Where are the creative leaders of the future? Sandy Speicher on design thinking and education

From the point of view of the future there is perhaps no more important challenge than sharing knowledge, creativity, and nurturing new talent. A professor of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, Sandy Speicher, regards innovative thinking as the most important skill of the future’s creative leaders, which the students learn in the framework of a new kind of education. As an employee of IDEO, a creative advisory firm, she uses the process of design thinking to solve everyday challenges. She spoke about this topic among others when she was the guest of PAGEO Club.


I would like to start straightaway with a question. Have you noticed how unsettling the world has become? That we are facing such enormous challenges as global warming, and we have no idea what to do about them? We feel inundated every day by problems that we cannot handle either emotionally or within our established frameworks. But I am also thinking of how much the world has changed from the human side: we are connected in ways that we have never been connected before. Although this is no longer news today, I am still fascinated that a child can speak simultaneously with all of his or her grandparents through the Internet.

Today everyone can speak in public, regardless of their physical location on Earth. No U.S. President prior to Obama could have been invited to prom by a girl who uploaded a picture to the Internet. The technology that we use grants us the chance to connect, share and consume wherever we might be in the world. There is a street in the United Kingdom where pillars have been equipped with cushions, as people were always looking at their phones while walking and the area was rife with accidents. I believe that from what I have just illustrated now you can guess what I am going to be talking about. The pace of innovation was determined by the explosion of accessibility and connectedness, and this outpaces our reaction time. Beginning with governmental policies, through business structures, and up to education systems, our social institutions can barely keep up the pace. It is certain that we need the kind of leaders who can manage this uncertainty. However, there are people who could lead within well-established frameworks, and they would not ruin everything that we have built up so far.


If we look into a classroom where future leaders are trained, we see bored students barely willing to participate, who are trying to live up to the requirements of a system that is very far indeed from the way the world operates today. We simply do not prepare them for today’s world, and certainly not for creating the world of the future. IBM carried out an outstanding survey called the Global CEO Survey. In its framework, they interviewed CEOs throughout the world about their views on the most important leadership qualities in the future. The first two places in the ranking were taken up by creative integrity and global thinking. The survey also posed the question of what today’s leaders may need in order to work efficiently. The acceptance of uncertainty, so that they are not merely innovative in terms of products, but would also be in a position to develop the organization itself. These were named as their most important needs. The World Economic Forum made a report about what schools will need in the future.

They listed wonderful things, such as basic skills including reading and writing, knowing numbers, which we all know are important. However, they also included the development of certain competencies such as creativity, communication, and character traits such as endurance and determination. The development of these abilities and traits will be very important to all of us in the future.


We have seen a great many lists, with many words that we all believe in, but we simply don’t know what to do with them. As I look at these lists, I see as their basis the concept of “creative leadership”. This helps us get oriented in one direction: in the future, we shall not only need leadership, but creative leadership. We need to value those abilities that help us in development and discovery, and thus, we may succeed in keeping pace with the world’s changes. Let us take another look in our classrooms. Before I declare all the classrooms of the world as not good enough, I would like to introduce a task. I used to have a teacher who always asked the following question: were an alien to arrive in our classroom, what would it think, what was going on in there? Let’s imagine that our Martian is here, it dropped into our classroom. What do we think is going to happen? It might say that they are learning to sit in rows, overwriting the momentary needs of their bodies. It might also say that they are trained to move when the bell sounds. Were it to give the matter some further thought, it might say that they needed to come up with exactly the stuff the human in front of the room already knows. Finally, it might conclude that schools were designed with the purpose of educating the citizens of the industrial era who are preparing to fit well into the crowd, to sit tight and silent, move upon command and do things that do not require real knowledge. Whether it arrived in the school in 1890 or today, it would most likely draw the same conclusions. But we know that the world has changed. A completely new era has grown out of the industrial needs, an era of innovation, information and participation. I believe that for us one of the most important things is to recognize that these schools are the products of decisions made at a certain historical time. A series of decisions that we make up to this day continuously, every day. Why do we do this, and what should we be doing? What is the curriculum? How do we shape the teacher’s role? Everything that is related to schools is in fact a planned experience.

