It is 8am in Aswan, Egypt, and the pressure builds as we anxiously await participants’ arrival. They need to cross the Nile River by boat, their prototypes in tow. They will soon pitch their innovative solutions and journeys to an eager panel of camel and bazaar owners, community elders, residents, and government leaders.
. . .
The best way to learn design is through a real hands-on experience. A local challenge is identified in advance of the workshop and addressed by the participants during five intensive days. In this way, the workshop not only builds capacity for design-led problem solving but also tackles a critical local challenge.
As part of the Aga Khan Foundation’s Accelerate Impact (AI) initiative, I had the pleasure of leading this design innovation workshop at the Om Habibeh Foundation (OHF), training nearly 30 staff members on design. The purpose of this training was to build capacity for OHF staff on human-centered design (HCD) so they could use it to drive innovation in their work going forward. OHF is a development organization that works across many social sectors; this training was a precursor to a year-long project aimed at improving the quality of life through economic inclusion for women in rural communities.
The challenge selected for this training on human-centered design was to find new ways to address the compounding garbage problem in the village of Gharb Sohail in Aswan, Egypt.
Over the last few years, the beautiful village with its murals and colorful buildings has become increasingly more polluted. The rise of tourism and a growing population add strain to an already overwhelmed system. In human-centered design, we use the phrase “How might we…?” to frame a design challenge. In this context, we asked: “How might we raise awareness to motivate and engage the people of Gharb Sohail to take action to keep their environment clean?”
The challenge was complex: Five different stakeholder groups (camel owners, bazaar owners, hotel owners, residents, and the community association) contributed to the waste problem—each with their own diverse interests, aspirations, and means of communication.
“Can we really address this challenge?” I asked Aga Khan Foundation’s Global Innovation Lead,Munir Ahmad. “Trust the process, Saad,” he replied. “As long as the challenge is human-centered, this process always leads to something meaningful.”
I wasn’t convinced but I thought to myself: Even if we can’t come up with any solutions that might work, at the very least the design process brings together the right stakeholders and creates energy behind solving a problem.
Understanding the challenge
The first step of the design process is to gain an understanding of the situation and context. One of the biggest limitations in teaching design in 5 days is that it is difficult to understand the depths of a challenge in such a short period of time. In a typical design project, the understanding period may take weeks of desk research, expert interviews, and other forms of research. For AI workshops, a local liaison spends many weeks preparing a presentation for participants called a Challenge Brief, which allows participants to quickly gain some familiarity with the complexity of the challenge. The Challenge Brief kicks off the workshop.
Working in teams of five, each group led interviews in Gharb Sohail with the stakeholders. These interviews help build an understanding of the emotions, aspirations, and deep motivations behind why stakeholders continue to contribute to the waste problem. Typically, this is one of the toughest parts of learning the design process. You have to consciously remind yourself that you are looking to hear a good story, to ask “why” a lot, and to be comfortable with awkward silences. This is an unconventional approach, different from a fact-finding exercise or an analytical interview that participants are often used to.This is a very difficult mindset to undo.
“Interviewing community members is the most fascinating phase to fuel our innovation,” says Rania, a participant from the workshop. “We were inspired by their pain points and perceptions. Later, we saw this become a driver for successful solutions.”
The participants came back from the interviews lively and energetic, chatting about what they heard and eager to unpack meanings beyond the words. They were also armed with a much deeper understanding of the ecosystem after empathizing with each stakeholder group. This was not only important for them as they look for solutions but also crucial for these stakeholders in the community because it was truly a unique experience — something no one entity in the community had ever done before.
Time to synthesize
The synthesis stage is about finding the “right” question to answer. The initial design challenge is too broad to try and solve; there are many intricacies and layers of complexity. To be successful in design, you need to find a meaningful and tangible problem to solve — often this requires scoping down. Participants started with storytelling or “downloading” their findings to their team, beginning to pick out insights they find most compelling from their interviews. Some of these included:
- No one actually knows where the waste bins are located
- Small sorting facilities are already created by hotels
- There are some small-scale entrepreneurial inventions for turning waste into revenue
- Burning waste bins is common, which renders them unusable and of course leads to air pollution
Equipped with these empowering insights and many more, the teams came up with reframed “How might we…?” questions that would allow them to tackle their scoped challenges with a fresh perspective.
