Kai Frithjof Brand-Jacobsen: Beyond Design Thinking

1. Your personal approach on design thinking. What is your definition of the concept?

Integrative thinking that transcends single-domain parameters and enables optimal, operational solutions. Exploring solutions, exploring outcomes and understanding issues, needs and opportunities through an approach that weaves together expertise and experience from an incredibly rich breadth of perspectives – enabling practical outcomes that achieve more than any one could on its own. One key – diversity, synergy, creativity – bringing together across both vertical and horizontal professions, experiences, connections to an issue. At PATRIR what we do is enable practical processes and methodologies that work on the ground in some of the most challenging contexts of conflict and war.  The ‘solutions’ that come from these processes would never be possible from any one organisation or actor alone. Bringing together a ‘community’ or nexus of actors we are able to bring forward outcomes and practical change on the ground – improving policy and practice for real results. 

2. How do you create the best group of experts ready to brainstorm for solutions?

One key thing to point out is we’re not talking about ‘experts’. We’re talking about bringing together those involved in and experiencing the issue or with potential to contribute to solutions from a range of perspectives. This means organisations, agencies, government bodies, civic actors, UN agencies and others, but also and especially survivors and those actually affected by the problems we’re addressing, and those within their own community who can and should own the solutions. Like in design thinking a key aspect is to involve what from a corporate perspective you might think of as the ‘users’. The difference here is that they are fundamentally engaged as the ones understanding, analysing and exploring the problems – and having their voices heard – and bringing forth solutions. Our field – like almost any across much of the world today – has fundamental divisions, sectors, specialisations, many of which work in their own worlds but rarely come together. We bring them together, on concrete issues, and with processes that end up getting everyone working together – and enjoying it! – and radically and practically innovating and finding solutions together.

A movie was actually made recently with support from the Canadian government called “In the Pursuit of Peace”, following myself and several colleagues in the field, helping to show a bit of what we do in practice. To have a glimpse of it you can see the trailer: https://vimeo.com/150351138.

3. The most memorable example of design thinking

Honestly there are so many. It’s difficult to chose ‘one’. There’s an experience that people should know about though. In the middle of the war with Daesh, ISIS, in Iraq – 2015 to 2017, when they were occupying large parts of Syria and Iraq, including the Nineveh plains. At the invitation of communities there, of those who had been most affected by the war and displaced from their homes, we began a process that brought together people from every background – every religion, every ethnic group, every community in Nineveh – including organisations, government actors, businesses, creatives, artists, civil society organisations and survivors. We worked with displaced people and with religious and tribal leaders, with women that survived rape and DAESH violence, with youth, elders. Nineveh Paths to Peace. It was a process where those most affected by the war themselves worked across all dividing lines and became, together, a powerful force for recovery, reconstruction, reconciliation and peace. Through a fundamentally empowering and design-based approach, they found solutions to work in one of the most difficult contexts in the world. Out of this, a Peace Council in Nineveh was born, youth initiatives for peace, community-based actions, the Nineveh Women’s Peace Movement, and much more. It was, beyond inspiring to witness and see people working with such amazing and incredible courage. A documentary called The Heroes of Nineveh was made of their work. It is very powerful. 

4. A childhood story that announced your career path.

I was raised with a social consciousness – that was the spirit in my family – to be aware of issues in the world and our responsibility, and power, to address them. When I was 8, I saw a a film, Cry Freedom, about Steve Biko, one of the great heroes of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. As an activist, he helped black people see their beauty – of their culture, their history, themselves. He helped people discover the pride they should have again – in a world dominated by the aggressive white supremacy of the apartheid regime. He struggled to bring a better world forward – and to empower those who lived in the worst conditions in their country to know they had rights, dignity and power as human beings – and was tortured to death by the regime for it.  I was so impacted by the documentary that I wrote a letter to the South African Government calling for it to end apartheid. I was 8 at the time. I wrote the letter myself and my father helped me to address and send it. It was my first act of active citizenship. 

In our field we often refer to “child soldiers” – children that are often abducted or recruited and forced to fight. Colleagues in the field have called me a “child peaceworker”. I started working and campaigning actively to overcome violence when I was 14 as part of a program in schools in Canada called ‘WAVE’  – Working Against Violence Everywhere, which worked to overcome domestic and gender-based violence; and internationally since I was 17.  

What’s beautiful for me is to see the way Carl and Aaron, our five and a half year old twins, are themselves already engaging, especially working to challenge and address the climate crisis we’re facing in the world today. 

5. A message for companies that are still reluctant to design thinking. Why those entities should use it and what is the expected outcome.

The messages are simple. One – because it works. Two – because if done well it enables them as companies to maximise impact and results, to plan to the future and transcend ruts and gutters rather than getting trapped in them. Design Thinking dissolves inefficiencies and silos. It helps to realise opportunities and address challenges more effectively.  It is a practical, functional methodology, building upon human nature and science together, helping to achieve perspectives and results which otherwise would be much more difficult to realise. Design Thinking brings better results, is cost efficient and helps companies – those who use it well – to create value and be ahead of the curve, or rather to write the curve, with the sails set for the future rather than stuck in the past.

6. The essence of your presentation at Design Thinking Forum, in one sentence.

 How Design Thinking can help us solve the greatest challenges we face as humanity today.