Francisco Noguera

Pop!Tech 2009: One Times A Million or the Other Way Around? Emily Pilloton from Project H Design

My friend Monika is a designer. She’s curious, restless even, always thinking about the next project and about ways to make them valuable for her local community. She currently doesn’t practice design but she’s looking for ways to get involved and make her creative thinking something she can devote her life to and a valuable resource to society. Monika is not alone. She’s part of a larger movement that sees design and creativity not as a discipline aimed at creating new stuff and gadgets, but as a way of thinking, an approach to turn social challenges into design and innovation opportunities.

Today, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Emily Pilloton, founder of Project H Design, a Pop!Tech 2009 Social Innovation Fellow and a key character in the community interested in the nexus between design thinking and social impact. She is a really fast talker… and I’m a really slow typer. Hence, I took my notebook and tried to capture the main takeaways of our conversation. Here are th highlights of our conversation briken into three main section that underscore her thoughts on localizing efforts, markets and scale and, finally, her new book Design Revolution.

Localizing design: “I’d rather look at my own backyard”

We sat down. We shook hands. I introduced myself and NextBillion and went straight into arguing that her approach had enormous potential in my native Latin America, Africa and Asia, the places we most often analyze and write about in this website. Like Jason yesterday, Emily was quick in politely pointing my attention to the fact that the US faces enough social challenges to capture all of her attention at the moment.

Perhaps it’s the theme of the conference, but this has been a common thread throughout my experience at Pop!Tech: a constant pledge for localizing efforts and creating tools, approaches and information that enable local communities to come up with solutions for their own problems, plus a growing interest for social innovation that takes place in the United States.

The key of Project H’s approach and its local chapters is deep immersion into the circumstances of local communities. Partnerships with local organizations play a central role in the process of identifying social challenges where design may provide a viable solution. An example of these partnerships is the one Project H developed with the Downtown Women’s Center of Los Angeles, where a solution for the needs of street dwellers has been developed. She also used the same example to explain how Project H’s thinking begins by identifying a problem, not envisioning a solution.

Starting “with a need in mind, not knowing what the final solution will be” can be a lengthy process, particularly in terms of building trust among local actors and creating dynamics that allow communities to incorporate a problem-solving discipline that prevails even after the Project H design team is gone. “That’s when you know you’ve been successful”, said Emily, “when projects keep going even after we’re gone”.

I thanked Emily for her push back on my point about developing countries. It’s really not about solutions and cool approaches being exported from this country to those across oceans. It’s about making information available and about educating local actors in the art of observation and design thinking to make local challenges local opportunities for design and enterprise.

“1 million people doing something is better that 1 thing done a million times”

Our conversation quickly moved into the role of markets and enterprise in making these solutions sustainable. “That’s one of our main challenfges”, Emily admitted. “I would argue that a social need implies the existence of a market… but since we start from the need and not the market, we often have a challenge figuring out the business model or subsidy that can make a given solution sustainable and over time”.

That’s when the magic word came to my mind of course: “Scalable”. But I told you Emily talks fast. Before I even said it, she told me “I truly believe scalability is not the inescapable answer”. “I believe it’s more important to move a million people to do one thing than make one thing and copy it a million times”. Powerful, yes, but she wasn’t done just yet… “what needs to be scalable is access to information and tools. A way through which people can feel as part of a community. A way through which they can get answer to any question they may have about a project”.

Nothing to add here, really. You may agree or not but It’s a stance that enriches our conversation here in NextBillion.

“The Design Revolution Roadshow”

Next I asked Emily if there was anything she wanted to say during her Pop!Tech talk for which she didn’t have time. The obvious answer was “YES!” and then went on to tell me about the upcoming Design Revolution Roadshow.

Design Revolution is the name of Emily’s new book, a compendium of 100 innovations in design for social impact divided into 8 sections: Water, well-being, energy, food, mobility, education, play and enterprise. The book is so new it’s not even available at the Pop!Tech Bookstore, which has in display everything every speaker or fellow has ever published. However, Emily had a copy at lunch and I was able to take a quick sneek peek into it. It’s totally relevant to the NextBillion community and I’m sure it will be appreciated by many of you out there.

“I wrote the book in 90 days (!) and see it as a continuation to my manifesto. The manifesto set the tone and marked the road. Design Revolution is a tool, a blueprint of how to actually do this work.”

In sum…

I really enjoyed my conversation with Emily, someone who couldn’t take working for what she thought was wrong, quit her job, worked as a blog editor for a while and then founded her own remarkable organization, one relevant to the NextBillion community because of its role in changing the way people and organizations think about design, enterprise and their link to development.

Make sure to keep track of Emily and the dates when the Design Revolution Roadshow will be in your area… she’ll be releasing those soon! What’s more, it will be Emily’s home on the road! That’s literal. See below for the Airstream, which will be rolling across campuses in the US bringing along a sample of the products highlighted in the Design Revolution book.