With a more nuanced “How might we…?” question, teams were ready to begin the most creative stage in the entire process. Ideation is a fun process that allows people to be creative when traditional approaches, hierarchies, or culture might have prevented it before. It proves that everyone can be creative and there is no one way to solve a problem. Ideation is a vulnerable, bonding experience for teams, where laughter, openness, and a lot of playfulness emerge among the teams. No matter what people’s backgrounds were (gender, race, or experience level), they have something to offer to this process. At the same time, the design process isn’t always easy. There are points in the process where tension can be felt, especially when important decisions need to be made and teams are at a disagreement. When these circumstances take place rapidly throughout the process, a team must grow and learn to work together quickly.
A general rule of thumb we use: If you haven’t come up with enough ideas, you haven’t done justice to the challenge. Collectively, the groups came up with over 100 ideas and then had to select just one each to continue.
Some wild ideas that were put in the “idea graveyard” included camel diapers, green sidewalks, and celebrity awareness videos — just to name a few. Once the ideas were selected, it was time to make them tangible.
Prototyping to bring ideas to life
Equipped with some innate design and engineering abilities, the groups turned their ideas into storyboards and into actual prototypes that could be tested. Prototypes included:
- Representing what a sorting system might look like at a very small scale
- A display booth and hackathon for learning about using waste to create sustainable business models
- Garbage bins that represented the colorful Nubian traditions (ones that you wouldn’t want to burn)
- An accessible and playful map that could be provided to households to find the closest trash bins
The ideas looked great with paper, but it wasn’t certain whether they had potential yet.
One important principle of human-centered design: An idea is not valuable unless the people you designed it for find it valuable.
Testing for the moment of truth
All five stakeholder groups from the community were brought to test the various ideas. Feedback galore was received. Typically, teams struggle with this stage. They often try to elevator pitch and sell their ideas, but this isn’t the goal. The goal is to have the user engage with what they created with the least amount of description possible. It can be disheartening to learn that a user doesn’t understand or doesn’t like your solution. However, it is important in this stage to remember that your prototype is not precious — but the observations and insights that come from it are. You will have plenty of opportunities to go back to any of the earlier stages of the design process and start over or make changes. The faster you fail, the faster you learn.
It was finally the moment of truth: 8am in Aswan, Egypt. We anxiously awaited the arrival of the participants — crossing the Nile River by boat, with their prototypes in tow.
Would the teams make it here on time? Would the stakeholders be happy with their pitch? What would happen next?
Luckily, they made it. In fact, they were 15 minutes early and ready to go! The day before, the teams had learned the art of storytelling as a way of communicating their design process and solutions. Drawing on role-play to build empathy and create suspense, they did a splendid job of communicating their visions. The stakeholders were inspired and said they would also like to further develop prototypes and test the ideas at a greater scale. Furthermore, a few OHF staff members also had the capability of moving forward with these ideas in their own projects.
New pathways for empathy and innovation
With the participants all coming from the same organization, this proved to be a fantastic team-building exercise. The teams were diverse in background, gender, age, disciplines, and life experiences.
Design reaches its true potential when a team has a powerful collective experience and a strong motivation to work together.
With an incredibly well structured, compact, and immersive design experience, we empowered a group that knew almost nothing about design to become equipped with skills in empathy building, synthesis, ideation, prototyping, testing, and storytelling. I saw with my own eyes participants become more willing to take risks, be creative, collaborate, empathize, and inspire one another to take action with design. I saw people work longer and harder with an energy that only comes when you are solving a problem with an understanding of the “why” rather than just the “what” or the “how.” Not only were we successful in teaching the process, but we also made some serious strides toward tackling a real-life challenge (a part of the undertaking that I initially had doubts about).
The environmental and waste management challenges we sought to solve for are not only critical for Gharb Sohail, but also for many parts of the world that could adapt the solutions presented here. In one week, we built empathy for our users and created truly innovative prototypes that both succeeded and failed. But, more importantly, we created new pathways for interventions, change, and understanding. If the local implementation teams continue pushing these ideas a little further, they will undoubtedly make strides that will improve local communities and perhaps will have the potential for global scale.
It is moments like these when one resumes hope in humanity’s ability to work together to make powerful changes rapidly that can ultimately improve well-being and quality of life. With a group of curious and passionate people and a process rooted in the human perspective, anything is possible.
Originally written by Saad Rajan for Accelerate Impact. Accelerate Impact is a global initiative from the Aga Khan Foundation that sparks the co-creation of innovative solutions with communities to increase our collective impact.