Teaching design thinking to college kids (in Northern Ireland)

I’m so happy to see that the idea of creativity, „alternative” approaches to life, and cultivating curious minds find their way to schools and kindergartens. I’m solely behind the idea of letting kids and teenagers act on their ideas, supporting them, and giving them an outlet to change the world. Because, in reality, kids have the biggest power to change the future.


Any chance I get to lead workshops or projects for the young, I take it. And this is what pushed the project-based workshop classes at the North West Regional College in Derry. In cooperation with Enterprise North West, an organization dedicated to business and social development of the northwest region of Northern Ireland, and with the support of INTERREG Atlantic Area, an European funding program, this project was organized.


I was brought in to instill the idea of social change and spread the ability and awareness that everyone can influence their space, city, country. Yes, it may not be easy, but if there is a problem in your neighborhood, if you feel like your city is not helping in your life – nothing will change if you don’t do something.


Here you can read the official introduction of this project, from INTERREG: Social innovation programme for young people launched in Derry.


The project’s premise was:
+ Introduce design thinking as a creative outlet for problem-solving.
+ Cultivate the idea of social changes for the greater good.
+ Lead the kids in creating solutions for things that concern them.


From my perspective, having been living in Derry for over a year at that time and taking an active part in the local community (listening to their problems, being friends with every shop owner, going to the museum and supporting marches), I had my ideas about why they would need support, how they might react to this new idea of design thinking, and why it would be difficult. But only the first, introductory workshop gave me a better idea of what challenges I would face. I didn’t really anticipate an echo of „hoorays” but quite the opposite.



For a small country, and one with such tumultuous history as Northern Ireland, it’s hard to shed the past and start anew. Especially if, maybe not in a military way, but the conflict still exists. And Derry is probably the biggest bastion of animosity, with the constant fight over Derry/Londonderry. If you add the „forgotten by the GB” factor – as GB have their own problems on the bigger island that to invest or get interested in NI is such a drag… I’m not saying this to badmouth Derry or Northern Ireland, because in my books Derry is wonderful, splendid! It’s small and quaint, has tons of cultural events, is extremely welcoming, and just all-around a great place to live. But that negative bit is necessary to understand the general difficulty with this project.


I knew, at least in some part, what to expect but the reality was harsh. Some of the kids were forced to be part of the class, they didn’t see any reason in doing anything because „who is going to hear us out,” and generally had no hope for any changes for the better.

Main challenges:
+ Already botched attitude
+ No hope
+ Apathy
+ No willingness for anything



I knew they had issues with the surrounding environment, but I had to figure out a way how to give them hope. This was my main concern. Without hope, they wouldn’t see the need to work and they wouldn’t be able to get passionate about any of their own ideas.


Doing my research, I definitely tapped into my „network” of the people in Derry I knew. By that time I was recognized by many a citizen in the city center (you try going around a small city with a smile plastered on your face, singing Disney songs out loud, having small talk with everyone, and all that in a non-Derry accent – friends guaranteed instantly!) – people working at shops I did my shopping, coffee houses, my friends from work and the hiking club. I asked specifically about the history of this everpresent „whatever” approach, I also wanted to find out how their kids react to the current world or the future.
Following netnography, I gathered information about what they say about their lives in social media, watched them behave around the city and react to social events. That alone was a great information source and made me realize that the approach had to be different as well.
So I put my focus on finding out examples from cities and neighborhoods similar to Derry, created by kids. There were a few cases of how the kid beautified their spaces, how they started volunteering, one even about creating a mobile app to help people with disabilities. My idea was to link them with stories of the same proportions and keep telling them they’re in charge. During workshops, I guided them through exercises, but the decisions were obviously made by them alone.


The last element of this project was visiting the local FabLab. It was essential to let them know that heaps of money are not needed, but an idea and dedication are. If you have this together, there will be people and organizations that will help.


Read the summary of the project: http://atlanticsociallab.eu/Atlantic Social Lab, design thinking pilot action group attend FabLab in Derry



The most important aspect of how I treat design thinking is: what can we do realistically. In reality, no matter what the methodology is, if there is no money there is no future. Harsh, yes. But here the problem was not money, it was the lack of hope. The solutions developed by the kids of Derry were applicable and made sense, but they didn’t believe in them. I knew that without the support of teachers, there will be no results. Unfortunately, in this project, this was out of my control (red tape), but I stayed in touch with these kids that got the spark of creativity to support their development.