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Design Climate is a new program launched at Duke University that applies Design Thinking principles to address the most pressing climate challenges and develop innovations in sustainability.

Overview of Duke Design Climate

Why take Design Climate? Because you can get an ‘A’ in any class, but why not get an ‘A’ and change the world?

The Design Climate program was developed and launched in the Fall of 2023 following the success of the Design Health program. Design Climate is a joint program between The Nicholas School of the Environment and The Pratt School of Engineering that teaches Design Thinking principles, systems-level thinking, and sustainability fundamentals. The Design Climate program consists of two courses, Design Climate I and II, taught over two semesters. Both courses are project-based where students teams work with co-designers (industry professionals or Duke faculty members) to develop innovations in sustainability.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a methodology teams use to develop innovative solutions using an extremely problem focused approach (reference). This iterative process involves five phases of empathizing with the user, critically analyzing and defining the problem, ideating novel solutions, prototyping, and testing solutions. The Design Thinking process is non-linear and often involves multiple cycles of certain phases to land on the final solution.

Image representing the five phases of Design Thinking: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test

Design Thinking Applied to Climate Challenges

Our most pressing climate challenges, increased greenhouse gas concentrations, extreme weather patterns, sea-level rise, and increased spread of infectious disease, are inherently interdisciplinary problems (reference). Numerous human and natural processes contribute to or exacerbate the effects of climate change which makes it extremely difficult to develop effective solutions to address our most pressing climate challenges. However, by applying Design Thinking principles to climate challenges, designers are able to “think big” on a scale that’s commensurate with developing climate solutions that could effect all living beings on this planet.

When designing climate solutions, a comprehensive approach must be taken that incorporates system-level, big picture thinking, and technical understanding of sustainability concepts. In Design Climate, we develop solutions where environmental justice concerns, product life cycle assessments, and carbon footprint metrics are core to their design. We teach students to consider multiple timescales when developing climate solutions because, as history has demonstrated, humans are often incredible shortsighted in their decision making. Design Climate is intended to prepare students to become future leaders in the charge against climate change and develop new technology, process, and ventures along the way.

Design Climate Course Details

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Students are taught fundamentals in Design Thinking, systems-level thinking, and sustainability concepts to prepare them to develop innovative climate solutions.

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Co-designers introduce project topics (pressing climate challenges) and guide the student teams in designing, prototyping, and testing their innovative solutions. 

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Student teams work with Co-designers to develop, prototype, and test innovative climate solutions using the Design Thinking process.

Design Climate I: Discover (Fall)

The fall semester focuses on developing a business model for a triple bottom line startup idea. To develop the business model, students will be given a climate challenge prompt from a Co-Designer (industry professional or a Duke faculty member) will work through the first three phases of the design thinking process: stakeholder empathizing, opportunity definition, and solution ideation. Students will also develop a simple “prototype” to validate with potential customers . The semester culminates with a mini pitch of the startup business idea and preliminary proof-of-concept prototype that will be further vetted in Design Climate II.

Why take Design Climate I? It’s a fun opportunity to immerse yourself in a climate challenge and come up with an innovative business to address it!

Design Climate II: Develop (Spring)

The spring semester focuses on getting customer feedback on the triple bottom line startup idea. Students will continue to use the design thinking framework to prototype, test, and iterate on their ideas as well as build out their business model with financial projections . By the end of the semester, students will have validated their business idea , and the semester will culminate in a more detailed pitch to members of the local entrepreneurship community. 

Why take Design Climate II? See if your startup idea really makes sense and learn more about financial planning and operations for real-world businesses!