Sustainability-oriented innovation: Improving problem definition through combined design thinking and systems mapping approaches

Elsevier, Thinking Skills and Creativity, Volume 42, December 2021
Wilkerson B., Trellevik L.-K.L.

Sustainability-oriented innovation (SOI) is receiving increased focus, as sustainability takes a more central role in business, development, and education arenas. SOI processes typically draw from design thinking toolkits, with a focus on the user's needs and experiences. While this is an effective way to ensure that the innovation process is grounded in real, definable needs, it's also limited in its ability to place the problem in a larger societal and systemic context. This can lead to a narrow or incomplete problem definition. We designed and tested a new approach for eliciting and defining problems for SOI. Our work shows that using systems mapping in the problem definition phase of SOI helps set adequate boundaries for the problem space and increases understanding of how the system influences itself over time. As “sustainability” is a systems property, we find that the “helicopter view” provided by systems mapping complements the empathetic design thinking approach to form a more robust problem definition. We present this combined methodology and provide examples of where and how it's been used. These examples illustrate the potential of design thinking and systems mapping to support and enhance problem definition for SOI and provide the basis for discussing future research directions.