November 12, 2020

History of Thinking

Why Design Thinking & why now? I tell a stories and illustrate few phenomenon to drive the point home.

With the technical and scientific growth in last few centuries we have developed an ample lot of resources for our comfort. However, our problems have also increased exponentially. We now face the problems that are ambiguous, paradoxical and deceptive; at all levels — personal, organizational, national as well as global. This is due to our incremental, linear, logical and critical reasoning that looks for short term gains with preconceived knowledge at the cost of holistic thinking.

I am a Design Thinking professional and I consider ‘thinking’ an important subject for our age and profession. I coach variety of teams on design thinking and complex problem solving.

In this paper I have a story to tell that I have assembled with my work experience, interest in multi-disciplinary domains — history, psychology, neuroscience, cognitive science, philosophy and management sciences. Let’s get started.

The History of Thinking

I copy the picture below for us to contemplate our humble origin. How did we become unique species? What helped us not only survive but thrive? And how did we evolve from a measly animal existence to an intelligent and civilized group? And most profoundly, how did the same powers of thought that we acquired bring us to the brink of self-destruction?

History of Thinking


Homo sapiens made an impression for first time around 100,000 years ago. (This date is debatable, but don’t let that occupy your mind). Point being—we made the evolutionary journey from primitive animal to an intelligent species, while many other human species could not. We were just one among so many human species but none could survive but our own Homo sapiens.

Looking at the timelines, one would not have guessed that humans would be the survivors. We were tiny and weak; we used to walk on two hind legs; we could never swim, fly or even climb trees very well; we were not physically efficient. Every other mammal that wanted to travel long distances or climb elevation used all four legs. We had a large head over our shoulders that made us a product of poor ergonomics.

One must pause and wonder—what was in our favor despite all the structural incompetencies?

Anthropology, neurosciences, historians, and evolutionary biologists are working out the details, but the most agreed upon theory is that Homo-Sapiens evolved due to a genetic mutation around 100,000 years ago that gave rise to the phenomenon we now know as the ‘cognitive revolution’.

The cognitive revolution is a vast topic. In short, this genetic mutation helped us to be creative, solve problems, build societies, and decrease interpersonal conflicts. Where other comparable animal species could not build a group larger than 50 (gorillas/chimps) or 150 (Neanderthals), Homo sapiens could attain a much larger group.

This makes me wonder, how did Homo sapiens do that?

Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, theorizes that Homo sapiens could build a large community because of their [1]. This was purely driven from the creative brain that we had which no one else possessed (or so we arrogantly want to believe 🙂

Now consider the ingenuity and creativity of the human mind—in those days, in the jungle, the biggest threat to any community-forming ambition was the threat from a few stronger members from within. Powerful individuals wanted all the possessions for themselves (especially female counterparts). Evolutionary science tells us that every animal’s self-interest is to [2], even at times by killing others from same species [3].

To establish sanity, our ancestors came up with the most creative story of all time that has survived until today—invention of an invisible man who lives in the clouds, watches everyone, and is interested in humans’ personal lives. Those who are poor and weak are his favorite… (you know where this is going). And those who hurt others will be dealt with after death. You get the point.

The stories were pure invention of creative mind. There was no logic, no critical reasoning, and no scientific proof to argue otherwise. This cognitive ability helped us form a much larger group, tame others, and defend threats from other animals. As a result we survived and caused most of the other species to go extinct, some of them in direct result of our survival instincts.

The Axial Age

Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher, coined the term “Axial Age.” His theory is that around 800 – 300 BCE we, the humans, began developing intellectually. We delved in the business of philosophy, logic, science, languages, and art movements. This happened randomly across the globe and was the genesis of city-states, civil societies, and inventions that our ancient parents are credited for because of their hard work and ingenuity.

This is what happened across the world—Socrates, Aristotle, and Pluto (known as GG3 – Greek Gang of Three) walked in Greece, but Buddha and Confucius roamed across the Indian and Chinese part of the globe. The Persians and Egyptians had their own intellectual gigs as well. All of this led to a huge era where humans organized themselves with states, religions, and inventions to build sustainable societies.

