Ep 10: Professor Kees Dorst reveals the special sauce in designing sustainable solutions

What’s the ‘special sauce’ in design thinking to solve the environmental impact of 50 million pigs and 250 million chickens, and other complex, multilayered problems the world is facing?

Listen to Prof Kees Dorst explain how a transdisciplinary approach to problems, lead by design thinking, is resulting in sustainable solutions to answer social, environmental and business problems.


When we think of design, we think of the built environment, something tangible like roads, buildings, towns and cities. But what if we refocused how designers think through a philosophical lens, and applied this to complex social and business problems?

Welcome to With Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Cammeraygal people here in North Sydney, Australia. Joining me today on With Not For is Kees Dorst, Professor of Multidisciplinary Innovation at the University of Technology, Sydney. Kees is considered one of the lead thinkers developing the field of design, and he’s valued for his ability to connect a philosophical understanding of the logic of design, with hands-on practice. He’s also a prolific writer, having published numerous papers and books on the subject, and is a member of the advisory group for the UN development program overseeing the creation of platforms around the world to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We’re very happy to be speaking to Kees today. Welcome to With Not For.

Kees: Thank you, happy to be here.

Manisha: Can you give us a general overview of your work, and how and where it can be applied?

Kees: So I’ve got a background in industrial design, engineering, and in philosophy, and basically started my career as a designer. But I guess, I kept thinking about it too much. I also got into research into how designers think. And at some point that started to focus on OK, so basically the best job in the world, traveling around the world, and observing the best people in your field and learning from them. That’s what I did.

And at some point, I realised that, OK, these designers are all known for their great solutions, all the pretty pictures. But actually, when you study what they do, they spend 70, 80 percent of their time looking at the problem, rather than the solution. And they manage to, time and time again, create new approaches into problem situations, which is a lot of where their originality sits.

And so I got fascinated, realised that that process hadn’t been mapped out at all. So a lot of what we know about design is very solution focused, that is how do people get the solutions, but not what do people actually do with the problem? So I started studying that in depth, and that became a bit of a methodology, which has been picked up over the last 15 years in different places. And so when you approach the problem, it’s called a frame. And this is a frame creation methodology. So where do new frames come from? How do designers manage to, time and time again, create new approaches into problem spaces?

Since then, I’ve moved on a little bit from that, because I realised, of course, dealing with these very complex social problems and issues, that design is great, but it’s not the only thing that you need. You need other professions, you need other disciplines to also understand these things, and work in a way that matches what designers can bring. So that became an interest in transdisciplinarity. So not long ago, I started a Transdisciplinarity School here at UTS, which is basically a collaboration across the University of 25 different Bachelor degrees coming together, each with their own practices, and bring what they can to resolve the really gnarly problems that we’ve got in society.

Manisha: And when we think about that notion of what transdisciplinary really looks like, I think we’ve heard of multidisciplinary teams before in numerous sectors to solve problems. How is transdisciplinary different?

Kees: So transdisciplinarity, the way we do it here, is very different from that. Because in a multidisciplinary setting, there is a problem that requires different expertises. So you get the experts together, and they nut it out together. What we are doing here is saying well, actually, what you need to do is not just have these disciplines contribute into something, they also need to change. So what we’re doing is we’re exchanging practices between the different disciplines. So what I’ve done, literally, when I set up the first Bachelor of Creative Intelligence, was go around the University and just ask colleagues, “So how do you deal with complexity, in business, in law, in nursing? What are the practices that you use to deal with complexity? And how do you create newness? And how do you judge or evaluate,” etc, etc.

So what we’re doing in transdisciplinarity is basically taking these practices and remixing them as needed for the problem area that we’re trying to resolve. And all of these different practices do come together in a creative and open process that leads somewhere. So we’re actually using design processes more or less in the background, as a kind of carrier wave for all of these different practices from all these different disciplines can come in. And it’s absolutely fascinating.

So it’s still in a sense design driven. Maybe because it’s driven by me, I’m not sure. So it’s a kind of different role for design, it’s a kind of host of practices for many different disciplines coming together. And because the problems of the world that we are trying to deal with are transdisciplinary, our response has to be transdisciplinary. So that’s the reason to do it, and to do it in this way.

