Decoding Design

Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting to focus on design

Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting to focus on design

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A major event that world leaders, CEOs, movie stars, and both U.S. Presidential candidates will attend next week promises to use design thinking to solve large-scale humanitarian problems.

Next week, from September 23-25, more than 1,000 international heads of state, top executives, and movie stars will convene for the Clinton Global Initiative's (CGI) Annual Meeting in New York--and the main topic of discussion will be the power of design.

Both U.S. Presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are scheduled to appear at this yearly event, hosted by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his philanthropic organization. And a who's who roster of chief executives, from John Chambers, CEO of Cisco to Irene Rosenfeld, CEO of Kraft Foods, will mingle with the likes of the King of Spain, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (and her and Bill's daughter Chelsea), as well as actors such as Jessica Alba and Michael Douglas. Each year, the goal is to get these types of powerful people and their organizations to mingle and eventually commit to funding and promoting causes ranging from women's and girl's rights to sustainable food production. What's remarkable about this year's meeting is that it's the first to center entirely around a single theme--and that theme is "design thinking."

“We redesigned the meeting this year to optimize the creative spirit and remarkable dedication of our members, who, since 2005, have made more than 2,100 commitments that are impacting nearly 400 million lives in more than 180 countries," Bill Clinton said in a press release, invoking the process of design in shaping the 2012 event. "I look forward to the solutions and commitments that will emerge from the CGI community at this year’s meeting.”

If you're unfamiliar with the term "design thinking," in brief, it's the process (or as many argue, a discipline) that follows the designer's method of conducting research to uncover unmet needs, followed by rapid prototyping based on that research, and then the creation of products and services that will not only address the unmet needs, but also make it to market as viable solutions.

At this year's CGI gathering in New York, the organization added a new feature called "Design Labs," where attendees will brainstorm on such topics as designing healthy urban environments to combat disease.

That the CGI Annual Meeting is focusing on design as a business strategy and a humanitarian solution can be read as evidence that "design thinking" has reached its zenith, as it will be applied to large-scale, international problems such as "how companies and governments can support the delivery of early childhood interventions that increase a country’s GDP, reduce long-term social costs, and help children thrive," according to a CGI press release. It's worth noting that design thinking has been used in workshops to some degree at other major international elite events, such as the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

In recent years, the design and innovation press (and industry) have been debating whether "design thinking," which was a business-world buzzword in the mid-to-late 2000s, was just a fad. That such influential organizations as CGI are using it today to address such urgent and large-impact challenges, however, speaks to its enduring relevance.

(Disclosure: I moderated a panel on innovation at the Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting in 2009.)

Image: Clinton Global Initiative

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure