How Design Thinking can help us create an “Everyone a Changemaker” World

Insights from the Ashoka Changemaker Summit, Nairobi 2013 
By Simon Stumpf of Ashoka and Rupa Chaturvedi of Raaya Design

We at Ashoka envision an “everyone a changemaker” world. This is a world where every person has the confidence and societal support to creatively address the challenges and opportunities around them. We feel so lucky to be surrounded by such changemakers every day: Ashoka Fellows are unraveling society’s toughest problems at the root level. Young changemakers who are part of Ashoka’s Youth Venture program are daring to put themselves in the driver’s seat and launching their first social ventures. And we regularly interact with policy makers who are relentlessly working to make public education more relevant and university leaders who are actively seeking to reinvent their campuses as centers of changemaking. 

But we still have a ways to go. 

Some months back, the mother of one of the Youth Venture changemakers in Kenya confessed that while nothing made her more proud than seeing her daughter Lulu organizing other students on campus, she had recently demanded that her daughter get more serious about her grades. “I’m a hustler,” she said proudly, “and I love that my daughter is a changemaker, but I don’t hear CEOs saying they hire changemakers.” 

The irony, of course, is that this is exactly who CEOs know they need to hire in order for their organizations and businesses to thrive in the world today. Changemakers are people who have mastered empathy, teamwork, new leadership, and problem-solving; who doesn’t want someone who actively practices these skills on her team? 

So if we all agree, what’s the hold up? Why do teachers complain about policy makers while business leaders grumble about the quality of recent graduates? Why do parents pass outdated advice on to their sons and daughters? 

At Ashoka East Africa we realized that we will only succeed when all key stakeholders are in alignment. So in late August 2013 and in partnership with Raaya Design, we invited all of the changemakers in our East African network – young and old and from the public, private, and citizen sectors – to join in an experiment in radical collaboration. We chose to introduce Design Thinking as a mechanism of generating new ideas and problem solving for social innovators. We predicted that by arming our diverse group of participants with a creative toolkit our collaborators would not only develop their own changemaking skills, but experience what an “everyone a changemaker” world actually feels like, even if only for a day. 

This is the challenge we presented to the group of 90 social entrepreneurs, business leaders, university heads, and young people: How might we enable every teenager in Kenya to become a changemaker? Using the Design Thinking methodology to tackle this challenge was particularly impactful; as we advanced through the fast-moving agenda and the back-to-back Design Thinking activities under the expert facilitation of Rupa Chaturvedi, we all had the chance to actively practice the key changemaker skills of empathy, teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving. 

Around the world, Design Thinking is taking off as a proven strategy for creating breakthrough solutions. We at Ashoka couldn’t be happier. Why? Because when we look closely and what Design Thinking actually practices we see the changemaker skills in action. In what follows, we align Design Thinking with the key changemaker skills and share examples of the tools used and ideas generated by our Design Thinking Changemakers in Kenya. 


Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see the world from her point of view. It’s something every good parent understands and that every teacher or coach must master; it’s a critical skill that good engineers and designers must draw on. We believe it’s the foundational changemaker skill. And we know that it’s more important to practice empathy than to preach about it. So to kick off the Design Thinking session, we sought to develop empathy for the youth in Kenya and their extended ecosystem; these were our “users,” the potential beneficiaries of the solutions we were about to create. But how are we to create a changemaker experience for Kenyan teenagers if we don’t understand A) their wants and needs or B) the points-of-view of your diverse teammates? The twelve groups of eight participants each were asked to list their perspectives on the needs of teenagers, their motivations, challenges and influences.  (It’s important to note that we didn’t just talk about teenagers; on average, each team of eight had two 12-22 year old participants and an average age of less than 35.) 

It’s not uncommon in Design Thinking to kick off every project with an exercise to establish “what we know” and map all the various stakeholders. This enables the team to capture the members’ collective knowledge and understand the various points of view and experiences represented by the team members. It’s important to establish an understanding of complex issues and key players early on. With this groundwork in place, everyone will have established a common understanding of the challenge and issues at hand and is freed up to seek new information and direction. 


With this baseline knowledge in place and a commitment to collaborating in the spirit of empathetic openness, diverse teams can better relate to each other and work together. As the world becomes more interconnected, teams like these will be increasingly important to the success of institutions large and small.

At the Nairobi Changemaker Summit, our invitees were intentionally diverse and, upon arrival, we asked them to form multi-disciplinary teams. Each participant was given a bracelet representing their sector: blue for private sector, yellow for citizen sector, green for academia, etc. After some opening remarks, we moved to a sun-filled space on an upper floor of Nairobi’s prestigious Strathmore Business School and asked participants to form groups. There were only two rules: make sure you don’t already know anyone on your team and make sure no more than two team members are wearing matching-colored bracelets. After some cacophonous minutes of scrambling around, the newly-formed teams settled down around tables covered in snacks, Sharpie markers, and rainbow-colored Post-It notes. 

