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I’ve recently joined Saegus, a consulting start-up whose expertise include human-centered design such as Design Thinking, UX, User Research and more. As I am interested in social issues, I wanted to reflect on how design thinking can be an extremely effective tool for solving social problems. One of the fundamental problems of humanitarian aid in my opinion is the gap between those who shape projects and programs and the realities on the ground. For example, more than 150 million mosquito nets were given to countries where malaria exists in 2015. However, ground studies revealed that many people used these nets to fish, and fisherman blocked entire river spans with mosquito nets. This practice became illegal in many places as it threatens the safety of fish population, and thus, threatens food security for many communities.

What is in this article ?

Thereby, you’ll find in this article the results of my researches — a non-exhaustive overview — on methodologies that already exist and how they are implemented. The first part of this article is devoted to defining Design Thinking so that everyone understands what it is all about. If you are already familiar with design thinking, I invite you to go straight to the second part, in which I will discuss the following question: how can Human-Centered Design (HCD) be a privileged approach for social innovation?

A brief introduction to human-centered design

HCD is a methodology that can be applied in practice through many different approaches (Design thinking, Circular Design, Jugaad, Positive Deviance, etc.). In order to understand HCD and its correlation with social innovation, I will first focus on design thinking, which is an approach of the HCD methodology.

#1 The origins of design thinking

If the term design thinking was popularized in the 1990s, its philosophy began in the 1950s. The origins of design thinking are closely linked to the desire to contribute to sustainable development and improve human well-being.

Back in 1956, Buckminster Fuller began teaching Design Science at MIT. His Design Science lab aimed at using the potential of science and its methods to generate designs conscious of our environment and improve the standard of living of everyone.

In Design for the Real World, 1971, Victor Papanek considers design as a political tool for Human Ecology and Social Change: Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.

Tim Brown — IDEO’s CEO — is often credited with inventing the term “design thinking” and its practice. IDEO — an international design and consulting firm — was formed in 1991 as a merger between David Kelley Design, which created Apple Computer’s first mouse in 1982, and ID Two, which designed the first laptop computer, also in 1982.

Traditionally, designers were focused on enhancing the look and functionality of products. With design thinking, they have begun using design tools to solve real problems. By putting the end user at the center, they uncovered solutions and possibilities beyond enhancing only its look. “Design is not about how it looks, it’s about how it works”, as defined by Steve Jobs.

There are more and more examples of design thinking projects for social impact. Allow me to tell you about the one that I know more, because Saegus was a part of it. This mission was conducted jointly with the Sanofi Espoir Foundation on maternal and newborn health in Senegal. From 2010 to 2017 the Foundation funded many training projects, especially for midwives. But because of no evidence of real and sustainable impact, the Sanofi Espoir Foundation decided to take a step back. All together, we aimed to approach maternal and newborn health as a complex social process wich requires a multisector-field approach, centered on the local experience of women and health practitioners. We started a human-centered approach mission in 2018 that you can discover in this interview of Valérie Faillat, Executive Director of the Sanofi Espoir Foundation, talking about this mission.

#2 Human-Centered Design: a tool to find systemic solutions to social challenges

In 2008, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation asked IDEO to codify the process of design thinking so that every organization can use that methodology to undertake the design thinking process themselves. A team of IDEO designers summarized their approach in the Human-Centered Design Toolkit. HCD — including design thinking — isn’t a perfectly linear process, but you’ll always move through the following three main phases:

Human-Centered Design is a mindset, “it means believing that all problems, even the seemingly intractable ones like poverty, gender equality, and clean water, are solvable. Moreover, it means believing that the people who face those problems every day are the ones who hold the key to their answer.”

Extract from the Human-Centered Design Toolkit by IDEO.

“Seemingly intractable” problems such asinequality, political instability, death, disease, or famine are called “wicked problems”. The term was coined by Horst Rittel and refers to a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete or contradictory knowledge, the number of people and opinions involved, the large economic burden, and the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.

