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A swarm of solutions

Applying design thinking to our biggest problems

When we think about design, we tend to think about beautiful, functional, even innovative, creative and intuitive objects.

But Surya Vanka, a veteran of user experience design at Microsoft, sees something else. He sees a way to use design to solve some of our most overwhelming problems, such as homelessness and, during a visit to Ohio State, the opioid epidemic.

But how can a process that creates vacuum cleaners and cars also solve a public health crisis?

“Every human is a bundle of creative energy. In design, what we have is a systematic process by which we can take that raw creativity and funnel it into a series of steps that remain the same regardless of the problem,” said Vanka, who holds a Master of Arts from Ohio State.

His Design Swarms start with creation of a persona and proceed through a series of idea-creation steps, each becoming more focused, until a single idea is chosen and expanded in detail.

What do Design Swarms look like?

When Vanka visited Ohio State, he facilitated Design Swarms among a few dozen people clustered in smaller groups seated at tables stocked with plenty of markers and sticky-note pads and covered with big sheets of paper for doodling and scribbling.

As the groups worked through questions and exercises, they documented work on huge pages, each depicting an elaborate matrix that zigs and zags among squares, diamonds and triangles. Steadily, the participants filled these pages and spaces with colorful sticky notes, each one a step toward a solution. With Vanka’s guidance, the groups shared their thoughts and process.

At the end of this guided exercise, each group has created a hypothetical person who has been affected by opioid misuse and addiction and a solution for that situation.

What could solutions look like?

At Ohio State, the Design Swarms led by Vanka came up with these ideas, among others:

  1. “Amazon PrimeRx,” a nationwide program pairing Amazon’s delivery reach with micro-prescriptions of needed drugs, designed to eliminate the potential problems of a bottle full of pills in a medicine cabinet.
  2. “Opi-Track,” a technology that would infuse prescription opiates with microchips ensuring they are ingested only by the person for whom they are intended.
  3. A program for pregnant women who use drugs and need a supportive community in order to begin or maintain recovery. “Trusted Nest” would partner with a ride-sharing service such as Uber to drive women to “safe houses” for recovery.
  4. An augmented-reality video game for at-risk teens that illustrates vividly the potential consequences of poor decisions and the rewards of self-awareness and self-esteem.
  5. A maker space specifically for people in recovery, in acknowledgement that unemployment and resulting poverty can lead to drug misuse and addiction.

Democratizing design

Vanka has a vision to make design inclusive by inviting nontraditional participants to devise big ideas and solutions. During his visit to Ohio State, participants in the Design Swarms included health care workers and students, as well as design professionals. The swarms are grounded in empathy, which Vanka believes produces the best design and ideas.

“Design can be misunderstood as this activity of creating innovative, visually striking solutions,” Vanka said. “But those kinds of results come out of an opportunity that arises when one is so deeply engrossed in the lives of humans. In each case, it’s about serving humans.”