Sometime during 2016, while in the first year of her PhD studies in paediatrics and public health at the University of Cape Town, Zulfah Albertyn-Blanchard stumbled upon the concept of design thinking. She came across a course that was offered by a leading international business school based in the US, but the fees were out of her reach. Then, luck (and excellent timing) favoured Zulfah, and the following year she responded to a university-wide call and enrolled in the Hasso Plattner d-school Afrika at UCT’s Design Thinking Foundation Programme that year.
Seven years later and Zulfah is still involved with the school – this time as a coach, a role that allows her to train people to use the tools and mindsets of the design thinking process. She is passionate about coaching, relishing the opportunity to nurture a psychologically safe environment for participants so that they, too, can be transformed by this human-centric approach to problem-solving.
Zulfah credits design thinking with helping her to view people as individuals with unique capabilities, which is quite the departure, she says, from the pragmatic mindset she grew up with and was reinforced by her studies. “I had a purely science background, so I didn’t engage with patients, but I knew that I needed to be able to understand what people really need through talking with them in order for me to be able to help them effectively.”
The drive to make a difference is a design thinking mindset that marked Zulfah’s study time, positioning her research focus on child protection, specifically to prevent child injuries, by highlighting the role of creating safe spaces and age-specific interventions. Whereas most child mortality studies focus on the 0–5-year-old age group, she looked at morbidity and mortality from road traffic crashes in Cape Town in 0–17-year-olds. To contextualise these statistics further, she explored the socio-economic factors that make children most vulnerable and visually conveyed all her outcomes with graphs and maps.
Reflecting on her earliest encounters with design thinking, Zulfah recalls the revelation of the design thinking mandate to be present in the moment. Meanwhile, the focus on teamwork was a welcome shift from her solitary studies at the time, re-energising her through exposure to fellow participants with cross-discipline backgrounds. The course gave her tools to better navigate conflict and a chance to get hands-on in making things.
“The projects that we worked on were real, and that was really fantastic…We were coming in twice a week and doing something practical that wasn’t about our studies or us,” says Zulfah, recalling her work with a Cape Town-based NGO working with the visually impaired. With pride, she recounts how the organisation adopted some of the recommendations Zulfah and her team proposed.
As a coach, one of her most memorable cases was working with a leading food retailer with a national footprint, where the team developed the concept for a self-service aisle. Self-service tills are common in the Global North, but this was a first for South Africa, allowing shoppers to get their groceries quickly and conveniently. It was trialled at a branch in the southern suburbs of Cape Town and is still in operation today. Zulfah was also part of the team that trained an entire business unit of one of Africa’s largest banks, which had approached d-school Afrika for help training its staff – from administrators to analysts – to solve challenges with a human-centred mindset and have creative confidence in approaching their work.
Zulfah is more enthusiastic than ever about the value of design thinking in the everyday – so much so that she often relies on its principles to help her problem-solve her children’s tantrums, like co-creating with them to find a solution – much to her husband’s amusement (but no doubt admiration, too). Despite no longer working in public health professionally, she hopes to engage with healthcare facilities about integrating design thinking processes to improve services and patient outcomes.
“The thing with design thinking is that if you get the mindset right, the tools will follow. If you can get the thinking, you’ll always know how to approach a situation and know which tools to pull out. You’ll be human-centred, empathetic and curious by default,” says Zulfah emphatically.