Design Thinking & Conservation

I’ll be very candid. When I first learned about Design Thinking, I internally rolled my eyes. “This is just… common sense. Why does it need a flashy label?”

And then I thought it over, and remembered – to quote many elderly people in my life – “common sense isn’t very common.”

Upon further consideration, I realized that Design Thinking (DT) is actually a very compelling approach that encompasses important processes and mindsets that are often missing in conservation research and implementation. I don’t think that DT is particularly novel or groundbreaking in and of itself, but I do firmly believe that it is a useful framework that brings many effective, and often tried and true, approaches together, linking them in a relatively neat (in theory) package.

It’s certainly not a silver bullet, nor a fixed set of directives that can guarantee a specific outcome. Its strengths, from my perspective, lie in its foundational values and mindsets, which – if implemented thoughtfully – lead to more inclusive, participatory, and transdisciplinary processes, linked to practical considerations for on-the-ground action.

Like many other toolkits/frameworks/approaches, it can yield wonderful outcomes if used thoughtfully and responsibly. I firmly believe that, with such thoughtful and responsible use, DT approaches can substantially contribute to more effective, equitable, and ethical conservation practices.

What it is

Design Thinking is an approach that seeks to develop practicable, accessible solutions that address real needs for real people. It was originally applied to product design, focusing on developing products that aligned with user needs – hence the term user-centered designed. DT is now applied more broadly, moving beyond product design to more general development of solutions in a diverse array of sectors, where “human-centered” (rather than “user-centered”) work focuses on a collaborative co-creation process of solutions.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation

There are a number of different outlines for the DT process, but generally, it involves: setting the intention/focal problem on which to work, including the “users” of any potential solution; gathering information about the users, the problem, and the context of the problem; synthesizing or analyzing the gathered information; ideating possible approaches to solutions; and protyping models of possible solutions, including testing and adapting them (including gathering additional information) until a workable solution emerges. There is a lot of iteration in the process, and the value comes not from rigidly following a given pathway of steps, but by mindfully using these steps as a guideline to help structure work on complex, dynamic issues.

Overview of the DT process used at Point B Design + Training

This process has been called a “dumbed down” version of the scientific method, but – as a scientist – I don’t agree with that interpretation, at least based on what I’ve experienced. It’s a larger process in which the scientific method can – should – be deployed in the Needs Finding phase, along with more grounded theory approaches, bringing natural and social science methods and ways of working together to inform the same process.

Speaking of disciplinary mindsets and approaches, DT involves “waves” or undulations between divergent and convergent thinking, branching out to embrace broad sets of ideas and possibilities, then narrowing down to focus on a workable portion of those ideas and possibilities, then branching out to explore the potential of ideas in that workable portion, then narrowing again. This is a nice “convergence” (ha!) of two different ways of thinking that are complementary, but often framed as opposites (e.g., convergent thinking is often thought of as a natural science way of thinking, while aspects of several social science approaches tend toward divergent thinking).

What I like more than the process, and what I believe must be preserved to ensure that the process remains true to its goals of meaningful co-creation, are the central mindsets of DT. Again, this list varies depending on which particular school of DT you work with, but common traits on these lists are: mindfulness, empathy, optimism, collaboration, and experimentation. Other important attributes include systems thinking and beginner’s mind (humility and curiosity). These mindsets shape the DT process to be truly participatory, ideally through each step, and that the process is responsive to real-world conditions.

Link to Conservation

Conservation issues are generally complex, even intractable, and I do not preach that DT will somehow help us find all the answers. But going through the DT process, and integrating DT mindsets, will certainly help us improve our work toward whatever solutions might exist.

Even early in my career, as a student conducting research on conservation efforts, I was struck by three realizations:


Moving into the complex issue of marine megafauna bycatch in small-scale fisheries, including evaluation of conservation efforts to reduce this problem, I saw that designing effective, ethical conservation actions requires practical planning, consideration of the social-ecological system, and meaningful inclusion of diverse stakeholders. However, these elements are often not realized in conservation. This prevents application of conservation research to real-world, practicable conservation solutions.

Conservation problems can be considered “wicked problems.”4 They are generally linked to complex, dynamic social and ecological systems1, and cannot be solved by simple, straightforward solutions. Efforts to address conservation problems can trigger reactions throughout these systems, including negative impacts to human communities. Wicked problems can be complicated by diverse stakeholder values and conflict among stakeholders. The process of developing and implementing conservation actions can exacerbate conflict; for example, non-inclusive processes might spark resentment among marginalized groups, and any negative social impacts of conservation actions will fuel resistance to conservation.

Where conservation planning, decision-making, and actions do not adopt a truly inclusive, holistic approach, opportunities for achieving the desired conservation outcome could well be diminished – and human rights might be violated in the process. Without carefully considering these complex systems and interactions, and the links between actions and outcomes, conservation efforts might actually end up being ineffective, or even counterproductive.

In the worst cases, conservation efforts might be seen as part of a “misanthropocene” movement – i.e., conservation that is against humans, does not consider implications for environmental justice and human rights, and is essentially neocolonial. Patrick Christie distills this idea in this talk for the Bevan Series, outlining misanthropocene tendencies and proposing humanistic conservation as an alternative. I present some of the characteristics of humanistic conservations along with elements of DT that nicely align with them:

“Humanistic Conservation”Relevant elements of DT
“Facilitate, build capacity”   “Curious”, “humble”, “service-oriented”   “Inclusive of various types of people & forms of knowledge”Focus on user needs   Beginner’s mind, empathy, user-centered view Co-creation, human-centered, participatory  
Humanistic conservation concepts from Patrick Christie’s Bevan Series talk

For conservation that is more effective and ethical, many have made a call for more such humanistic approaches. Key elements including considering conservation in the context of social-ecological or human-natural systems, incorporating interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches and diverse forms of knowledge, and improving monitoring and evaluation to understand how actions link to outcomes (including negative social impacts). The rights and values of diverse stakeholders must be considered, e.g. as in human rights-based approaches. Furthermore, the human elements of conservation must be incorporated throughout the planning and implementation process, including diverse values, respectful interactions, conflict transformation, and transparent, clear communication.

