., 2021). Based on the interviews and further consultation with local partners key challenges specific to each region were identified to be further examined in the DT processes.  This process entailed a DT workshops in the KEM Baden, focussing on ecologizing spatial heating in Baden, and one DT workshop in the KEM Freistadt, identifying and solving problems within the OurPower energy trading platform.  

The coDesign workshop included a wide range of DT activities.

  • Creating journey maps of specific problems where participants were asked to backcast on problems and define pivotal points in problem identification (i.e. customer journeys) 
  • Serious play (using LEGO or Flip charts) to recreate the setting within which the problem exists  
  • Groups then visited pre-selected stakeholders in the field (in the KEM Baden groups visited a SME, a citizen & other stakeholders; in the KEM Freistadt groups visited renewable energy producers). Within this exercise groups were tasked with interviewing stakeholders to learn more about the problems and challenges. 
  • The “Ideate” step invited groups to create a fictional persona and design innovative and satisfactory end-user experiences. The solutions which emerged from this exercise were then prototyped.  
  • Prototypes were presented to the end-users (i.e. persons who were previously interviewed). Feedback was then integrated in the final design and presented.

Jenan Irshaid (EQU) and colleagues have adapted design thinking as co-production method in the ACRP project coDesign. Our team is keen to further explore this method in the context of development and adoption of socio-technical innovation. It is particularly suited to explore ideas of justice because it fosters the inclusion of all relevant actors (including innovation drivers and users) in the design process, and it considers the burdens and benefits to a variety of actors.