Of Disruptive Technologies and Higher Education

The term ‘Disruptive Technology’ was coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen in his 1997 best-selling book, “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. It is the new ways of doing things that disrupt or overturn not only the traditional business methods and practices but whole industries as well. While the professor was referring to the technology that disrupts businesses and industries, what we have been witnessing with disruptors like Apple Inc. is not about the technology per se. It’s more about the ‘design’ experience that Apple introduces with the technology. It is a fact that this world-renowned trillion-dollar disruptor hardly manufactures anything, but it monopolizes content or experience ecosystems based on the technology they use and introduce to the mass market. Netflix which has taken over the television industry and drove the colossus Blockbuster out of business is another disruptor that doesn’t own any movie or television production studios. What about the world’s largest taxi company that doesn’t own taxis, or the largest accommodation provider that owns no real estate, or the world’s most valuable retailer that hosts no inventory? Uber, Airbnb and Alibaba are all worth billions in net worth and are leaders in their industry sectors. These disruptors do not create nor invent new technology but they innovated designs that caused the disruptions.

Digital illustrations by Maryam Zarrobi (aka merryfulart) 2019.

Design innovation refers to the use of Design Thinking methodology in understanding and Identifying human experience needs and then developing products, services or processes that improve or solve those needs. The introduction of traditional design for large corporations has its roots in the 1950s when General Motors (GM) created the first executive position in design for Harley Earl. IBM in 1966 used the term ‘Good design is good business’, in a company memo for all employees explaining the growing importance of design for IBM’s future. And in 2005, Design Thinking was born in the Hasso Plattner Institute, or better known today as the d.school at Stanford University. SAP and Procter & Gamble were the early executive adopters of Design Thinking and today forms the group of the design-led companies such as Apple, Coca Cola, IBM, Nike, and Whirlpool. These companies have adopted Design Thinking thoroughly and have shifted from being product-centric to customer-centric, engineering-driven to design-driven, and marketing-focused to user-experience-focused.

Design Thinking is vital to develop insights from multiple perspectives and solve real-world problems in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that are wicked, ill-defined, incomplete and contradictory. It applies human-centred innovation principles such as empathy, creative collaboration, persistence through failure and comfort with ambiguity; to develop mindsets that are solution-focused, and action-oriented that involves both analysis and imagination.

The 2016 World Economic Forum Report, ‘The Future of Jobs Employment, Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution’, states that at this rapid pace of change where businesses and industries are disrupted; employment is impacted with near-simultaneous detriment. New skill sets and the lengthening of the current skill sets’ shelf-life is greatly needed in employees.

Since Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO brought Design Thinking to the masses’ attention; higher education institutions have been slow in introducing and embedding the methodology in their curriculum. This may be due to the rigidness of the programme structures or the curriculum development policies that do not encourage studio-based design subjects. A better understanding of what Design Thinking could change and produce in the graduates need to be communicated to the policy makers and management of curriculum development. Support mechanisms such as the methodologies and methods that can be used to design and evaluate Design Thinking curriculum and resources, need to be appropriately embedded and contextualized according to learning disciplines. Thinking carefully and critically about the applicability of Human-Centered Designs or Design Thinking for Higher Education is of urgency now especially when preparing students to solve problems that the world can’t yet imagine. Perhaps, higher education itself needs to be disrupted by Design Thinking.


Christensen, C. M. (2013). The innovator’s dilemma: when new technologies cause great firms to fail. Harvard Business Review Press.

Warren, T. (2017, October 06). GM’s design chief is primed for the transportation revolution. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/6/16403196/gm-design-chief-bolt-lyft

Good Design Is Good Business. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ibm.com/ibm/history/ibm100/us/en/icons/gooddesign/

History of Design Thinking at SAP. (2018, July 02). Retrieved from https://experience.sap.com/basics/history-of-design-thinking-at-sap/

Cohan, P. (2012, March 13). How Procter & Gamble Designs Change. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/petercohan/2012/03/12/how-procter-gamble-designs-change/#6c7365c45dd7

Nathan Sinsabaugh, S. S. (2015, August 07). Design-Led Companies Work, But Not Without Designers. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/insights/2015/03/design-led-companies-work-not-without-designers/

World Economic Forum. (2016, January). The future of jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the fourth industrial revolution. In Global Challenge Insight Report, World Economic Forum, Geneva.

What is Design Thinking? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/what-is-design-thinkin

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