Five Skills Designers Have That Global Development Needs

By Heather Flemming of Catapult Design, originally published on GOOD, April 1, 2013

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“Development is being disrupted,” says Raj Kumar, President of DevEx, a site devoted to helping the international development community deliver foreign aid more efficiently and effectively. Beyond the buzz generated by the “social entrepreneurship” and “impact investing” communities, I’ve seen a significant shift coming from traditional aid agencies in the past two years.

In 2010, USAID, the agency responsible for administering US foreign aid, launched the first-of-its-kind Development Innovation Ventures quarterly grant program. Its funding model is inspired by traditional venture capital and the focus is on scalable and entrepreneurial solutions to poverty alleviation. Similarly, in 2012 the World Bank hired a former Silicon Valley Google.org director to lead their new “Innovation Labs.” UNICEF and the Inter-American Development Bank have also launched their own “Innovation Labs” with similar goals of promoting open-dialogue, new methods, and cross-pollination of models that enable innovative activity.

So with all this talk about “innovation,” where are the designers, the technologists, and the entrepreneurs? The folks behind these initiatives are still folks with international and economic development backgrounds, economics and finance. If they’re serious about innovative approaches, it’s time creative problem solvers are added to the equation. Specifically, here are five strengths designers have that the development industry direly needs:

1. We are systems thinkers.
The problems that plague our world are complex, interwoven, and multifaceted. As designers, we solve problems through a combination of analytic and creative thinking. Many of the best designers I know are themselves multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary. In addition to a design degree, they’re also engineers or MBAs or economists. It takes both sides of the brain to generate solutions to social challenges.

2. Fresh eyes.
Einstein’s “We can’t solve the world’s problems by using the same type of thinking we used when we created them,” couldn’t ring more true. Many of the social issues we’re fighting today have existed for decades and consistently been addressing using old mechanisms—policy, aid, and philanthropy. We are long overdue for fresh thinking to old problems.

3. We have a prototyping culture.
We make a lot of mistakes in development—mistakes that sometimes negatively impact people with everything to lose; mistakes that could potentially be avoided if the development sector fostered a culture of iteration and refining ideas before rushing to scale. Instead, I see a lot of money going towards untested ideas or worse yet, “solutions in search of a problem.”

4. We focus on people.
Many decisions made today that affect the poor are made by people completely removed from their issues. A designer’s viewpoint, driven by an understanding of the needs of people or end-users, is completely unique and lacking within the development sector. The key to better policy, better products, and better public services is rooted in understanding of the key players and what motivates them.

5. We create capacity.
We build things. We build products, services, websites—and by doing so we are intrinsically building the capacity of those who make, distribute, sell, or use what we create. On a fundamental level, giving people access to tools that enhance their capacity is what drives economic development. We play a central role in creating those tools that are useful, relevant, and meaningful.

$22.8 billion of our projected fiscal budget is earmarked for poverty-reduction activity in 2013. Traditionally, international development agencies use the amount of the money put towards poverty alleviation as a metric for efficacy. I’m hoping the next few years shift that metric towards understanding underlying problems and funding new solutions that address those problems. In order to do that, we need a new breed of development thinkers. The next generation of designers is inspired by careers that provide meaning and impact. Now is the perfect time for the development sector to start connecting the dots.

Image courtesy of Catapult Design

The LeafBed: A Cardboard Bed for Humanitarian Use

This one comes from The GUST Project, with a heads-up from @raovallabh.

The LeafBed, designed by Julien Sylvain and Leaf Supply, is a modular bed made of custom-cut and folded cardboard.  Multiple blocks join together to create the desired length of the bed and they are strong enough (with perpendicular criss-crossing cardboard struts inside) to withstand a hefty amount of weight from people sleeping, standing and sitting on them.  The LeafBed is intended for temporary use in humanitarian and disaster situations.  The blocks can also be used as table stands and temporary seating, for example.

As the video says, cardboard furniture is not a new concept, but what has been used in the past for humanitarian purposes is usually coated to be water-resistant.  The LeafBed doesn’t bother with additional coating, opting instead to use standard corrugated cardboard which allows them to be manufactured by any cardboard maker much closer to where the beds are needed.  This shortens shipping distances significantly, which speeds delivery to disaster-affected areas and cuts costs for Leaf Supply and for buyers.  It also prioritizes giving business to local cardboard manufacturers, which is a positive element for helping local economies, especially during or after a crisis.

The problem is that until now, cardboard furniture wasn’t made with standard packaging cardboard, but with treated cardboard which withstands water and humidity. Our innovation has been to produce furniture with standard packaging cardboard in order to use the cardboard industry, which is already present in every country.

I like the sound of the designers’ choice to forego weather treatment in favor of allowing local production and recycling after use.  It shows bigger-picture consideration and a confidence of not trying to be something more than what it really is—a temporary bed made of paper.  LeafBeds probably aren’t right for wet climates or on wet floors, but field tests in Niger show impressive durability even after six months of use.

The next natural questions would be first, how well these cardboard beds meet real needs—how well do they function, and how happy are people with them?  Then, what measures does Leaf Supply take to try to ensure a sustainable and socially responsible product life cycle from start to finish?  Issues like where the paper pulp comes from, what chemicals are used and how they’re disposed of, and what happens to the Leafbeds after their use are all important to try to steer for a holistic, responsible solution.  I’m sure using many different manufacturers presents a challenge.  Creator Julien Sylvain says he’d like Leaf Supply “to be the first socially responsible supplier of humanitarian equipment,” and that’s certainly a good sign.

According to Leaf Supply’s field tests, out of 75 users interviewed after 6 months of using LeafBeds in Niamey, Niger: 99% of users use the LeafBed as a bed (rather than using the blocks for other purposes), 74% of users use additions like a mattress, blankets or mats, and 99% report being satisfied after 1, 3 and 6 months of use.

Has anyone seen these in action?  I’d love to know more about what users think and hear about how they do in different circumstances.  Leave a comment below if so.

For more on the Leafbed, visit their profile page on GUST’s website, or Leaf Supply’s website itself.

For more examples of social innovators around Asia captured by a group of dynamic and wandering near-college-grads, check out The GUST Project.  Looks like cool stuff so far.

Photos provided by Leaf Supply