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This piece is part of By Design, a Globe and Mail/OCAD University summer series highlighting design thinking, issues and innovation.

Sara Diamond is president and vice-chancellor of OCAD University. Karel Vredenburg is director of IBM Design's worldwide client program and head of IBM Studios Canada.

Never have design thinking, design practice and creative skills been as important to Canada's future as they are now. Today, competitive success is determined by the ability to understand human needs and desires and to deliver richly imagined ways of addressing them. Many organizations recognize the importance of innovation, but they don't know how to achieve it. The answer is design.

Designers allow companies to stay ahead of their customers by anticipating and addressing human needs and behaviours in a complex and changing world. Technology needs to be intentionally designed for and with people. Design creates the experience of a product, system or service, the individual, social and cultural experience, and the value and the impact it has. Design is the bridge between raw invention and application.

The essence of design thinking involves empathizing deeply, listening to people and observing them to identify tough problems to address or new opportunities to explore. Design thinking marries systems analysis with outcomes-oriented problem solving. It's relevant to the development and enhancement of services, products and business methods. It's as applicable to large companies as it is to startups and non-profits.

Design thinking solicits solutions from the most diverse range of perspectives. This means that companies, organizations, and nations can generate multiple strategies, converge toward a solution, design and then implement. A diverse multidisciplinary team collaborates on a wide range of potential solutions, rapidly creating and iterating prototypes while continuously gathering and integrating feedback from intended users, ensuring that delivered systems incorporate feedback and are constantly improved.

Design thinking can be augmented by predictive data analytics and strategic foresight to engage in deep trend analysis, including identifying "weak signals" (activities on the periphery of society or a sector) that could affect business, and provide additional context for market and strategy development.

For example, IBM is among the largest companies to pervasively adopt and further enhance design thinking worldwide, making the framework the foundation of a major design transformation of the entire company and helping other companies do the same. IBM hired hundreds of designers, created design studios and infused a culture of design through IBM Design Thinking workshops into all business units of the company. The company's Canadian design studios, innovation centres and development labs are core to this transformation and exemplary of its progress. Work with the executives of Canadian companies has shown that they can develop innovative new strategic directions using the framework as well.

Design thinking and design should be front and centre in Canada's federal innovation agenda, both in the creation of policy and in its implementation. Design can accelerate the advanced sectors of the Canadian economy, traditional and service sectors. We can bring science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research into a powerful interface with the arts, humanities and social science, as STEAM+D. This would be a profoundly Canadian tack, using our creative talent and culturally diverse know-how to effectively address and build markets and ensure a competitive advantage against purely STEM plays in other jurisdictions.

With design thinking, Canada could innovate toward an inclusive society that brings the national values of equity and inclusive design to the international arena. We have the positive benefits of diversity and of indigenous cultures and design – these are advantages in this strategy. To succeed, we need to strengthen investment in and mechanisms for interdisciplinary research and innovation, including creative and applications-based capacity.

The data show that countries that integrate design into STEM are more successful than others. Science needs applications – emerging technologies are most successful when adapted into human-centric products. Studies from Europe, New Zealand, Singapore, Britain and Canada have measured design intensity and linked it to innovation growth and capacity-building at the regional and national levels. Design operates as a critically important source of economic value, raising firm-level profitability and productivity, and contributing to national economic competitiveness and performance.

This is why many countries have sophisticated design policies that encourage and support homegrown industries to compete globally, always linking design to national innovation and commercialization capacity. Denmark adopted a design policy in order to raise productivity – it ranked seventh in the world competitiveness ranking in 2010-11. The Made in China 2025 program invests heavily in design capacity and digital media in postsecondary institutions.

South Korea pursued three five-year plans as a response to the drop in demand for its goods in the 1990s, with the goal of bringing its design capacity up to that of the developed countries. Samsung invested millions in improving its product design, hiring fleets of designers and effectively leaving behind it a history of reverse-engineering American goods to become a world leader in its own right. South Korea is now beyond Canada in innovation and global competitiveness.

Canadian quantitative evidence proves that excellent design has a positive economic impact. A 2008 Industry Canada report, Product Design And Development: A Canadian Manufacturing Perspective, uses Statistics Canada data to show how time-to-market measures for Canadian design and manufacturing lag behind American measures, but clearly accelerate when design capacity is added to a firm. A faster time to market reflects better integration of the design and manufacturing processes, as well as more effective application of design and design-management principles.

We need design to grow companies and accelerate clean growth. We need design for sustainable and environmentally sound invention. Clearly, business-oriented design approaches and skills are exactly what are needed in order to build innovation capacity in Canada's challenged manufacturing and small service industries, which continue to dominate our economy and our innovation clusters.

Canada has a large and well-established design service sector (primarily in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia) with high levels of employment relative to the overall population. Its designers work as small-business people with their own firms and are integrated into many kinds of industries – but not enough. We can do more to support design thinking and design being at the beginning of business development, rather than at the end. We can provide tax incentives for companies that invest in design as well as research and development. Government could modify the patent process to reflect the types of intellectual property designers create and encourage patenting.

We need to think of innovation clusters as combinatory instead of single-sector. If centred in one location, these can be bound to other talent and innovation sites in Canada through fast-speed Internet, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things capabilities, data analytics and visualization, supply-chain management, export and business know-how, and design.

Design capability and thinking will bring these clusters together internally and where there is crossover (for example: fuel cells, autonomous vehicles and transportation systems design). User-facing dimensions would be greatly enhanced by excellent service and product design. Related incubators and accelerators can support scale-ups through the integration of design knowledge, access to state-of-the-art maker-labs and design. Canada can take advantage of its design strengths in advertising and marketing to compete in a digital world by supporting the discoverability of Canadian products and companies. We can create a strong Brand Canada by emphasizing design excellence for all of our products.

We can do more to support our made-in-Canada design sector, whether physical products or digital media. Free trade facilitates building homegrown capability. For example, design-focused retail/manufacturer Umbra, based in Ontario, is now a global company, with bench strength in China and the Americas. Procurement of Canadian design talent and product can help to keep our industries headquartered in Canada.

To enable an entrepreneurial and creative society, we should encourage provincial jurisdictions to teach art, design and creativity as pathways to innovation. Canada has a strong postsecondary design education system in universities and colleges, from east to west. We have Canadian design expertise in inclusive and accessible design and use – Canada can be exemplary in inclusion and social enterprise.

The federal government could create a design-thinking national program supported by universities, colleges and industry to bring tools to industries and support industry design strategy development. One of the great strengths of contemporary design methods are a set of tools to engage end users and citizens in design process, through needs assessments, participatory design process and evaluation. In the 21st century, design is capable of engaging culturally and industrially diverse sectors, communities and individuals – promoting entrepreneurship, socially engaged initiatives and an innovative and creative society.

Ottawa needs to make design and design-thinking practices foundational elements of its innovation agenda for the country to enable Canadians and Canadian companies to thrive on the world stage.

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