Black and white photo of two people standing back to back with a drawing of a yellow headphone cable wrapping around

This week: we talk about design and design thinking in an uncertain world, as we problem-solve our way out of the pandemic.

Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.

The stories this week

10:37 – Greece’s Chief Creative Officer, design and design thinking

Why Netflix keeps cancelling our favourite shows after two months

China produces most of the world’s solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and lithium-ion batteries

The pandemic has killed cash (again)

Our previous discussion of cashless society on The Future, This Week

Our previous discussion of cashless Sweden and owl theft on The Future, This Week  

The wurst is over: Germans are eating less meat

Our previous discussion of clean meat, fake milk, the chicken of tomorrow, lab grown meat and plant based meats on The Future, This Week

Amazon’s new way to pay Amazon One (PayPalm?)’s getting started with design thinking

SBI on which institutions are at the forefront of the public discussion around design thinking

SBI on what is the narrative around design thinking

Design for the future when the future is bleak

Design with users in mind

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s design thinking critique

Harvard Business Review on shortcomings of design thinking

Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotifyOvercastGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow Sydney Business Insights on Flipboard, LinkedInTwitter and WeChat to keep updated with our latest insights.

Our theme music was composed and played by Linsey Pollak.

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Dr Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Executive Plus at the University of Sydney Business School. Her research and practice focuses on engaging with the future in productive ways, and the impact of emerging technologies on business and society.

Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organisation, and Director of Sydney Executive Plus at the University of Sydney Business School. Kai's research interest is in Disruptive Technologies, Enterprise Social Media, Virtual Work, Collaborative Technologies and the Philosophy of Technology.


We believe in open and honest access to knowledge. We use a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence for our articles and podcasts, so you can republish them for free, online or in print.

Disclaimer We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.

Kai So Sandra, what are we talking about this week?


It's been a few really interesting stories this week, but one of them made me think we should have a new section titled 'chart of the week'.

Kai But, but we really shouldn't, because you know, being a podcast and all in charts being visual, but this is important.

Sandra It is important. It's from the MIT Tech Review. And it's titled, "How China rules clean tech, in charts. You want climate progress? China holds all the cards.". And it had a couple of charts that really made me think about how we understand the clean energy sector. Because whilst 10 years ago, you had a pretty even spread around the world in terms of who was building the clean tech, the chart for last year shows that China absolutely dominates the world in terms of clean tech manufacturing capacity. And whilst it's taken it over a decade to build that capacity, right now, any move that we might hope to make towards shifting away from fossil fuels, either requires working with China or investing significantly in developing our own capacity to build this stack.

Kai And that's a really interesting observation because we seem to be having to disconnect the conversations in the West at the moment one is around decarbonizing the economy, climate change, and the other is the trade war with China. But these charts really bring home that those two have to be one conversation, because if the world wants to decarbonize if we want to employ clean tech, and we're talking here photovoltaic solar cells, we're talking lithium ion batteries, electric vehicles, then China has to be part of the solution, because they're absolutely dominating the production in each of those markets.

Sandra And I'm sure we'll come back to the story because it has interesting implications with regard to technical standards if you've got all the capacity there, also in terms of job creation, and especially in job creation, for the future.

Kai And also the economic benefits that will flow from basically selling to the world this technology that will be needed in the coming decades. But there's been another interesting story, this one about Amazon. Amazon introduces the Amazon One, a way to pay with your palm when entering stores. So Amazon, for some reason has invented yet another contactless payment technology that doesn't use your watch, doesn't use your phone, doesn't use your credit card, doesn't use your fingerprint or an eye scanner, but it scans the palm of your hand contactless.

Sandra Why does Amazon think we need PayPalm?

Kai That would have been a good name indeed, PayPalm. I wonder why they didn't run with this? And no, we don't know why Amazon is inventing yet another biometric contactless payment option, as if it wasn't enough to store our face data, fingerprints, and voice with Alexa. Now we're also storing the biometric data of our hands. So that's what the article in TechCrunch also wondered about.

Sandra But payments without cash are a thing and there was another article in Wired on how the pandemic has killed cash. We must say we were way ahead of this months ago within an episode on Corona Business Insights, talking about the impacts of the pandemic on the cashless society. And of course, one of our famous stories on how a cashless society, in that case in Sweden a couple of years ago drives different types of crime, including abducting rare owls.

Kai And we will put both links in the shownotes of course.

Sandra You were on ABC talking about that as well. We should put that link in the shownotes.

