Designing Empathy (Pt.1)

What if we will work together with 5.5 billion people?

What did you feel, looking at those numbers?

It’s easy to say that the world is changing. It might be easy to spot what forces are driving these changes. It’s less easy, however, to imagine how they will concretely impact our life.

Consider words like globalization and demographic change, for example. They sound abstract, but when concretized in one image – joining a workforce of 5.5 billion people –, suddenly the complexity can be understood and transformed.

A look into the future

For example, how will these 5.5 billion people look like? Many will come from India and Nigeria, Congo and Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Indonesia – those countries who have been predicted to have the fastest growing population in the future. The average age of this group will shift as well, as older people will stay in the job market for a longer time. Different cultures and experiences will become common in our lives – especially in online spaces and virtual workplaces, but in our cities as well, given that 68% of the world population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050.

These transformations will change how we think, quite literally. Cultural neuroscience has already demonstrated that one’s cultural environment affects neural processes; our attitudes, values and behaviour are influenced by the regularities in our daily life. On one side, this means that exposure to other people’s stories and background can make our brain more tuned to their cultural nuances. On the other, however, our brain is more activated by what’s familiar, which means that we tend to prefer and empathize more with those who behave like us.

How, then, can we thrive in such a richer and diverse environment? What would we need to tap into the potential hidden in this complexity?

Discovering connections

At its core, design thinking is human-centered. When designing a product or service, the first step is always to listen to the customers and discover what their needs and goals are. You immerse yourself in their lives. You listen with empathy, putting preconceptions aside to learn from their own experiences.

We can see now how this skill could be fundamental to thrive in the future. Coming back to work issues, today researchers already suggest that empathy is the key for business growth and work satisfaction. Emotional intelligence not only helps understand customers, but can improve cooperation and communication within an organization – even more important now that the current complexity requires previously separated departments to be able to integrate their knowledge and work together.

Of course, emotional intelligence in general is crucial for one’s well-being, and that’s why in 2002 UNESCO began promoting a series of initiatives worldwide to implement SEL (social and emotional learning) into education. A meta-analysis of 213 of these SEL programs shown not only an improvement of academic performance by 13%, but also far less distress and risk of drug and alcohol use not only during the school years, but later in life as well.

Photo of the Empathy Museum and the "A Mile in My Shoes" installation.

The dimensions of empathy

Currently, SEL programs tend to focus more on self-awareness and self-management to improve relationship skills as well. What design thinking adds, though, is the dimension of practicality. Empathy has become a buzzword, often focused on feelings and emotions. But learning to see from others’ points of view leads to innovation. The emotional side isn’t forgotten, but rather becomes an entrance to better understanding. It helps focus on what the challenges are, rather than just the solutions to the challenges we perceive others have.

This is important for students, but for teachers as well. Education is still perceived as a vocation; many enter the field because of a genuine interest in helping children and teenagers learn. However, the administrative context surrounding education can create frustration, disengagement and disillusionement with one’s profession. Using a design thinking approach can connect teachers with their empathetic side once again, as well as with their students and the challenges they will face in the future.

To be a citizen of the world is no more a vision, but a reality, and teaching both the inner and outer dimensions of empathy can prepare the younger generations for this change. It’s not only about understanding this change; more and more, it’s about being able to address the challenges this growingly interconnected world brings with it. This is also the story of a designer-turned-into-teacher in India, and the focus of the next article.


P.S. Here‘s the second part of this article. For a complete list of the articles in this series, please read here.

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