Design thinking: an essential tool also for infrastructures

Interview with Ileana Stigliani, Associate Professor of Design and Innovation at the Imperial College of London

Ileana Stigliani is an Associate Professor of Design and Innovation at Imperial College London and a leading expert in the study of specific dynamics that lead to industrial innovation. The prestigious international publication “Poets & Quants” in 2018 named her as one of the top Italian professors in the world.

Design thinking – an approach to innovation borrowed from the design world, based on creativity, empathy and experimentation – is an essential tool for the management of large companies, particularly in the infrastructure sector.

Ileana Stigliani, Professor of Design Thinking at Imperial College in London, currently recognized as one of the most talented young Italian professors in the world, is sure of it.
“Management at large companies can benefit greatly from using design thinking, both internally and externally. Internally, design thinking could be used in the redesign of business processes or of their employees’ work structures, whether they’re manual workers, employees, executives, or managers. An external approach would mean innovation that allows you to better understand customers’ needs and problems. This leads to experimentation with innovative solutions, using imagination and lateral thinking. So design thinking is an approach that is based on the use of creativity and imagination, above all. Therefore, it is a great competitive asset for all sectors.”

How would you define “design thinking?”

Design thinking is an approach to innovation that lends itself particularly well to solving complex problems that have a high degree of ambiguity, both in terms of the causes of said problems and of their possible solutions. As an approach, it’s based on some fundamental principles. Namely, empathy, or the ability to place oneself in the state of mind, situation and experience of another person, but it’s also about vision, creative management, experimentation, and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes instead of considering them as failures.”


Why, from your perspective, would the infrastructure sector also benefit from design thinking?

The major infrastructure sector is probably the sector that lends itself best to design thinking because design thinking is an effective approach to innovation when the problem is complex, ambiguous, and when there is a system of stakeholders – so, the public, government, and all the other actors involved in creating infrastructure works that have to come around to shared solutions.”


Did Covid-19 and the crisis that followed help spark innovative thinking in business?

“Covid has definitely shone a light on the need to redefine and redesign all of our systems, so emphasis on the ability to reinvent ourselves has definitely increased, as has the ability to innovate. Because if you don’t innovate during a crisis like the one Covid created, unfortunately, you’re wiped out by the market.”


What are the assumptions that drive the career choices of young talent?

“From what I’ve seen, young people are increasingly moving away from the idea of working in the same company for 25 or 30 years. There is definitely more of a willingness to have different experiences, to change, grow, and work in startups or small and medium-sized companies as well as in large multinationals. But the key thing that makes the difference, and will continue to play even more of an important role in shaping people’s choices, is the possibility to make an impact on society through one’s work.”


Do you mean to say that young people choose workplaces based on sustainability policies?

“Yes, young people today are much more sensitive to society’s great challenges, sustainability first and foremost. For them, it’s very important that the company prioritizes improving society and the environment, and, more generally, that it asks questions about important issues.”


How important is it for young people to be innovative?

“What I always tell my students is that developing an innovative mindset will be their main competitive asset. With the advent of artificial intelligence especially, there is a great fear of being replaced, in a sense, by machines or robots. But the ability to be creative and innovative will always make the fundamental difference.”


Is creativity innate, or can one develop it through study?

“Creativity definitely has an innate component, but it doesn’t end there. Creativity can also be cultivated. Think about how we as a human species wouldn’t have evolved over time if we hadn’t been creative. So creativity can be taught, but above all, what helps is to cultivate a series of behaviors that slowly help to develop creativity as well as greater confidence in one’s own abilities.”


What does innovation mean to you?

“To me, innovation or innovating is imagining the world as it could be rather than as it is, so innovating means breaking the status quo in a sense, breaking the situation as it is, altering, changing, and introducing something new.”


Are women taking up the space they deserve in the engineering sciences?

“The role of women has changed profoundly in recent years, even if there’s still work to be done. To bring about this change, it would be enough for there to be an awareness within companies that diversity in general, and in this case gender diversity, is definitely an added value. Diversity is key to innovating because innovating means imagining the world as it could be. If we always look at the status quo from the same perspective, from a monothematic point of view, we are closing ourselves off to many other possibilities. But opening up to diversity, which can be diversity of culture, ethnicity, or gender, only helps enrich our perspective and increase the possibilities for imagining the world in a very different way.”