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Why Businesses Should Use Design Thinking to Advance the Sustainable Development Goals.

What do the Sustainable Development Goals have to do with business or design thinking? For businesses that care about people and the planet, plenty!

By Krista Aspiras.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were established by the United Nations to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. The 17 goals, adopted by 193 participating UN countries, lay out the global agenda for sustainable development until 2030.

Design thinking is a process used to build innovative solutions for product, service, and business design problems ranging from simple to complex. Popularized by IDEO, design thinking emphasizes using empathy to identify a human-centered solution.

With the 17 SDGs taking on arguably the world’s toughest problems that exist today, it seems both competitively advantageous and incredibly valuable for businesses to advance the SDGs using design thinking.

There are plenty of benefits that design thinking can have on business, both within an organization and externally for customers.

Design thinking is good for your business

There are plenty of benefits that design thinking can have on business, both within an organization and externally for customers.

Encourages inclusion and collaboration

Design thinking exercises aren’t limited to certain teams or positions within a company. In fact, everyone in an organization can (and should) participate! By including people from all levels of an organization, business leaders acknowledge that every employee has important ideas to contribute and demonstrates that each voice is valued.

Design thinking is a collaborative process–it requires a minimum of two people, but the more participants, the better. And because talking to more people leads to learning different perspectives, the ability to empathize (the first stage in design thinking) increases as more people provide input.

One stage in the design thinking process is ideation. During ideation, teams use a mix of divergent and convergent thinking to brainstorm, and later hone in on, the strongest ideas that emerge. For divergent thinking to occur, it’s important for participants to come from diverse backgrounds. Having an interdepartmental mix within teams advances a design thinking exercise and encourages collaboration.

When people feel valued at work, they become more connected to the company mission and are more productive. By creating a work environment that encourages inclusion and collaboration, businesses are also improving employee motivation and company morale.

Inspires innovation

The design thinking process is completely different than a typical office meeting or problem solving exercise. Internally, companies can use design thinking to redesign any business process. Externally, companies can use design thinking to revamp an existing product or service.

One of the central stages in design thinking is defining (or redefining) the problem. A Forbes article written last year illustrates how IBM used design thinking to redefine a problem and ultimately identify an innovative solution for slow airline passenger check-in. In addition to solving the obvious issue by improving the check-in software, the IBM designers used a human-centered approach that asked the gate agents why the check-in kiosks weren’t working effectively. By speaking to the agents, the IBM designers found an entirely different problem that needed to be addressed.

By redefining the problem through the design thinking process, participants are forced to think about the issue with a completely different perspective. This part of design thinking leads to identifying innovative solutions.

Relies on a human-centered approach

How many stories have you heard of companies that failed miserably after forgetting to seek feedback from the people who matter most, the customers? Companies are often so focused on coming up with a new product or service, they completely forget to put the customer first.

With design thinking, there’s an emphasis on identifying what is desirable, technologically feasible, and economically viable, all while keeping a human-centered focus. This requires gathering as much information as possible about the customer, and asking impactful, often emotional questions that lead to valuable insights.

The human-centered approach behind design thinking helps put the customer first and also adds an important human element to the problem being solved.

SDGs are good for business, too

Targeting any or all of the SDGs is both good for business and good for the world. The UN understood this when forming the SDGs, which is why business targets were built into all 17 goals.

More than ever before, customers expect businesses to play a larger role in addressing environmental and social issues. In fact, 90% of citizens said they believe it’s important for business to sign up to the SDGs. By doing so, companies can appeal to both the hearts and minds of their customers.

Businesses may also find a competitive advantage by integrating the SDGs into their business strategies. One PwC article highlights a potential benefit to aligning strategy with the SDGs and government initiatives:

“This could give businesses a competitive advantage over competitors that don’t understand their contribution, enabling them to keep ahead of new policy interventions and use the knowledge to revise their strategies accordingly. It could also help them to put a financial value on the success of sustainable action both within the organisation and in larger society.”

Any way you look at them, the SDGs are a real opportunity for business leaders to make a lasting impact while driving growth.

Just ask B-Corps

Certified B Corporations (aka ‘B-Corps’) are businesses that have met rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. B Lab has certified over 2,500 companies from around the globe, including Patagonia and Ben & Jerry’s. The certification has been around since 2007, but many certified B-Corps recognized the importance of building their businesses around people, planet, and profit long before then.

Businesses tackling the SDGs

When implementation of the sustainable development goals began in 2016, many businesses started integrating the goals into their strategic initiatives right away.

Tony’s Chocolonely – together making 100% slave free chocolate

Last year, Tony’s joined more than 150 other Dutch companies and organizations to insist that the Sustainable Development Goals be integrated into the coalition agreement. As a company, Tony’s actively works towards achieving all 17 development goals, but focuses most of its energies on Goal 1 (ending poverty), Goal 10 (reduced inequalities), and Goal 12 (responsible consumption and production). Tony’s is also a certified B-Corp!


2030hub is a company whose entire business is built around the sustainable development goals. It raises awareness of the SDG framework and helps facilitate local impact of the goals through its in-house coworking space, communication agency, consultancy services, and project management.

While achievement of the SDGs requires partnership of governments, businesses, NGOs and citizens alike, businesses are integral to advancing the goals. By applying design thinking principles, business leaders can reap some huge rewards for both their organization and their customers.

For any company or organization interested in learning more about the sustainable development goals, visit the UN SDG website. It details each of the 17 goals and the targets connected to the goals. For more information on design thinking, check out any of IDEO U’s design thinking courses.

Krista is a collaborator and content creator at Emzingo –she’s also an Emzingo NexGen Alumna! When she’s not working you’ll find her cooking, listening to podcasts, or enjoying the outdoors.

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