IDEO.org’s Mission to Tackle Global Social Challenges Through Design for All

Jocelyn Wyatt is the Executive Director and Co-Lead of IDEO.org, the nonprofit organization started by Palo Alto, Ca.-based design consultancy IDEO to address poverty-related challenges through design and to encourage the use of a ‘human-centered approach’ to innovation in the social sector.

IDEO.org has worked with the Rockefeller Foundation identifying potential funding strategies in support of youth employment initiatives around the world and Winrock International to help simplify and articulate a process for multiple-Use water services in Nepal and Ethiopia. Recently they have worked with TED to design TEDx-In-A-Box for organizers of TEDx events who don’t have access to technology to host events in diverse locations around the world.

Previously, Wyatt led IDEO’s Social Innovation practice, which she expanded over the course of several years. Wyatt specializes in building social enterprises and advising businesses in the developing world, where she uses the market to effect social change. She has lent her perspective to social innovation projects with clients such as Acumen Fund, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, KickStart, the Rockefeller Foundation, Unilever, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor.

Based in San Francisco, she travels worldwide to grapple with strategies and issues related to product, service and system design. Wyatt speaks to Arabic Knowledge@Wharton on the use IDEO’s human-centered design process in solving global challenges, particularly at the base of the pyramid.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Can you describe IDEO’s ‘human-centered’ design process?

Joceyln Wyatt: The human-centred design process is one that both IDEO and IDEO.org employ. It’s a process of really understanding deeply the needs of communities or people that we’re trying to serve. We do that by spending time with them, through observations and interviews, and through that gain a set of insights that help us understand what some of those needs and opportunities are. Then from there, we come up with a whole series of innovative solutions through brainstorming and through concept development. Then we go into a process of prototyping, where we actually make some of those ideas tangible and go back, return to those communities, share with them those prototypes, get feedback on them, iterate them, and then ultimately communicate them back to the partner organization that we’re working with for implementation.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How did the idea and information about IDEO.org develop?

Wyatt: IDEO.org really grew out of IDEO’s social innovation part. For years we had been doing work with nonprofits, foundations, and social enterprises and really wanted a way to be able to scale that amount of work and the impact that that work was having. So, we looked at a number of different models and we came to the conclusion that if we created a 501C (3) organization, that it would allow us to attract philanthropic funding and to make our rates more accessible to different organizations.

So we created IDEO.org and really have three missions. The first is undertaking design projects. We’ll work with social sector organizations on poverty-related challenges, things like water and sanitation, agriculture, health, financial services, gender equity, and community development. The second piece is to really build our talent in the social sector and build a cadre of leaders who will be able to apply human-centered design. The third piece is really around spreading human-centered design, taking those tools and the concepts and ideas and insights and sharing them as widely as possible through the sector so that that way of thinking and solving problems can be as widespread as possible.

Arabic Knowledge @Wharton: What have been some of your previous experiences in the developing world?

Wyatt: Initially I lived in Kenya when I was an Acumen Fund Fellow for about a year before coming to IDEO. Then with IDEO, I have worked in a number of different projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of them was a sanitation project in Ghana where we worked with water and sanitation for the urban poor and Unilever to develop sanitation services and systems in urban Ghana. At IDEO, I also worked with a project on water distribution with Acumen Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in both India and in Kenya.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How has the IDEO human-centered design approach enhanced your work versus when you were with other organizations?

Wyatt: I think one of the big differences in what I’ve seen about the human-centered design approach is that it really is centred on the needs of those communities and so it really starts with developing a deep understanding. It’s not a top down approach were we sit in our offices and conceive of what the best healthcare solution might be, or agricultural solution, but instead come to that through that on the ground exploration. Another piece that I’ve seen that’s been really different is that IDEO.org brings together a multidisciplinary approach. We have people with backgrounds in architecture, business, mechanical engineering and industrial design who all come together to address these challenges. Bringing together these different ways of thinking allows us to come up with much more creative approaches. The third difference is that the solutions that we come up with, we really try to make tangible. That doesn’t mean that it’s a product, but what it does mean is that it’s visual. If we’re developing or designing a system or distribution channel or business model, we try to make that very visual, so it’s easy for people to understand and easy for us to get feedback on. Both the tangibility as well as really compelling storytelling is something that really distinguishes design thinking.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Can you give me an example of the storytelling aspect and how that can vary from culture to culture?

