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How “Design Thinking” Impacts Developing Economies

CCA LiveE | Sunday January 3rd, 2010 | 8 Comments

As a first generation American, I have always been influenced by my parents, who continue to be a powerful example for me. Having faced cultural discrimination, they were forced to flee to the United States with practically nothing. They arrived here, to the land of opportunity, with an entrepreneurial spirit and made a success of their lives. Having learned from my parents’ difficulties in their native land before they came to the U.S., I empathize with people in developing countries. Given my family’s background, my fundamental desire in life is to help other people who are struggling to survive in underdeveloped nations.

As a future entrepreneur, one of my ambitions is to improve living standards in developing countries. I am learning one of the tools that can be used to achieve this in the MBA in Design Strategy (DMBA). It is called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking involves generating a multitude of “out of the box” ideas, building on these ideas, deferring judgment, and arriving at a consensus. According to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, it is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.” By understanding these principles, I began to see how business methods, sustainability (viability within a particular environment), strategy, and communication are fundamental to Design Thinking and can be used in global development projects. I am immersed in this learning experience at DMBA comprehending how to apply these skill-sets to participate in and contribute to social change in developing countries.

I consider Design Thinking to be like a “language.” In the same way that my parents grasped a new language quickly (English), I grasped Design Thinking quickly. Engaging in conversations and multidisciplinary collaborative practices with my peers and with the DMBA faculty, who are established design thinkers, has brought me an awareness of the necessary skills and learning methodology required to become a design thinker.

One great example of applying Design Thinking is Emily Pilloton´s Hippo Roller project. Pilloton is the founder of the organization Project H, and works at the Kgautswane community in Africa. The Hippo Roller is a simple barrel device that transports water efficiently to villages in rural parts of Africa. Using both Design Thinking and simple technology, she has helped to improve the design of the Hippo Roller and found an effective way to get water into the hands of those who need it, bypassing traditional methods of transportation. Pilloton led collaborative brainstorming sessions to develop concepts with Engineers Without Borders to lower costs of production and shipping. Project H is funding Hippo Rollers for 17 villages and provides consequential benefits: raising livestock and crops, providing additional time for education, and establishing opportunities for local entrepreneurship. This project illustrates how a product that benefits a developing country requires compatibility with the local environment and cultural standards, amongst other factors and how design thinking is highly innovative in this respect.

As a young adult, I understand how people my age, who are embarking on a new career, have great aspirations for success. Challenges and tribulations of the commercial world might provide excitement, but often don’t provide inner satisfaction. Many define success in monetary terms, while others define success in humanitarian terms. For those who want to follow a more humanitarian type of career, combined with the spirit of an entrepreneur, I believe that Design Thinking is a useful tool. There are wonderful opportunities waiting to be discovered. Entrepreneurial endeavors that involve Design Thinking can provide the ultimate achievements in personal satisfaction and a sense of service often lacking in society.

Eric Dorf believes the goods and services we produce should benefit both people and the environment. He holds both Digital Media and Graphic Design degrees and is currently working towards an MBA in Design Strategy degree at California College of the Arts. His focus is to continually create responsible new products, help to build strong organizations, and contribute to society in a meaningful way.


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  • http://twitter.com/loughnane Chris Loughnane

    Check out Paul Polak. He's been making the social entrepreneur thing financially viable for years. He'd make a great case study.

    • calvinmays

      Hey Chris!
      It's Calvin (Shawn) Mays. Nice to see you on Triple P. Look at the latest post; It's mine (with the goggles image.

  • Josh Clarke

    Thanks for the article , we certainly do need need more designers to address the wider argument. I think the only way perhaps to defend the humanitarian effort within a conservative society is to bring about the notion that self interest and collective interest are in accord. Designers must understand that the opportunities that exist in the developing world are just as fulfilling as they are lucrative.

  • desinicism

    A myriad of opportunities exist abroad for design thinkers http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/01/how-design-

  • Thomas

    In my opinion design thinking is a little too popular at the moment. Take the hippo roller for instance… as I understand it, Emily Pilloton and Project H simply redesigned an existing product that was too expensive for the majority of those who live in rural areas. The fact that they cut some costs from the manufacturing processes is good, but not revolutionary… and the fact that people are excited about “Project H funding Hippo Rollers for 17 villages” is also odd to me. Donors buying things for the developing world is also nothing new and I think it would be much more useful if people would evaluate the effectiveness of design thinking based on long term success. Will those 17 villages still be buying hippo rollers in 3 years after Project H is long gone? Or will the rural population that has lived in that area for generations resort to their own proven “design thinking” regarding how to survive. I worry that in some cases it is the publicity that drives these projects, not the end-users.

  • calvinmays

    Hey Chris!
    It's Calvin (Shawn) Mays. Nice to see you on Triple P. Look at the latest post; It's mine (with the goggles image.

  • http://brainstorm.com.ua Petya Noname

    I think designer must develop designs that they are proud of and they need to colorize the web making it not like usuall, it's a whole concept of our world.

  • dhiraj

    i think it is great that folks are designing products for the developing world, but what makes designers and other people think that the developed world knows more about what these people in developing countries need? there is a great case study on frontline called troubled water about the failure of the play pump, and how people in the developed world thought the play pump was a better solution than the hand pumps the people were accustomed to using.

    http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/southernafrica904/

    another insight is in humanitarian aid. we are finding out that sending food as humanitarian aid is actually not as good as giving the people money to buy food. why? because sending food erodes their economies thus making it even harder for these people to pull out their current situations. by sending food, people are not helping to support their local economies which then in turn means that the folks who were once selling their food to the local people are now also relying on the food being send because no one will pay for food if it is being given away.

    http://www.developments.org.uk/articles/cash-or-food/