Opening remarks at the Design for Health Symposium, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, February 16 2017

Why Design Thinking?

By Gerald Chan

I will frame my remarks largely as a contrast between Design Thinking and economic thinking by citing a personal experience which took place in 1994, the year I took a trip to China with none other than the economists Milton and Rose Friedman.

It was a period when China was undergoing radical transformations–socially, politically and economically. Milton was quite elderly by then. He said he wanted to see China one last time before he got too old to travel. An entourage coalesced around the Friedman’s. Some were former students from the University of Chicago; others, like me, simply tagged along feeling so fortunate that we could travel with the master and learn economics from him.

If you had been with Milton Friedman, you would know that he was a man with a razor-sharp mind and an even sharper tongue. I watched him in meeting after meeting with Chinese government officials; without exception, he annihilated every one of them. He was truly an intellectual force of nature. He had his way of thinking and everyone else was wrong. End of story. You could never win an argument with Milton Friedman.

One of the last meetings in Chengdu was with the Governor of Sichuan province, and true to form, Milton ruthlessly criticized everything the Governor said. Afterwards, he and Rose retired to their room to rest before dinner. The Governor and a group of us were standing around chit-chatting. The weary Governor took a deep sigh and said, “That professor has never run a province of a hundred million people.” That sentence summed it up for me. It was a defining moment in my own intellectual journey.

Observing Milton Friedman in close range for several days convinced me that he lived in a totally artificial construct where human beings are entirely rational, where rationality is defined by maximizing gain or utility, and that organizations and governments exist only to maximize efficiency. As logically enticing as economics seems, I came to see its limitations especially in so far as one’s objective is not merely to find plausible explanations, but to actually solve real-world problems.

Shorn of my blind faith in economics, I cast about looking for an alternative intellectual framework that could be generally applicable across domains of human endeavors, one whose output has been empirically demonstrated to be congruous with human behavior and efficacious in solving problems in society. This is not easy in a heady place like Harvard where economics reigns supreme. Whether it be policy making, policy analysis, policy levers, or how organizations are run, it’s about economics.

About fifteen years ago, I came to know the Institute of Design in Chicago and its director Patrick Whitney. He introduced me to the school of thought called Design Thinking. It was a school of thought in the making, and I dare say that even today, Design Thinking is still inchoate. That is why I thought it would be wonderful if Patrick, having stepped down from the Institute of Design, would come here as a visiting professor for a year and write a more definitive text to get the field to speak the same language and have a common terminology.

Separately, about two years ago, I was having dinner with David Gergen and out of the blue he asked me, “Do you know about Design Thinking?” I said, “Yes, I think I do a little bit, David, and if you really are interested in this topic, you should meet my friend, Patrick Whitney.” The three of us had lunch and David was really intrigued and impressed. Then I said to David, “You should come with me to Chicago and we will visit the Institute of Design and see what they do.” So last April, David Gergen, Peggy Newell, Ashish Jha and I went to Chicago. At the Institute of Design, they presented to us a series of projects they were working on. It was then that we all felt there’s something here.

Now for me, I think about the students that we have. We are a university – we’re here to do research, we’re here to teach, and we’re here to train the leaders of the future. I feel if we only give our students economic thinking, we are short-changing them. This is especially so since so many of our students, starting from the undergraduate freshmen, are intent on solving problems of the world, big problems. It wasn’t like that when I was a student here.

Sarah, I introduced this young lady to you a few weeks ago who is applying to the College, and she is already talking about solving problems of women’s health. The students we have today are interested in social impact, and for this, we must give them all the tools, not just economic ones. We must give them a tool box where they have a selection of tools to choose from, where they can customize which tools to use in order to solve the problem they are working on.

One thing led to another. Peggy, the Deputy Provost, called a meeting for any faculty from across the University who is interested in Design Thinking, having no inkling how many would show up. At that first meeting, eighteen faculty turned up. They came from the Law School, the Business School, Public Health, the Design School, Engineering and even the humanities. Some of them were already teaching Design Thinking in their courses. The broad representation of the faculty speaks to the general applicability of Design Thinking to a broad spectrum of problems, whether it be problems of society, government, organizations, personal choices or experiences.

We all know that economics as a field has become highly mathematicalized. It is all about models and complex equations. In leading university economics departments, very few people still work on political economy or economic history. If you were not doing highly mathematical models, you are a second-class citizen. These mathematical models are idealized renditions of the world, they are an alternative reality. The financial crisis of 2007 is a reminder of how badly things can go wrong when the models are taken as the real reality.

Design Thinking differs from economics in that its description of human behavior does not assume rationality. There are no mathematical models that exert axiomatic constraints. Design Thinking is human centric. This human centrism begins with observations of human behavior without a priori assumptions. In my view, it is intellectually more honest and not as haughty an approach. We also know that observational studies do not land in top-tier academic journals. Design Thinking is more about solving problems than publishing papers.

It is this observation without constraints that enables Design thinkers to reframe a problem. In my years as an employer in business, the best employees are not the ones who gave me answers, but the ones who gave me questions I had never thought about. As a scientist, I regard the best scientists as those, when seeing their results, I say to myself, “Wow, it is so simple. Why didn’t I think of that?” In other words, answers are generic, especially in this Internet age. It is not difficult to get answers; it is, however, difficult to find great minds that ask great questions, or ask the question in such a way that leads to a totally different way of thinking about the problem.

Under the leadership of the Deputy Provost, we will organize three Design symposia this term with more to come next year. Beginning with this symposium Designing for Health – A People-Centered Approach to Transforming Care, the two others will be Designing for Justice and Designing for Food.

So stay tuned, and I hope you enjoy the proceedings this afternoon. Thank you.

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