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Tom Bouchard

Jan 27, 2024

5

min read

Design Swarms: A Revolution in Collaborative Problem-Solving

The Global Impact Collective is proud to offer Design Swarms® in partnership with Surya Vanka of Authentic Design.

Design Swarms: A Revolution in Collaborative Problem-Solving

The Global Impact Collective is proud to be partnering with Authentic Design to bring the Design Swarms® workshop and process to help our clients solve the most pressing issues facing people and the planet.


The concept of Design Swarms was conceived by Surya Vanka of Authentic Design in Seattle in 2015 as a response to the growing complexity of global challenges and the need for more inclusive, collaborative problem-solving methods. Surya is now also a Founding Advisor of the Global Impact Collective.


How can Design Swarms help organizations solve tricky issues through creative thinking? Below are three examples.

Designers using Post-it notes
A Design Swarm in progress

Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone


In 2022, a group of young boys and girls from Sierra Leone won The Frontier Design Prize, one of the most prestigious design prizes in the world, for their innovative solutions to address gender-based violence. The group, comprising twenty-eight 15-year-old students from the Rising Academy Network based in Freetown, employed a sophisticated design thinking approach despite having absolutely no prior experience in design. In just two days in a workshop setting, they created four innovative solutions, comparable to those developed by highly trained, world-class design teams.


One student team focused on the challenges faced by girls with albinism, who endure discrimination stemming from tribal beliefs, including accusations of witchcraft which expose them to constant risks of violence, including ritual attacks, and often resort to isolation. To combat this, the team designed ‘The Ghost App,’ an innovative social media platform that allows for individual expression without revealing the user's gender, physical features, or skin color.


Addressing Ohio’s Opioid Epidemic


In a workshop at the Ohio State University, a diverse group including forty medical experts, academics, first responders, and students gathered, envisioning a response to the opioid crisis where, on average, someone in Ohio died of an opioid overdose every 11 minutes. By using a design thinking approach, they first gained empathy for those afflicted by addiction. One team's insight was into the phenomenon of 'accidental addicts' – individuals who become addicted after experimenting just once or twice with surplus medication from legitimate prescriptions. They proposed a cheap, simple, and innovative solution called 'Prime Rx,' ensuring only four pills are delivered daily by Amazon, requiring authentication for receipt, thereby eliminating dangerous surplus. Another team developed a video game that graphically demonstrates to potential addicts the devastating personal consequences of opioid addiction.


Reducing Homelessness Among Women in Seattle


In Seattle, a group of women with no background in design employed a design thinking approach to develop innovative and impactful methods to address the systemic issue of homelessness among women. This intractable problem was highlighted by the fact that each night, around five hundred homeless women were on the streets of Seattle, and forty-five homeless individuals had died, leading the mayor to declare a homelessness epidemic and call it a civil emergency. Representatives from Mary’s Place, a women’s shelter, including administrators and formerly homeless women, collaborated with professionals to develop solutions to real problems they had encountered based on their own lived experience of homelessness.


A significant insight emerged during the workshop: when a woman becomes homeless, she not only loses her home but often her ability to prove her identity, especially if forced to flee abruptly from domestic abuse without identity documents. This insight led to the creation of ‘Identity Haven,’ a custom, cloud-based solution for storing identity documents with easy access during a crisis.


Design Swarms helped these ordinary people -- most of whom did not even know a discipline called design existed -- develop innovative solutions using such sophisticated and systematic design thinking methods.


Traditional design methods often fall short in addressing multifaceted problems that require a diverse range of perspectives and expertise. In developing Design Swarms, Surya drew on his years as a design leader at Microsoft and a professor of design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He created a novel method that brings together two concepts: Design Thinking and Swarm Creativity. As he developed this method over many years, he was inspired by observing the behaviors of small teams that moved fast and produced results within organizations. These teams didn’t get bogged down by bureaucracies, but rather displayed the coordinated, collective behavior of swarms observed in nature -- such as flocks of birds, ant colonies, or schools of fish – where the collective led to a greater good.


What are Design Swarms?


Design Swarms are a unique methodology that combines design thinking principles with the agility and collaborative dynamism of a 'swarm.' This approach focuses on harnessing the collective intelligence and creativity of diverse groups to tackle challenging problems. It involves intense, focused workshops where participants, regardless of their design background, collaborate to brainstorm, ideate, and develop solutions.


The essence of Design Swarms lies in its structured yet flexible approach, laid out in four primary phases.


A Design Swarm begins with the group collaboratively defining the problem through deep empathy, where participants from diverse backgrounds contribute their unique perspectives. This ensures a comprehensive understanding of the issue and sets the stage for the creative process.


