IDEO.org Fellows Bring Beautiful Design to Humanitarian Efforts

Posted by Courtney Martin

IDEO.org fellows

IDEO.org fellows at work on a prototype of their TEDx in a Box design

The global water crisis seems simple enough to solve: Dig wells in communities that don’t have one, and let the water flow. After all, the problem is not that there isn’t enough water on Earth, but more of a logistical challenge about how to move it from point A to point B. But in fact, providing safe drinking water to the 1 billion people who don’t have it presents a tangled knot of complex engineering, political, economic, scientific, and cultural challenges.

That’s exactly why the water issue is such a good fit for the big-picture thinkers that make up a new breed of humanitarians—designers. IDEO.org design fellows are currently working in Nepal and Ethiopia to create systems that can support people’s varied uses of water, from urban gardening in the slums of Addis Ababa to fluoride treatment plants in the Rift Valley. The goal is to take a “holistic and human centered approach to meeting people's water needs,” organizers explain on the project website.

Human-centered design, the framework through which all IDEO.org fellows operate, guides designers to come in with a “beginner’s mind,” asking lots of questions and observing everyday moments, resisting the instinct to jump to conclusions or try to sound smart. It’s relationships and hunches, not strategic plans and short-term goals, that are the real tools of the human-centered designer. Liz Ogbu, one of the fellows working on the water project, writes, “We are starting to think of available water services and technology as analogous to a set of Lego parts that can be applied and rearranged depending on the needs of the community.”

Ogbu is one of eight members of the inaugural class of IDEO.org fellows working on three design projects around the world. Jocelyn Wyatt, now Exeuctive Director, and Patrice Martin, now Creative Director, co-founded IDEO.org in September of 2011 as an effort to bring human-centered design to communities that face all the usual challenges of living in poverty—lack of clean water and food, inadequate shelter and education, and so on. Superpower design firm IDEO provided substantial seed funding, but IDEO.org is now a separate nonprofit that relies on fees for service paid by partner organizations and donations.

The eight “innovators-in-residence,” as IDEO.org calls them, were hand-picked from a pool of more than 400 applicants, and hail from a range of professional and demographic backgrounds—including Ogbu, a self-described “green giant” from Oakland; Salvador Zepeda, a former McKinsey consultant from Mexico; and Marika Shiori-Clark, who is just a few months out of architecture school, but has already helped build a state-of-the-art hospital in Rwanda.

Fellows participated in a two-week orientation in September on the theme “What Good Looks Like,” with events drawing on Wyatt and Martin’s community-building experiences at groups like the Acumen Fund and the Aspen Institute. Fellows learned about leadership development, social enterprise, and the human-centered design process; took silent hikes; and discussed Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Storytelling and discussion took up the majority of the group’s time together because, Wyatt says, “People learn leadership by listening to people talk about their experiences as leaders.” 

They also learn by doing. One three-person team is in Delhi, India, working with the Rockefeller Foundation to identify new employment opportunities for youth in poor and vulnerable communities. Another pair of fellows have created TEDx in a Box—a stand-alone kit that organizers anywhere in the world can use to host TEDx conferences, an open-source approach that brings “ideas worth spreading” around the world—168 TEDx events took place in 48 countries last month. Bigio and Shiori-Clark named the first full prototype the Gandhi Box—each box will be named after a prominent world leader—advertising it as a “weapon of mass dissemination” on Twitter.

The process of creating the box required some trial and error, creating a valuable learning experience for the fellows. After the IDEO.org duo posted an initial idea about using a car battery to power the entire system, global organizers from the TEDx Google group quickly educated them about how difficult it would be to source a battery in many parts of the world. In a blog post about the project, Shiori-Clark, wrote, “Eventually we settled on a higher tech lithium battery that could be included within the kit, making the system completely self-contained. The battery exploration was a long one, but in the end, it was our commitment to be transparent with our ideas and to solicit feedback from end-users that proved the most fruitful.”

All fellows, as well as IDEO.org’s leadership, are blogging about their process—giving other social sector leaders a chance to learn from their successes, failures, and unusual approaches to eradicating poverty. What’s more, their human-centered design kit is open-source, available to anyone who wants to download it and apply it to their own projects.

 “In the long run, we hope the fellowship program will inspire the continued sharing and spread of human-centered design,” Martin says. We’re hoping the experiences gained and skills learned will help create the framework for a new cadre of leaders who will create new solutions to the challenges of poverty.”

Photo courtesy of IDEO.org