Manisha: How does your methodology actually assess these problems and then find solutions in ways that don’t alienate or discriminate, as we kind of move between the tension between the silo, and the non-siloed, more flexible way of working?

Kees: Thank you for the question. In a sense, let’s say if the problems that you’re dealing with are open, complex, dynamic, and networked, you have to become open, complex, dynamic, and networked yourself in the way you’re responding to them. So that’s what we’re trying to do. So we’re incredibly inclusive of stakeholders. We make very little assumptions about where, who’s in and who’s out in the problem area, we just take it very, very broadly, which is exactly what I saw these designers do, as I was developing up this frame creation methodology. And so we’re inclusive in that sense.

We also go back to a value level, what is this actually about, and more or less reconstruct the problem from that value level up. And in the end, what that leads to, that ability to go back to go, OK, this is actually about identity. It shows itself through these in these practical things. But it’s actually on a deeper level, it is about identity or whatever. That’s really valuable in itself. Because from a deep knowledge of those underlying values, you can be much more flexible in how you approach things.

And the reason to start TD School was basically to say, well, actually, what we need to get rid of is that idea of a problem. Because you always have a problem, and then that needs to be solved. Well, in a very complex environment, you actually can’t. What you can do is create high quality interventions that move the whole complex system to a better state. But you’re not going to resolve it, or solve it. Because it’s way too complex for that, it’s way too connected for that, etc.

So you’re talking progress, rather than problem solving. And you’re talking navigation of these very complex areas, where you have to do a lot of experiments. Because in a complex area, what you can’t do anymore is map it out, and then look at what is important. You more or less have to intervene, you have to interact with it. And then what is important will start to show itself, and then you have to run with that. So it’s a completely different way of problem solving, or it’s actually moving away from problem solving, to something else completely. It’s that navigation of complexity.

Manisha: Can you give us an example of what that might look like, or an example where you’ve worked with that in the real world?

Kees: Well, many, many, many examples. One example that I’m dealing with at the moment is about a crisis in the Netherlands. I’m from Holland originally, and still doing projects there. There’s a crisis around the relationship between nature and agriculture. Agriculture is very intense. So in a small country, you have 18 million people, but also 50 million pigs, and 250 million chickens, etc, etc. So it’s a very, very intense, it’s [unintelligible 00:09:10], it’s almost a heavy industry, in the way it is seen, which has a heavy impact on the environment. So what we are trying to do right now is look at, OK, how can this be done differently? Because actually, that kind of heavy industry, on scale, in a country with a growing population, in the long run, is not going to be a good idea.

Manisha: And what was the actual crisis that you’re dealing with here, that the farmers and nature are sort of in conflict around?

Kees: In this case, well, Holland is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement. And there was a number of green lawyers that have taken the government to court, and basically said, OK, we’ve signed this treaty in Paris. That now means that that treaty is Dutch law, doesn’t it? And the government sort of wriggled and said, no, it’s an international treaty, that’s not a law, etc, etc. That went all the way up to the High Court. And in May 2019, the High Court decided that these lawyers were actually right, that this is actually Dutch law. Which meant that – and the crisis was about nitrogen. So if you emit nitrogen, and it lands on nature, it changes nature. You’re not allowed to do that in the Paris Climate Agreement. But if the nitrogen emissions are very high, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

So the moment that the High Court, on that moment, actually made that decision, and announced that decision, the government had to bring down the maximum speed of cars in the country from 130 kilometres an hour to 100 kilometres an hour. There were about 18,000 building works that had to be stopped, because they were now illegal. And about three quarters of agriculture was also illegal from that point on. So an absolute crisis in the country, because of taking this Paris Climate Accord seriously, and looking at what is happening, and what you’re actually doing.

