The Design Thinking Action Lab online class has created the largest design team in the world, bringing together 45,000 students in fields ranging from engineering to education to business. Class member Cathy Stephensen hopes to apply her design thinking skills to help drive change in the community and economy of her hometown in Scotland.

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Cathy Stephenson
Kirriemuir, Scotland
Volunteer Community Councilor

Kirriemuir is a small town in Scotland with a big problem. If you travel the narrow, winding roads of the “Gateway to the Glens,” past rows of houses built with red sandstone, you’ll notice few visitors and shuttered stores.

“The town is dying,” said Cathy Stephenson, Kirriemuir resident and Design Thinking Action Lab student. “It’s effectively at the end of the road, which has insulated us from some pressures, but has also caused some stresses in our local economy.”

Cathy, an engineer by training and volunteer Community Councilor, connect the decline in part with a drop in tourism. Most of the town’s independent food stores have closed, along with two of the three existing hotels. She feels that the residents could do more to promote the heritage of the town, known for its historic tradition of linen weaving and agriculture. Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie was born in Kirriemuir, and both Bon Scott of AC/DC and Sir Hugh Munro, who created Munro's Tables of Scottish mountains, have called the town their home.

In March 2013, Kirriemuir received a £1m regeneration fund from agencies Historic Scotland and Angus Council to improve its heritage buildings. “We see this as an opportunity to make changes and re-energize hope in our community,” Cathy said.

While this boost to Kirriemuir’s infrastructure helps the town immensely, Cathy also saw this as a chance for the residents of the town to drive change. She said that they need to find other ways of operating outside of government funding, such as through co-production, social enterprise and volunteering. The funding, then, is to engage the community as much as it is to build it back up.

“Sitting in a community vision meeting, I realized that people were saying ‘That is a good idea,’ but nothing was changing,” she said. “I left that meeting and started doing things.”


Cathy began formulating a plan to start a backpacker hostel in the town that would, in addition to serving as a destination for visitors, provide a hub for residents to gather, access online resources, and work on ways to volunteer within their community. Several months before Kirriemuir’s funding, Cathy lost her job when her company downsized, so she saw the hostel as an opportunity to fulfil her dream of being self-employed as well as a chance to help her town.

To find out the needs of her potential customers, she put the empathy step of design thinking into action and began talking to people. “In the past months, I have been engaged in conversation by so many strangers, something which I have to work at because I am, by nature, an introvert. Every conversation has given me something.”

Understanding the needs of others, and defining and examining potential problems, are two skills Cathy found necessary in her work as an engineer.

“It is not enough [for engineers] to build a fancy bridge because we are technically capable of doing so,” she said. “We need to understand why the bridge is the best solution to the problem, which we can only truly do by learning about the problem people are experiencing in the first place.”

Cathy said she is only at the start of her journey, and she believes that the skills and tools she’ll learn through design thinking can help contribute to successful outcomes for both her own life and her community. “My head is buzzing with good ideas.”

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