Kai Yeah, and I think we can all agree that the pandemic really has helped along the cashless society, handling cash when that presents the risk of transmitting the virus really is not appealing. And so a lot of contactless technologies have made their way into society. Curiously, not QR codes like we do in China with WeChat. We're using QR codes a lot to sign in to bars, restaurants and cafes, but not for payments. But you know, soon we will use the palm of our hands, apparently.

Sandra And we should note that the article also mentioned that PayPal said it had over 21 million new global customers between April and July of this year due to the pandemic.

Kai And we should clarify this is PayPal, not PayPalm.

Sandra And we should also note, and this is something that we do discuss in the other episodes, that while contactless payments, reduce the friction associated with payments and make things easier for most of society. There are people who are left behind, those who are not tech savvy, elderly people, people who do not have the required digital proficiency to do this. So whilst it is a fantastic solution, we must spare a thought for those who get left behind and think of ways to make a cashless society still inclusive.

Kai Speaking of things left behind, the worst seems to be over in Germany. And wurst, that is W U R S T, Germans seem to go vegetarian.

Sandra Yes, this was the article in The Guardian, which we should bring up even if just for the headline, "The wurst is over". More than 40% of Germans are cutting down on meat, and vegan options seem now to be the staple. Again, a topic that we love to cover here, whether it's plant-based meats, which we've done with our episodes on Beyond Meat, and the plant-based chicken nuggets at KFC, but also with an increasing attention to other meat alternatives like lab grown meat, clean meat, or cultured meat. And again, we'll include all the links in the shownotes, that is meat that is grown in a lab from cultured cells, but without resorting to growing the whole animal. And again, lots of research and lots of development in the area, we'll put the links in the shownotes.

Kai Well, much seem to have changed in my home country since I left, because if the wurst is left behind, identity crisis in Germany, because we certainly do love our bratwurst.

Sandra That's true. And it's not just Germany, it's France as well, although they have the cheese to fall back on. But in both Germany and France, which have higher meat consumption than the rest of the developed world, the trend has been down. And we should spare a thought here for our meg trends and resource security. Unfortunately, the global production for meat is still expected to increase by at least 15% in the next decade. Because even though we have these declining tendencies in the Western world, this is expected to be seriously outweighed by developing countries becoming more carnivorous, as their purchasing power increases.

Kai And then there's been a story about Netflix and I only read the headline, but I got interested because it seems to have an answer to the important question. Why does Netflix cancel my favourite show after two seasons? That seems to happen a lot.

Sandra That's true. Even last month, they've cancelled Altered Carbon, which incidentally, I happen to love. And despite protests from fans, Netflix does seem to be cancelling shows after only a couple of seasons. And whilst the story came at the last minute, we should come back to it because it happens to hide some more interesting mechanics behind it.

Kai It's not uncommon for networks to cancel TV shows. Famous mistakes include the cancelling of Firefly, my favourite sci fi show, which was you know, cancelled after just one season. But that's the question why cancel after a couple of seasons? Shouldn't it be clear after one season that it is not successful? And the reason seems to lurk in the data here.

Sandra Whilst with a traditional TV network, those decisions are made in a boardroom where people just decide to give something another chance or to let it run on for longer. And famously, the US version of The Office was a real flop when it started, but then it went on for nine seasons and was quite successful. The business model that Netflix has actually makes it more difficult for them to continue after two seasons. Because financially, it always makes more sense for Netflix to start another show, to produce something new, rather than to keep something that is underperforming going. As Netflix has tried to make itself more appealing to TV show producers and entice them away from traditional networks, it decided to give them bonuses the longer something stays on Netflix. So it actually becomes more financially beneficial to produce new things rather than to keep old things that might still have a chance to become successful then to keep those going.

Kai And Netflix is quite rigorous in using a set of metrics that they employ in the first months of a season launching and they launched the entire season. They look at how many people start the season and how many people complete the season. And they extrapolate from there, how successful it would be.

Sandra And that window is actually quite small. They only look at the first seven days and the first 28 days of launching a TV series at how many people start watching it and how many people complete watching it within the 28 days. So that doesn't give much of a chance to TV shows that take longer to build up an audience or to get a cult following.

Kai So it'd be really interesting to think a bit deeper about what are the implications and what is the bigger picture in which Netflix operates. But we'll leave that for a future episode. Today we're going to look at design.

Sandra Yesterday the story about Greece's Chief Creative Officer employing design to move the country out of the pandemic made us think, well, we haven't done anything about design or design thinking in quite a while. Remember, that's been a thing for a while. So we thought it's a good moment to revisit those topics.