In the ideation phase, the swarm mentality shines. Participants brainstorm, leveraging and building upon each other's ideas. This phase highlights the power of collective intelligence, with ideas evolving and maturing through the group's shared creativity.


Next is the prototyping phase, where ideas become tangible concepts. This rapid, iterative prototyping includes constant feedback loops to keep solutions aligned with the problem and user needs.


The testing and refinement phase allows the swarm to evaluate prototypes, soliciting feedback from a broader audience and iteratively refining the solution. This phase is crucial to ensure the final product or solution is innovative, practical, and user centric.


At its core, Design Swarms employ dozens of proprietary process maps developed by Surya over ten years. These maps guide participants through a collaborative journey, visually representing the design thinking process used by expert designers. They enable participants unfamiliar with design to systematically explore the problem space before diving into creative solution development.


The Design Swarm Toolkit, along with trained facilitators, helps orchestrate the right ‘swarm behaviors’ across multiple small teams, fostering rapid learning from each other. This structured approach ensures inclusivity of all voices while maintaining focus and efficiency. The methodology is characterized by its emphasis on extreme collaboration and agility, creating an environment where rapid ideation and iterative feedback are the norm.


The Impact of Design Swarms


Design Swarms have had widespread impact across dozens of countries and hundreds of organizations. These swarms have been applied globally in a multitude of contexts, ranging from corporate problem-solving at large, multinational companies to addressing social issues in extremely low-resource communities. The versatility of this method lies in its ability to adapt to different problems and incorporate inputs from a wide range of participants.


In the business world, it has led to the creation of innovative products and services that are more aligned with user needs and market demands. In the social realm, it has enabled the development of practical, impactful solutions to some of the most pressing challenges by empowering communities to utilize their collective creative potential. In educational settings, Design Swarms has been instrumental in teaching students the value of collaborative problem-solving and design thinking.


Design Swarms represent a paradigm shift in collaborative problem-solving. The unique approach, combining design thinking with swarm creativity, unlocks the potential of collective intelligence – no matter who is in the room. This leads to innovative solutions that are both practical and impactful. It is a powerful tool that leverages the best of human creativity and collective effort to create a more innovative and solution-oriented world.


If you would like to unleash the creative potential of your organization with a Design Swarm by harnessing your creativity for the greater good, please get in touch!

Design Swarms

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  • Writer's pictureTom Bouchard

Design Swarms: A Revolution in Collaborative Problem-Solving

The Global Impact Collective is proud to be partnering with Authentic Design to bring the Design Swarms® workshop and process to help our clients solve the most pressing issues facing people and the planet.


The concept of Design Swarms was conceived by Surya Vanka of Authentic Design in Seattle in 2015 as a response to the growing complexity of global challenges and the need for more inclusive, collaborative problem-solving methods. Surya is now also a Founding Advisor of the Global Impact Collective.


How can Design Swarms help organizations solve tricky issues through creative thinking? Below are three examples.

Designers using Post-it notes
A Design Swarm in progress

Addressing Gender-Based Violence in Sierra Leone


In 2022, a group of young boys and girls from Sierra Leone won The Frontier Design Prize, one of the most prestigious design prizes in the world, for their innovative solutions to address gender-based violence. The group, comprising twenty-eight 15-year-old students from the Rising Academy Network based in Freetown, employed a sophisticated design thinking approach despite having absolutely no prior experience in design. In just two days in a workshop setting, they created four innovative solutions, comparable to those developed by highly trained, world-class design teams.


One student team focused on the challenges faced by girls with albinism, who endure discrimination stemming from tribal beliefs, including accusations of witchcraft which expose them to constant risks of violence, including ritual attacks, and often resort to isolation. To combat this, the team designed ‘The Ghost App,’ an innovative social media platform that allows for individual expression without revealing the user's gender, physical features, or skin color.


Addressing Ohio’s Opioid Epidemic


In a workshop at the Ohio State University, a diverse group including forty medical experts, academics, first responders, and students gathered, envisioning a response to the opioid crisis where, on average, someone in Ohio died of an opioid overdose every 11 minutes. By using a design thinking approach, they first gained empathy for those afflicted by addiction. One team's insight was into the phenomenon of 'accidental addicts' – individuals who become addicted after experimenting just once or twice with surplus medication from legitimate prescriptions. They proposed a cheap, simple, and innovative solution called 'Prime Rx,' ensuring only four pills are delivered daily by Amazon, requiring authentication for receipt, thereby eliminating dangerous surplus. Another team developed a video game that graphically demonstrates to potential addicts the devastating personal consequences of opioid addiction.


