The coronavirus (COVID-19) has been described as a “once in a century pathogen.” As of June 2020, a total of 215 countries, areas, or territories have reported cases of COVID-19. Worldwide, there have been 6.29M confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 380K deaths reported (WHO, 2020). For many, the COVID-19 outbreak came suddenly, but for global health experts, the epidemic was not a matter of if but when. In 2015, Bill Gates published a global call to action in the New England Journal of Medicine in an attempt to increase global preparedness for future epidemics. In his closing remarks, Gates wrote:

An epidemic is one of the few catastrophes that could set the world back drastically in the next few decades. By building a global warning and response system, we can prepare for it and prevent millions of deaths.

Unfortunately, this global call to action was not heeded; at least not in time to avoid the health, social, and economic devastation that has resulted from the COVID-19 global pandemic. As COVID-19 spread across the globe with stunning speed, the world began one of the biggest lockdowns in history: The Great Lockdown.

Worldwide, countries have, to varying degrees, implemented and subsequently relaxed containment measures including mandatory quarantine for returning travellers, self-isolation, limits or bans on social gatherings, and other social distancing practices in an effort to slow (and in some cases halt) the spread of the virus.

These measures were drastic but necessary, with economists estimating a social cost of $290,000 for each additional infection, which is 3.6 times the estimated private cost. The magnitude and speed of collapse in activity that has followed these containment measures is extensive, and described as the “worst economic downturn since the great depression.” The World Economic Forum’s COVID-19 Risks Outlook revealed that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risk perceptions, with over two-thirds of respondents identifying a prolonged global recession as a top concern for business (see Table 1).

Table 1. World Economic Forum’s COVID-19 Risks Outlook

Perhaps what is even more concerning is that the full economic and social impact of COVID-19 remains largely unknown. For the majority of the world’s population, the future is more uncertain now than ever before.

Uncertainty and fear of change

As humans, we are hardwired to hate uncertainty. In 2016, researchers published a study examining the relationship between stress and uncertainty in a controlled experimental setting. The main finding from this study was that all measures of stress, both subjective and objective, were at their highest when uncertainty was highest. In other words, when participants had absolutely no clue what the outcome of a decision would be, stress peaked. Uncertainty is one of the main reasons people fear change. The processes and outcomes of change are often unknown. As a result, stress is at its highest. So, we tend to avoid change, favouring the status quo or the known. In behavioural economics, this phenomenon is known as status quo bias. People generally prefer things to stay the same by either doing nothing or by repeating decisions that were made in the past, even if these patterns are less than ideal. This phenomenon is particularly evident in situations where the perceived and/or actual costs of change are high and the importance of a decision is great. But this innate human tendency to “play it safe” comes at its own cost. The cost of inertia.

As Grace Murray Hopper famously said: “The most dangerous phrase in the language is: We’ve always done it this way.” The demise of many well-known businesses can be attributed to this short-sighted mindset. The ability to recognise when the “tried-and-true approach” is to our detriment in the longer term, and having the courage to change course, is the difference between surviving and thriving in the business world. A fear, or reluctance, to change is one of the most common barriers to innovation. Most people are driven by a fear of failure or making mistakes, so we focus more on preventing errors than we do on taking risks to seize opportunities for growth. To avoid the risk of failure, we opt for inaction rather than action. The unfortunate truth is that there is no innovation without action.

Innovation in times of crisis

The capacity to innovate and adapt has assumed record importance for many individuals and businesses struggling to weather the COVID-19 storm and mitigate the economic fallout of The Great Lockdown. Innovation is arguably the most principal source of differentiation and competitive advantage in the business world.

Creativity and design are at the core of all successful companies (e.g., Apple, Google, IBM, Procter & Gamble, Ford, General Electric, Airbnb, Nike, Uber, and more). Researchers have benchmarked the impact of investments in design and innovation on stock value over time relative to the S&P Index for publicly-held companies. The results of this research showed that over the last ten years design-led companies outperformed the S&P’s 500 by 228 per cent.

Design-led companies are leading the charge in COVID-19 response efforts. Johnson & Johnson have donated one million masks, as well as goggles, protective suits, thermometers, and respirators. Apple and Google have teamed up to build system-level COVID-19 contact tracing interoperable application programming interfaces (API) for both iOS and Android, with the first component (“Exposure Notifications”) of their contact tracing API launched in May. Kaiser Permanente and digital health specialist Livongo have teamed up to offer Livongo’s myStrength behavioural health app to help combat stress and support mental health. Countless other examples of innovation have emerged from the digital tech space during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The HIMSS COVID-19 Digital Think Tank, an online discussion forum created for healthcare professionals and innovators to share ideas, products and best practices, has over 550 members and 60 innovations registered. The innovation capacity shown by local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic has been equally impressive. Local gin distilleries have transitioned to making hand sanitiser. Manufacturers, including 3D printing facilities, have been making personal protective equipment, face shields, respirators, and ventilators to aid health workers on the frontline. Many of these companies have made their innovations freely available, which is smart business.