Kai Especially because we're hearing so much about preparing for the next normal, the new normal, the COVID normal. So we thought, What does design have to offer in this process?

Sandra This is The Future, This Week from Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter.

Kai And I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we sit down to rethink and unlearn trends and technology and business.

Sandra We discuss the news of the week, question the obvious, explore the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world.

Kai So Sandra, what happened in the future this week?

Sandra We're having another look at design and design thinking during and after a pandemic. And our story comes from the Independent. And it's an op-ed titled, “We need creative minds to guide us out of the crisis. Look at what we're trying to do in Greece". And it's written by Greece's Chief Creative Officer, Steve Vranakis, who is incidentally, a former executive at Google, has a lot of experience in the design industry, but has been appointed late last year as the country's first ever Chief Creative Officer by the Greek Prime Minister.

Kai And while this appointment happened, just before the pandemic Greece wanting to modernise its image itself understanding as a country with a long tradition with a long history that is forward-looking with a bright future. Steve Vranakis finds himself now in the midst of the pandemic, trying to reshape the country's understanding, in the midst of a changing world.

Sandra And design and design thinking have often been the go to whenever people struggle with uncertainty, there's a need for innovation for thinking outside the box. Both design and design thinking are seen as inherently future-oriented. So we thought this might be a good moment to unpack what design and design thinking can offer during and after a pandemic.

Kai And we want to distinguish here two roles for design. One is what is sometimes called speculative design, where it's all about imagining different kinds of futures in uncertain environments, which is particularly important, right now, as we don't know where the word will end up after the pandemic. And the second one is design thinking as a more concrete problem solving framework that employs design techniques that, however, requires more stable conditions and concrete problems to work on.

Sandra So let's first have a look at how design can engage the future. Because what Steve Vranakis is doing for Greece is one such way. So he's been working on Greece's country narrative. That is, how do you tell a narrative about Greece as a country that goes beyond making references to it being one of the oldest civilizations in the world having had all these achievements in the sciences, in philosophy in architecture, but rather looking forward not just of where Greece has been, but rather where it wants to go?

Kai And while Steve Vranakis, in the article, doesn't give an answer yet, we thought we take this as a springboard to look at different ways in which design engages the future. And we found another article this week in the New York Times Magazine, which does exactly that. It's called “Design for the Future When the Future is Bleak”, which talks about how designers imagine different kinds of futures, not just inspired by the pandemic, but also by other existential problems, such as climate change, or you mentioned earlier the megatrend around resource security, so imagining different food sources, alternative ways of producing food. And so the article talks about speculative design the way in which design is used to imagine alternative futures but also desirable futures.

Sandra And indeed, the New York Times article gives as an example a exhibit from the Philadelphia Museum of Art the “Ouroboros Steak”, which is constructed from human cells that are cast in resin, but which nonetheless allow us to ask questions about the future of food, cultured meat, lab grown meat.

Kai But also reveals certain limitations of our thinking in the present. Because, to me, this is a great example of thinking about cultured meat or lab meat in different ways. We say, okay, we don't need to grow and kill the animal, we just use the animals cell. But who is to say that in that scenario, we couldn't use other cells like insect cells or human cells? What does this reveal about the ethics of food, the emerging ethics of lab grown meat? So design here used to evoke a future that sits quite uncomfortably with our taken-for-granted notions about food in the present.

Sandra And hat-tip here to our former CEMS Master of Management students at the University of Sydney Business School, who were actually challenged to think about a future where we'll eventually grow chicken breasts rather than raising the whole chicken, and we'll have lab grown meat. And who also envisioned futures where there were hamburgers grown from human cultured cells. And this actually started some very interesting conversations, where vegetarians were more inclined to be accepting of that, since humans could give consent for themselves to be grown outside of the body, which is something that animals will never be able to.

Kai So we see here and really interesting role for design in creating possible but maybe uncomfortable futures, which raise new questions to consider as we are moving forward in creating our collective futures. So a really big-picture role for design that engages us to think outside of our taken for granted structures of thinking.

Sandra But we also want to come back to a discussion of design thinking, because design thinking has been one of these trends fads, both in management education, but also in business for the last 20 years or so. But of course, is deeply rooted in design and in techniques and practices that are much much older than that. However, there's been a noticeable lack of mentions of design thinking, since the pandemic has started, there have been much fewer stories, the media used to be dominated by conversations that referred to design thinking and the role it has to play in everything from how we design new products and services to how we rethink our cities or indeed our countries. Yet there has been very little over the past few months.

