Cover illustration: Gökçe Kodan

Life After Design Thinking

Published in ATÖLYE Insights · 11 min read · March 8, 2024

The shift from human-centered to community-powered

Author: Deniz Dönmez, Design Strategy Lead Editors/Contributors: Melissa Clissold, Communications Lead & Leen Sadder, Director of Community & Communications In-text Illustrations: Gökçe Kodan (Experimental Practices), Visual Designer

From its earliest conceptualization in the 1950s¹, to the past decade, when it was all the rage, design thinking has gone through an exhilarating ascent. It paralleled, if not paved the way, for design to become an integral part of the business world rather than a mere afterthought.

In the 2010s, more than ever, we saw design get crowned with its business value² and designers finally felt like they had a seat at the table³. If you've been in any business or innovation circle in the past ten years, chances are you have experimented with design thinking. You have gone through the brainstorming sessions, you have done the crazy 8's, and you have prototyped your ideas on cardboard.

With its novel methodologies, fast-paced activities, humble-yet-optimistic "How might we's...?" and post-its galore, design thinking became instrumental in making design more accessible - to those in boardrooms and outside of them. It got more people involved in the processes of problem solving, codified an easily replicable process to create and test ideas, and gave its practitioners a certain designerly confidence to shake things up and see their products, projects, or problems in a new light.

Now, as we see seismic shifts in the world and as we face less trust in governments and businesses alike⁴, as well as less consensus and collaboration in the face of major humanitarian crises and increasing rates of depressive and anxiety disorders⁵, there is a need to radically rethink our systems. It's time for designers to come up with new ways of bringing about, and sustaining⁶, change.

Similarly, business leaders need to embrace new tools and mindsets that move beyond the "move fast and break things" era and pave the way for regeneration.

We at ATÖLYE believe that we can do more by being community-powered - by designing systems that intentionally bring people together to act as catalysts for change.

While design thinking taught us to empathize (and maybe even place more importance on empathy than expertise⁷), to listen well, and to bring creative thinking into board rooms, its core premise of human-centered design (HCD) missed the mark in relation to a few aspects.

The first and most obvious one is that we can no longer afford to design things solely for humans. We clearly need to think in non-human, non-monocentric terms if we want to achieve real, positive, long-term impact. Second, HCD fell short in making its practitioners think in systems and leverage the power of relationships to really be able to understand and redesign what has not been serving us or our planet. Lastly, while HCD accomplished great feats in designing better products and services that solve today's challenges, it fell short in broadening horizons so that these products and systems could pave the way for regenerative systems.

Now, more than ever, we need to (re)design to pave the way towards regeneration. In other words, everything that we put out in the world needs to have an answer to how it is contributing to a regenerative future. And in order to build a regenerative future, we need to start prioritizing something that is integral to nature: relationships. We need to grow relational capacity, from designing for better interpersonal relationships to establishing systems that facilitate cross-organizational collaboration. We need to think about relational networks and harness their power to recreate more just, trustful, and better functioning systems. We need to think in communities.

This is where Community-Powered Transformation comes into play.

Networks of teams, customers, stakeholders, allies, or a combination of these hold immense power in shaping agendas and building strategic outcomes that organizations strive to achieve. We, as ATÖLYE, believe that true transformation will be unlocked when institutions understand and harness the power of these potential communities within and around them.

The Community-Powered Transformation journey can be described in 3 stages:

  1. Curation: from users and customers to community members, transformation starts with curating the right group of people. Identifying key individuals who have high potential for engagement and value creation, as well as being intentional about who's in the room and who isn't, creates an environment of diverse voices who share a common purpose. Imagine you have a big, hairy problem and a tight deadline. Which group of people from your organization would you pick to work on this with you? Curation starts with the mindset of bringing the right people with the right motivation and incentives.
  2. Engagement: Instead of the push that we see in traditional organizations (feeding teams and customers content, messaging, rituals, systems, etc.), Community-Powered Transformation favors a pull towards authentic engagement. What if your department's regularly scheduled 'all hands' meetings were initiated and programmed by a team member? Who within your team can build organic connections and drive growth together? Community engagement seeks to build a group of people that naturally flock together because they are benefiting from the intellectual or social value that the community is creating.
  3. Activation: rather than a one-way relationship from business to customer, Community-Powered Transformation aims to establish systems that mobilize many-to-many interactions. Let's go back to the big, hairy problem that you curated the right community for. What if micro-communities emerged from the process of working on it, continued meeting and learning together, and fed the larger group with what they discovered? Community members who mobilize themselves without a central node take action, bring more people in, grow the community's sense of purpose, and strengthen and sustain the transformation.

In our current state, organizations are failing on two main levels: bringing together diverse, trustful, and collaborative teams and integrating the many systems, platforms, and teams across the organization to drive efficiency and multiply impact.

Thinking in communities helps bridge these two gaps - by prioritizing shared purposes, trust, and radical collaboration, it enables us to seed internal and external communities around any given challenge or impact agenda. This way, we can nurture 'project or product communities', rather than siloed teams or business functions.

Ignited by impact-driven leaders, Community-Powered Transformation can begin with any unit or function within an organization.

In our work, we see 4 main drivers that catalyze change:

1. Community-Powered Product & Service Innovation

Taking its cues from open innovation and taking it a step further, Community-Powered innovation aims to foster novel thinking through collective intelligence. While in open innovation, we saw the challenge-owner organization as the end point of the 'innovation funnel', community-powered innovation places it as a central node within a network. In other words, organizations, innovators, users, and stakeholders are on the same plane, with all actors interacting with each other to co-create together.

