Hasso-Plattner-InstitutSDG am HPI
Hasso-Plattner-InstitutDSG am HPI

Hanadi Traifeh

Design Thinking in the Arab World: Perspectives, Challenges and Opportunities

Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that has become increasingly popular globally over the last decade. While the spread of Design Thinking is well understood and documented in the Western cultural contexts, particularly in Europe and the US due to the popularity of the Stanford-Potsdam Design Thinking education model, this is not the case when it comes to non-Western cultural contexts. This thesis fills a gap identified in the literature regarding how Design Thinking emerged, was perceived, adopted, and practiced in the Arab world. The culture in that part of the world differs from that of the Western context, which impacts the mindset of people and how they interact with Design Thinking tools and methods.

A mixed-methods research approach was followed in which both quantitative and qualitative methods were employed. First, two methods were used in the quantitative phase: a social media analysis using Twitter as a source of data, and an online questionnaire. The results and analysis of the quantitative data informed the design of the qualitative phase in which two methods were employed: ten semi-structured interviews, and participant observation of seven Design Thinking training events.

According to the analyzed data, the Arab world appears to have had an early, though relatively weak, and slow, adoption of Design Thinking since 2006. Increasing adoption, however, has been witnessed over the last decade, especially in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The results also show that despite its limited spread, Design Thinking has been practiced the most in education, information technology and communication, administrative services, and the non-profit sectors. The way it is being practiced, though, is not fully aligned with how it is being practiced and taught in the US and Europe, as most people in the region do not necessarily believe in all mindset attributes introduced by the Stanford-Potsdam tradition.

Practitioners in the Arab world also seem to shy away from the 'wild side' of Design Thinking in particular, and do not fully appreciate the connection between art-design, and science-engineering. This questions the role of the educational institutions in the region since -according to the findings- they appear to be leading the movement in promoting and developing Design Thinking in the Arab world. Nonetheless, it is notable that people seem to be aware of the positive impact of applying Design Thinking in the region, and its potential to bring meaningful transformation. However, they also seem to be concerned about the current cultural, social, political, and economic challenges that may challenge this transformation. Therefore, they call for more awareness and demand to create Arabic, culturally appropriate programs to respond to the local needs. On another note, the lack of Arabic content and local case studies on Design Thinking were identified by several interviewees and were also confirmed by the participant observation as major challenges that are slowing down the spread of Design Thinking or sometimes hampering capacity building in the region. Other challenges that were revealed by the study are: changing the mindset of people, the lack of dedicated Design Thinking spaces, and the need for clear instructions on how to apply Design Thinking methods and activities. The concept of time and how Arabs deal with it, gender management during trainings, and hierarchy and power dynamics among training participants are also among the identified challenges. Another key finding revealed by the study is the confirmation of التفكير التصميمي as the Arabic term to be most widely adopted in the region to refer to Design Thinking, since four other Arabic terms were found to be associated with Design Thinking.

Based on the findings of the study, the thesis concludes by presenting a list of recommendations on how to overcome the mentioned challenges and what factors should be considered when designing and implementing culturally-customized Design Thinking training in the Arab region.