Wyatt: The storytelling is really about telling a compelling narrative from understanding the challenge to articulating the solution and helping to think about how the implementation will happen. The reason that’s so important is that we’re working typically with implementation partners and it needs to be something that ultimately they can use, a framework or a platform, design principles that they can use to be able to evolve this service, business model, product or whatever it is over time. The storytelling is really a way to convey why the rationale behind the recommendations. We do that through telling the stories of people from what we saw, as well as what the future could look like should the solution be implemented.

In terms of cultural differences, I think that primarily the overall philosophy of human centered design approach for me is fairly consistent between cultures, but there are aspects of it that need to be adapted. For instance, when we are working in cultures outside of our own we typically need to spend more time doing that research than we do if we’re interviewing people that are our neighbours or our friends and designing for them. Part of that requires that we spend more time both in that country, as well as with those individuals or those families. Oftentimes what we’ll do is we’ll revisit the same families two or three times over the course of a few weeks, because by the third time we’re having those conversations with them we’ve been able to develop that level of trust and really get a deeper understanding. We oftentimes work really closely, when we’re working internationally especially or cultures that are so different from our own, with partner organizations that can serve both as language translators, but also as culture translators. So, it’s really important to have those partners who can help us understand and interpret what’s being said and what’s behind that.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: In counties like India for example, there’s a broad demographic of income levels. In terms of designing in those countries, do communities within the same culture have things in common despite coming from different socio-economic backgrounds?

Wyatt: Well, IDEO.org is really exclusively focused on the base of the pyramid market, or the lower income consumers. We do find that there are a lot of similarities between countries so that group of consumers in India versus Kenya, for instance. I think there are also both similarities and differences between low-income and middle- or upper-income within a certain culture. There are certain cultural norms in whether you are an upper class Indian or a poor Indian that translate throughout that socioeconomic status.

In India there’s a notion of having one’s place in society is really clear and so you see that in the workplace, you see that within families, you see that at social clubs and in schools. That’s something that you just have to be aware of and so that changes the process to some extent and it changes what you design in other ways. The idea with human-centered design, though, is that it’s an approach that can be applied regardless of the challenge and the geography. It is really about using those tools of understanding and ethnography to get to that meaning behind what people are saying and doing. If you can get to that, then it matters less the differences and in some ways it’s more helpful to have a little bit more of a distance from it.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Years ago when Ford was developing a car for the middle-income Indian market, one problem was they put the window control in the front and not the back to cut costs for a middle-income consumer. They missed the fact that in India even a middle-income person would have a driver so the control should be in the back for the passenger. Do companies who have a design in mind come to you to fully evolve it, or how does that process work?

Wyatt: We do work with a lot of companies that are looking to serve new markets. But most of that work is done by IDEO, not by IDEO.org. IDEO.org is really focusing on working with social sector organizations. But IDEO does have a presence in India and is working with companies that are interested in entering and growing their presence in the Indian market. We also have a presence at other locations throughout Asia and that’s certainly an area that IDEO has moved and that is really interested in working in.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: How can Ideo.org help bring different players and organizations within the social sector together?

Wyatt: I think there is a challenge that people throughout the world, not just in the social sector but in all sectors work in silos. It’s really hard to break out of that and to share those learnings between different areas. We certainly see that in poverty alleviation work. One of the things that’s been really important to us is to be able to work across different types of projects. We’re doing work across a whole range of sectors and the idea is really that we want to be able to bring learning, some financial services to health services and from agriculture to nutrition and really be able to introduce people that are in our network to one another. They may be able to collaborate and then to foster partnerships between them, as well as just bringing those learnings to different people.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: You were saying that many of your clients have approached Ideo.org for help?

Wyatt: We’re really fortunate that most of the social enterprises and nonprofits that we’re working with have come to us. A lot of that is because we are quite public about the work that we’re doing and so we write a lot, share, tweet, blog, speak at a lot of conferences, teach classes and run workshops. That’s a way for us to introduce the methodology of human-centered design to people. Then for the people who that resonates with and who have tough design challenges, they tend to come to us afterwards and follow up.

Arabic Knowledge@Wharton: Does IDEO.org have plans to work in the Middle East?

Wyatt: I think there are so many challenges right now and so much opportunity for creativity and innovation in design. IDEO has done some work, especially in Dubai, but more on the private sector side rather than the social sector side. It’s been really interesting and we’d love to do more. The work there has been really exciting to the designers in having exposure to a whole different culture.

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