Aimee George is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute. She is an international and community development professional with experience designing, implementing and managing projects in the United States, South Africa and Thailand. Her areas of expertise include refugee issues, anti-human trafficking measures and programming for youth development in the non-governmental sector. Aimee desires to be a facilitator in the process of pursuing justice and holistically transforming communities.
I often take it for granted that accessing potable water depends on how quickly I can turn on my faucet. Yet for millions around the world, it means making multiple trips to a water station to load up multi-gallon canisters which are then carried back home. What if time and energy could be saved by transporting that water in an easier way? And what if there was a market-based strategy to tackle this pressing problem faced by the majority of the globe?
Designers of the WaterWheel in the dry Northern Indian state of Rajasthan did just that. A durable, rollable water container was created that transports 13 gallons of water at a time, thus easing the daily burden of fetching water and freeing up the opportunity to focus on other tasks. In addition, the designers at Wello, a US social venture, state that it improves access to water, improves health from reduced headloading, and allows individuals to be more productive with saved time.
The development of this product was grounded in finding a solution to a customer’s need. That customer who is at the centre of innovation also happens to be a person who belongs to the often underserved portion of the market – the bottom of the pyramid. Traditionally, designers focus on improving the look and functionality of products. Such products that we enjoy on a daily basis are often derived from creating a want and selling a product as opposed to identifying a need and designing a solution for it. Both are required in the market; nonetheless, those in emerging markets, or the ‘Majority World,’ have more immediate needs that require attention.
The philosophy behind the creation of this product was based on Design Thinking, also called Human-centered Design. As its name implies, this kind of problem-solving is forward-looking as compared to narrowing down possible solutions and working backward. It requires a particular kind of personal and organizational mindset that is rooted in deep empathy while being creative, iterative, optimistic no matter the constraints, and experimental, such that it allows for failure. This long list could come off as idealistic to the point of being unfeasible; however, design thinking is ultimately practical in its approach in order to seek the best ideas and solutions.
I first came across human-centered design while reading about an exhibition by the Smithsonian Design Museum titled “Design with the other 90%.” The series aimed to demonstrate how design solutions can be a transformative force in impacting lives and addressing the needs of 90 percent of the world’s population not traditionally served by professional designers. This model has become a catalyst in seeking creative solutions to complex global needs. As an International Peace Studies student, I value the input of design thinking in serving community needs. Peacebuilding is inherently process and people-oriented, where contextualising the situation and understanding the local culture is central to seeking solutions. Such social innovation brings together the core components of a sustainable business model, technical expertise and social considerations. Too often, failures and shortcomings in project or product design arise as a result of one of these components being overlooked. As simple as it may seem, a human-centered approach to design reminds us that people are always the focus of social impact.
Design Thinking rooted in community needs therefore treads the fine line of seeking ingenious solutions with communities, and not only for them. Community-ownership and desire for the product is essential, thus, Wello worked on the prototypes in consultation and collaboration with villagers. Knowing the consumer as an element of market research is vital. Timing is also critical for any enterprise: how long do we give the ideation process before we expect a quick-win or positive return on investment? Does it require the support of patient capital? As with any new innovative approach, potential shortcomings need to be considered. What is the feasibility or scalability of such products in other markets? WaterWheels are probably only ideal in areas with flatter terrain as opposed to hills, and the start-up financial model is heavily dependent on external investment. These products meant for market are still non-essential items in cash-strapped homes. How then might products that solve the needs of the globe’s 90 percent also be produced in ways that are economical? Does the product also get to deep-rooted contextual questions such as the availability of wells and boreholes, or safety of members going to these places? These are important considerations if long-term basic and social needs are to be met.
The beauty of design thinking is that it can be utilized in any market and context in the world – whether South Bend, Indiana or Rajasthan, India – as long as it considers local needs. Social innovation that asks the right questions, as opposed to prescribes silver-bullet solutions, is a framework from which the complex needs of our communities can be better understood. Interested in exploring Design Thinking or Human-centered Design? Check out the following resource links. In addition, please comment or get in touch to let us know what you think. How are you incorporating design thinking into your social entrepreneurial or impact investing toolbox?
- Article by Tim Brown & Jocelyn Wyatt on “Design Thinking for Social Innovation.”
- IDEO’s free innovation toolkit for social enterprises and NGOs worldwide.
- Stanford University Institute of Design’s “Bootcamp Bootleg” Overview of Design Thinking.