Applying Design Thinking to Large-Scale Social Change

Andrew Gaines | March 21, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Design Thinking in Omnia by Ewan McIntosh | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

Engineers and architects have a way of thinking that can make the environmental/ progressive movement far more effective ­–design thinking. This article shows how we can adapt it to catalysing large-scale social change.

We start by combining a unifying goal –transitioning to a life-sustaining society– with a systems analysis of the needed changes. We follow through by outlining a simple way to mobilize massive untapped resources within the environmental/progressive movement itself to shift public consciousness.

Our challenge is to ‘engage the unengaged’ –people who do not seek out information about environmental and social trends. Inspiring provides ready to use communication tools (including sample emails, guerrilla marketing tactics, and Kitchen Table Conversations) to make communicating as easy as possible.

The full article exploring the application of design theory is fairly long (20 pages), but is a good read. Near the end we introduce the idea of ‘stickiness’ –how with a simple tweak the millions of talks given on environmental and social issues annually can be far more effective in shifting consciousness.


Applying design thinking to large-scale social change


Design thinking has been a buzzword in the worlds of product and service design for some time. Designers look carefully at interface between user experience and product design. But the tradition is much older. Design thinking has been part of architecture for millennia.

The stages of designing and building a house are common to many kinds of practical design projects. As we will see, they can be applied to catalysing large-scale social change. I believe that doing so will greatly increase the effectiveness of the environmental/progressive movement.

When architects are commissioned to design a house, they enquire into what style of building the owners want. They take into account the nature of the site, surrounding buildings, relevant building codes, and of course the budget. I call this a ‘systems analysis’. It includes the psychology of the owner.

Architects then make rough sketches which they review with the owner. One is selected. This becomes the goal of the project.

The rough sketch represents an aspiration. Obviously it is not the house itself. Quite a processes is involved in producing a house the owner can live in. Architects develops detailed working drawings. Builders are engaged, contractors hired, and a wide variety of tasks from laying the foundation to completing the final landscaping are carried out. Then you have a building that the owner can live in.

Catalysing large-scale social change is not the same as designing and building a house. But our thinking can go through similar stages.

I think it is useful to identify five stages. They are not necessarily worked through in linear order, but all are essential for our thinking –and action– to be most effective. One or more of these stages are often neglected by social change agents.

The stages are:

  1. A systems analysis –what is the current situation, and what is needed for success?
  2. Clarifying the goal
  3. Asset mapping
  4. Planning: strategy and tactics; thinking through everything needed for success
  5. Execution

Read more…

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  • Persecution and psychological torture imposed through persistent U.S. legal system abuse can render its targets incapable (to varying extents) of Design Thinking. That reality (i.e., the fact that many people in direct, dire need of large-scale social change are unlikely to help make it happen) must be factored into our Design Thinking to large-scale social change. Learn more @

  • Gerald Dillenbeck

    I absolutely agree with the fundamental premise of applying design strategies to mobilize resources for climate health, in response to degenerative climate pathologies. As I have perhaps too often said to the NCDD listserve, Permaculture Design is actually a descriptive/prescriptive skill set that follows natural principles of regenerative (therapeutic) design with intent to achieve more extended family polycultural optimization outcomes,
    and less monopolistic monocultural suboptimizing performance of natural-spiritual nondual landscapes-climates. Permacultural Designers are already doing as you propose, but usually within much smaller landscapes. However, there is precedent for bioregional re-acclimation outcomes in already seriously stressed, degenerating environments. There are design therapies for river systems, for urban landscapes, including ecopolitical landscapes that encourage cooperative ownership and self-governance. At least this much is already a matter of public record, well-articulated designs for public/private health sciences and nutritional security, using “nutritional” in the Eastern nondual sense of both natural-spiritual, both digestive and more metaphysically absorbent-resonant. Gerald Dillenbeck, M.Div., MPA, PDC

    • Andrew Gaines

      Yes Gerald, permaculture folk do think things through in
      this way. This is good! I wrote the article because many academics and social
      change advocates do not think in this way. Perhaps we could be more effective if
      we all thought through the question: What will it take to win? − where winning
      means reversing human inputs to environmental disaster.

      My own view is that to ‘win’ we must align to shift
      mainstream consciousness. That’s why I talk about ‘stickiness’ at the end of
      the article. In addition, not emphasized in the article, it is critical to get
      as many organizations as possible championing the idea of transitioning to a
      life-sustaining society.