Nonprofit organizations are discovering design thinking as a way to find high-impact solutions to wicked problems. As the article Design Thinking for Social Innovation, by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyat, says, “social challenges require systemic solutions“. These problems can’t be “fixed”, but designers can play a central role in mitigating the negative consequences of wicked problems and positioning the broad trajectory of culture in new and more desirable directions. Thus, Human-Centered Design is a privileged approach for companies and organizations seeking to address wicked problems thanks to deeply creative and innovative solutions.

#3 Human-Centered Design approaches for Social Innovation

Below are 3 human-centered approaches that I find particularly impactful. I hope that these examples will inspire you too.

Jugaad: “doing more with less”

“Jugaad” is about solving concerning problems with limited resources and means “doing more with less” in Hindi. It requires that “the entrepreneur becomes blind, he must think about using the object other than for its original function,” explains Abhinav Agarwal, consultant at the Jugaad Lab, a “frugal innovation laboratory” he created in January 2017. Jugaad is not a concept limited to India: the American version of a jugaad is a “hack”, and in France it is called the “Système D”.

The start-up Go Energyless applied this principle by inventing “FRESH’IT”, a refrigerator that runs without electricity, based on clay and sand.

Jugaad has to be a quick fix, with little to no cost. However, this aspect of short-term fix makes it extremely difficult to discover all existing initiatives. Since these innovations are limited in time, they are very often limited geographically too. It complicates and limits their generalization and scaling up. I think that all these great ideas created from a strong need and little — if any — means can be extremely beneficial to a large number if replicated on a large scale. An open source library could be a valuable tool to share these innovations happening every day.

Circular Design: promoting sustainable production and consumption

Designing for the circular economy is about designing reusable materials that will create new value by enabling your own, as well as other businesses, to reuse those materials. An example is Shoey Shoes: children’s shoes made and produced entirely from waste materials, and engineered to be disassembled, be reused, and recycled. They were invented by Thomas Leech, an industrial designer in London who has embraced the principles of a circular economy.

Circular Design allows a responsible consumption pattern that reduces waste production, and design better products for consumer health. The approach is explained more in-depth in the Circular Design Guide, a collaboration between the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IDEO.

Positive deviance: observing positive behaviors in order to generalize them

Positive deviance is based on the observation that in any community, certain individuals confronting similar challenges, constraints, and resource deprivations than their peers, will nonetheless employ uncommon and successful behaviors which enable them to find better solutions.

In 1990, Jerry Sternin — founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative — and his wife Monique were working in Vietnam to decrease malnutrition among children. The Sternins observed the food preparation, cooking, and serving behaviors of six families “very, very poor” whose children were healthy. They found few consistent yet rare behaviors: the positive deviants. Parents of well-nourished children collected tiny shrimps, crabs, and snails from rice paddies and added them to the food, along with the greens from sweet potatoes. Although these foods were readily available, they were typically not eaten because they were considered unsafe for children. The positive deviants also fed their children multiple smaller meals, which allowed small stomachs to hold and digest more food each day. By offering cooking courses to families, 80% of the 1,000 enrolled children became adequately nourished.

This is an approach that is very much rooted in local realities. The solution is already owned by a few inhabitants, it is not innovation — unlike jugaad — but rather discovering the solution among the habits of the positive deviants.

To conclude, Human-Centered Design approaches help companies and organizations generate impactful solutions for users as well as uncover unknown ways to fix complex issues. Returning to the example of mosquito nets used as fishing nets, responses to social problems cannot be enforced by outsiders far from field realities, even if the response itself is great in its essence. We need to co-create solutions with local populations: design thinking is proving to be particularly effective in addressing social problems and is becoming a key tool for social innovation.

Rédigé par Cloé Marche, Consultante Acceleration Tactics

Design thinking origin story
Design thinking : an enabler for social innovation?
IDEO, the Human-Centered Design Toolkit
Standford Social Innovation Review
Wicked Problems
Corporate Rush (on jugaad)