How Toru & Ideo.Org Are Training Social Entreprenuers Through Human-Centered Design

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ICE Business Times spoke to Saif Kamal from Toru and Rob Gradoville from IDEO.org to find out more about their vision for the future through Human-Centered Design.

Recently, Toru – Institute for Inclusive Innovations, organized the first Social Innovation Design Week in partnership with IDEO.org, supported by Levi Strauss Foundation and Mohammadi Group. The program was a unique learning journey, full of dynamic design exercises, for twenty Fellows who immersed themselves in the daily lives of Mohammadi Group’s RMG factory workers. Guided by an experienced design mentor, they looked at the RMG worker community through an engaging and empathetic lens, with a view to solving some of the most pressing challenges they face through Human Centered Design.

What can you tell us about your organization IDEO.org?
Rob Gradoville: IDEO.org was born out of the global design firm, IDEO, about six years ago. The parent company, IDEO, has been around for about 40 years. They started off in product design and they’re most well-known for designing the first house for the Apple computer. They’ve done all kinds of things beyond product design such as experience design, service design, interaction design and so on. So IDEO.org was developed as an offshoot of IDEO in 2011 and it was taking that same approach to solving problems to the social space. At IDEO.org we work with partners that are supporting vulnerable communities around the world. Part of our work is a program I work with called Amplify which is a design-inspired incubator for the social sector. We find and support entrepreneurs and innovators around the world through a series of challenges that are focused on specific topics each year.

Saif Kamal Founder, Toru
Saif Kamal
Founder, Toru

You just finished the Social Innovation Design Week. What made you start such a program?
Saif Kamal: Let me start with a macro-level perspective. While people often talk about startups and technology innovations, we’ve seen that generally, people often lack the skills to actually go and build an innovation. At Toru, we take a very skill-focused, human-centered approach. So this design week was an effort to help develop those skills among a group of Bangladeshi innovators and offer a space for ‘design’. People often confuse design with fashion or interiors; but design is core component of solving a problem. We also believe that multidisciplinary groups are where innovations happen organically and that’s where Social Innovation Design Week comes in – acting as a competitive and curated process to bring a diverse group together. The multidisciplinary team of these 20 Fellows were chosen through a rigorous selection process and while the applications for the design week were overwhelming we had an acceptance rate of only 7%. The Fellows were students, lawyers, engineers, architects, business entrepreneurs, professors, and so on. It was amazing to see these diverse individuals come together and work on designing real-life solutions.

Rob Gradoville: What I was most interested in getting involved in when Toru reached out, was this crazy combination of things; that was kind of a fusion for how you could bring people together from all different sectors and teach them what the theory of human centered design is. During the design week we got to talk about human centered design, and how it’s more about how you can be thoughtful in terms of identifying issues and solving problems. So it seemed like this was an amazing experiment which helped bring people in an environment where they could learn and immerse themselves in the design process in a really unique way.

Going down to micro-level, what actually happened during the whole program?
Saif Kamal: The RMG sector has faced a lot of challenges over the years. About 2 years back, I was at SOCAP in San Francisco talking to a gentleman, a point brought up was how most young people do not know much about this industry and they have these assumptions that are far from reality. He turned out to be Daniel Lee, the Executive Director of Levis Strauss Foundation. He agreed that we have to step in and say it’s time we need to immerse people in the sector by creating a learning opportunity. So the design process starts with empathy and then moves onto creating a space where innovators and ideas can be introduced to help those involved in the sector. I remember Daniel echoing my thought of creating home grown innovators and responsible citizens who will work shoulder to shoulder to build social innovations for change rather than parachuting expatriates.
At the design week, we had twenty people divided into five groups and each group was tasked with addressing different issues in the RMG sector such as child care, menstrual health and hygiene, improving living conditions, health and nutrition and finally mental health, the joy and happiness of the workers.
One the most interesting things during this time was how the factory owners engaged in the sessions and shared their views and experiences. Later, we announced that some of these solutions will go back as insights to the factory management and we would be willing to provide support and mentoring for those interested in moving forward with their ideas.

Rob Gradoville: Personally, I think that this was only the beginning of the journey of twenty people who will start to think differently in their own sectors and hopefully, continue with Toru to tackle issues in the garment sector. This was an educational experience and what came out of it was some interesting insights that I think the management of the factories will take forward, and hopefully, support. A bigger ripple effect will be seen in six months or a year down the road as these participants start the implementation process of their work.

