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How Design Can Change the World

With design starting to be applied to many other broader fields than just producing graphics or products, a crack team of designers from the innovation consultancy IDEO is spearheading a non-profit endeavor with one simple goal: Use design to change the world.

The city of Kumasi, Ghana’s second-largest, isn’t a likely place you’d expect a team of expert designers to descend upon. Timber is one of the city’s most notable industries, alongside cocoa, rubber and cattle, hardly the ripe conditions for a thriving design community. But the designers that did reach Kumasi aren’t your everyday turtlenecked variety; they’re there to tackle one of the world’s biggest problems: poverty.

Patrice Martin and Jocelyn Wyatt, two senior designers at the global innovation consultancy IDEO, are at the helm of a new non-profit initiative called IDEO.org, which will launch officially in the Fall. Its task is a noble if Herculean one: to spread the missive of IDEO’s famed human-centered design framework and ‘design thinking’ to the social work sector for the benefit of low-income communities around the world.

The organization plans to do so by partnering other non-profits and NGOs and share with them the IDEO way of solving tough innovation challenges. It has no specific projects in mind, and will work on developing anything from financial services to promoting gender equity to water sanitation systems, as Martin, Wyatt and their team did in Kumasi.

“We spent some time in Ghana to understand the situation around sanitation and we found most people were using the public toilets as building pit latrines in their homes are unaffordable,” Wyatt tells TAXI.

The public toilets were often filthy, with no running water and only strips of newspapers provided for wiping. And because they weren’t free to use, some Ghanaians will resort to defecating in public, which can spread diseases and contaminate water.

So the designers worked from the ground up and came up with a system and business model around a portable toilet—which they built as well—that would sit in the corner of urban homes that require them. Service operators will collect the waste once or twice a week, and those who have the portable toilets won’t have to rely on the public ones.

“This solution really came out of the process and approach of going out to visit the people to understand where sanitation is part of their lives, how current solutions aren’t working, and what other opportunities there are,” explains Martin. “By working intimately with the community, we’re able to create this new approach and design.”

As part of its human-centered design philosophy, the two designers flew to Kumasi to get an accurate picture of what was happening on the ground. Like war journalists embedded in military platoons, IDEO.org designers participate first-hand with the partnered NGO to discover what it’s like to actually live in the conditions they are trying to improve, in order to design a usable solution.

“A real key component of human-centered design is to start with people and to understand their experiences deeply so those needs and desires, what’s working for them, and their behaviors can guide our approach,” Martin notes.

But organizations involved in social work are sometimes criticized for bringing in Western practices and mindsets into a foreign culture, which may result in more harm being done than good. To combat this, Wyatt says IDEO.org will only partner non-profits that have a presence on the ground “to make sure the design work we’ll be doing is always culturally appropriate”.

She adds, “As we work with organizations to help them scale or spread their offerings, we work with them to understand the country and region better.”

Empathy is a big part of this. Another project IDEO.org is currently working on had the team embed themselves in rural Kenyan villages to develop new ways to incentivize people, especially women, to save.Finding in the villages that a bulk of the women residents’ assets is livestock, the designers decided that to encourage the women to save, they first had to make money seem like the cows and goats—“visible, tangible and active”, describes Martin.

“What are the similarities we can create in savings products so that we can basically mimic that same behavior?” Martin and her team had asked themselves then, giving a brief insight into the kind of creative thinking most if not all designers should be familiar with.

It’s a process that has been popularized by IDEO: Being directly immersed in the problem area; having a roll-up-the-sleeves kind of work ethic coupled with big picture conceptual skills; and the emphasis on rapid prototyping are the reasons why big companies go to IDEO when they need help innovating. And IDEO.org is hoping non-profits will come to them for these reasons as well.

“I think there’s room for [design thinking] everywhere, across the board,” Martin states confidently. “It’s an approach to innovation that can be as embraced by the social and public sectors as it has been by the private sector.”

To IDEO, the role of design in social innovation isn’t exactly uncharted waters; two years ago, the company worked with Acumen Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a project called Ripple Effect that helped bring clean water to villages in India and East Africa. It led to a wave of excitement and interest ripple over to not just the design community but among social work bodies as well, observes Wyatt.

“So we needed to find a way to allow us to scale that social innovation work and make it more accessible to the organizations we were working with,” she says.

But it’ll take more than two designers and a project-based schedule to grow this into a sustainable model. That’s why IDEO.org is implementing a fellowship program that will see other experts join Martin and Wyatt as part of a project’s core team. Half of the fellows will be other full-time senior designers at IDEO while the other half will be what Martin describes as “global residents”, leaders in varied fields like business, design and social work.

After their 11-month residency, fellows will be able to take away the human-centered design approach of solving problems and “apply it to the challenges of poverty”, Martin explains.

“We really see this as an opportunity for them to gain that expertise and bring it to their future careers across the social sector,” she says. “We’re clipping future leaders with this approach to tackling problems, so it’s fresh perspective and creativity that we hope to spread.”

Together with both the broad design framework IDEO.org hopes to impart its partners and the individual projects it will implement, the fellowship program is the last piece of the non-profit’s three-pronged strategy.

It’s probably still too early the gauge the effectiveness of using design in a social work environment, but IDEO’s steps are in the right direction—if its previous success in leveraging on ‘design thinking’ is anything to go by.

The team, for now, is buoyant on its prospects. “What design offers is new choices. So it’s bringing a new approach and a way to tackle problems differently to the table, and we think that’s the real power in what we’re delivering,” Martin enthuses.

With the rallying cry issued and the groundwork all laid out, IDEO.org will soon lead the charge of designers who want to create more than just eye candy. It may not be the type of design we’re used to hearing about, but maybe it’s time to step back from the iMacs and take a look outside.

After all, you can’t Photoshop poverty out of the picture.

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