Doing the right things and doing things right. Planet-centered Design Thinking.


It is the time of innovation culture and transformations. An important part of these transformations is always the keyword “user-centered”. A major reason for this is the rise of innovation methods such as design thinking. Today these methods play an important role and are spreading rapidly in broad parts of the economy, as well as NGOs and even in public administration (see Tech4Germany).


On the one hand, design thinking has proven itself in the creation of ideas and in the development of successful new products and services. On the other hand, many established companies and institutions also use the method to promote intrapreneurship and the spirit of innovation.  

But it is also the time of social change, of climate change and thus of global challenges that endanger our healthy and peaceful future on earth. In large parts of society and also among our customers, there is therefore an increasing interest in ecologically and socially sustainable innovation – and thus also in innovation methods such as design thinking and their application in the field of sustainability. That is why we would like to take a closer look at design thinking and find out what the concept has in common with our desire for sustainable, meaningful innovation.


A brief design thinking review

The design thinking journey officially begins at the end of the 20th century, when professor David Kelley creates the at Stanford University. Inspired by the interdisciplinary nature of the German Bauhaus movement in the 1920s, Stanford develops a method that allows project collaborators from a wide range of disciplines to work together on complex issues. The collaboration is project-based and takes place in mixed teams that are not only composed of experts, but also explicitly include users in the development process. 

Design thinking is thus both an innovation method and a school of thought that promotes creativity and interdisciplinarity. It considers innovation as the intersection between feasibility (technical), attractiveness for users (user experience), and feasibility (economic).

When the German SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner heard about this development, he initially supported the financially, and then in 2007 also opened his own branch in Berlin, at the Hasso Plattner Institute. Since then, the topic has received a lot of attention in Germany and Europe – almost every major consultancy and many large companies now have Design Thinking experts on board. This method is often used to develop digital products in cooperative workshop scenarios and development sprints, or to better adapt existing products to customer needs. But seriously, what does all this have to do with sustainability?

Design thinking meets sustainability

Hasso Plattner says of design thinking, “Design thinking is about getting to the root of problems instead of just treating some of the symptoms.” It’s about looking at problems holistically and solving them in the overall context – in other words, healing broken bones instead of applying band-aids to them. This is exactly where the connection is to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Circular Economy, environmental sustainability, Planetary Boundaries, etc. That’s why we’ve taken a closer look at the meaning of the three pillars of design thinking and expanded them with an eye to the 21st century.

Nowadays, when we talk about attractiveness, technical and financial feasibility, we cannot disregard: 

  • the fact that users are becoming more and more sustainably oriented, 
  • that our innovations of tomorrow with production processes of today are not feasible with our limited planetary resources – and with a view to a livable future on earth – are not justifiable, either.
  • and that there are new, innovative business models that offer great opportunities to those who are willing to embark on this journey.


Being attractive because it’s sustainable (and makes sense)

We see big changes in the area of attractiveness for users, because this is where their preferences play a big role. Due to many alternatives, they are less willing to accept a bad user experience. After the shocking scandals in recent years, such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza textile factory in Bangladesh, which killed many workers at the expense of fast fashion consumption, or the child labor in African cobalt mines that allow for our smartphones – many users have also increased their expectations of companies to seriously address their business practices and their impact. This includes images of global disasters, both in the social and environmental areas, such as the enormous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” a growing floating island of garbage in the Atlantic Ocean that is over 2 million km2 in size (Germany, by comparison, measures just 350,000 km2). 

The attention of customers and the media is increasingly focused on sustainability, the question of meaningful growth and the purpose of companies. The market as a whole is also changing, as new customer expectations often translate into new or increased competition.


The climate crisis as potential for innovation

We also see this increased pressure in the area of feasibility. When we evaluate whether an idea is feasible – in the sense of “economically viable” – we have to make sure that we set up business models that are fit for the future. 

Business models are needed that at least meet growing social and ecological expectations. However, we see these requirements not only as obligations, but also as offering enormous potential for innovative business models. Global challenges, such as the climate crisis, hold the opportunity for unimagined, value-based disruption for people and the planet. 

If we approach our environment with curiosity and take it seriously, value-based disruption is possible and desirable. Then a bouquet of disruptive innovations can emerge from today’s threats to our economic future, replacing our current concepts with sustainable models for the future. This gives the design thinking pillar of “feasibility” a whole new meaning.


Climate-neutral, fair and feasible

Disruption and innovation, in many cases, means replacing something old with something new – not blindly, of course, but with purpose. So the technical feasibility and providing innovation should be done according to a system that is better than the old one. Maybe even so good and sustainable that it can still function in 10 years without any negative impact on people and the environment? That would be downright revolutionary from today’s perspective, but possible in the Design Thinking process! 

Therefore, we are convinced that feasibility from a regulatory and technical point of view can and should function at least climate-neutrally today, just as it must not happen at the expense of human rights and dignity today. We would like to embark on this journey together with our customers.


Our extension: Planet-centered Design Thinking

In design thinking there is the catchy expression: “Do the right things and do things right”. This was originally intended to express that one must first deal with the problem in detail and in a user-centered manner in order to solve the right problem. Albert Einstein is supposed to have said: “If you give me 60 minutes to solve a problem, I’ll spend the first 55 minutes on the problem and the last 5 minutes on the solution. 

However, the vast majority of our problems today are yesterday’s solutions that have not comprehensively addressed their context. That’s why, as innovation consultants and coaches, we advocate for meaningful innovation and feel an expanded mission when we hear: “Doing the right things and doing things right.” We see it as our responsibility to expand the view of our design thinking understanding from user-centered to planet-centered, directing it to planetary impact alongside social values and ways of working.

We are convinced that it is worth taking the time to build true empathy with our fellow human beings and our planet. In this way, it is possible to generate ideas in the creative process that are sustainably successful while offering added value for people and the planet. Wherever problems are actually tackled at their roots, true disruption is created. 


If you’ve also aquired a taste for sustainable innovation, feel free to contact Fabian Grauel, our sustainability expert at launchlabs, at

Our next article on the topic of design thinking and sustainability will show which specific guiding questions can help with sustainable design thinking. Stay tuned!



published: 29th of October 2021