The use of interdisciplinary research approaches is imperative for design thinking. It provides problem-solvers with the platform to understand challenges from various perspectives and highlight factors that contribute to those challenges to aptly reshape and address them.
This was according to University of Cape Town (UCT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng. She made these comments during a session at UCT’s Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking (d-school) Afrika’s d.confestival – the first design-thinking conference hosted on the African continent. The three-day event kicked off on Wednesday, 12 October, in the new d-school Afrika purpose-built building on UCT’s middle campus. It was during an afternoon sitting on the final day of the conference that Professor Phakeng delivered a keynote address on the topic: “Design thinking and interdisciplinary approaches for sustainable solutions to global problems”.
“Design thinking [and] interdisciplinary [research approaches] both provide a similar landscape that disrupts the traditional, patriarchal patterns of academic and industrial knowledge. This landscape replaces the competitiveness of individual researchers with what Hasso Plattner says is ‘an essential cultural change’ that incorporates habits of cooperation, such as creative confidence, curiosity, collaboration and a trial-and-error attitude,” she said.
A valuable methodology
Addressing delegates, Phakeng stressed that design thinking is not just an exercise that requires discussing a particular problem. Instead, the concept focuses on developing actions and tangible solutions to observe, measure and address key challenges.
“Interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving help us to cultivate that spirit of adventure in ourselves and in future generations.”
Phakeng said she is confident that the design-thinking methodology will help to expand the focus on science to incorporate not just knowledge, but also attitudes that guide the way knowledge is used. Like interdisciplinary research, she said the practice of design thinking is centred on teamwork and the concept also encourages empathy.
“Interdisciplinary approaches to problem-solving help us to cultivate that spirit of adventure in ourselves and in future generations. [It encourages the future generation] to be brave enough to lead with curiosity, as design thinking encourages,” she said.
When it comes to academia, interdisciplinary approaches are also particularly useful.
By working across disciplines, academics have the opportunity to collaborate, rediscover and use their curiosity, creativity, education and past experiences to their advantage. And by engaging mindfully with the process of curiosity, inviting diversity and aiming for action, she said academics will automatically move towards incorporating the design-thinking process in their ways of working to help them navigate and address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
“The process of problem-solving becomes not just a task to be accomplished, it also helps us evolve new ways of approaching the problem and thinking about what we know and how we use that knowledge,” Phakeng said.
Because the underlining mission of design thinking is to make a difference in the world, academics should use the concept to prepare students to lead in a time of change and to instil in them the same kind of mindset that design thinking encourages, which includes curiosity, teamwork, an appreciation of diversity and a focus on leading change.
At the forefront of change
And UCT is leading this change. She said one way of cultivating interdisciplinary approaches is by introducing programmes of study that draw from different faculties and disciplines. UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment is already leading the way in this regard. The faculty requires that engineering students take elective courses in the Faculty of Humanities to broaden their capacity to cope with complex social questions that they may be exposed to in their professional practice. Similarly, she added that the university’s Department of Information Technology also offers a programme that trains students in faculties like Humanities and Commerce to use digital technology in their chosen fields of work.
“It is an excellent way to approach solutions to the problems we have created, and it is an excellent way to train new generations to avoid creating similar problems in the future.”
“Interdisciplinary research and teaching create a broad platform for experts and students to work together by learning together, being curious together, exploring together and sharing from their own experiences and specialist knowledge. It is an excellent way to approach solutions to the problems we have created, and it is an excellent way to train new generations to avoid creating similar problems in the future,” Phakeng said.
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