Creating diverse teams as well as the conditions for them to comfortably work together is a key feature in Design Thinking. Expert “teamworkers” accept and appreciate diversity, establish a common vocabulary, acknowledge the merits of radical collaboration, and actively involve the full team in diagnosing the challenge and applying their unique skills and interests to the solution.  As we, the facilitators from Raaya Design and Ashoka East Africa, looked out across the sea of teams deeply engaged in improv games and creative challenges designed to help them begin to work together, we were struck by the power of diverse teams aligned in tackling social challenges. It was exciting to think about the innovative solutions that might emerge from this experiment! 

New Leadership:

Above the noise of our 90 participants getting to know each other, one might reasonably ask “who’s in charge here?” For much of the day, the vibe in the room was controlled chaos. Just when folks were settling in to a task, Rupa, the facilitator, would throw them a curveball or ask them to move outside for a warm-up exercise. Maybe Rupa was in charge? This is a typical way of thinking about leadership. In an “everyone a changemaker” world we need a more fluid, nuanced way of understating how change happens. Most importantly, we need everyone to be able to take charge and lead. Throughout our Design Thinking experiment, various team members rose to leadership roles given their interest and expertise (and energy level!).  Indeed, the hallmark of true new leadership is the ability to step up but, most importantly, then step back when someone else is more able to tackle the challenge at hand. 

Here too, practice makes perfect. And Design Thinking provides ample space to experience new leadership and hone this critical 21st century skill. It is imperative that leaders today adopt new behaviors and create a culture of creativity, innovation, and inclusion. As you try to solve complex issues, Design Thinking teaches us to look for more, better, out of the box ideas. Throughout the day we were continually reminded that these best ideas don’t always come from the oldest or most highly-educated folks. In fact, given the nature of the challenge, it was often our youngest participants that provided the most insightful contributions. 


Problem solving:

By now we were close to turning the participants loose and seeing what solutions might best address our “every teenager in Kenya a changemaker” challenge. For hours teams had been working furiously together and observations and ideas scribbled on Post-It notes dotted every flat surface in sight. It was time to turn these words and ideas into action. We believe that to become a changemaker you must simply make change. Can it really be that easy? We think so. Once you’ve actually given yourself permission and ventured to try out a new solution, you convince yourself that you can solve all sorts of challenges around you. This is a key feature of Design Thinking as well. Enough talking, let’s start doing! To actually see what we are capable of doing, we must quickly move from theory to action, from conceptual to concrete. 

In Design Thinking, this happens when participants move forward with synthesizing the information gathered by the teams and trying out real solutions. At the Nairobi Changemaker Summit, the teams generated insights and identified opportunity areas for creating ecosystems to support young changemakers. Each team reframed the original challenge and put a stake in the ground given their own points of view. With modeling clay, colored paper, and various props, the teams began to prototype, break-down, and rebuild demonstrations of their proposed solutions. When the time came to move around the room and hear the various teams present their ideas we heard about moving carnivals that celebrated and inspired young changemakers, a new model for rural schools that puts young children in charge of developing – and sharing – expertise in areas of their choosing, and various solutions addressing the need for more recognition and support for young changemakers, from lounges and co-working hubs to parks and awards ceremonies. 

Practitioners of Design Thinking know digging in to real challenges helps you think about problems differently and come up with better solutions. They do not take anything for granted; they challenge the Challenge and reframe. They don’t immediately jump to solutions; they stay with the problem so as to understand it from as many angles as possible, drawing on the points of view of the diverse group and – in the process – coming together as a team united under a common vision. 

Final thoughts:

In a world where the rules are constantly changing, we all need to be changemakers. Changemakers seek out new opportunities and creatively tackle challenges that they come across at home, at work, or in their communities.  They know that creativity is just a new “behavior” and are helping the teams on which they work – and sometimes lead – to establish a culture of taking risks and failing early and often. In Design Thinking, we think we’ve found a toolkit that can help us all practice the key skills of empathy, teamwork, new leadership, and problem-solving and – indeed – help us build and “everyone a changemaker” world. 

If you are familiar with Design Thinking and want to hold a similar event, below are the list of tools that we used.  Empathy tools we used: 

  • What we know
  • Stakeholder Maps 

Teamwork tools we used: 

  • Ice-breakers
  • Improv

Leadership tools we used:

  • Brainstorming
  • Rapid Prototyping

Problem Solving tools we used:

  • Insights and Themes
  • Opportunity Areas (HMWs)