Designing Better Futures elective, 2018


After a year off, I’m delighted to share the news that the elective in Designing Better Futures will be offered on the MBA at Said Business School during summer 2018 in response to student demand.

This elective will take place in early July in Oxford and in London, including

  • a live project with an external partner, details to be confirmed
  • a day-long workshop in which the MBA cohort will collaborate with MA students from Central Saint Martins, taking place in the inspiring surroundings of CSM’s building at Kings Cross in London
  • visits to leading London design studios, both in-house teams in large organisations and up-and-coming creative agencies
  • opportunities to read and discuss the leading research discussing  design thinking and service design
  • case studies of organisations using design thinking and service design including businesses, public sector and government.

New elements this year will include

  • a stronger emphasis on systems thinking and futures
  • critical discussion of applying design thinking in organisations and in response to social or policy issues.



Designing Better Futures elective, 2016

This year saw a collaboration between 10 MBA students taking the elective and about 12 MA students from Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. This was an informal collaboration allowing them to work together over two days in August 2016, to  try out using design thinking/methods in relation to a social challenge – food poverty in the UK. Our starting point was research by the Trussell Trust, a network of food banks (although not all of them in the UK). But in the 2 day elective, students understood site visits and did quick interviews and self study to explore challenges in donating to food banks and then come up with prototype new services/solutions in response to challenges around food donations and operations.

Over several years I’ve tried out different, often informal, arrangements to span institutional curriculums and timetables and teaching cultures. What seems to work well is something like I now do – opening up my MBA elective class (which is timetabled and assessed) to MA students from a design institution, who attend not for credit but for an opportunity to access the teaching and spend some time collaborating with MBA students. Having a practical challenge – in the style of a design challenge and the ‘flipped’ classroom – gives students a shared focus that enables meaningful collaboration and contextual idea generation as well as learning.

Food donation point at UK supermarket

10 years on…

In 2005 I started a new role as Clark Fellow of Design Leadership at Said Business School, University of Oxford. That was a five-year research fellowship which enabled me to explore some the intersections between designing and managing and organising as a researcher and educator.

By being located in a top business school, within an ancient university that international scholars liked to pop in on when in the UK, I had extraordinary access to the diversity of disciplines and networks that make up management education and research. Part of my role involved setting up, teaching and examining a new elective on design for the MBA. Since the fellowship ended in 2010, I have continued to teach the elective each year and remain an Associate Fellow at the school collaborating with some of the faculty, in particular Rafael Ramirez and Steve New.

This website captures the intentions behind my elective and shares year by year some of the activities and wonderful guest speakers and studios students were able to learn from. The “Designing Better Futures” elective attempts to give management students practical access to contemporary design practices, informed by several different research traditions.

Over the years I have tried out different models and formats, in response to timetabling constraints, student feedback and inspiration from similar educational initiatives.

I have concluded that what works for MBA students at Oxford is

  • Problem based learning – ideally in response to a challenge set by and actively involving an organisational partner or partners
  • Practical exploration of what are loosely called design methods or design thinking by applying them to the partner organisation’s challenge
  • Collaboration with designers or design students for example through a two-day “sprint” project responding to the challenge, often in London
  • Opportunities to visit and hear from leading design firms, usually in London
  • Practical sessions integrated with theoretical insights from research
  • Two kinds of assessment: a reflective paper in which students discuss their experiences of the elective, drawing on some of the literature; and a more traditional assignment which discusses the use of strategic design approaches in contemporary organisations and ideally involves original research by students.

Having got to know a particular institution and some of its students and faculty gave me confidence to start taking forward some of my own concerns about what MBA education does not seem to enable. At Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, I was able to build this into a vision and strategy for a new kind of management education which, in partnership with Birkbeck, is about to be launched as a joint MBA course from 2017.

I look forward to continuing to shape that, as well as trying out other new experiments such as teaching a design module on a new BSc/MSc Management Science at University College London. My book Service Innovation Handbook which is based on MBA class materials iterated over the past decade is about to be reprinted. I’m about to launch some short courses in design thinking for managers and civil servants at my new home, University of the Arts London’s Innovation Insights Hub, as well as more experimental teaching and learning formats including a data studio and a futures studio.

Meanwhile the world is ever more complex and conflicted. The need to think and do things differently, including generating and exploring new kinds of organisational and societal response, is ever more urgent. Educating managers, entrepreneurs, or civil servants in ways of thinking and doing still seems, to me, to be useful and interesting.

It’s time to take stock, and while a short blog post is not quite that, it marks the end of one phase and indicates a transition to another.



Designing Better Futures elective, September 2014

This year, the MBA Designing Better Futures elective takes place over three days, at Said Business School in Oxford and Central Saint Martins in London.

