Billy Bragg, Speakers' Corner, London, 7 February 2010

When I was on my recent trip to Japan and Korea, I came across an arti­cle in the Finan­cial Times describ­ing Australia’s ret­i­cence in adopt­ing design think­ing in busi­ness. The arti­cle itself is a high-​​level sum­mary of research done at MGSM by Dr Lars Groeger and Leanne Sobel.

It’s a lit­tle chill­ing when you read things like:

“The results demon­strate that busi­nesses in [Aus­tralia] are often unaware of how design think­ing can help with inno­va­tion. The study also revealed that even when busi­nesses are aware of the poten­tial ben­e­fits of design think­ing, they strug­gle to recruit appro­pri­ately skilled staff in Australia.”

I’m not at all sur­prised by the first sen­tence, but I’m sin­gu­larly irri­tated by the second.

Let’s leave aside the mat­ter of Aus­tralian busi­ness not yet under­stand­ing what ben­e­fits design think­ing can bring, as it’s addressed in the paper, and, well, we could talk about it for­ever. How­ever, let’s look directly at the skills issue.

Why is it yet again the case that some­thing akin to the “not invented here” syn­drome rears its ugly head? Aus­tralia has a rich com­mu­nity of design thinkers and ser­vice design­ers already prac­tic­ing, and all well capa­ble of help­ing busi­ness at any scale iden­tify and solve com­plex problems.

So, why can’t busi­nesses find who they’re look­ing for if the pool is, as I believe, well and truly rich enough? What is it they think they need? What ques­tions are they ask­ing, and of whom? What skills are they look­ing for?

The paper sug­gests there is a train­ing and devel­op­ment gap here, unlike else­where, par­tic­u­larly in the US, and that the ter­tiary edu­ca­tion sec­tor needs to step up. I won’t entirely dis­agree, but I’ll also note that the peo­ple I know work­ing in design think­ing in Aus­tralia come from a range of dis­ci­plines, few of which were focussed specif­i­cally on design think­ing. Cer­tainly, offer­ing fur­ther edu­ca­tion in these dis­ci­plines can’t hurt, but it’s very much the case that highly skilled peo­ple already work here and do amaz­ing work.

I some­times won­der, read­ing aca­d­e­mic papers like this, whether a par­tic­u­lar kind of self-​​interest exists? Do aca­d­e­mics work­ing on cer­tain prob­lems nat­u­rally assume only acad­e­mia can solve the prob­lem by pro­vid­ing education-​​based answers? I hope not, because some of the best design thinkers I know are for­mer jour­nal­ists, demog­ra­phers and ethno­g­ra­phers, qual­i­ta­tive researchers, and even, in two par­tic­u­lar cases, peo­ple who have never fin­ished university.

You can read the arti­cle, Aus­tralia must embrace design think­ing, at ft​.com. The research paper is avail­able from SSRN.