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Cape Town’s d-school: where creative intelligence is unlocked

28 June 2019

Founded by Richard Perez, the driving force behind the City of Cape Town’s 2014 World Design Capital programme, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design Thinking  (or d-school) in Cape Town trains under- and postgraduate students, industry leaders and public and private professionals in design-led thinking.

“The University of Cape Town’s School of Design Thinking is a place where creative intelligence is unlocked, and where future-ready leadership is developed,” says Perez, who studied engineering at UCT, gained a master’s degree in design from the Royal College of Art and the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London and – after working in the design field for more than a decade – attained an executive MBA from UCT’s Graduate School of Business.

At d-school, we use design as the foundational platform to help students and professionals work in transdisciplinary teams to understand and come up with ideas and possible solutions to complex challenges.

The school is a direct spinoff of Cape Town’s World Design Capital year. While it operates on the same premise as its sister schools at Stanford University in the US and Potsdam University in Germany, the Cape Town d-school is uniquely different, says Perez. “This is a School of Design Thinking for Africa, for our challenges. I spent a lot of time at both Stanford and Potsdam, the idea is not to replicate but to build our own equivalent. We’ve got to build a flavour of our own, we can’t just copy and paste.”

The d-school’s first pilot, offered free to postgraduate students from UCT, ran from March to May 2016. The initial cohort of 24 students were from a range of academic backgrounds and spent two full days a week for 10 weeks completing the course. “We sent out a call to postgraduate students at UCT and got an overwhelming response of about 70 students, of which we only had place for around 25 to 30,” says Perez. “Eventually, we landed up with a cohort of 24 students, with representation from every faculty of the university, from the law department, engineering, health science to commerce with a 50/50 mix in race and gender. We took the students through a 10-week design thinking programme. They were split into multidisciplinary teams and taught the key processes and tools of design thinking. We ultimately tried to build a mindset, trying to get them to understand how to think like a designer and for it to become part of their DNA when faced with challenges. We want participants to take this thinking back into their various disciplines.”

The basic tenets of design thinking, explains Perez, are collaboration, human-centeredness, creative thinking and learning through doing.

“Essentially, design thinking is a problem-solving methodology,” he says.

“If you were to climb into the headspace of a designer as they were working over a problem, and climb into their brain, to try and look at what’s going through their mind and what they’re thinking, that’s essentially design thinking. So, what we’re trying to do here at d-school is to show people how that thinking works and for them to learn it and for them to apply it.

“We’ve all got it, it’s inherent to us as human beings. Some of us have chosen to become professional designers in our lives, whether it’s industrial designers, engineering or graphic design, we’ve been professionally taught to nurture and express that natural talent. Others have gone off and perhaps done law or medicine or social science where that natural creative capacity or problem-solving capacity has not necessarily been nurtured.”

So design thinking is not something new, says Perez. “It’s an inherent human capability and what we’re trying to do at the d-school is rekindle that within people and get them to apply it within the context of their world.

“We’re not trying to teach people to be designers… to understand a design process, and apply that process in their context, whether it’s cooking in the kitchen and trying to improvise because you don’t have all the ingredients; to choosing a different way to get to work in the morning because the traffic is really bad on your normal route; to solving a complex problem around security or climate change, essentially that’s design thinking. Coming up with an idea, experimenting, prototyping and allowing the solution to emerge with time, through prototyping and testing and use failure and experimentation as part of the learning experience.”

Perez sees the Cape Town d-school as a legacy of the World Design Capital programme. “A lot of the conversations were accelerated and interest made during the World Design Capital year,” says Perez. “UCT had been in discussions with the Hasso Plattner Trust in Germany for a number of years on possibly starting a school of design thinking here in Cape Town. Professor Hasso Plattner’s daughters actually studied at UCT and that’s where the link was made.”

For Perez, d-school is not about UCT, Cape Town or even South Africa, it’s an institution for Africa. “We’re starting here in Cape Town, but plan to branch out into the rest of SA and the continent, into Kenya and Nigeria, where we will possibly start offering pop-up d-school classes and have satellite offices.”

The d-school was founded in August 2015 with funding, IP and academic support from Prof. Dr. Hasso Plattner – co-founder of software company, SAP AG, and chairman of its Supervisory Board – and the Hasso Plattner Trust. Professor Plattner initiated and funded the first academic programmes in design thinking. The establishment of the HPI Schools of Design Thinking at Stanford in the US in 2005, and at Potsdam in Germany in 2007, brought academic rigour to design-led innovation practice, and made training programmes in design thinking available to academic scholars and leaders in the private and public sectors.

Students from all disciplines and industry and government executives come together at the d-school to learn to work collaboratively in diverse and inclusive multi-disciplinary teams on real world challenges and to develop human-centred innovative solutions.