Highlights include

– A one-day service innovation workshop during which MBA students collaborate with MDes and BA design students from University of the Arts London. This focuses on healthcare and well-being challenges, centred around a new care planning digital tool developed by Digital Life Sciences and their NHS primary healthcare partners. The workshop will help DLS explore how its digital tools can be bundled into new value constellations through which several different actors co-create value together. Methods used will include ethnographic interviews, developing personas for user and carer segments, visualising the service ecology and defining outcomes for the service.

– Guest speaker Christian Madsbjerg, co-founder of innovation and research consultancy ReD Associates and co-author of The Moment of Clarity (2014), on ethnographic and humanities research.

– Guest speaker Kevin McCullaugh of product strategy firm Plan, and commentator on product innovation, such as this recent Fast Company post about the Apple Watch and wearables

– A visit to Barclays’ Design Office at Canary Wharf, an in-house innovation team centred on design principles, customer insight, service design and agile digital product development, hosted by head of design Rob Brown.

The elective combines practical experiences of design methods and innovation techniques, along with key readings and discussion about the value and role of strategic design in organisations and in relation to complex collective challenges such as behaviour change.

Designing Better Futures elective, 2014

This year’s MBA Designing Better Futures elective will be running in compressed form as a summer elective open to full-time MBA and EMBA students.

Dates: Weds 17 – Fri 19 September 2014

Location: Park End Street and London

The elective will include practical activities in the form of a service design workshop relating to an organisational project, possibly in e-health.

Guest speakers include Christian Madsbjerg, co-founder of innovation and research consultancy ReD Associates and co-author of The Moment of Clarity (2014).

MBA elective in Design for Innovation and Change 2013

This class, taken by 48 full-time MBA students, is running April-June 2013.  The elective aims to give students practical, hands-on exposure to design methods, sometimes called “design thinking” complemented by academic research on strategic design in organisations and community change.

Five of the eight sessions involve using design-based methods to support early-stage ventures. Mixed teams of students are each working with an entrepreneur, selected by our partner Emerge Venture Labs. The methods we’ve used include: ethnographically-inspired user research, creating personas, describing user journeys, and mapping the service ecology.

The photos below are snaps from this week’s class, in which the eight teams articulated a question that they aimed to answer by lo-fi prototyping. Depending on the venture, this took the form of creating mock-ups of marketing material, a particular user’s experience of finding and engaging with an online service, and a visualisation of the possible business model.

MBA 2013 prototyping class MBA 2013 prototyping class MBA 2013 prototyping class




This year’s teaching on the Oxford MBA

In 2013, I’m teaching two electives on the MBA at Said Business School.

First up is the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship‘s new MBA elective in Design for Innovation and Change, running once a week in April-June (ie Trinity term). There’s a cap of 35 students for this class as it’s very hands on – in fact Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre, says it’s the only hands-on elective in the MBA. I taught a couple of classes on this elective last year. But this year I’m running and teaching the whole thing with a range of guest lectures from leading practitioners, complementing the main focus which is enabling students to explore the value of design approaches and methods using my Social Design Methods Menu, and using these with entrepreneurs gathered by our partners the Emerge Venture Lab. Students taking the class will have opportunities to use design approaches and methods to help their partner venture over the several weeks of the elective. This elective is not exclusively focussed on social enterprise, but rather helps students understand a range of contexts in which design can contribute to enterprises – which might include designing for social impacts.

Then, for the exec MBAs during the summer, I’l be teaching my usual Designing Better Futures elective (summarised in this blog), probably during the first week of July. This has some overlaps with the Trinity term elective but some differences too. Like the Design for Innovation and Change elective, Designing Better Futures considers design for social enterprise but looks at design for any kind of organization or community goals. Last year this class was taken by 29 EMBAs and 26 students on the full-time MBA, a mix that worked really well. This year we will again collaborate with MA Service Design Innovation students from London College of Communication and work on a real world project. So this elective is also hands-on, but has more of a focus on thinking through how to bring design approaches to organizations and what this means for managers.

Here’s how they are different and similar:

Design for Innovation and Change

  • Full-time MBA
  • Trinity term elective (weekly on Tuesdays at 1330-1645 during April-June 2013)
  • Cap of 35 students
  • Partners: Emerge Venture Labs, who’ll link us to enterprises (technology, education and social ventures) who’ll become the projects MBA students will work on in small teams trying out various design methods
  • Mentor-designers we’ll work with: (to be confirmed) designers linked with the UK Design Council
  • Topics: design thinking, design methods, design-ethnography, designing for services
  • Focus: designing for ventures
  • Studio visits in London

Designing Better Futures

  • Exec MBA + full-time MBA
  • Summer elective (dates to be confirmed, but likely to be the first week of July)
  • Cap of 50 students
  • Designers we’ll work with: MA Service Design Innovation students from London College of Communication
  • Topics: design thinking, managing as designing, evaluating design, organizing for design-led innovation, designing for services
  • Focus: designing for organizations, ventures and communities
  • Studio visits in London