This development took humans under the command and control of very few. Religion provided us with organizing principles but at the cost of suppress our intellectual growth. The Religion made humans blindly follow norms, completely ignoring the fact, truth, curiosity, and personal freedom with which we were born. Religion systematically suppressed human ability to think holistically. For example, earth was considered the center of the universe until not very long ago, and the first generation of geeks (Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus) were humiliated and tortured when they put forth scientific methods that suggested otherwise.

This all continued until the 16th century, when a few people in England came together to establish a society we know today as the Royal Society of London.

The Scientific Age

The Royal Society of London was established to seek patronage and protections from aristocrats to help propel independent thinking and scientific research. One of the key individuals who helped shaped this society was a boy called Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727AD). He learned the fate of Copernicus and Galileo and realized that in order to bring his scientific discoveries to the world, he had to sidestep Pope, Christianity, and teachings of Bible. Under the patronage of Royal Society Newton brought the scientific knowledge to the world.

The formation of the Royal Society (founded 1660 AD) was probably the single most significant event in human history after the Axial Age. Our modern scientific progress and quality of life today is greatly due to the Royal Society of London. (Sir Isaac Newton was the president of the Royal Society from 1703 – 1727).

This led to the Industrial Age, the Information Age, and now the Technology and Machine Age. We, the intelligent species, have invented scientific means to conquer diseases, create better infrastructures, and invent technologies that are an inseparable part of our lives.

Because of this development, we have traveled far more, consumed more, read more, and learned more than we otherwise would have been able to. Technology has done wonders. Not only can we travel farther, but we can go in the water and fly through the sky much more efficiently than any other species has ever exhibited.

That was all due to the powers of Homo sapiens’ minds and thinking abilities—we started with creativity and developed great methods of logical thinking and critical reasoning (i.e. science). From philosophy to science to modern technology, we have come a long, long way.

This begs the question: **Why then do we face problems so dire that they threaten our own extinction?** Climate crisis, population explosion, global conflicts, tribal politics, nuclear arms, computers, and cyber threats… the list goes on. How did we solve all the basic problems only to get into much bigger problems?

Let’s break away from history and come back to the modern world for a moment. Look at the picture below and ponder this thought: what is common among the four symbols?
Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Tesla

A few quick observations:

  • These companies are tech giants who rule our lives.
  • They are very new and came to being in about last few years/decades.
  • They are admired by their customers and have broken the monopoly of their respective industry leaders.
  • They established the new value propositions to the marketplace that were never sought after by the consumers.
  • They created new categories and market at the expense of the incumbents.

It is worth pondering how the incumbents who had all the means—knowledge, market share, resources, captive consumers—missed spotting the same trend and opportunities?

Knowledge Paradox (KP)

There’s a theory that states that ‘the more we know, the less we become capable of predicting the future.’ More knowledge (data, information, techniques, resources, and market share) makes us less capable of moving in the correct direction. This is not due to lethargy or complacency alone but is deeply rooted in the pattern of thinking that led us to survive as a successful ‘business.’ More knowledge leads us to think logically and critically and make incremental changes. These incremental improvements accumulate into a fragile and complex system. Overtime this captive knowledge becomes stale, consumer trends change and externalities (such as government regulations & global events) make our systems irrelevant.

More knowledge leads to less predictability is counter intuitive. So consider the thought that it was fairly easy to make predictions about any place in the world in 1018 as to how that state will be in 1050 — mostly agrarians, fighting over control, famine, deceases, foreign invasion, natural disasters, etc. but in 2018, it is highly unpredictable to forecast future in 2050.

This is because with the speed with we acquire knowledge, it’s also becomes irreverent with the same speed. Additionally, better the forecast more reaction they engender. Hence paradoxically, as we accumulate more data and increase our computing power, events become wilder and more unexpected. So the more we know, the less we can predict. [6]

Logical thinking and critical reasoning thrive on knowledge, but they become insufficient to make progress and solve problems that are evasive, tricky and paradoxical in nature. Instead, we end up making incremental changes that lead, often, to inefficient (or destructive) outcomes.

We see manifestation of this logical thinking and critical reasoning leading into short-term thinking. Thinking minds inside successful organizations get trapped in short-term wins at the expense of long-term prosperity.

