Kickstarting Sustainability with Design Thinking: An Interview with John Storm

John Storm has been involved in integrating design thinking into workshops with postgraduate management students, business entrepreneurs and SMEs in both mainland China and the United Kingdom. Grounded in design thinking’s emphasis on creating empathy, challenging the dominant narrative and disclosing pain points, Storm developed a workshop structure that educators, corporate trainers or facilitators may employ for stimulating sustainability-orientated initiatives in SMEs.

In the interview, we talk about his experiences with design thinking and his presentation at EdMedia & innovate Learning 2021.

Your work centers around sustainability in small and medium enterprises. At a time when major companies make pledges to go ‘carbon-negative’ what is the role of SMEs for sustainable development?

The acronym SME is probably one of the most known acronyms in the business world. However, it is perhaps somewhat unfortunate that the first word ‘small’ may find itself reinforcing the trend for much of the focus around sustainability to be directed towards organizations that are large, both in terms of their number of employees, but also in terms of their individual footprint. This is particularly a challenge in the China context, where funding, policy and broader dialogue about sustainable development tends to find SMEs being marginalized – despite mainland China having over 43 million registered SMEs. Whilst there may be an argument that UK-based SMEs are better represented in this discourse, the 5.7 million registered micro-businesses in Britain (defined as organizations with 9 or less employees) account for 96% of all British businesses and 33% of national employment. The sheer quantity of SMEs and their involvement in the lives of a significant proportion of the working population mean that the role of SMEs for sustainable development is most definitely ‘large’.

Can sustainability be described as a wicked problem?

Absolutely. Sustainability requires something to be ‘sustained’, so unless we recognize that constantly evolving real world business contexts are frequently opaque and can rarely be prescribed any single fixed-in-time solution, then we are immediately at odds with the classic notion that ‘the only thing constant is change’.

I suppose this is a reflection of my worldview, but I raise this within my underlying assumptions when designing the workshop series and it is why I titled the paper with the wording to ‘kickstart’ sustainability. I recognize that ideas will need improvement, initiatives will need space for nurturing and growth, and organization-wide engagement in sustainability will evolve in correlation with the improved embedding of sustainability principles in the wider corporate culture.

You worked with both students and businesses. Did you observe differences in how these groups apply design thinking?

I found that students responded well towards the method of teaching design thinking. Largely inspired by yourself Stefanie, our workshops use design thinking as the over-arching model, but activities are very much engaging and interactive at each stage in the process. The artistic and creative aspect has been something that students have enjoyed.

The business representatives that I have been working with tend to have intense working lives. They are constantly on the go and are regularly making split-second decisions that can massively shape the future of their department or business. So the main thing has been encouraging people to slow down and stop drawing conclusions before we have even read out what the challenge statement is. We spend quite a bit of time emphasizing that the ‘empathy’ stage is really a form of stakeholder engagement, and it can be effectively highlighted via visual stakeholder maps that most of us are making important decisions without any form of awareness towards the thoughts and perspectives from the majority of stakeholders impacted in these decisions. It is quite amusing as most participants are quick to agree via the highlighting of examples of bad decisions where they knew the outcome would be atrocious from the very beginning, but nobody was there to listen or receive their input. This immediate relatability is very useful for the buy-in and get them on board with the subsequent steps of design thinking.

What are risks and limitations of using design thinking from a facilitator’s perspective?

The biggest challenge for me is time. Design thinking is an iterative model that embeds stakeholder feedback. This is pretty much impossible to complete within a 2-day workshop. To put it into perspective, I run a course integrating design thinking on an executive program at the University of Aberdeen that is delivered over a period of around 6-months.

Within a short workshop setting, I would therefore encourage facilitators to help participants prepare some way of collecting feedback from their target stakeholder group at the end of the workshop. You will therefore note that the model introduced at Ed Media includes a short section on value propositioning, this is so that participants can prepare for the next stages of taking the project forward and undertake them, even in the facilitators’ absence.

You have facilitated design thinking in many different contexts. What are some outcomes of past design thinking workshops that really stand out to you?