I believe it is important for us to recognize this, because as soon as we have recognized it, we can make decisions about how to redesign. This is very difficult for very many reasons, one of them being that we all have been pupils at some point. Indeed, many of us may have school-age children. Therefore, we see things in a certain way. However, if we want to change these two things, it is indeed very difficult to think outside of them. And therefore, it is difficult to imagine it as different than the design of the present.


I began in the middle and I shared all of this without saying anything about myself or about where I come from. I work in a company named IDEO, which aids organizations in reforming via design and innovative advice.

We started out thirty years ago, by designing the first mouse for Apple, and this is where many will know us from. Today, however, with the very same process that we used to design the mouse we seek answers to different questions, such as health care services. In the recent past, we collaborated with an organization called Pill Pack, focusing on how we could help people in more easily observing the proper method for taking their medications day by day. For this, they received their daily dose every day in little sacks, thus they no longer needed to worry about taking several different kinds of medicine.

We have collaborated with governments in redesigning services for citizens. For instance, we collaborated with the Ministry of Human Resources in Singapore in redesigning the labor division, so that they can get in touch with those arriving in the country looking for work. We are rethinking school creation as well, and in the following I am going to address this in depth. IDEO has been around for more than thirty years, it has ten offices and more than six hundred employees worldwide, who received training in creative leadership. Our work is to seek new solutions for the future. Everything that we do is permeated by the approach of human-centered problem solutions. Therefore, whenever we are asked to design an entire school system, we consistently begin by understanding the people first. This does not mean that we do not consider the business side, the markets or the prices, and it also does not mean that we disregard technological viability checking. What it means is that we ask people what is important to them, how we can make their lives better, how we can harmonize business and market realities and technological viability, so that we can create a better life for them.


There are two aspects that I would like to highlight in relation to design thinking. The first is that people inspire us. Instead of just sitting there thinking about what the next best product is going to be, we do field research and experience what it is like in reality. In the case of the next project the question was how we could improve on the experience of care received at the hospital emergency unit.

One of our designers who was a member of the team that rethought the hospital emergency room checked himself into a hospital and wrote “please don’t cut” someplace, as in reality he was fully healthy.

But he checked himself in, and all the while he held a camera next to his head, because this way he not only personally experienced what it was like to be a patient in the hospital, but he could also show our clients what the patients see and experience when they are in their hospitals. Can you imagine what the camera showed? The ceiling for five hours. Sometimes a head appears, which speaks about him without ever addressing him.

When the hospitals’ directors saw this, they were stunned, because they had no idea what the patients went through in their hospitals. This is why we must get our inspirations from the people. Design thinking is empathetic, optimistic, it believes that a better future can be accessed; it is based on experiments, we try things out, so that we can learn about them.

This does not just mean that we do everything for the people, but that we also try these ideas out. One characteristic approach is that we not only think, we build; we are not just sitting in a room, we also create so that we get feedback from people. We try our ideas out with them, and we encourage them to participate so that they can aid in developing the idea. For example, we collaborated with a hotel chain to improve customer satisfaction. We got to know the people, we went to the hotels, we gained experience, we had new ideas, and then we rented a storage place, where we built a life-size prototype of the imagined model.

We invited guests and employees, even the owners of the member hotels, and asked them to tell us everything they think about the topic, to give us advice on how we could make it even better. Thus, merely by asking about people’s experience we could improve a great deal upon the plans. The hotel chain used our ideas in the most precise way, the member hotels adopted the new ideas of the central organization. That we included people in the process was an excellent experience of ideas coming alive independently.