I come back to this question: How did Apple, Tesla, Netflix and Amazon do what their competitors with all the knowledge and resources could not? Success wasn’t a fluke for these newcomers. The answer lies in the subject of this topic.

Welcome to Design Thinking!

In a nutshell, design thinking is a creative & human centered approach to dealing with complex problems. Instead of relying on data, knowledge, and old tricks, it relies on empathy, experiments, and exploration. While logical thinking can help with incremental improvements, design thinking can tap into new ideas that are path breaking and game changing. Experiments are based in customers’ deeply rooted psychological needs that are often not known until one experiments with new ideas. People with an overdeveloped logical side of the brain fail to understand its methods and value.

DesignThinking FrameworkThere are many stories about great ideas that changed the world as are result of design thinking. Steve Jobs’s iPhone is the most popular one. At the time, no one wanted a touch screen; touch screens were considered poor technology. Past experiments had shown no need for such things, and worst of all, well-articulated users wanted the feel of the physical keyboard. Now everything is history, including the company that pioneered the smart phone revolution (hint: Blackberry). Just consider that the power of thinking through design and creativity that helped Apple was the exact ingredient missing from the now dead Berry Fruit Company.

It must rattle your mind, then, to wonder why design thinking is not adopted by every large organization.

Edward de Bono is considered one of the most authoritative genius in creative thinking. According to him, any creative idea does not seem logical or practical at its conception. Only when the experiments are encouraged do creative ideas come to Life. Most of the innovative ideas that we enjoy today were originally considered ‘crazy’ or ‘dumb’ once, including automobiles, the Internet, and cell phones.

To sum up, most creative ideas become logical only in hindsight. And when the room is full of very intelligent, highly educated, and very experienced people in their own domain, the phrase “it doesn’t make sense” is all that you hear. Large organizations exist because of economy of scale and a disciplined approach that systematically suppresses creativity.

The new paradigm of Design Thinking

Since the dawn of human intellectual development, we have used ideas that popped into a single mind (or in close cohorts) to bulldoze masses into blind following. Religion at times is opposite not just to science, but to creative thinking as well. For ages we have used propaganda to sell what we could produce and never actually cared for what consumers really desired until now. Today consumers have an abundance of choices on every product category and reaching consumers and making a product stand out require a new paradigm. The magic of design thinking involves making things that people want, which is the opposite of making people want things.

New Paradigm

The Inner Workings of Design Thinking

Most of the problems faced today are complex, convoluted, and full of conflict from within. People with the passion for problem solving miss the point that problem spotting is a higher order of intellectual work that we require today. Anytime a problem is ‘as-stated’ or ‘as-given,’ solutions are logical and straight forward. But problems such as software development, crafting public policy, or handling global & climate crisis are far from straight forward. Today’s problems are elusive and a result of our logical blindness in thinking.

Design Thinking - Double Diamond
There’s a phenomenon in new product/idea development—people gather data and use the knowledge to validate the problems, pain points, and most desired solution. And then they go away to build out the product only to realize that customers meant something else. We all know customers who said something but meant something entirely different.

Holistic Thinking: Critical & Design Thinking

Design thinking is not new. It’s more applicable today than it ever was before. Design thinking is not design. Everyone is capable of thinking creatively and contribute to design, but they may shy away from holding paper and pen in front of a large crowd. Myths that we all are incapable as designers and creative thinkers germinates from a poor educational system, suppressive cultures and judgmental environment we live in.

Critical Thinking & Design Thinking

Design thinking can help address what conventional thinking can’t. It’s gaining its importance due to complexity that lies ahead of us. Even though we have made progress, we are at the gun point of bigger problems that are lurking around us. The problem originated at the point in history when we stopped using the creative part of the brain and outsourced everything to rationale and the critical part of the brain.

Now, more than ever, we need holistic thinking to get at a better place. I am optimistic that we will.

  1. Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari
  2. Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins
  3. Jane Goodall’s 50 years in the Jungle. africa-interview
  4. Global late Quaternary megafauna extinctions linked to humans, not climate change. Christopher Sandom, Søren Faurby, Brody Sandel and Jens-Christian Svenning
  5. The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Karen Armstrong
  6. Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari