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Hong Kong interior design

Fostering business innovation through design with a human approach

Ideo pioneers unique approach that helps unlock a company’s creativity and ability to innovate

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 January, 2017, 4:08pm

China’s food industry has faced a crisis in consumer confidence in the past few years, rocked by food scandals involving recycled oil, fake eggs and mislabelled meat. Yet where many saw a widespread problem, the brother and sister team of Harn and Anmao Sun saw an opportunity. The result was restaurant and grocery chain Hunter Gatherer.

Founded in October 2014, the Shanghai-based business provides customers with trustworthy dining and grocery options. More than half of the vegetables on its menu are from the business’s two chemical-free farms, with the rest coming from a closely vetted farming network.

What makes the business stand out is not just how the company leverages consumer sentiment, however, but the cohesive problem-solving developed around it that addresses supply chain management, retail and interior design, and brand positioning and marketing.

This was no fluke. At its inception, Hunter Gatherer collaborated with Ideo, a company with offices around the world that specialises in a process called design thinking. According to one of its three co-founders David Kelley, the practice is “a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”.

Such methods are powerful, he says, because design is used not as a cosmetic tool but as a vital pillar with technology to create innovative solutions. It is a specific process and way of thinking that Ideo’s chief executive, Tim Brown, has been advocating since taking the helm in 2000. In Hong Kong recently, Brown stressed the need for creative competitiveness if businesses are to thrive, and why a new kind of leadership is needed in the global arena – one that could unlock a team’s creativity and ability to innovate.

“Most organisations spend most of their time focused on making the business they have today as effective as possible,” says Brown. “They give themselves little time and resources on the big picture, which is to focus on how they have to change and the new things they need to develop.”

We are going to redesign and reinvent the world around us
Tim Brown, chief executive, Ideo

He attributes to several factors the tendency for leaders to run their businesses with an insular mindset. They include an education system that tells chief executives to focus on making their current business effective, a financial market that pressures them to deliver short-term results, and an inability to process and prepare for the future.

Not surprisingly, Brown himself was educated through a confined view of design. In the 1980s he studied industrial design at the Royal College of Art for seven years at a time when disciplines such as interaction design and service design had not yet been formed.

While Brown is grateful for his education, he says the experience, though profound, had a narrow view of what design could encompass. Only after graduating did Brown grasp how his craft could be applied in a wider context. At a company called ID Two, he was nurtured by its co-founder Bill Moggridge, designer of the first laptop computer. It was during this time that Brown saw the latent potential of design thinking, and would follow his mentor with the establishment of Ideo in 1991.

Brown elaborates: “Bill was always interested in what the edge of design was. He was very playful, exploratory and experimental. I love that he was very open to new ideas, wherever they would come from, even if they were coming from the youngest people on his team – this was always me. And he was just tremendously supportive of me and the ideas I wanted to explore.”

Through his own experience, Brown strives to share design-thinking principles through a wider network. Efforts include his book Change by Design, and the company’s online school Ideo U, which offers courses in subjects such as creative leadership and developing key insights.

“We are seeing evidence for the desire for change, especially in young people who want to balance their analytical expertise with creative skills. Institutions like the d.school at Stanford University are reaching out not just to designers but engineering and business students too,” he says.

“We are going to redesign and reinvent the world around us. It is an exciting time to encourage more businesses to participate in reinventing the world around us.”