This process often differs to a great extent from the work of other organizations, and I believe that this is not only evident in the various stages of the work, but also in its way of thinking. Design thinking is empathetic, optimistic. We believe that a better future can be accessed. It is based on experiments; we try things out, so that we can learn about them. And it is of course teamwork; we bring talents from many areas so that we can approach complex issues from multiple sides.


Now I would like to return to questions of education, as we could ask the question, just how design and education can be connected. On the one hand, we use it to rethink what we would like to learn; on the other hand, to rethink how we should develop future leaders, as well as how we learn, and finally how we need to redesign the system to this end. I would like to provide examples for each dimension. The first one: how do we develop creative leaders, what do we learn? As one of the world’s most successful universities Stanford University in California reconsiders the learning methods that it expects from its students.

The Stanford Design School is an institution that accepts students from all parts of the university, and focuses on the education of future creative leaders. This began with a napkin when a couple people gathered, among others David Kelly, the founder of IDEA and the Design School. These people thought that the learning methods should be changed. Students needed to be taught new abilities so that they could act differently in the world. Therefore, they decided that they would found the best design school that would train future leaders and applies design as a learning process. Thus, new pathways open up to apply the knowledge gained, and the aim of the founders was establishing in-depth teamwork and project-based thinking, and these form the elements of D-School design. How does this work in practice?

Let us take as an example the course “Design for extreme affordability”, in the framework of which the students travelled to different corners of the Earth to familiarize themselves with the most important challenges, in this case problems posed by poverty in particular. The question was what they could design in order to make the lives of the poor better. One group travelled to Nepal, where they were confronted with the problems of infant mortality: many babies are born premature, amongst which many die in the first weeks.

One of the reasons is that incubators cost about twenty thousand dollars, and they are not accessible from small villages. After they returned home they began pondering a solution, and finally they created a machine whose manufacture costs about twenty-twenty five dollars. They have already graduated Stanford and they created a non-profit organization, which creates products for people living in deep poverty. They are present in eleven countries of the world.

The D-School selects students from Liberal Arts, Computer Science, Engineering, Education and numerous other science fields, and they place them into classes where there is no learning material per se. Instead, a great challenge serves to orient learning. The courses are based on the process of design, and in each Stanford course that is what happens. The participants are made to go through the process of design thinking. Through this process they not only learn the methodology of planning, but they reinforce their creative abilities, those abilities with which they can effect a change in the world.

Countless different topics serve as topics for the lessons, and in many cases, there are several professors in the course. Last year, for instance, I gave a lesson about the organization of a high school. How can we redesign high school? There were many solution for the usage of space, for instance, in a particular classroom you cannot even see where the teacher is located. In fact, there are five, without us being able to recognize them unambiguously. Can you imagine what it might be like to be learning in that classroom? This is not only good, but it sets a deep side of a person in motion, which is the ability to create with others.


In relation to these same ideas I would like to show other examples. One of them is the “Design for Change”, a school competition that we created in collaboration with an Indian educator. He wanted to let the children know that they can also effect change in their environments. We took the process of design as our point of departure, and adapted it for ten-year-olds. We created a country-wide competition in India, so that the youth could show what they were capable of when asked to take part in solving the problems of the community. The process offered to the students was fairly simple. The first step is “Feel it” go into your own community so that you can feel people’s pain. The second step is “Imagine it”, imagine what you would undertake against the painful things. The third step is “Do it”, choose an idea and do something. The fourth step is “Share it”, a particularly important step, so that upon seeing the change created by the children, the adults can also recognize its relevance. All of this was realized in practice in the following way: in one village, a group of kids noticed that many of their parents were under the influence of charlatans.

Whenever they became ill, they went to these snake oil salesmen, who were no true doctors, and the kids wanted to do something against this. Therefore, they organized a lecture, which they presented in the middle of the village, so that the adults could also see the “science” behind the tricks of the charlatans. As a result, almost one hundred adults promised never to go to these fake doctors again, but to visit real doctors instead. A further example took place this year – even I only heard about it recently – and I found it very inspiring. A couple of girls realized that in spite of the fact that their mothers took on a very active role in their education and in their lives, none of their official documents had their mother’s name printed on them. Only the father’s name was included. The girls felt this was very unjust. Therefore, in collaboration with the local government they changed the forms, and in the future the names of both parents will be printed. If you have been to India, in particular in the country’s isolated and hidden parts, you will know that this is a radical change.

