Higher Education System-Change Catalyst through Design Thinking










We are in the age of innovation. As the OECD’s response to COVID19 calling for innovation with a more transformational, inclusive and empowering approach, the adaption of advanced technology and re-evalation of ecosystems has sped up even more during the current pandemic. Driven by these needs, disruptive changes in higher education sector are evermore frequent, incorporating innovation and entrepreneurship in its cross-disciplinary learning, research and projects.


As agents of change, universities are driving the direction of changes – to develop, disrupt or transform. As catalysts, universities are more than just a strategic training and capacity-building partner, they connect groups of champions. With physical, human and financial resources, they tackle societal challenges, forming system-change clusters which act complementary to each other to co-create the future.

“We need to reimagine how we live,
work and learn together”


Sensible innovation could be made possible by incorporating empathy, the core of design thinking, in advanced technological development and application. Even in Space technology and economy, whether it is Space X by Elon Musk, or Heavenly Palace (Tiangong) space station by China – when community members were seen as the crucial context and were able to connect with users and stakeholders addressing their needs, value could be created. This is what design thinking’s empathy is about. Not a rigid process – iteratively applying the 4Ds in design thinking (Discover, Define, Develop and Deliver, in HK Design Centre version) to different scenarios could unleash the potential of visions or projects.


The strength of Design Thinking, with creative ideation by collective efforts, is its sensible response to real-world fast-changing VUCA scenarios (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) and the ability to learn and develop from feedback and evaluation, failure included.

Moreover, it empowers project-based experiential learning. Teachers don’t just teach; they facilitate students’ ‘learning by doing’ with a self-initiative mentality and authentic step-by-step problem-solving development.

We have applied this pedagogical approach in our HKU EDI programme (Entrepreneurship, Design and Innovation). We have seen that studently not only excel in the programme, winning local and global awards, but also impressed our industry partners from various academic institutions, industries and markets. The EDI graduates have been standing out in their career, bringing a positive impact to the commercial world or social community through their own start-ups, or performing well and creatively in the corporate environment. With the boundaries between primary, secondary school and tertiary institutes getting blurred, the popularity of courses such as School Leaders’ Design Thinking training programme and Innopower prove that the Design Thinking continuum is forming a good base for further higher education transformation.

As such, the future outlook of higher education is bright. With empathy and an open mindset, we are continuously develop programmes that welcome creative research, teaching and learning; supported by networks and resources. Higher education can unleash innovation and scale up in the fast-changing market, during and after this extraordinary time – driven by system change catalyst clusters.

By Joseph Chan,
Associate Director @ Centre of Asian
Entrepreneurship and Business Value, HKU


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