Design thinking and Singapore’s knowing-doing gap

As a service designer and strategist I run frequently in to situations where the great insight and tacit knowledge in companies isn’t translated into action.

I recently spent a week in Singapore meeting different government organisations and companies while on a speaking engagement at Design-week Singapore.

The knowledge level of most people I met was impressive. And those who weren’t so familiar with the philosophy of design thinking caught on very fast. They had encountered related articles or reports.

Indeed it seemed that Design thinking was – and is – on everyone’s agenda.

Despite this I was slightly puzzled.

There was clearly deep understanding and know-how. But anywhere I looked I couldn’t find any practical examples, show-cases or success stories. Everyone was excited and eager but…

Knowledge into action

Suddenly, I recognized this phenomenon. With one of my clients we jokingly diagnosed the company as a huge-headed genius with very little hands. This Mega-mind understands, analyses and conceptualises but nothing happens!

In such companies you frequently find talented good people who are frustrated. They know or at least have an educated notion what should be done but are can’t do it. Organisational structures, conflicting target setting, ill-defined work-roles and slowly changing attitudes put a stop to initiatives.

All of these challenges are big but the elephant in the room is the attitude-shift which isn’t happening.

It is safer to cut costs, drive effectiveness or streamline. They are proven tools but not expansive. And a dangerous path.

Finland vs. Singapore

In my native country of Finland companies’ depreciations have exceeded investments in the last 6 years. They are not investing! They are streamlining. I’m afraid it shows already in our economy.

Singapore is trying to activate its companies by government grants and other incentives to get firms to try design thinking in practice. Again referring to my home country I argue that that is not the way.

Companies concentrate more on qualifying for free money than actually on gaining the benefits of work being done.

Design thinking 2.0

If design thinking isn’t catching on then the way it is packaged and offered must change. Maybe for example service design as defined in the western market is not suited for Singapore. Maybe one should, instead of the current efforts concentrate on redefining the use of design thinking to such that there is natural grass-roots demand in the market.

Then you will have the show-cases. You will get the productivity gains and you will win in the market.

I have visited Singapore a few times in the past years. I love the place. Its energy, forward-looking spirit and its ability to mobilise large scale social reform fast.

Indeed I think that Finland would have many lessons to learn from it.

I am afraid however that when it comes to benefiting from design thinking Singapore might face the fate of the frog in a heating bowl.

The frog lies content in the water not noticing the temperature rising before it is too late. 

Singapore, jump out and reinvent design-thinking!

Continue the discussion on Twitter: @PeterBarkman1@PalmuFinland.

Peter creates growth opportunities for companies by interpreting customers needs, understanding business opportunities and recognizing technologies with change potential.