The unprecedented worldwide shutdown of many aspects of daily life as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic will necessitate a radical rethinking of how we design nearly all the systems and processes by which we live our lives.
Such is the opinion of Caribbean educator Dr. Lesley Ann Noel, Professor of Practice at The Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Dr. Noel was born in Trinidad to a Trinidadian father and a Jamaican mother. She has recently witnessed her adopted home town becoming one of the new epicentres of the virus, and believes that there are significant lessons to be learnt from the massive and indelible impact that the coronavirus has had on the world.
And she is convinced that her particular field of endeavor, Design Thinking, will have to play a crucial role in the global recovery from the pandemic and the future of the planet going forward.
“What is becoming very clear to us now is that the world we are living in is never going to be the same,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic is the great life changing event of our generation in the same way that the civil war in the USA or World War 2 reshaped the world in those eras. The entire world has essentially ground to a halt with travel, tourism, banking, economics, global health and essential services all compromised. We have never seen this before. And as we cope with the virus in the present and look forward to the world we will inhabit in the future, Design Thinking is clearly going to play a pivotal role in creating the mechanisms for us to not only survive, but to thrive.”
According to Dr. Noel, Design Thinking is defined as the use of problem-solving processes and the mindsets that designers use. It therefore approaches solution development by borrowing the methodologies that a designer would apply, usually in a collaborative and creative way.
Design Thinking can be applied at the macro or micro level and can be utilized in any field of endeavor, from major government initiatives to the running of small businesses. A core tenet of the Design Thinking process is the designer’s focus on empathy and the needs of people. Design Thinkers use empathy to understand and respond to challenges when designing solutions. The approach is therefore almost invariably from the ‘bottom up’ instead of from the top down, with priority given to people’s needs.
The interconnectivity of all the challenges that have arisen as a result of the coronavirus has created a real need for Design Thinkers to step in and assist both governments and the private sector in rethinking many processes to ease citizens and employees through the crisis.
“Let’s take as an example the monthly payment of loans and mortgages at a time like this,” says Noel. “Here in the USA, both the federal and several state governments have been advocating for financial institutions to suspend repayments, and/or waive interest rates and late fees on loans and credit card payments due to the ever-growing number of unemployed persons. People are being instructed in many instances to call their banks or lending agencies to discuss this. But we now discover that phone contact at this time is all but impossible as most of those very financial institutions have sent home the call centre staff who would normally field those calls. So for customers who urgently want answers, the next logical step would be to go personally to the bank to speak to someone directly. But this then runs counter to the government’s current pleas for everyone to stay inside and go out for essential services only. What are people then to do? Using a Design Thinking approach, companies would view these challenges through the lenses of key stakeholders- such as the customer and the call center operators- and try to develop solutions that address their needs. In this way, they might develop a solution that allows call center staff to support customers at all times remotely from wherever they are. Otherwise the stress level of their customers who really need to speak to a human being becomes unbearable, at a time when their first priority should be their health and safety.”
Because the scope and impact of the current pandemic has been so unprecedented, many of the world’s current circumstances were never considered or foreseen in the design of systems and processes. Dr. Noel says that all of that will now need to change since the stark realities of a truly global crisis have been exposed.
“Design Thinking methodologies will need to be applied to absolutely every aspect of our existence over time to lessen the impact of any such future crises. Every single service that we use today, every interaction with companies or government agencies, has to be re-designed because the world will never be the same. The way we govern, how we travel, how we teach, how we manage our finances, how we shop – what we are now learning is that the ripple effect of something like this pandemic affects every part of our lives. And we need to plan creatively and innovatively with a design thinking mindset for the future to cope more effectively.”
Dr. Noel holds a Ph.D. in Design from North Carolina State University as well as a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of the West Indies and a Bacharelado (Bachelor’s degree) in Industrial Design from Universidade Federal do Paraná in Brazil. She is a former Fulbright Scholar and lecturer at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus in Trinidad and Tobago.
Before joining the Taylor Center, she was part of the 2018-2019 Ocean Design Teaching Fellowship at Stanford University, a group of fellows with extensive experience in design, ocean science, and international policy.