The PIE: First of all, could you explain what design thinking is and how you are involved in it?
Uli Weinberg: How we frame design thinking here at the Hasso Plattner Institut is that we are saying there is a set of different methods and approaches to solve complex problems.
We’re also focussing on a multi-disciplinary approach so it’s not just one person who’s doing the research, but actually a group of people. And it’s also about building prototypes, to share those with the potential user to get feedback and about [employing] an iterative approach, making it better and better until you can actually go into production.
The PIE: And how do you actually teach design thinking?
UW: The first core element is the focus on collaboration and not competition. I started calling this the ‘team of teams’ mode, it is not just one team developing a solution but actually several teams are approaching the same problem and in a very collaborative mode.
In our school, we skipped individual ratings from the very first moment, because we wanted to focus on collaboration, not competition. Since we started 12 years ago we have not measured any individual activities.
The PIE: That’s interesting!
UW: I think it’s one of the biggest issues in our education system: to overcome the idea of individual rating.
The PIE: Ok, and do continue..
UW: The second element in our design thinking learning approach is actually the physical space [to learn]. We found 12 years ago [when the school was set up] that there is no place for collaboration, especially in a university. A lecture hall is not built for teamwork. A lecture is to have a group of people listening to one individual for oneself and taking notes. What we needed, we found out, is more of a laboratory setting.
“The first core element is the focus on collaboration and not competition”
We are a sister institution of Stanford University and they did experiments with spaces and started building their own furniture, a kind of prototype of tables and whiteboards and they were trying different things.
It’s this kind of setting [shows own office via Skype] we came up with. We have a high bench table on wheels, which means people are in the stand up position. The whiteboard is a little bit larger than normal ones, it is also movable on wheels. And the table has a very practical storage space underneath.
The PIE: Do you stand up all day to work?
UW: Yes, I have a little table which I can lower and lift higher but most of the time I’m standing.
The third way [we teach design thinking] – is actually about the process, which is an iterative one.
The process helps us to generate tons of ideas. Usually, we pick the best two ideas and build prototypes, which we test with real users. The key element of this advanced process is the iteration, which means to do this over and over again.
It’s moving away from a waterfall or linear working model which asks you to define the outcome in four years from now and then define milestones.
“It is those three core things – people, place, process – this is what we are practising with our students”
This machine for example [shows his smartphone] is manufactured. But the interesting part of this machine is not the physical piece, it is the software on the machine, the apps. And they are never finished, they are constantly under further development.
The PIE: So the process of designing means that development as ongoing…
UW: This is a fundamental paradigm shift in the thinking of products. We have to start thinking in versions. And even if you build a car, now, it’s not a finalised product anymore. Tesla is proving that every day – the improvements they make on their cars are with the software updates.
So it is those three core things – people, place, process – this is what we are practising with our students and that’s how we frame design thinking. It’s the opposite of how our kids are still trained at schools and universities.
The PIE: Are you seeing a rise in international student applications as well as German student enrolments?
UW: We have about 120 students every semester representing about 70 different disciplines, about 60 different universities and about 20 different nations.
The PIE: I wanted to ask you as well about online teaching, I think you said you had 600,00 online. Is that right?
Yes, the platform is called Open HPI, and you can easily access it. All in all there are around 600,000 people registered for a wide range of courses. We have Design Thinking courses running since 2017, the last one started in May with 3,500 registered people from all over the world.
The PIE: So do you think a lot of people are using that as a taster for the way you teach and how you learn?
UW: This is actually the first time that we did this kind of more high level design thinking workshop online because the learning process needs to be physical, as it is so different. What we are doing here, we call it a “de-learning process”. We want to make people aware that the way they usually learn things is also a mind and behaviour conditioning process, and most people cannot think of a different way.
And then slowly but surely, they learn, “Oh, that’s just conditioned behaviour”
Our students as well as the professionals we train, still behave like individual competitors when they start our programs. And then slowly but surely, they learn, “Oh, that’s just conditioned behaviour. So I don’t have to be that way”. It is a process, which you have to learn physically.
Therefore, we see the course we are currently offering [online] as an inspiration for people to really attend a physical design thinking program at HPI.