04/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Tim Brown And IDEO: Designing To Innovate And Improve The World

Back in June, I saw a screening of the Gary Hustwit documentary, Objectified, on how we often take for granted the objects that have transformed the way we live. No matter the object -- forks, mugs, rubber bands, chairs, bookcases, cell phones, laptops -- they were conceived, designed and developed to make human lives slightly easier.

This was the topic of my conversation with Tim Brown, CEO and President of design firm IDEO, and author of the book Change By Design. IDEO is about more than designing the newest Hoover vacuum cleaner -- though they do that as well. Brown is convinced that the art of design will be behind innovations that solve some of the world's most pressing problems: adapting to climate change, distributing food and water to all who need it, getting American children to eat healthy foods.

The need, to him, is not just to construct new objects, but to fundamentally change the way we live and behave.

The issue of behavior change came up most recently, he told me, at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"So many of the issues that we're talking about that require innovation have to be solved," he said. "Without significant change in our individual behavior...we're highly unlikely to resolve them. Global warming is one, health care is another one -- and various components of those: energy conservation, obesity, fitness and exercise."

Brown says that IDEO closely studies the way people act, as a design's effectiveness is directly proportional to its ability to adequately complement human behavior. So what does it take to cause millions of people to do things differently?

"In the old days it was all about [public service announcements]," he said. "The way we got people to think about drugs or smoking -- and it was quite a lot more complex than that. One role is that the private sector might have a bigger role to play than we thought in the past. What it actually takes to cause people's behavior to change are three things."

Brown is nothing if not practical. He doesn't approach a problem like a traditional wild-eyed activist. He realizes that it takes more than a PSA or a chain mail to change behavior. Here are his three things:

•Change In Incentives -- When it becomes cost-effective in the short term to purchase electric cars, a majority of Americans will start to do so.
•Tools To Enable Change -- The nicotine patch not only makes it easier for people to quit smoking, but it benefits private industry.
•A Shift In Social Norms -- This is the toughest one. Changing what is publicly acceptable can take generations to do, but we can help push it along. To continue with the smoking analogy, Brown points out how people cut down on smoking when it was no longer allowed in most offices. "If it's okay to smoke in the office, then people are going to smoke. If it's not okay, then people will smoke less," he said.

Keeping these three keys in mind, Brown believes object design has a place right beside public policy and corporate social responsibility. In fact, "design thinking," he argues, may be necessary to enact any real change from the policy side. Recently, on his Design Thinking blog, Brown argued that California legislators will have a tough time making progress on their frequent stalemates without design thinking, similar to the obstacles delegates faced at the Copenhagen climate talks.

So, what to do about it? Why write a book about design thinking? Why now? The time is ripe, Brown says.

"I think that the challenges we face in the world are more complex and more immediate and changing faster than they ever have before," he said. "I would argue that in a time of rapid change when most if not all of [our] existing choices are becoming obsolete, then taking that approach to deciding that future is not the best approach. We need a divergent approach, not a convergent approach. That's what design helps do. Design is about looking at the needs of people and coming up with solutions that have never been on the table before. We need more new changes than we've ever had before. I hope what comes out of it is an understanding; this approach to design thinking is not owned by a particular group."

Tim Brown's book, "Change By Design," is available now.