Interestingly, I have had more resistance from academic faculty than from course participants. There was one instance where a faculty member disputed the use of design thinking in an academic setting because it draws heavily on ‘empathy’ which is allegedly incompatible with some high-pressure professions. The specific instance in question here was that this course included some participants from government and military positions. Ironically, the next day I received a message from a mid-level military officer who had joined the course to say that they had very much enjoyed the weekend workshop and that their military branch in their home country was researching the US Navy Seals as it apparently highlights empathy as a core trait in successful military leadership.

For me, the transferability of the design thinking approach across disciplines has been particularly striking, even if it is at a component level rather than as a full framework.

What are some of your favorite design thinking techniques?

I really enjoy seeing pro-active communication between diverse groups of people, so I am perhaps swayed more towards co-creation type techniques. Assuming that a conducive group dynamic is formed, it can be amazing just watching and listening to people interact with each other and give live feedback and comments. The discussions tend to offer so many useful insights beyond those specific to the agreed sustainability challenge of our workshop, but also into different mindsets and ways of thinking that apply to numerous other challenges faced between the group members. The challenge then becomes balancing the flexibility for people to have those breakaway discussions (which you know are beneficial) and bringing them back to point because you know that time during a live workshop is rarely available at a surplus.

You presented your workshop process at this year’s EdMedia virtual conference. What were some of the reactions and connections you took away from the conference experience?

2021 was my first time to present at EdMedia. With Covid-19 having pushed the conference online, I found it offered an increased flexibility for remote attendance. For example, there were participants from North America, Europe and Africa during my session. I always like to see a mix of participants, so that diversity was great to see.

My own background is very much entrepreneurial and businessy, and it was only in late 2020 when I assumed my first formal full-time academic position. Whilst my most recent venture has cooperated a lot with the higher education sector, there are a lot of things about the academic world which are different from what I am used to – such as the expectation to attend conferences. However, I was attracted towards EdMedia because I found it more of a hybrid setting. Whilst set in the educational field, it attracts a wide range of speakers and guests from a range of industries, so it was much more of a friendly and familiar environment for someone like me to come and join.

For those who didn’t have a chance to attend the conference, what can people do to learn more about your workshop process or organize a sustainability-focused design thinking workshop themselves?

I naturally invite people to read the proceeds from the EdMedia workshop, which I am sure will be linked after this interview. I otherwise encourage people to just give things a go. The Steve Jobs quotation, which is ironically stolen itself, applies well to the training sector. “Good artists borrow, great artists steal”. If someone has found anything from my approach useful, then just take it, modify it and improve upon it. Equally, I am also seeking to improve on how things are done, so if anyone does have an idea for improvement or perhaps a question about something that may be more clearly communicated, then please do get in touch and let me know.


John is a good natured team player with over a decade of experience in entrepreneurship, team management and strategic planning in the China context. He is responsible for developing consulting and/or leadership development training programmes across 3 continents with well-known companies, such as: ADM, AVIC, BMS, Bunge, Cargill, CRRC, Danieli, Essilor, Heller, IBM, Ipsen, ITW, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Roche, Samsung and Sodexo.

Prior to his current roles, John consulted for several early stage ventures in Beijing that provided valuable experience in capital raising and developing marketing strategies. During 2013, John co-founded Beijing-based Ola [Oule Zhineng Zhiwen Suo], and was responsible for negotiating and/or signing 100+ contracts with combined value in excess of $10 million USD. John has spoken at recognised venues, such as with Microsoft and Tencent, as well as spearheaded campaigns across 38 countries. He now maintains visiting professor positions with Em Lyon Business School and SKEMA Business School, and has assumed the role of Executive-MBA Programme Director at the University of Aberdeen.

Further  Information

Storm, J. (2021). A Design Thinking Workshop to Kickstart Sustainability Initiatives: For Entrepreneurs and SME Leaders. In T. Bastiaens (Ed.), Proceedings of EdMedia + Innovate Learning (pp. 407-412). United States: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE). Retrieved August 19, 2021 from

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