Rob Gradoville Portfolio Manager IDEO.org
Rob Gradoville
Portfolio Manager
IDEO.org

How is Toru following up on these programs?
Saif Kamal: People who come into Toru have their ideas go through a certain funnel process and this happens for every sector that we work in. At Toru our programs are designed to engage design mentors, access to industry experts, end-users and subject matter experts to help these innovators with the process of nurturing innovations. They will be linked to the factories, after that we provide 5 hours of inspirational sessions for identifying and solving problems. Then we have 5 day programs such as the design week, where we immerse them and then we go onto a 5 week period where we help them to test and structure their ideas. After this, they move into another stage called Design and Innovation, which lasts for about 6 to 8 months. During this time, they iterate the solution they’ve designed and we give them a funding support of upto $4000. After that, we have the ‘Impactpreneur’ stage, where we support them with $10,000 and advanced level business incubation support.

A lot of people don’t understand the concept of human-centered design; could you explain the concept for us?
Saif Kamal: When we’re trying to solve problems we make assumptions and ask people, “Do you want this?” or “Do you want that?”. To reconfirm our assumptions we use market research and focus groups. Human-centered design is very different from market research. This process gives you the ability to empathize and see things through the eyes of the people you’re trying to design for. Often there’s a difference between what people say they want to do, and what they actually do. Human Centered Design reveals why people do what they do and what can be done to meet their needs better.

Rob Gradoville: I think this is a question a lot of people struggle to answer. A lot of the world tries to solve problems by analyzing and then deciding what is best. Human-centered design is different as it starts with a divergent process and we call this process a ‘double diamond’ where we start diverging and thinking very widely; gaining information from people who are associated with these issues, talking to them and hearing their stories. The next phase involves some brainstorming, understanding and breaking down what you’ve heard. Once you’ve got lots of thoughts and ideas, you slowly converge towards small prototype experiments that you can then use to continue a conversation with people in the center of these issues in a more concrete way.

Can you give us an example of a successful project that has used this approach?
Rob Gradoville: At IDEO.org we worked with an international non-profit called Marie Stopes International in Eastern Africa and this organization was really good at responding to young women who recently had a child and supporting them with family planning, spacing and other issues. When they came to us, they were really struggling to figure out how to reach girls before they had their first sexual interaction or before they had a child. The best practice was to use rationale and logic to show girls that, ‘look if you don’t do these things (protective methods), these are potential downsides. However, if you do follow our advice, then here are the upsides.’ So we engaged in a project with them and one of the insights that came out was that the girls perceived these conversations with nurses as high stakes conversations, although they were meant to be comforting and supporting. So the prototype that we ran involved setting up a small table with nail polish and lipstick and put some chairs around it. We brought in people who worked in this sector and some young girls and we observed them having conversations while painting their nails. They weren’t looking at each other because there was something else to focus on and it was clear that this setup wasn’t there to evangelize or change the way they thought. It was a very low stakes environment, and painting nails and talking around a table was a distraction. Once you don’t stare people in the eye, it makes it a bit lower at stakes and then you’re more open to having these conversations. So that insight was key in working with Marie Stopes International to redesign the kind of young women health clinic women, along the lines of a nail salon.

You’ve also held a program called Innovators for Impact where you’ve spoken about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and inclusive growth. Can you elaborate on this?
Saif Kamal: The reality of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that it will rapidly change the skills needed to succeed. These are skills significantly different from what the traditional education system teaches today. People need to be made aware of the skills of tomorrow Toru explored what skills people currently have, how they need to grow and what the future will look like for inclusive growth. In Bangladesh, you can may see paradigm shifts when blue collar employees working in factories which may become unnecessary with automation in near future. In addition to that, majority of the white collar employees are doing repetitive work in offices which can be done by artificial intelligence. So what do you do with this population when their skillset becomes outdated? What we need to do is redefine the whole idea of having those values and skillsets to survive through inclusive growth and then you can move up the chain as an innovator or social entrepreneur.
I believe that once you start innovating or have certain kinds of disruptions, policies catch up later. But you have to get to a critical mass at least and show that it works. Once that’s done, the next work is to go into academic institutions, work with them and then eventually influence policy level discussions with the government.

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