Reducing Homelessness Among Women in Seattle


In Seattle, a group of women with no background in design employed a design thinking approach to develop innovative and impactful methods to address the systemic issue of homelessness among women. This intractable problem was highlighted by the fact that each night, around five hundred homeless women were on the streets of Seattle, and forty-five homeless individuals had died, leading the mayor to declare a homelessness epidemic and call it a civil emergency. Representatives from Mary’s Place, a women’s shelter, including administrators and formerly homeless women, collaborated with professionals to develop solutions to real problems they had encountered based on their own lived experience of homelessness.


A significant insight emerged during the workshop: when a woman becomes homeless, she not only loses her home but often her ability to prove her identity, especially if forced to flee abruptly from domestic abuse without identity documents. This insight led to the creation of ‘Identity Haven,’ a custom, cloud-based solution for storing identity documents with easy access during a crisis.


Design Swarms helped these ordinary people -- most of whom did not even know a discipline called design existed -- develop innovative solutions using such sophisticated and systematic design thinking methods.


Traditional design methods often fall short in addressing multifaceted problems that require a diverse range of perspectives and expertise. In developing Design Swarms, Surya drew on his years as a design leader at Microsoft and a professor of design at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He created a novel method that brings together two concepts: Design Thinking and Swarm Creativity. As he developed this method over many years, he was inspired by observing the behaviors of small teams that moved fast and produced results within organizations. These teams didn’t get bogged down by bureaucracies, but rather displayed the coordinated, collective behavior of swarms observed in nature -- such as flocks of birds, ant colonies, or schools of fish – where the collective led to a greater good.


What are Design Swarms?


Design Swarms are a unique methodology that combines design thinking principles with the agility and collaborative dynamism of a 'swarm.' This approach focuses on harnessing the collective intelligence and creativity of diverse groups to tackle challenging problems. It involves intense, focused workshops where participants, regardless of their design background, collaborate to brainstorm, ideate, and develop solutions.


The essence of Design Swarms lies in its structured yet flexible approach, laid out in four primary phases.


A Design Swarm begins with the group collaboratively defining the problem through deep empathy, where participants from diverse backgrounds contribute their unique perspectives. This ensures a comprehensive understanding of the issue and sets the stage for the creative process.


In the ideation phase, the swarm mentality shines. Participants brainstorm, leveraging and building upon each other's ideas. This phase highlights the power of collective intelligence, with ideas evolving and maturing through the group's shared creativity.


Next is the prototyping phase, where ideas become tangible concepts. This rapid, iterative prototyping includes constant feedback loops to keep solutions aligned with the problem and user needs.


The testing and refinement phase allows the swarm to evaluate prototypes, soliciting feedback from a broader audience and iteratively refining the solution. This phase is crucial to ensure the final product or solution is innovative, practical, and user centric.


At its core, Design Swarms employ dozens of proprietary process maps developed by Surya over ten years. These maps guide participants through a collaborative journey, visually representing the design thinking process used by expert designers. They enable participants unfamiliar with design to systematically explore the problem space before diving into creative solution development.


The Design Swarm Toolkit, along with trained facilitators, helps orchestrate the right ‘swarm behaviors’ across multiple small teams, fostering rapid learning from each other. This structured approach ensures inclusivity of all voices while maintaining focus and efficiency. The methodology is characterized by its emphasis on extreme collaboration and agility, creating an environment where rapid ideation and iterative feedback are the norm.


The Impact of Design Swarms


Design Swarms have had widespread impact across dozens of countries and hundreds of organizations. These swarms have been applied globally in a multitude of contexts, ranging from corporate problem-solving at large, multinational companies to addressing social issues in extremely low-resource communities. The versatility of this method lies in its ability to adapt to different problems and incorporate inputs from a wide range of participants.


In the business world, it has led to the creation of innovative products and services that are more aligned with user needs and market demands. In the social realm, it has enabled the development of practical, impactful solutions to some of the most pressing challenges by empowering communities to utilize their collective creative potential. In educational settings, Design Swarms has been instrumental in teaching students the value of collaborative problem-solving and design thinking.


Design Swarms represent a paradigm shift in collaborative problem-solving. The unique approach, combining design thinking with swarm creativity, unlocks the potential of collective intelligence – no matter who is in the room. This leads to innovative solutions that are both practical and impactful. It is a powerful tool that leverages the best of human creativity and collective effort to create a more innovative and solution-oriented world.


If you would like to unleash the creative potential of your organization with a Design Swarm by harnessing your creativity for the greater good, please get in touch!

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