Design-thinking as an approach to shaping innovation

JASA programmes incorporate a design-thinking approach to innovation

In JASA programmes, the facilitators introduce learners to design thinking, a step-by-step approach to coming up with innovative solutions to problems. Students are encouraged to look around their environments and identify problems they want to tackle. Then the students work on innovations that will provide solutions, in the form of products or services.

But first… what is an innovation?

Well, it is a new idea, method or product.

  • It can improve an existing solution, such as cars becoming more efficient, or mobile phones having better cameras.


  • It can be new and disruptive.

Examples of disruptive innovations include:

  • Digital film technology completely overtook the traditional film industry
  • Airbnb has disrupted the traditional hotel model by linking host accommodation to potential guests. Since they don’t own hotels or employ staff this means far less risk for the company.

Sometimes, taking the initiative to apply an existing solution to solve a problem in your community can be innovative since you are using a method that wasn’t there before.

At age 14 William Kwamkamba built a windmill to power his family’s home. Even though windmills existed in the world, he found a cost-effective way of making one. You can hear his story here.

One South African innovator is Danielle Mallabone. When she was 17 years old, after seeing the film Titanic, she was inspired to create a thermal lifejacket. She even tested it herself by being immersed in 10° C water for an hour! Luckily the heat effect of her lifejacket worked. You can read about her story here.

So what is the process of design thinking and why is it effective to come up with solutions?

Design-centred innovation 

1. Recognise a need, challenge, opportunity or pain point

The first step is to look around you to see what needs there are in your community and identify a problem you want to address.

2. Understand your operating environment

Speak to those affected by the problem to help you generate products and services that people need and want.

3. Frame issue – Problem Statement

You need to keep questioning to scratch below the surface to understand the problem from different angles and to see what the real issues are.

4. Ideation

Once you have decided on a problem, consider many options of how to address it and write down all the ideas you and your team think of.  Handle your new ideas with care because they can be fragile until they are developed.

Listen to feedback. Perhaps you have a good idea but there is already a product on the market. Maybe your idea has a flaw that you hadn’t noticed. Useful feedback may mean that you have to rethink your idea. Most entrepreneurs go through this process of refining their ideas, over and over again. Those that succeed are the ones who didn’t give up!

4. Prototype and test

You can also make sketches of your ideas or basic prototypes using materials such as cardboard, glue, pens etc. Making a model in the early stages makes it easier to test your idea in the real world.

5. Iteration (repeat the process)

You may need to test your idea and then make changes and go through this process a few times. Often an initial idea will change into something different. Allow this to happen.

JASA facilitators have been hosting two-day workshops on design thinking for learners on some JASA programmes and the insights gained will be taken into consideration in the programmes review.

Avive Papier, a learner at Orion Secondary School in De Aar, said this method gave her a way to gain insight into how things could be improved. Students were encouraged to use anything around them to make prototypes and they found the process so exciting that they didn’t want to stop.

Design-based innovation is used at the SABS Design Institute. An industrial designer and mentor there, Sibusiso Mkhwanazi, explains this process here. Recently nine JASA Alumni and Junior Innovators Competition winners from the past years went through a year-long incubation programme, were they repeated the design innovation steps until they came up with refined ideas that they could prototype. You can read about their journey here.

Here are two examples of emerging companies in South Africa who have come up with innovative solutions to problems.

Empty Trips

Have you ever thought about what happens to the empty space on trucks doing return trips. Well nothing really… until recently. Empty Trips are launching an online trip exchange platform designed to match transport companies having space capacity with those who can make use of it, through an online auction system. This start-up won the Africa Chivas Regal Pitching Den Competition at the 2017 SA Innovation Summit. They represented South Africa at the 2018 Startup World Cup in San Francisco on May 11.


Spoon is another company addressing a local market. There are around 800 000 stokvels in South Africa and yet these informal savings groups, and the people who borrow from them, cannot gain access to the traditional banking industry. This is where Spoon steps in as an intermediary, by providing an online stokvel management system and providing 30-day loans to the stokvels to pool their money for the collective benefit of all members.

Anyone can follow the tried and tested design-centred approach to come up with a solution to a problem.

Junior Innovators Competition launched with Investec

Junior Achievement South Africa and Investec launch the Junior Innovators Competition

Junior Achievement South Africa (JASA) and Investec are proud to announce the launch of the Junior Innovators Competition. The competition is aimed at rewarding one winner with entrepreneurship potential and characteristics. The competition is open to all grade 10 and 11 learners participating in JASA’s Mini Enterprise or Entrepreneurship Academy programmes during 2012.

The first round of the competition will take place from 15 May to 9 August 2012 and entrants will be required to complete a comprehensive application form, collect letters of motivation from community leaders and identify a socially innovative business concept to enter the competition.  From these entries the top 45 candidates will be selected from across the country, these finalists will be invited to participate in the final, in Johannesburg. “Not only does this competition aim to reward the highest scoring entrepreneur, it also aims at getting our youth to identify sustainable business ideas that positively impacts their immediate community’s.  We look forward to seeing what concepts the learners come up with. There will also be bi-weekly sms competitions during the first round and learners must be prepared to answer some tough questions, the prizes make it well worth it,” stated Namhla Saba from Investec.

The final will be held at Investec’s Sandton offices over four days from Sunday 30 September to Thursday 4 October 2012. Investec is sponsoring this all expenses-paid competition that includes meals, refreshments and accommodation for the finalists.  During these four days, finalists will be mentored by various Investec and JASA staff to develop their business concept into a feasible business plan, this business plan will then be presented to a panel of judges (all of whom will be successful entrepreneurs) on the final day. The event will culminate in an awards event on the final evening.  The winner of the Junior Innovators competition will be awarded R60 000 towards either the start-up of their business or their tertiary education.