The potential of Design Thinking to enable change in Higher Education


  • Trevor Vaugh Maynooth University
  • Threase Finnegan-Kessie Maynooth University Innovation Lab
  • Peter Donnellan
  • Teghan Oswald


Over the past decade, design thinking had gained increasing attention from practitioners and academics from across many sectors and disciplines for its ability to foster innovation and tackle complex challenges. The approach has been defined as a “human-centered approach to innovation that puts the observation and discovery of often highly nuanced, even tacit, human needs right at the forefront of the innovation process” (Gruber et al., 2015). While there is increasing evidence that design thinking delivers value to firms trying to innovate and to societies trying to make change happen (Liedtka, 2018), there is little evidence that Higher Education has embraced the approach to the same extent as many other public, private and 3rd sector organisations. 

Prior to the emergence of Covid-19 and the restrictions and disruption it brought about, Higher Education was facing many challenges. Now, as we begin to return to campuses, there is a growing pressure on institutions to respond, innovate and transform in order to tackle the growing list of new and existing operational challenges, the imminent threat of disruption and to meet the explicit and unarticulated needs of its staff and students. In this article we argue that design thinking could offer an inclusive approach to innovation and transformation, one that institutions can utilise to begin to address these complex challenges, improve stagnant processes and ensure sustainability over time. Change can only happen if institutions are able to motivate, build creative confidence and give permission to staff and students to take action. We argue that they need empower staff with the skills, attitudes and abilities necessary to identify and tackle challenges, and move into an uncertain space where the core skills and mindsets of design thinking : empathy, humility, creativity, experimentation and a bias towards action offer the opportunity to design that change. We suggest a set of design principles that could help begin this process.