Heart of Innovation

Design consultancy firm IDEO, rated one of 50 top innovative companies by business magazine Fast Company in 2010, has worked with many big corporations. But its proudest achievements are designing solutions for developing countries and improving healthcare industries.
Tim Brown
In the business of innovation, you’re into everything... well, almost.

Just look at IDEO’s wide range of work. The creative firm, named by BusinessWeekas one of the most innovative companies in 2006, helped design Apple Inc’s first mouse and build Prada’s interactive dressing rooms in New York City.

Whichever the industry, IDEO believes in applying the same human-centred design approach, especially discerning users’ needs and developing fast, cheap prototypes to test out ideas.

This was how IDEO came up with the “Keep the Change” programme for the Bank of America, attracting over 12 million signups since 2005. After observing that customers often round up payments to the nearest dollar, IDEO designed a programme to enable change to be deposited automatically into saving accounts.

Designing for the Less Fortunate

While the above examples are testament to the commercial viability of IDEO’s methodology, IDEO CEO Tim Brown, who was in Singapore last November to speak on design thinking, says his firm’s “real aspiration is to work on problems that have an impact on the world”.

The “Ripple Effect” project, IDEO’s collaboration with non-profit organisation Acumen Fund, made clean water more accessible to the poor in Africa and India. Water companies in these countries faced problems ensuring that water distributed to households remains clean, accessible and affordable.

As part of a US$2.6 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, IDEO and Acumen held brainstorming workshops for water entrepreneurs and launched pilot projects in Hyderabad and Kenya in 2009. Their work led to new water distribution models and automated water vending machines.

Other IDEO community projects include improving eye care for children in India and battling childhood obesity in the USA.

To Mr Brown, design is more than enhancing a product’s aesthetics or function, or improving a service. Designers have a higher calling. “As designers, we have to be able to understand the world’s complexity and we have to participate… We have the responsibility to attempt to solve those problems.”

Improving patients’ experiences at clinics or hospitals is another important part of IDEO’s work. “Healthcare is an experience that most people do not like and it’s possible to improve the quality of people’s lives and the effectiveness of the medical treatment they get by taking the design approach.”

IDEO worked with US healthcare organisation Kaiser Permanente to improve knowledge exchange between nurses when changing shifts, for better quality patient care.

Venturing into Design Thinking

At IDEO, innovation is spurred by being empathetic to users, rather than being profit- or technologically-driven.

This is something the Singapore government is trying to learn, such as at the Manpower Ministry, a client of IDEO for two years.

Mr Brown is heartened that the government wants to explore design thinking as a methodology in policy-making and improving frontline service. He likens the journey of understanding to a “great venture”, where risks need to be taken and commitment needed to overcome these risks over the long term, just as in Silicon Valley, where startups keep evolving until they find success.

“I hope what Singapore does is to treat [design thinking] as an investment in the future and in innovation and have that similar commitment to adaptation and learning as the journey unfolds.”

    Jan 18, 2011
    Chen Jingting
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