Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2439

Article | Open Access | Ahead of Print | Last Modified: 16 January 2024

Can’t Fix This? Innovation, Social Change, and Solutionism in Design Thinking

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Abstract:  Design thinking is commonly presented as a solution-oriented approach to innovation. It aims to solve so-called “wicked problems,” with various textbooks and toolkits promising to equip their readers with the skills needed to do so. By rendering design thinking as a magic bullet for problem-solving towards innovation and social change, some of its proponents fall back on a solutionist position. This is despite a growing body of research highlighting critical approaches to design thinking. Drawing on, and adding to, such literature, this article examines how innovation and social change are concretely conceptualised in design thinking guides. Using a cultural media studies approach, the article first contrasts design thinking literature with critical design research, emphasizing the notion of (technological) solutionism. It then zooms in on a purposively selected case: a design thinking textbook aimed at tertiary students. Based on an interpretative analysis of this example, it discusses what understandings of innovation and social change are encouraged in the envisioned design thinking. In linking the reviewed literature and observations from the case study, the analysis highlights two main arguments: First, complex interrelations between innovation and social change are causally simplified in outlining design thinking, thereby fostering techno-fix approaches and mindsets: Readers are encouraged to not merely select but in fact construct solvable “problems,” in turn avoiding confrontations with substantive issues that cannot be fixed through the envisioned design thinking. Second, innovation is conflated with corporate activities and normative questions of innovation, (in-)equality, privilege, and social change are neglected, in turn suggesting a misleading symbiosis between economic and societal interests.

Keywords:  design thinking; inequality; innovation; social change; solutionism; techno-fix; technological solutionism

Published:   Ahead of Print


© Annika Richterich. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.