From the literature, and from my own conversations and experiences, we can be fairly confident that conservation would benefit from greater integration of:

  • Systems Thinking: to map out complex social-ecological systems and linkages
  • Understanding & sharing mindsets and values: to respectfully integrate perspectives and experiences of diverse groups, and to identify avenues for accessible, respectful engagement
  • Mindfulness around interactions: Paying attention to history, mindsets, and values while monitoring how different stakeholder groups interact
  • Participation and inclusion: Ensuring that stakeholders are meaningfully included in research and conservation processes as an integral part of the team, not as an afterthought
  • Communication: to clearly share, in accessible ways, information, ideas, and plans across stakeholders
  • Diverse forms of knowledge: Not only across disciplines or sectors, but also across cultures and ways of knowing.
  • Creativity: Building off of diverse forms of knowledge and collaborative energy to look for new solutions, or new applications of existing solutions
  • Evaluation and Adaptation: To learn and implement lessons from failure and success

These all fall within a DT approach. DT is not the only way to achieve these; many projects already embrace meaningful inclusion, collaboration, and evaluation, without calling it DT (this is why I am an advocate for academics listening more to practitioners, but that is a conversation for another time). But, again, it is a framework in which all of these elements are incorporated.

Many ways of working in conservation implementation, and even academic research, fit nicely in a DT approach. These include: stakeholder and institutional analysis; participatory appraisals and assessments; social-ecological monitoring and evaluation (though this is not widely implemented); and Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge surveys. Really, any form of research – if undertaken in a thoughtful, inclusive, ethical manner! – fits in the “information gathering” phase of the DT process outlined above. And, by emphasizing empathy and collecting rich information from users, DT can provide insights about people’s decisions, motivations, and hopes.  These insights are critically important – yet chronically overlooked – in conservation.

How we use it

Yes, we us a lot of sticky notes – such is the cliche of DT. But that’s quite a small component of our DT work!

Through our work at Keiruna Inc., the DT process is used as a guide, not a strict, pre-defined series of steps, and DT mindsets are integrated in all of our activities. In some of our activities, the whole process might not be necessary – e.g., when we are conducting project evaluations but with no concrete “solution” needed at the end of the evaluation other than a series of recommendations (though these recommendations are based on our informed ideas of possibly productive and important intervention points, and could be the basis for future prototyping and testing).

Most of our familiarity with DT in theory and practice come from our ongoing work with Point B Design + Training, a Design Thinking research and training lab in Myanmar. Together, we’ve applied DT mindsets and approaches to conduct diverse research projects on environmental issues and coastal communities in the Gulf of Mottama, as well as to develop effective, responsive training programs for youths interested in conservation. Current projects include working on plastic waste awareness (including communicating knowledge from villages to urban areas, a flipping of the common narrative that “we must spread awareness to passive communities”) and the complex problem of marine mammal bycatch in coastal fisheries.

Our general approach is to work with an initial group of contacts to map out the social-ecological system and to get a preliminary grasp of the issue to be studied and/or addressed. From there, we identify additional stakeholders to include (as well as an open-ended “look for anyone who hasn’t come up yet due to marginalization” directive), key topics for which information needs to be gathered, and feasible means of engaging stakeholders in the process. We work to understand the history and interactions between stakeholders, as well as their values, needs, and hopes, and elicit their ideas on enablers and barriers to ethical and effective conservation, as well as their ideas for future directions. This is matched with rigorous natural and social science research.

Ideally, stakeholders are involved from the beginning, though usually the work involves a pre-defined set of issues and goals identified by an organization or donor; in this case, we work to bring stakeholder perspectives into the process as soon as possible and to understand their perspectives on the externally defined project at hand. We are eager to continue exploring how DT can deepen mutual understanding and respect, as well as collaboration, among stakeholders, and contribute to more ethical, productive, and long-lasting outcomes in the conservation realm.

Notes on critiques of DT

There are a number of critiques of DT, many of which I find to be specific to a very constrained view of DT, and others which I find to be relevant to the misuse of DT (e.g., as a flashy buzzphrase to tick a box without meaningful links to real impacts). There are concerns that it is “fundamentally conservative” and privileges those already in power; that its promotion is overblown (which I do agree with, generally); that it is a privileged way of thinking. I’ve also read thoughtful analyses of how to minimize or even avoid these problems, including here and here .

Again, it’s an approach, not a pre-packaged solution, and its outputs and outcomes will only be inclusive, effective, and sustainable if it is used mindfully (again, mindfulness is a key mindset of DT) and as part of a longer-term process of monitoring, evaluation, and adaptation.


1Knight AT, Cowling RM, Rouget M, et al. 2008. Knowing But Not Doing: Selecting Priority Conservation Areas and the Research–Implementation Gap. Conserv Biol 22: 610–7.

2Ostrom E. 2009. A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science 325: 419–22.

3Biggs D, Abel N, Knight AT, et al. 2011. The implementation crisis in conservation planning: could “mental models” help?: Mental models in conservation planning. Conserv Lett 4: 169–83.

4Brechin SR, Wilshusen PR, Fortwangler CL, and West PC. 2002. Beyond the Square Wheel: Toward a More Comprehensive Understanding of Biodiversity Conservation as Social and Political Process. Soc Nat Resour 15: 41–64.

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