And the reason that we’re working so intensely with the Department of Agriculture, etc, etc, is that, OK, this is the nitrogen crisis, which nobody’s heard of. But that’s only the first crisis. There are going to be more of these kinds of crises coming our way, with the way we’ve set up agriculture, carbon, it’s going to be droughts, etc, etc. So what you actually need is to create a learning system within the sector itself, to keep resolving these kinds of things, before they come to a crisis level. So while we’re responding to a crisis now, we’re trying to build something that is basically a learning system, or an innovation ecosystem, or whatever you want to call it, within the sector to make sure that you don’t get caught up in this way again.

Manisha: And so when that happens, on the ground, what are you actually doing?

Kees: Lots and lots of little projects that always connect these different layers. So one of the things that we’ve done is we’ve looked for some land, so we now have land to play with and to experiment with. And basically say, to a couple of farmers and a couple of naturalists, OK, you guys work together, this is your land now, do something. There has to be nature value in there. And it has to be productive. You have to get food out of it. And sort it out. See what you need, we’re going to support you in every way possible. But just try and see what that connection can be.

Another thing that’s happening is that, if you’re looking at – one of the ways that the discussion in the country got stuck, is that it’s always framed as a zero sum game. So you either have nature, or you have agriculture. And you think that’s never going to work, especially when you’ve got a hard line between nature and agriculture. Agriculture is always going to influence the nature area, and nature area is always going to influence– it’s not how the world works, basically, it’s not how nature works. So what we succeeded in doing is getting this new sort of category on the policy level, which is neither nature nor agriculture, and a different kind of landscape to create transitional zones, where both of these things can actually thrive. And so that’s one thing that we do.

And other thing that we do is, you realise that part of the reason the discussion gets stuck is because the farmers don’t trust the government’s data. The government is measuring, and the farmers are saying “No, that can’t be true.” So that’s not a basis for discussion. So we’re doing lots of projects with schools, where it’s actually school projects, kind of citizen science, to measure nitrogen. And I guess when it’s your own kids coming home with the data, it’s different than when the government says something.

So it’s all of these kinds of things. And a lot of it is extremely good listening, and just getting a sense of OK, what is actually the matter here? What is the problem? And you realise that that alone almost has a therapeutic value. Because there’s been a conflict for such a long time, nobody’s been listening to one another, actually. And that’s where design can create a different space, a more creative space, where people can come together. And because it is about design, it is always about the future, implicitly. It’s not about standpoints. It is about OK, what can we do?

And then the nice thing about design in these regions is that it’s also local, these people are local. Everybody wants their live region to have vitality in the future. They mean slightly different things by that. But design can try to connect these different types of vitality in a region. So that’s what we are doing.

Manisha: What I love about it is how each little program or project or experiment is so diverse, and yet still feeds in to that common goal.

Kees: Yeah, and that’s where it’s important to be regional, and talk to people in a space. Because the general discussion, on a country wide level, on nature and agriculture, people have their standpoint, it’s actually quite abstract. You can’t sort anything out there. But if you can sort things out on a local level, in different types of environments, and show how that works, then you can start to scale that up. And you can actually start to feed into the general discussion, without it just being at loggerheads and going around in circles, because that’s frustrating for everybody.

Manisha: And when we think of those organisations and those little experiments, there are two things that come to mind for me; one is that idea of self-directed teams, and people solving things together. But the other one is, oh, my gosh, everyone was doing that. How do we actually get that trickle up effect? And how do we aggregate all of that knowledge and insight into something that’s meaningful at different layers?

Kees: Well, we’re in the middle of that. One of the things that we do is when we start a project like this – or it’s not a project, it’s a program, it’s going to be 10 years or something. So again, going away from the problem solving project language of there’s a briefing, and then this is the solution or the report. No, this is an ongoing thing, because we’re building something together.

So we make sure that when we start, we ask every organisation, OK, what do you want to learn in this space? Because if an organisation comes in and only say, “Well, everybody else should change, so we get our way,” that’s not a learning question. So there has to be that openness to learn, and openness to change from the beginning. And that has to be – you have to keep feeding that in a sense, and make sure that that happens, so that by the time that you come up with your conclusions, they’re more or less no brainers. Because the context within the organisation has already shifted, to understand why this is a good solution. Originally the context didn’t allow that solution to happen at all.

