“Logic will take you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” – Albert Einstein
Redesigning boxes: design-thinking for creative solutions
After a decade working in the music industry, Chris Sheldrick was frustrated. Having travelled the world promoting bands and producing events, he found himself repeatedly encumbered by the same problem: bands and suppliers were struggling to arrive at the right address, often showing up miles away from where they were supposed to be.
Finding himself muddled by the lengthy sixteen digits of GPS coordinates, Sheldrick decided that the current navigation system was not going to solve his problem. So, in the absence of available tools, Sheldrick took it upon himself to design a new one.
Brainstorming with two of his school friends, Mohan Ganesalingam and Jack Waley-Cohen, Chris Sheldrick had soon created a new way of navigating the world. What3Words divides the world into a grid of three-meter by three-meter, identifying each square by a compilation of three words. These unique addresses are precise and easier to remember than long numerical codes, making talking about a specific location easier and more accurate. It has since been adopted by a range of companies, ranging from Airbnb to TFL, assisting services from delivering pizzas to putting out forest fires.
Design thinking comes into play when a problem cannot be resolved through a technical or linear approach, engendering innovative problem-solving and creative solutions. Rather than searching for the most straight-forward solution, design thinking seeks out the ambiguous and unexplored, testing and refining multiple solutions in order to return to the initial problem with new insights.
So how can we begin thinking inventively? ‘The key to creativity is doubt,’ Alan Iny explicates in a TedTalk, Reigniting Creativity in Business, ‘doubt that the rules you’ve been operating under can’t be broken… recognis[e] that all of your boxes are only working hypothesis, that they’re subject to change’.
Using stories to change minds
Thinking outside the box isn’t always easy. This is because we are prone to develop fixed patterns of thinking based on repeated experience, preventing us from approaching a familiar problem in a different way, even if an obvious solution is available.
‘It’s like if you had never heard of a traditional street address, houses with names and numbers,’ Ivan Polls, Creative Director of What3Words suggests, ‘it would take you a while to get your head around it.’
What3Words is continually finding new, creative ways to attract users and explain their model. Polls describes their B2B campaign in China. ‘The Chinese name for the moon (yuè) is also a common term for the Guangdong Province. We created a story about a princess who wanted to end up at the Guangdong Province [but] ended up on the moon…. [W]e really dramatised the issue in a locally interesting way.’ Rather than taking a logical or schematic approach, story-telling provides a conceptual model that enables lateral thinking, helping to reorient thought patterns.
Reinventing thought patterns on a systemic level
Thinking patterns become fixed culturally. We do things in certain ways because this is the way people around us have always done them.
Design thinking, however, looks at things systematically. It often reframes the problem at hand, assessing the meaning-systems and structures that produced the problem in the first place. Rather than thinking of these structures as objective and absolute, design thinking is open to fresh ways of doing things.
Not having an address is psychologically disorienting. This was true for over 116,000 people living in the Rhino Refugee Camp in Uganda. The lack of a proper address meant that people lacked the language to talk about their own home, inhibiting humanitarian initiatives and community development.
Providing every home, church, medical centre and mosque in the camp with a three word address, What-3-Words has created ‘a better language of hope in the refugee camp’ and given ‘refugees the dignity they deserve’, says Sebit Martin, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Community Development Centre.
Thinking outside the box, Sheldrick has done so much more than help friends meet up at the crowded main stage of a festival. Looking at his initial problem holistically, What3Words has unpacked a constellation of social issues caused by present structures and crystalised a strategy to solve them. No longer do we need to say that a village is in ‘the middle of nowhere’ or ‘off the grid’. Uniting innovativity with practicality, What3Words has become a force for social change, enabling everyone in the world to be seen, acknowledged and represented.