In the first year that we organized this competition, 1,500 teams arrived from the entire country. The children solved such problems as lack of education, illiteracy, traffic, pollution. The competition is now on in thirty countries worldwide, alas, not yet in Hungary. It would be a worthwhile task to bring it to Hungary as well, and I would love to help to contact the organizers.


To move on I have another related story. Andrew was a pupil in ninth grade in the Henry Ford Learning Institute, which is located in Dearborn, Michigan. Andrew participated in a lesson similar to D-School, which we adapted to high school students in particular. The children solved such problems as lack of education, illiteracy, traffic, pollution.

The introductory product was a nameplate for one of their classmates. Personally, I thought this was a very dumb idea, it seemed too simple and boring to design a nameplate for someone else. There were a few other projects in the course of the lessons, and they became ever more difficult as time progressed. After the course was over, I interviewed Andrew, so that we could improve the subject on the basis of his experiences. I asked him which one was his favorite project, and what did he tell me? The nameplate project was his favorite. I thought he was kidding. The nameplate project? But a good interviewer does not let his emotions show, and so I asked him why he liked that project so much. He answered: “In the course of this project I learned that I am a leader. I learned that I could effect change in someone else’s life. I learned that I could pay attention another person’s needs, that I can do something for him, that I can make someone’s day better.

I believe this was a great lesson that could be of use to everyone.” After this I said that yes, you had an effect on someone, which is great, but what could you use this process for? He looked around a bit and thought about the matter, then he said that the Michigan economy could use some help and that he would love to redesign the school cafeteria. Then I thought: yes, that is exactly what we need, and from the conviction that we can have an effect on a single person, this very conviction, ability and method could be used to reshape a state’s economy, or we could create a cafeteria where it actually feels good to have lunch.

These stories provide a picture about what we do to educate future leaders, and how we reshape what and how we learn. However, many people say that in reality we are not taking the system as a whole into consideration. In my stories, I spoke only of this or that project and a competition, but we can use the same process of design to rethink systems. Let me therefore say a few words about the history of Innova schools.


The Innova schools make up an affordable private school system in Peru. In 2012 Peru was ranked 65th out of sixty-five countries in the global Pisa survey, thus we can say that worldwide it ranked last on the basis of the quality of education.  In the last ten years, their economy grew and stabilized, however, they did not succeed in developing their education systems. In fact, their results worsened when compared to tests from a few years before. Therefore, in Peru people felt the limits of development despite growth, as there are no talents who in the future would continue to shepherd the economy.  There is fast-evolving middle class who would like to secure much better prospects for their children.

The current Peruvian requirement might as well be cast in stone. A teacher speaks in front of the class, the children take notes. When the children take home a notebook full of notes, the parents believe that they are progressing well in their learning. The old buildings are falling apart, and the teachers are trained in an educational system so defective that we could in essence call them uneducated. One of the greatest challenges in the reform of Peru’s educational system is that there is not quality as a point of departure. There are no talented teachers who could shape the children appropriately. Both parents and educators would love to do something, they would love to be part of the change, they are reluctant to carry out the instructions forced on them from above, but they have no idea how to start. They would love to learn and help, but they need someone, who knows, what a good system would look like. It was amazing to speak with the students, they are just like any other kid in the world. They are happiest when they can use their imagination, they showed us their notebooks filled with their lessons, and they spoke of the secret things that they had done at home above and beyond the exercises; about the book which had helped them imagined something that they had never thought of before.


