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Design thinking and tourism

The challenge of innovation in tourism

It's a fact. Tourism has been characterised as a low-tech service industry that struggles to innovate. Both the OECD and the European Commission have been grappling with what kinds of policies might help to stimulate innovation and, specifically, greater uptake of digital technologies. But it's a wicked problem grounded in part by the fragmentation of the sector and its organisation. SMEs make up between 70 and 90 per cent depending on the country, it is characterised by low uptake of advanced technologieslow rates of innovation diffusion, and limited capacity building. These conditions have been linked to low uptake of green technologies that would reduce the environmental footprint of the sector, and low uptake of advanced technologies that would improve resource efficiencies.

Further, traditional ways of planning for and managing tourism adopt a narrow industry and investment facing approach, where uptake of new concepts and ideas are relatively rare. International agencies including the OECD have concluded that, while technology and digitalisation are important and necessary to improve innovation and reduce the environmental footprint of tourism businesses, we also need to work on non-technology or social innovation. Social innovation is rarely considered in tourism, but it is really important. Social innovation includes how we think about and frame tourism, and whether by framing it differently we can unlock innovation, new ways of doing things that will address the big challenges we face. For example, moving from a silo to a multi-sectoral policy approach, or reframing how we think of value creation, or how we organise the tourism system and its governance are all examples of social innovation.

If we are to address innovation in tourism, we must not only address the low hanging fruit of digital innovation, but also other kinds of social, environmental, and organisational innovation. The mindset, the way of working, and the collaborative processes associated with design thinking have enormous potential benefits, if only governments, tourism leaders, destination managers, businesses have the courage to address the challenge.

Strategic management versus design thinking

Traditionally, the management of tourism has been a linear process, often described in terms of it being a rational scientific management approach.  First, you analyse existing conditions; then do a product audit; assess the strengths and weaknesses of the destination; then develop a plan which is put out for public consultation. Following that, a marketing plan is produced that picks up on the key points in the plan. The Destination Management Plan is usually prepared from the top-down, often by an 'outsider', a distant expert who has never had the chance to fall in love with your destination, your community, or your natural environment. 

This kind of approach has also been turned into formulaic templates (e.g. Destination Management Plan templates), rolled out across states and regions. While they offer a quick tick box deliverable and are well-intentioned, there is a fundamental difficulty with this approach. Do they really generate a genuine, deep consensus about the future of tourism that reflects the local place and its values?

The unique flavours, local characteristics and local ownership are often lost in this process. These plans are investment-facing or industry facing plans, and value is simplified to focus only on economic value. Other kinds of value that are produced and consumed in the process of travel, in the exploration of unique paces, and in making transformational connections are rarely acknowledged. And yet, tourism can produce important social, psychological, cultural and environmental benefits and costs that are not taken into account, planned or managed.

We propose that design thinking - or intentional design - is the way forward and has the potential to unlock innovation.

How does design thinking work?

Design thinking is not simply a process. It also requires a shift in mindset. It differs from the kind of ‘scientific management’ processes you are probably used to. Because it’s deeply embedded in the local social context and the issues and challenges that stakeholders are experiencing, the actual process may vary from destination to destination, business to business, and context to context.

Design thinking might be described as a facilitated learning process, where participants in the journey engage in co-operative learning and problem-solving. As a result, it is heavily focused on achieving the change that stakeholders desire, rather than on milestones and deliverables such as those signposted in a scientific process. In other words, design thinking shifts the focus from producing a concrete plan which is later implemented, to a journey where good tourism outcomes are co-created, experimented with and refined through building empathy and working with stakeholders, including Nature. The following broad steps take place:

Discover and build empathy. Spend time understanding the problems and challenges from the perspectives of users, consumers and those affected. See the world through their eyes. Discover new ways of seeing the issues

Analyse and diagnose. Go on an evidence safari. Collect different kinds of data. Observe, understand and keep asking 'why'. Crystallise your understandings and identify the right questions that you need to answer to address the real issues.

Design and prototype. Flip your thinking. Ideate. Employ counter-intuitive techniques and creative thinking to ideate new solutions and actions. Collaboratively design actions with users and those who will be affected.

Implement, test and refine. Experiment by implementing your prototype. Work in lean ways. Prototype, test, reiterate. Repeat. Learn what works by rolling up the sleeves and activating a potential solution.

Measure impact. Identify touchpoints where you can measure the change. How do these actions benefit businesses, communities and destinations? Tell the genuine story of the people and places of your destination. using individual characters and stories that make meaningful connections with your audience.

It would seem that we owe it to the future of tourism to explore the power of design thinking.


About the Tourism CoLab

At the Tourism CoLab, we believe that tourism and travel can be transformational, purposeful and regenerative. However, in order to deliver these benefits, we need to change our tourism operating system, adjust our mindset, and pivot our ways of working. We use an intentional design mindset to activate tourism for good, and we call this new way of working 'Regenerative Tourism by Design' and we're pioneering it at The Tourism CoLab. If you would like to know more about what we do, how we work, and how we might be able to help you, contact us.

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