So it is very much about context change. It is very labour intensive because of that. There’s a lot of talk, and there’s a lot of meetings, there’s a lot of getting together, there’s a lot of making sure that everybody keeps on board, which sometimes people drop out, because they’ve got another crisis going on or whatever. Get them back in, get them back into the process. And that’s when I say systems change, that’s how you do it. It is a lot of work, it is a lot of hand holding, it is a lot of pulling people together. But let’s say as designers, the secret sauce that we have is inspiration. As long as people feel that this is inspiring, and this is a place where they learn and grow, they’ll be on board, at least on a personal level. And then if they’re on board on a personal level, they can make sure that their organisation stays on board too. So that’s what we do a lot.

What I’m doing more and more is just talking to organisations and basically say, we know you’ve got problems, and you know you want us to work on those problems; that will be done. But actually, you’re also in this transition. Because in the coming 10 years, we’re going to have an energy transition, there’s going to be a transition in care, there’s going to be a transition in transport, etc. All of these sectors have to change in the coming years. And you can have a discussion about what that would look like in 10 years’ time, and then have a discussion about OK, how do we get there? And how can we actually deal with the issues that you have to deal with now, which I completely respect, in a way that also allows us to learn about how to get to that bigger goal? Because if you just keep working on a half year or yearly or a two year basis, you’re never going to get to that bigger goal. Yet you say you’re committed to that bigger goal. How are we going to get there? Let’s map that out. And let’s make sure that everything that we do, can line up to that bigger mission.

Manisha: So it’s very much an alignment conversation then as well.

Kees: Absolutely. And it’s also, again, the richness of transdisciplinarity is that there’s so much that sectors can learn from one another, and that they’re just not aware of. So working with – as a TD School here, we’ve got about 600 contacts with partners we’ve worked with before, and we work with intensely, and there’s so much richness in to see how people are tackling stuff, and what they can learn from one another and start cross-connecting them. I think that’s just exactly what needs to happen. These are things that are – it’s not one organisation’s to solve. It’s also not one sector’s to solve. It is actually broader than that. So creating, picking up a role of being a convening space for those conversations across sectors, is really crucial.

Manisha: What are some of the things that you’ve seen graduates doing once they get out into the workplaces? Are they utilising the methods you’ve taught them?

Kees: Yeah, definitely, I’m glad to say. You also see how they, especially undergrads graduating, how they struggle, because they’re actually picked up by organisations very quickly, because organisations feel that this is what they need. So a lot of them have jobs before graduation even. But then the roles that they get into in the organisation, are set within the old silos, in a sense. And they have to struggle their way out, or create a network within the organisation that can embody this other way of working.

So on the one hand, organisation, no, they need this, they want this, there is a real need. We’ve got really, really excellent graduates. And still, there’s this mismatch. So you see people actually connect to one another, still, a lot, as a kind of network of a cohort that’s graduated, and inspire one another, and keep each other on track. But we’re also, as soon as we can, want to get them back on campus again, and talk with them about OK, what do you actually encounter?

I’m also running a Masters program, which is for professionals. And some of those are CEO level professionals. And you just see them do things straight away, basically. Because with professionals in particular, you’ve got a lot of experience within your organisation, you know how you’re doing things, you know how you’re innovating. But often, there’s also a sense of unease, like there’s things that we can’t do, or there’s things that we can’t reach, or this is awfully hard, wouldn’t there be a different way of doing it? And helping those professionals reflect on their own experiences, and look at them in a slightly different way, is absolutely great.

So an example that comes to mind is this; a huge organisation, which has been merging. So there’s lots of different parts of the organisation that were all separate, they’re now merging. And they’ve been within that process of merger and reorganisation for about five years now, because they say we need to reach integration. And after working with us for a little while, one of the project leads of that integration process basically said, “Do we actually know what integration is? What do we mean by it?” What we actually want is for the different parts of this organisation to more or less work together, like a band, and to play together as a band, you have to come together on the one beat. And the one beat is the client, is the human that we’re doing this for. So what are we trying to integrate here? It’s actually, if we could use that band model, we do other things. And we maybe get further, quicker. And maybe integration is not even necessary in the long run, when you think about it in this other way.