The schools decided that they wanted to address the country’s problem. They wanted to create a system which was affordable for the rising middle class, which was measurable, so that they could measure the effect made on the country, and one that was of outstanding quality internationally.  Their mission was to educate a new generation of leaders.

A team of IDEO worked in close collaboration with the team of Innova, they spent six months with field work so that they could design the school system that could achieve the above-mentioned goals. After much drawing and discussion, feedback and posters, we arrived at the conception of Innova schools. We had to design everything, not just the mission of the school and its way of thinking. We recognized the things that those participating in the system might need, we believed that we needed to draw on the children’s imagination, that we needed to help the parents and the teachers recognize the concept of the good in this new school. We planned everything, the school model, the curriculum and the pedagogical methods, what the spaces would look like and what the lesson plan would be. We planned what sort of tools they would create in order to increase the system’s efficiency, how they would determine the role of the system, how they would finance it, and naturally how all this would fit into a composite picture. This system was planned uniquely for Peruvian circumstances; however, it might fit other places as well.

We created a mixed learning model, where we combine the best qualities of teaching and technology, in order to help students, learn autonomous learning, so that they would not learn only because the teachers said they should. There are two teaching formats. One is teacher-led and project-based, where the teacher initiates a discovery conversation with the pupils. Thus, they learn through a project.

The other one is technology-based, where the pupils use the very best resources of the world with the help of a teacher to gain basic knowledge. As I mentioned before, the teachers were part of the difficulty as they were not trained well enough, and now we asked them to apply innovative methods that they had never learned about before. We had to solve creating a system in which they could also learn and develop. So, we create a standard lesson plan which made possible that they worked with the students on the basis of the projects. Innova created 19,000 lesson plans, which is a starting point accessible via a central database, the Teacher’s Resource Center, to which the teachers were given the 30-70 guideline: 70% of the plan should be kept, 30% they would shape according to their own decisions. But when they change something it should be put into the database, so that through this their colleagues could learn from one another, and the center could see if someone innovates the lesson plan in an outstanding way. To me it is very interesting that instead of writing scripts, we had to find a different solution, as the teachers did not want the plans that proved to be good already, but they also wanted to contribute their own creativity, so that they could also be part of the change. Even they were aware of their knowledge deficiencies,  so a common solution could be found. We give you a point of departure, and we make your development possible. The buildings’ exterior was important as well, as we noticed that the growing middle class had seen numerous elegant private schools, where they would have loved to send their children. So, we decided that Innova schools were going to be very beautiful despite their low budgets, so that parents can would proudly bring their kids school.

Our work together concluded in April 2012. Since then, 29 schools have been operating with twenty thousand students, roughly 900 teachers, and in two years they have achieved very good results in comparison to state schools.  As I mentioned, we would like to educate a new generation of Peruvian leaders, so the goal is not merely that they would do the same thing better and better.

The model built by us made us think about what material should be taught. We knew that we have to develop those different abilities listed by the World Economic Forum: creativity, teamwork, communication, endurance, determination and all those qualities that would like to see in future leaders. Therefore, Innova schools close every year for two weeks, and each student participates in an innovation program, where they use the process I described earlier, just as the Indian children did before.


They address the social problems of their communities, they get to know those issues that their citizens find important, they use that which they have learned earlier, and they cooperate in many ways.

The teachers cannot tell what is good, because they also don’t know what the answers will be. Then they often get scared, but the children on the whole can keep the situation under control. It is very uplifting when we see a group of eight year olds and a group of sixteen year olds proposing solutions to the same problem. This year 13,500 children worked on solving social challenges.

Now I would like to return to the beginning. If anyone remembers the feeling of how complex our world has become, that we always seem to know more and more, and yet we keep feeling that we understand less and less.

We also know that not only we need to orient ourselves in the world, but young people as well, without it placing its full weight upon them. We need new approaches for our problems. Only in this way can we create the future that we all desire. So, education comes to be central, and many of us get into the picture, because we adults are capable of redesigning the system such that it can adjust to the needs of the future.

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