Kai And I think that's actually not that surprising because design thinking is a problem-solving technique that engages with, reframes and rethinks concrete questions. I think, in uncertain times, as we're in the pandemic, as the future becomes very messy, we talk about the fog of war, we don't quite know where we're going. Design Thinking is not quite the right instrument, hence the big picture engagement with the future, with alternative futures, envisioning what the world would look like. We also have much more concrete design problems to stop the spread of the virus, which are dictated by health requirements in quite a top down way. This is not the time to employ user-centred design. But soon enough, as we come out of the pandemic, as we have to recover a sense of normalcy, as we have to re envision human workplaces in a world where we might still have to live with social distancing, we think that design thinking might make a comeback.

Sandra And whilst I'm a big fan of many of the techniques in design thinking and the principles that it's built on, I'm always in two minds about design thinking, because it's not the tool that is often being presented, it's always being touted as the solution to innovation, which it's not. And it's always approached quite superficially. So there are a lot of institutions, organisations, and people that say they're doing design thinking, but they're really not.

Kai And so we thought that as we are approaching this phase where we have to reimagine the world around us, and no doubt, design thinking will be at the forefront of the techniques employed, we thought it's worthwhile actually taking a look at what it is, and also what the critique is that we frequently hear about design thinking.

Sandra So whilst of course, we can't paint the full picture of design thinking in 20 minutes, it's useful to understand what it is. and design thinking is often defined as a human-centred approach to problem solving that draws on the toolkit that usually designers have at their disposal to really think and integrate the needs of people into solutions to that problem, or into the requirements of a technology. And the idea is that the tools and insights that design thinking relies on really put people at the centre of the process.

Kai And the key word here is empathy. Empathy, not in the sense of sympathy, but in the sense of walking in some else's shoes, getting an insight into someone else's world, not in a sketchy not in a superficial way, but really trying to understand, who are we designing for? What is the world like from the point of view of the users of the people that we're trying to help that we're trying to create something for? And that often draws on ethnographic methods.

Sandra And here to me would be the first point where I would say that making up one's mind on whether or not to use design thinking for any problem-solving that we might or might not encounter after the pandemic should first ask the question of whether that problem is human-centred. So is an understanding of people required to give a solution to that problem? Or is it the case that very few people are involved in the problem or in the solution? So this is not a technique for any sort of circumstance.

Kai And if indeed, it is such a problem, then it shouldn't be employed in a cursory sense, then we should actually understand that it takes time to get into someone else's world. This is not something we do in the abstract by talking to each other, but actually going out into the field, not with a survey and the clipboard. But ideally, by spending time in the workplace, for example of those that we might design a solution for. We often see these you know, two day hackathons where design thinking supposedly is employed. But we do know from companies that are serious about it like IDEO, for example, who have popularised and built a whole worldwide consultancy business around design thinking, that they employ diverse teams often spend weeks, sometimes months with the users and really trying to understand the point of view of those were engaging. So that's also then one of the first critiques is that oftentimes, this user-centred or human-centred design part is sidelined or done at arm's length.

Sandra Exactly right. And this is why design thinking has also been called by many 'applied ethnography', which means that really, if one is to learn the tools of design thinking, it goes far beyond just observing people or taking notes. But it really means trying to become more like an anthropologist trying to learn the full set of skills that ethnographers have to deeply engage with the people they're designing for.

Kai And the outcome of this is often what we call personas. These are profiles of people we're designing for. And it is important that they reflect the actual word of the people that they're not just template personas that are defined in terms of the product or the solution already, like a power user or a occasional user. These are not personas that we want. They're not people we're designing for, they're already just sketches in terms of the product.

Sandra And that brings us to the next characteristic of design thinking, and design thinking often allows you to reframe, to recast and redefine what the problem actually is. So in cases where a problem is very clearly understood, we know exactly what we're solving for, design thinking is not a very useful technique, and it's one that might actually complicate things. But in cases where you need to explore or even find the agreement between a group of people on exactly what the problem is, design thinking provides a very useful toolkit.

Kai So that also means that we shouldn't really focus on just one solution or think in terms of solutions but try to ask questions and try to understand what the solution space might look like. And in design thinking, we often talk about divergence and convergence. And people are usually really good at the converging part at homing in on one solution and working that out. But what we're trying to do in design thinking is really think about many creative ways of thinking about the problem and therefore coming to different solutions. So this divergence part is really important.

