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Using creative capacities is like meditation: George Kembel

Co-founder of at Stanford University on how design thinking can help individuals, firms and organizations across the globe innovate and solve problems

George Kembel says his current mission is to raise a global fund to unleash the creative potential of every human being on the planet.  Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
George Kembel says his current mission is to raise a global fund to unleash the creative potential of every human being on the planet. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Mumbai: An internet entrepreneur and investor-turned-educator, George Kembel co-founded the at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California in the early 2000s. The school’s start-up design programme has had a remarkably global impact in terms of its intellectual, pedagogical and tangible reach. While most design programmes admit students with an art or design background, the Stanford’s gospel is more secular. Its courses are offered to students from any of Stanford’s graduate schools, including those of management, medicine and education, as well as to executive education students.

Kembel’s current mission is to look beyond the Stanford campus. With Silicon Valley-style evangelism, he aspires to put together “a global fund to unlock creativity, to fundamentally transform how we educate our children, how we lead our organizations, and how we tackle some of the most significant challenges of our time".

Speaking on the sidelines of the SingularityU India Summit, a conference on exponential technologies held in Mumbai recently, in association with ideas-and-conversation platform INK, Kembel shared his views on why design thinking promises a brighter future for all of us. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What is design thinking to you?

It is an invitation to a broader group of people to tap into their creativity, not just the people who thought they were creative. Somehow, I think, culturally, we’ve over-associated creativity with the arts. That’s a huge and important part of creativity. But for us everything is a creative act. Hiring is a creative act, designing a business model is a creative act, designing better ways for farmers to irrigate their land is a creative act, as is figuring out a fourth-grade curriculum, or a hospital space. Every one of those things has constraints, has humans involved, has technical issues, has business issues, and if you are trying to make things better, or create new value, you have to find unexpected ways for it.

And if everything is a creative act, and most skills don’t survive school with their creativity intact, then we’ve created a bigger problem. Design thinking says: how do we nurture the creative potential of every discipline, not just one? All of a sudden you realize that your creative excellence is being married with analytical excellence and you can use both capacities at the same time, and direct them to some of the situations we face.

How does one become a design thinker?

Using creative capacities is like a practice. It’s like meditation, or something you have to practice regularly and you can sharpen it. And we know that practice can develop your mindset. Some kinds of creative behaviour, like having empathy for someone else, gives you perspectives you wouldn’t otherwise have. Having an attitude of experimentation and prototyping allows you to iterate your way forward, as opposed to just think your way forward. Then you can be more evolved in the way you work.

And then leveraging generative ways of thinking, and synthesizing these ways of thinking, and doing it in a collaborative way, which allows different perspectives to be held in tension with each other, so you generate a team dynamic—all those behaviours, I would encompass all of that, in design thinking.

How is the different from other design schools?

The is not required for anyone. It’s called the but it’s not a school. There are seven schools in Stanford that offer degrees and when you get a degree you have to take required classes, so the students who would go to business school or to the school of education or school of art or school of medicine, the was an additional elective for them. For example, if you wanted to innovate in education, you did ed school plus So everyone who was there, was choosing to be there.

Who gets the most out of

The impact that design thinking has is transformative—for the students, for the faculty, and for the leaders who come to it. And the ones who are able to switch from being learners and doers and teachers have the greatest transformation.

We had our students, they were the learners; we had our faculty, they were the teachers and we had our project partners, like industry leaders, they were our practitioners. But what was interesting is that the ones who had the greatest impact were the ones that sort of moved, they almost “mode-switched". The students who were learners then switched to becoming doers; they are practitioners. They put ideas to work right away and launched a company. In that company, they switched to becoming teachers, and they taught people how to use these behaviours. When they had evolved, and they did not know what to do, they switched back to being learners again.

The faculty came in as the experts. But they would sit in someone else’s class and become learners. When executives or practitioners came in as learners, they went back to their companies and taught their colleagues.

Students would take a class project and they would continue it after the class ended, to start a company. As an example, (solar lantern company) d.light has provided alternative lighting to 65 million people. That is just one project out of thousands of projects (that was part of a class). So it’s really exciting when someone unleashes their creative capacities with their purpose and their expertise, the impact is significant.

How is this relevant for companies?

We are trying to run companies to be the most successful, with the most innovative products, but employee engagement levels are so low. For me, that means we have to allow them to situate themselves where they are going to be most potent. As a leader you want everyone to be innovating, in terms of their creative capacity, not just one department, not just the product group. You want innovation in finance, innovating in marketing, innovating in product development, innovating in supply chain, innovating in hiring and all that stuff.

You end up creating orders of magnitude, more value if you play to purpose and potential, unleashing creativity. Everyone ends up in a slightly different place than you expected. I think we are just at the beginning of seeing a huge shift in leadership from a command-and-control culture to a creative culture, it’s far more human and far more value-creating.


My question now—is it possible to unleash the creative potential of every human on the planet? Is that even possible? But by framing it that way, immediately, we have to start thinking differently.

The answer is the “third way of learning". What has been really working on over the last couple of years is more “situated learning". Learning will always happen on campus and classrooms, that won’t go away, and can be very experiential and collaborative, but that’s hard to scale. There is online learning, and that’s very scalable, but not as experiential.

I think we have finally cracked the nut on it. “Situated learning" allows everyone, wherever they are, whether they are in their workplace, at home or school, to stop and bring new behaviours into their path. It’s coming, we haven’t rolled it out yet.

We continue to work with leaders and businesses, with experimentation with kids and parents, and launching some new programmes and we are raising a global fund, to unleash creativity.

Stanford and the will continue as one of the most significant nodes, but if you think globally, the global creative ecosystem is a constellation of very important nodes. And so we are focused on ecosystems that are about ready to pop, whether that’s Berlin or Cape Town. I think what will start to happen is that the unique innovation ecosystem that will rise in India will be different from Silicon Valley, and each of these ecosystems will learn from the other.

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