So it’s unlocking that thinking. There’s also, with professionals, a lot of problems that people have more or less given up on. Like this is how it is, this can’t be helped. And actually trying to find ways to reengage with that, that say well, no, this can actually be dealt with, but not in the way you’ve been trying to do it. Let’s look at other practices that could be used to maybe achieve a better outcome there.

Manisha: What can you tell us about the work you’ve done with the UN, and the challenges you have to deal with there?

Kees: Lots, lots of challenges. So the Sustainable Development Goals, they were the Millennium Goals, then later, the Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed in 2015. Humanity has decided that this is what we want to do for 2030. Now 2030, of course, is a bit tricky as the deadline, because it means not yet, or it means if we create a little bit of progress, and we pretend that progress is going to be linear, everything that we do, we’re actually ahead of the goals. But you know that there’s a lot of progress that you can do within the existing systems, which things that should have done before. So there’s a lot of low hanging fruit, which makes you feel really good. But you’re actually not addressing the systemic changes that need to happen. So at some point that’s going to plateau.

So what we’re doing with the Sustainable Development Goals, is basically saying, OK, all the countries are reporting their progress, and some of them look good, some of them look not so good. But actually, you think, well, that’s all predicated on this idea that progress has got to be linear, which it isn’t. So we need to do systems thinking, we need to do systems change. We need to design different systems, that when the shit hits the fan, can actually start replacing the old systems.

So we’ve moved away from working in a project-like manner, to building 177 platforms in 177 countries, to support these kinds of developments. And we’re just trying to pick up the pioneers, support them, and give them a podium, so that their thinking can be more influential within their sector, or within their region. So that’s what we’re trying to do.

For the UN, this is very different from its normal way of working. UN is a huge organisation. I mean, one of the issues that I have at the moment is, it’s the United Nations. So actually, a lot of the discussions that are happening around policy etc, are on a country level. Well, if you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, it’s much more fruitful to either look at them at a very global level, because they are global problems, or at a very regional level, at a very detailed level.

So again, more or less the same as with the nitrogen project in the Netherlands; we’re looking for these regional examples, where things can be done differently, learn the hell out of them, basically, and then expand those lessons scale those up. UN is a very venerable organisation that likes to write big, really fat reports and stuff. That’s not going to work for this. So to be honest, what I’m using is a lot of my design knowledge and design thinking skills in these kinds of spaces, because that’s where it’s really, really needed.

Manisha: And your work really has taken that leap frog from, I guess, product design interactions design, right into systems design, and systems thinking. For people who might not have heard those terms before, how would you describe that term?

Kees: So a system consists of many different parts; people, individuals, organisations, etc, etc, that all hang together, and that have a common goal or have a common area that it works in. So what you’re trying to do is actually move that system to a better state. But as I already said in the different examples that I’ve given, in a sense, one of the problems is that they’re not really systems. Because a system has lots of feedback loops and stuff, it has lots of relationships. But if you’re looking at these organisations, and undoubtedly, you know this from your clients, too, as a designer, you’ve got this group of people, they have got these KPIs. So this is what they want to do. And this group of people have those KPIs, and they want to do that. And they’re not connected. So it’s very hard to create learning, when there’s no connections yet.

So I end up doing a lot of capability building, almost being a teacher rather than a designer, to help people understand these kinds of things, and to help people create these learning loops. And once the learning loop is there, and it is well supported, things will start to shift, and things will start to change. And those learning loops are never just about any innovation unit in an organisation. They always go straight across an organisation.

Because one of the ways that we look at building up innovation ecosystems is saying, well, actually, innovation in an organisation is a relay race, going from a first spark or idea or a need to realisation. And you can just see who is on the path of that relay race. And you also know that you’ve only got one baton, and if it gets dropped somewhere, it’s over. So how can you actually do the capability building, not just in an innovation unit, but across the whole organisation?