Innovation through a designer’s mindset

Design thinking is human-centered. Applying a range of human-centered activities, design thinking uses a designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs and wants with what is technologically feasible and can be converted into customer value and market opportunity. The design thinking process is best described metaphorically as a system of spaces rather than a predefined series of orderly steps (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Design thinking as a system of spaces

This system of spaces applies a range of human-centered design activities together to form the continuum of innovation. There are no strict rules and there is no definitive process in design thinking. Rather a range of guides and processes have been developed to assist ‘non-trained’ designers in conducting human-centered design activities, and most importantly, embodying a designer’s mindset. For true innovation to occur, mindset must overcome methodology.

Methodologies are useful for providing structure and keeping us on track but they also create a safety net that supports risk-averse behaviour, stifling creativity. When too much prescription is offered through a methodological framework, people have a tendency to use this as an excuse not to think, or even worse, not to act all. Design thinking, through a series of exploration activities that address the messy unknown, shows us that how we think about a problem directly affects the solutions we generate.

Design thinkers deviate from the conventional reductionist approach to problems solving, and instead use integrative thinking. Integrative thinking is the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.

In this way, integrative thinking combines abductive logic (generation of new ideas) with deductive logic (analysis and evaluation of how they apply). The interaction, emergence, and solving of conflicts during the design process is requisite to find new paths forward. Design thinking challenges a variety of human tendencies that often hold us back and prevent innovation, including a fear of the unknown and a reluctance to change. According to status quo bias, our resistance to change stems from being uncertain as to whether the benefits of change will outweigh the costs. In other words, we are more scared of what we might lose than we are excited about what we might gain.

An obvious (reductionist) solution to this predicament would be to make the processes and outcomes of change as certain as possible. In a controlled experimental setting, this approach might work, all things being equal; but in a complex and everchanging world, there is no way to control all the factors that may affect the outcomes of change. The only way to avoid inertia is to embrace change and learn to adapt in the face of uncertainty.

Often tasked with solving ambiguous problems and making decisions based on the future potential of a solution, design thinkers must embrace uncertainty and accept that with every decision comes an element of risk. This mentality is known as creative confidence—the belief that you can and will come up with creative solutions to complex problems, and the confidence that all it takes is rolling up your sleeves and diving into the process. Creative confidence is not an insistent belief that all ideas are good. Combined with integrative thinking, creative confidence is the ability to let go of ideas that are not working and accept alternatives. As Aubrey de Grey once wrote: “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a lot of time making it.” Application of design thinking commits people to finding new ways to move forward and provides the creative freedom needed to explore endless possibilities.

Six tips to start building your creative confidence:

  • Start small and expect to fail.
  • Break routine and look for opportunities to cede control.
  • Leave your ego at the door and resist judgement.
  • Venture outside the office to learn from, and build empathy for, people.
  • Engage diverse voices and leverage different perspectives.
  • Seek expert guidance (*join our free online seminar, and/or attend a masterclass).

When taking a holistic approach, and accepting uncertainty as par for the course, we open ourselves up to a world of opportunities. The ability to overcome fear, consider a problem as a whole, and be comfortable with uncertainty allows design thinkers to create innovative solutions that consider numerous factors simultaneously, including people’s needs, technological and organisational feasibility, and strategic implications. By abandoning the status quo, relinquishing control, and working collaboratively with diverse stakeholders, you make way for creative gains that have the potential to be revolutionary, not just incremental.

Leveraging a design mindset for social change

We will be dealing with the health, social, and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic for some time; however, this crisis presents a unique opportunity for us, as a society, to reflect on what (should) matters most. Returning to ‘normal’ may not be possible, but do we really want to return there anyway?

The COVID-19 crisis has shone a light on social inequalities, environmental intransigence, and economic avarice. While the devastation and loss experienced as a result of COVID-19 is truly heartbreaking, this crisis has also shown cases of humanity at its best.

We have seen more appreciation for essential workers, more empathy for our seniors and those most vulnerable in our communities, more consideration for our family, friends, and neighbours, and more collaboration for the greater good. As much as it makes us uncomfortable, there is no way to escape change. Change is inevitable. All we can do is learn to adapt and embrace change so that both people and planet benefit.

Our ability to adapt and embrace change during the COVID-19 crisis teaches us that we can (and should) do more to combat other epidemics. As leaders in the social change space, now is our time to show up and actively contribute to the design of a future that is grounded in education, democracy, and social equality. Designing a future we want to be part of, and that we want our future generations to be part of, requires deliberate intent—we must be intentional about the objective, intentional about the process, intentional about who is involved, and intentional about the outcometo ensure change is for the better. Design thinking provides an empathetic and inclusive lens for supporting positive social change. By adopting a designer’s mindset, we can use the lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis to re-imagine a better, more intentionally-designed version of our present. In the words of George Bernard Shaw: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Author: Dr. Taylor Willmott