Rob Parkinson

Bringing Research, Action Together in Pursuit of New BoP Solutions

Editor’s Note: This article was first published in NextBillion Brasil. The original post, in Portuguese, may be found here.

“Processing and synthesizing large amounts of data from your research is a fundamental step of designing processes to achieve social impact.” Thus opened the SOCAP11 Design for Social Innovation Track in San Francisco last week, where three organizations shared methodologies and lessons.

Design for America is an award-winning national initiative using design to create local and social impact. Director of Operations Sami Nerenberg briefly introduced the organization’s methodology with examples from projects in several fronts, such as child health, water conservation, and street dwellers. DFA creates multidisciplinary teams in seven universities in the US and articulates them with local community representatives. Nerenberg explains the key issue in the process is: What is the smallest change we can make to obtain the largest impact? This implies increasingly precise question and answer iterations to arrive to a very specific need that needs to be addressed.

“When you start suggesting solutions from the get-go, you are probably answering the wrong questions,” she cautioned.

Design that matters offers design services to solve social problems in Africa and Asia. Director of Product Development Elizabeth Johansen presented their work in Vietnam, where the organization sought solutions to treat jaundiced babies in rural areas. After observing how hospitals operate and talking with doctors and nurses, the organization decided to focus on deploying a robust, yet simple product for small hospitals to allow the babies to remain close to their mothers during the treatment.

“Babies need to be fed often. We thought of something that the mother could carry,” explained Johansen. However, we found it to be impractical, since the treatment takes place in five-hour cycles: a mother would be unable to sustain the weight for so long, particularly so soon after delivery.”

The team decided to focus only on the children who were otherwise healthy. Other children would have to be referred to larger hospitals. “It’s important to clearly define the problem that needs to be addressed, as well as those that not,” said stressed.

Jianling Zhong, from China, just returned from South Africa, where he took part in program organized by ThinkImpact. Along with 21 other university students, he spent eight weeks in a South African community developing solutions for the challenges that the local inhabitants face.

“We formed teams with people from the community. We observed people’s daily lives,” explained the sophomore. “We sought to identify already existing assets in the community that could be utilized to affront these challenges.”

ThinkImpact CEO Saul Garlick calls this the ’Asset-Based Community Development’ (ABCD) approach. Teams start by defining a specific challenge, followed by creating possible products or services, and finally choose one of them as a prototype to eventually sell to the community.

Zhong reported on the community where he lived and invited workshop participants to work (including myself!). In small groups, we crosschecked community assets with needs to define ten possible issues to address. After 15 minutes, my group came up with six…

Back to Zhong’s experience: “How to increase the availability of water during the dry season to increase agricultural production?” was the question chosen by his group.

“Producers have many skills, but if it doesn’t rain, they cannot grow crops,” he explained. To come up with an answer, they developed a system of collectors for rainwater, along with a partially buried tank to store it. They lined leftover plastic around the insides of the tank and covered it with a cloth to avoid mosquitoes.

“We built a prototype and we even sold two units before the course was over!” said a proud Zhong.

Looking at their own lists of questions, workshop participants could not deny how impressed we were with Zhong’s team performance.

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