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Design Thinking For Social Innovation

24.04.2015
Design Thinking For Open Innovation

When I was in University, I ran the campus food bank. I went to a conference in Toronto, where I spent the weekend with others running food banks from across the country. The conference was full of hard-working, dedicated people passionate about alleviating poverty and malnutrition. We exchanged ideas, discussed new initiatives and brainstormed how we could run our food banks better. Finally, the last session of the conference arrived. Our hosts explained that the last speakers would be people who had lived on the streets and who had used (or were still using) food banks . To our surprise, the speakers each described their negative experiences with food banks. They had eaten pre-packaged bags of foods filled with things they or their families did not like, or could not eat. They were sick of eating the same canned carrots every day. They were embarrassed about going to food banks. And they felt even worse about being questioned on their financial situation on each visit to a food bank.  One of our favourite ideas of the weekend; to have restaurants and grocery shops donate food they were going to throw away, was not well received. Why would homeless people want to eat food that wasn’t deemed good enough for other people?

This session changed the entire tone of the conference. Many attendees became angry or defensive. Instead of dealing with the reality of the situation; food banks were not truly serving the community, the food bank managers took offence with the speakers.

How could they turn down food when they were starving?

How could they be uncomfortable sharing their financial information when food banks are often abused

Rather than thinking of a better solution to the problem, most people left the conference determined to ignore the views of their community. They wanted to run the food banks how they thought was best. Not the way the people using the food banks thought they should be run.

If the organisers had known more about design thinking, I’m sure they would have placed that session at the beginning of the conference. Not the end.

We’ve looked at how the design thinking process works, and what design thinking is. But we have not yet discussed how design thinking can help you achieve your goals of creating a better world.

Why Design Thinking For Social Innovation

The first stage of design thinking is discovery. This is the research stage where you not only consider potential solutions to your challenge but where you discover what the right questions are. If we had heard the food bank users speak at the beginning of the conference instead of the end, the questions we had asked during the weekend would have been very different. 

This can be the most challenging and time-consuming part of the design thinking process. Yet without this step, there is no way of knowing if your ideas will be welcomed or effective.

A great example of how this stage can change a project for the better is the story of Embrace Global. A group of Stanford University graduates wanted to solve the problem of infant deaths from hyperthermia caused by premature births. At first, it seemed as if providing incubators for hospitals would solve the problem. Yet, when the students traveled to Nepal, they found that the incubators already in the hospitals were not being used. In fact, the babies were not dying in the hospital, they were dying at home because parents did not have the adequate tools to care for them. From this information, they were able to frame the problem in a completely different light. They designed an infant ‘sleeping bag’ to help infants stay warm and were easy for parents in rural communities to access and use. The cost of the sleeping bags is about 1% of that of an incubator, and effectively solves the problem in the way that incubators could not. Organisations had donated incubators to hospitals in Nepal trying to solve the same problem.  But because they did not speak with the people affected by the problem, the incubators did not do what they set out to do- save lives. When the Stanford team looked at the problem from the perspective of the people suffering, they were able to put an effective solution in place. 

Design thinking is ideal for social innovation because teams find out the needs of the community they are trying to help before designing a product or service.

How To Use Design Thinking For Social Innovation

If you're ready to use design thinking to create social change. Where do you start?

Design thinking relies on local expertise to uncover relevant solutions. This means going out into the field to get the information you need. Many people rely on surveys or asking customers for what they want. However, Henry Ford puts it best when he says:

“If I had asked people what they had wanted, they would have said faster horses”

This doesn’t mean people don’t know what they want, but rather they don’t have access to information which would allow them to see all the possibilities.

So, if you aren’t asking customers directly what they want. How are you going to find out? 

Design thinking is about using our ‘human’ traits in addition to our logical traits. This means using your intuitive and observational skills to see what people need. By listening to people’s problems and observing their behaviours you can gain insights that will help you develop solutions. Listening and observing will help you understand your community better.

Another way to use design thinking for social innovation is to include people from the affected communities in your project. Like the doctors in the Embrace Global story, you too can reach out to relevant players and ask them to contribute to your project. By working together with local people, you strengthen the entire project. These connections with your community members are helpful beyond the discovery stage as well. They can help fill in details and practical considerations when you are fleshing out the idea. Your connections can also be your first point of contact for the prototyping stage.

Before sending your product out to the masses, it is important to beta test with small groups and an early version of the product. This is another way design thinking helps the social innovation process. By prototyping at an early stage, you reduce the risk of pouring your resources into a project that will not solve your challenge. By getting this feedback early, you can make changes to your project without wasting your entire resource bank.

Involving local groups through all the stages of design thinking can help create positive change. Getting the perspective of the communities you want to help will ensure not only that you are answering the right questions, but that your solutions are solving the problem, and are accessible to the community. Design thinking can help eliminate the ‘why didn’t it work’ part of the innovation process. You will know right away why something is not working because your community will be there, giving you invaluable feedback.

Using the human- centred process of design thinking can yield the best results for social change. Especially when you are working with vulnerable communities that are often not giving a voice.

Going back to my conference - How many of us had actually had conversations with the people using our food banks? The answer is few, if any. And yet most of the people from the conference were happy to go home continuing doing what they were doing. Even though, they had heard directly from the mouths of the people they were trying to help, that their work was not solving the right problem.

And me? I headed back to university and hired a food bank coordinator. I reached out specifically to vulnerable communities and was able to hire someone who had used a food bank in various periods of her life. She had a fresh perspective on how we could better run things. We built a team of volunteers to re-vamp our donation and registration processes so that we could better serve the community. The result? More students started coming forwards to use the food bank, seeing it is a safe space, rather than something shameful. We were able to stop pre-packaging food and allowed food bank users to choose their own meals. Most importantly, our team of volunteers started tackling the root problems of poverty and malnourishment in student populations. While food banks still have a ways to go, I’d love to see more design thinking and human-centered approaches being used in this area.

Have you used design thinking for social innovation? Or to create social change? We would love to hear about it in the comments!

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