Sandra And this, incidentally, also brings us to one of the other criticisms of design thinking which I share in wholeheartedly. The stage you're describing is called in most design thinking processes, 'ideation'. And I always tell my students that that's a fancy name for brainstorming. Design thinking talk is often burdened by a lot of jargon and Silicon Valley speak. We can't call it brainstorming. We are calling it ideation. We are not solving things, we're unlocking them or we are unleashing them or we're reframing them. There's often a lot of jargon where old-school vocabulary will do.

Kai And also there's often a disconnect from the earliest stage, we mustn't forget that. The personas that we create what we learn about the people we're designing for, really has to inform this ideation process, and afternoon spent with throwing colourful post it notes to the wall is not designed thinking that might be brainstorming, but if there's a disconnect, if we don't take the user word into this ideation process, then we haven't really gained anything from calling what we're doing design thinking.

Sandra Which brings us to the fact that design thinking is a very iterative process in which we keep going back to the people that we are designing for or that we're problem solving for was design thinking has always this bias towards action towards doing things stores, observing people talking to them building prototypes, it also has a very iterative nature. So once people have built a prototype, it is not to validate a solution, but to try to get feedback on certain characteristics that the solution might have. So you always go back to the user, you always go back to the people and try to understand the ways in which they engage with the solution rather than convincing them that this is the right one.

Kai And to me this iterative understanding is really important. There's often the temptation to see this as a linear process, which surely needs to now in this stage yield the solution. But we mustn't forget that many of the prototypes many of the ideas might fail, so to speak, there might be dead ends, we might create prototypes that we then do not follow up into a solution. And so teams that employ design thinking need to have the freedom to create prototypes to learn from that might not actually become part of the eventual solution.

Sandra And if you're interested in the process of design, thinking, we'll include a lot of links in the shownotes. This, of course, famously came out of Stanford, and the, they have free online resources. And there are, of course, many other online resources, including courses and books that you can access. But let's take this back to the pandemic and see how can it help as we are moving out of the pandemic. And I do want to make a note here to say that whilst we have mentioned in the beginning that design thinking is very well suited for uncertainty, we always mean uncertainty around what a problem is, and not necessarily times of uncertainty. Since we do have to talk to users. It's not the tool that is best suited for when we are in the midst of the pandemic, but rather as we have come out, and as we are going into some kind of new normal.

Kai I think that's a really important point because design thinking with its bias, for doing needs to engage with something concrete. It's really not a greenfield solution. It's not good at coping with fundamental uncertainty, but rather, with problems where the solution space is unstructured.

Sandra And we are likely to see many of those as we are rethinking what work is and where is it done.

Kai And we could go back here to our Corona Business Insights podcasts on the future of the office on remote work on hybrid teams. There's a range of topics that lend themselves to design thinking to putting front and centre the employee experience, and trying to reimagine what work will look like in a world where the office, for example, might no longer be the centre of power, the centre of work, I'd rather merely a space for congregating, for socialising. So we can really see that there might be a fruitful playing field for design thinking that puts employees and users first.

Sandra And whilst people might not take on the full cycle of design thinking and everything that, that the doing a design thinking process entails, as we come out of the pandemic, embracing empathy and an empathetic mindset is something that design thinking can offer to any endeavour that is trying to problem solve in that space. And also this idea of cultivating an experimental mindset, one that does not come to us solution, but rather thinks about how to define the problem space.

Kai And I think that's an important point. If you cherry pick from the design thinking framework, the empathy bit shouldn't be the one left out.

Sandra That being said, we should empathize with our sound editor who's coming off her holidays, just to record this episode. So this is where we want to leave it today.

Kai Please go, tell your friends about design thinking, this podcast, maybe leave a review.

Sandra And we'll be back after mid-semester break, but we do have a special for you next week.

Kai Thanks for listening.

Sandra Thanks for listening.

Megan Sandra Peter is the Director of Sydney Business Insights, Kai Riemer is Professor of Information Technology and Organization here at the University of Sydney Business School.

Sandra With us every week is our sound editor Megan Wedge

Kai And our theme music was played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak.

Sandra You can subscribe to The Future, This Week, wherever you get your podcasts.

Kai If you have any weird and wonderful topics for us, send them to

Kai This is going to be one of those weeks where after the podcast episode our listeners are like, they had, had five really good topics. Why did they pick the design one?

Sandra The answer is simple.

Kai Because we wanted it.

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