Taking up design thinking in the developmental configuration
My dissertation applies diffusion of innovations and post-development theories to an actor-oriented analysis of design thinking uptake at the frontlines of international development. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working directly with the poor face challenges in delivering interventions. Their operating conditions stimulate demand for new approaches like “design thinking,” which is promoted as a human-centered innovation tool to address problems like energy poverty or infant mortality. Through a multi-year case study of a rural Kenyan NGO undergoing training, I explore the interactions and responses of organizational actors as they adopt, reject and remake design thinking. Qualitative methods include in-depth interviews and group discussions with 66 informants, plus document review and participant observation. My findings reveal how uptake is dynamic and socially-embedded. Participants encountered design thinking through workshops, applications and conversations. Training messages, work-life conditions, and institutional locations and relationships informed how intended adopters trialed design thinking. The social interactions and perceived outcomes of encounters fed back into assessment and learning so that over time, partial changes to individuals and the organization emerged along with novel interpretations of design thinking. Staff adopters developed new problem-solving mindsets and adapted design thinking to everyday challenges. They saw it as a tool for enhancing agency and participation rather than a technical innovation process to design solutions for beneficiaries. Others did not perceive design thinking’s compatibility or relative advantage and rejected it. The organization exhibited new language and groupwork practices but not structural and cultural shifts to support design. The contradictory institutional workings of the “developmental configuration,” the assembly of actors, institutions and resources that produce development action, shaped these diverse uptake logics. The configuration simultaneously practices top-down management while demanding bottom-up empowerment. These pressures spurred felt-need for design thinking, constrained adoption, encouraged reinvention and led to internal power struggles. My research has theoretical and practical implications. I add to theories on the diffusion of knowledge innovations in organizational settings and contribute to socio-anthropological understanding of how development actors make sense of design thinking. I challenge assumptions about design thinking for aid effectiveness by offering insights into its actual value and fitness in frontline NGO settings.