And the funny thing is that, on the one hand, that sounds very daunting. On the other hand, that’s already how it normally happens. But in a sense, we’re just strengthening things that are already happening. And in sectors, we’re always looking for bridge builders, people that do this, but they’ve got a background in that. OK, that’s interesting, because you’ve been a farmer, and now you’re creating policy. OK, you know these different worlds, so you can be a connector. How can you support these people? And what do they need, and maybe they have a very analytical mindset, and they need more creative capabilities. Or maybe they’re not very good [unintelligible 00:29:13], just whatever they need, support them, because they’re very precious. They hold a lot of the connections of the system.

Which is also often the reason that they’re not in the top of the organisation. Because the top of the organisation can’t quite recognise that, or can’t quite see that, or can’t quite give that the credit that it needs. So it is picking up these odd ones, these bridge builders in organisations, and strengthening what they do, is very important.

Manisha: So when we think about the work you’re doing as being really high touch, and working with lots of diverse communities, how do we make sure that the people who are doing the work, have inclusive practices, and are not biased, either towards some groups or some ways of thinking, or are also able to work with the community sometimes we never hear from or never include?

Kees: Yes, I mean, it comes down to being very good in designing the right questions, and having the patience to actually sit down and just see what happens in a conversation. Be open in that, and don’t workshop your way through something because you need to know something. But actually visit people where they are, and really listen.

And also be careful about the questions that you ask. Let’s say in the Research Centre here, we send people out into a neighbourhood to ask people what they want, basically. We’ve learnt to always ask three questions. So the first question is, OK, what do you want? And people say what they want. And everybody sounds a little bit like an egoistic idiot, but you’ve asked them what they want. So that’s what they’re going to say.

And then the second question we ask is, OK, what would be good for the neighbourhood of the street? And then people ask for something that is slightly different. And if you just compare these two answers, you can see how much social space there is, how much people are willing to give up of what they want for the community. And that’s really important, because the social space is where you can design for, in a sense.

And then the third question, we often ask, OK, what would be good for the country or for the world? And often people haven’t really thought about that. And they often revert back to what they want is good for the world. But it is that notion of social space, and really trying to define that as clearly as you can. Because that’s where you can, what you can work with, and the social reads that people have, etc, etc. So those are notions that become very important to create that kind of inclusivity.

But there is I mean, it is an awful lot of listening. And also it’s beyond, I’m a designer, I do a project, I come up with a pretty picture, and then it’s not going to happen, and it’s a pity. The moment you engage with people in this way, you’re actually giving them hope. So you actually have a responsibility to do your bloody best to actually make it all happen. And be cautious about that. Because, especially working with disadvantaged communities, these people have been given hope so many times. That’s not good. We actually need to make sure also that when you start a program, that there is means to actually do something at the end, not just the plan, or a nice picture, or I can get a design award for this, or whatever. That’s not what it should be about. But it means that the programs that you do get quite sticky. You have to stay with them for a very, very long time. Which is cool for me, because that actually creates the richness and the subtlety that you need.

But I think one of the problems we have coming from design is that people say, “OK, you’re a designer, you do projects.” This is actually something else. This is beyond the project level. So not only do we need to throw away problem solving, and say it’s not about solving this particular problem, but that whole thinking of, innovation is always doing an innovative project, is wrong. It has to be much longer than that.

And again, it sounds very ambitious. On the other hand, if you have a design agency like you have, you know that, yes, you do projects; but actually you work for the same clients and projects build on one another and slowly become more strategic. So what I’m trying to do is front load that notion into this whole space, and then create a program that you can work with it. And again, it’s not something that is new, it’s something that experienced designers already do. But still, if we sell design, we still sell it as a project. Or if we educate students, we say, “You’re going to be a designer, here’s your design project.” And that’s one level of designing. But there’s also that strategic longer arc, about the relationship you build up with a sector, with your clients, etc, etc, which is much more important in the long run for creating real change and impact.

Manisha: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Kees, it’s always fantastic listening to you. You’re always so thought provoking. And I really believe that the things you talk about work at a micro and a macro level, and that’s very rare indeed.

So thank you everyone for listening and being here with us today on With Not For. If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au, or see the show notes where you can not only hear and see the transcript of this, but you can also see links to Kees’ books; I highly recommend them. Until next time this is Manisha Amin for the Centre for Inclusive Design.