As we see advances in blockchain technologies, smart contracts, and Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO's), we'll see the need for community thinking even more. What makes a DAO a purposeful community? How do we design for trust and collaboration in a quintessentially 'trustless' mechanism?

ATÖLYE Academy designed and launched the Learning Community, a cohort-based program that brought 450+ learners together for a journey of distributed, novel, and community-centered experiences. The Learning Community experimented with shaping learning experiences around collective knowledge generation and by assigning dynamic roles to its community members, alternating between learners and facilitators.

With its roots in the Learning Community experiment, ATÖLYE's sibling company, Neol, was born in 2022. Neol is a next-generation talent platform that is "designing in community" by inviting purpose-driven leaders to co-create the future that they want to shape.

2. Community-Powered Brand & Marketing

Social media has given each of us, and in turn our micro-communities, the platforms to reach beyond our circles and expand our influence⁸. Coupled with the loneliness epidemic, where each of us becomes more digital yet isolated, we are seeing the rise of brands and experiences that aim to create a sense of community and belonging. From amplifying organic growth to gathering invaluable insights, these strategies not only resonate with today's consumers but also provide a resilient framework for long-term success in an increasingly competitive landscape.

As we see technologies like blockchain and tokenization, immersive experiences, and AI-driven hyper-personalization grow further, we will see even more community-powered brands and experiences.

Our work for Today at Apple, the tech retailer's learning arm, "Perspektif Istanbul," was designed so that we could engage and activate the arts & design communities of the city. By giving agency to select communities in Istanbul, and letting them create their learning activities powered by Apple, we crafted a subtle and community-led opening week program, thus amplifying Apple's brand in the region whilst building loyalty amongst customers.

3. Community-Powered ESG & Impact Agendas

As we face bigger and more urgent climate and humanitarian crises than ever before, businesses are expected to devise solutions - fast. In fact, during the Covid pandemic, businesses were reported to be trusted more than NGOs, governments, and the media⁹; while a recent study shows that 62% of people would want CEOs to manage changes occurring in society, not just those occurring in their business¹⁰.

This heightened awareness is driving demand for more sustainable and responsible practices across sectors, creating momentum for community-driven initiatives. We see a paradigm shift towards stakeholder capitalism, impact investing, and social entrepreneurship; businesses are increasingly recognizing the importance of creating value not only for shareholders but also for a broader set of stakeholders, including employees, customers, communities, and the environment. This shift is prompting organizations to prioritize Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) work and engage with their communities around shared values to co-create solutions that benefit all.

By leveraging the power of communities, organizations can catalyze transformative change, foster robust stakeholder engagement and collaboration, and generate long-term value for businesses, communities, and society at large. This collaborative approach not only addresses pressing environmental and social issues but also accelerates progress towards sustainable development goals, paving the way for a more inclusive and resilient future for all.

In 2016, ATÖLYE partnered with Zorlu Holding and S360 to launch Türkiye's first social innovation platform and entrepreneurship movement, imece. Our goal was to create a holistic ecosystem, fostering collaboration among sectors, and empowering impact entrepreneurs to thrive. imece, now an independent entity, has become a leading actor in Türkiye's social innovation scene, with the UNDP and Stanford Social Innovation Review as partners. In eight years, imece has supported over 40 social entrepreneurs/start-ups, involved over 8,000 youth in its innovation lab, and cultivated a passionate following of 26,000+ through events and summits.

4. Community-Powered Talent & HR

Finally, the global workforce is undergoing profound transformations fueled by technological breakthroughs, shifting demographics, and evolving workplace cultures. Remote and hybrid work setups, the growing prominence of the gig economy, and a rising focus on fostering justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (JEDI/DEI). Moreover, rapid technological progress is exposing a skills gap, prompting a heightened emphasis on continuous learning and skill enhancement.

In the face of these shifts, we need to reframe our thinking, starting with the word 'workforce'. By shaping communities out of teams and thinking of each individual as a community member, we can build systems where people with shared purpose work together, and cultivate a refreshed sense of belonging.

By creating a supportive and inclusive environment where team members can connect, learn, and grow together, community-powered talent enhances engagement, drives innovation, and strengthens employer branding and organizational culture, ultimately contributing to long-term success and sustainability.

Our 2019 partnership with Dubai Future Foundation and Palmwood gave us the opportunity to equip 35 future creative leaders of the UAE through a 17-week-long learning journey with the skills and mindsets needed to work on pressing local challenges. Our guiding principles for designing and delivering transformative learning experiences were through experiential learning, reflective processes, and emergent facilitation. As a result, Dubai's Chief Design Officers are now a collaborative community of design practitioners in government, working on local and global challenges. We have recently designed the second iteration, to be deployed government-wide in the near future.

All in all, we stand by this: business needs to do better. And we can't do better if we are not prioritizing relationships, collective action, and solidarity to achieve regenerative systems. So let's start thinking in communities, and about how weaving communities around us and our most pressing challenges will unlock great opportunities.

Curious about what this could mean for you as a leader? Reach out to Deniz at to start a conversation. Check out our open source materials relating to community design and community-powered transformation here.


  1. Design Thinking: What Just Happened?
  2. The business value of design | McKinsey
  3. Designers Finally Have A Seat At The Table. Now What?
  4. 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report
  5. Mental Health Statistics And Facts - Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic - The Lancet
  6. The big design freak-out: A generation of design leaders grapple with their future
  7. Design thinking was supposed to fix the world. Where did it go wrong? | MIT Technology Review
  8. "People Belong to Communities, Not Brands": The Lowdown on Sid Lee's 'The Belong Effect' Study | LBBOnline
  9. 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer
  10. 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer Global Report