Key Learnings in Nairobi


After three intense days at iHub we were exhausted, but we also learned a great deal.  There were a number of key insights that will inform how we approach the Collaboratory going forward:

  • Design thinking is tough to translate, but generates widespread enthusiasm when people experience it. The language of design thinking is very foreign to people, especially outside of the United States. Although our slides were simple and the lectures short, the approach was so unfamiliar that it was clear people were having a hard time keeping up with the material. Powerfully though, practicing design thinking turned the skeptics in the room into new adherents (with almost concerning enthusiasm).  By the end of the workshop, people from each of the organizations were talking about how they were going to apply the approach as they designed their next set of interventions.
  • Empathy work is where it’s at. The experience of doing empathy work was incredibly powerful, and revealed a set of implicit assumptions that were biasing our thinking but turned out to be wrong. When we initially talked about empathy work, we got the sense that it is something people feel they do regularly as part of their work.  As we headed out to Mathare, however, and then reflected on our time there, it quickly became clear that few actually do the kind of deep engagement that involves going to meet potential users/beneficiaries with an open mind about what they need and how they think.
  • There is enormous value in putting people to work on unfamiliar problems with new teams. Because of the group’s rebellion, we had an opportunity to see the participants work first in new teams focused on an unfamiliar design challenge, and later in teams with co-workers focused on their own core issues. It was clear to us that it is much harder for people to be creative—to break out of the mold—when they are in the mode of expert. When focused on the health challenge, no one in the room was an expert.  They all had to listen closely in Mathare, soak in as much as they could, and everyone felt free to generate even off-the-wall ideas for interventions because they had few preexisting biases about what might be the right thing to do. It was much more difficult for people to do true need-finding work when they had a strong feeling they knew their users.  Innovation felt constrained to the incremental when teams were already biased towards a particular solution and brainstormed with colleagues with similar frames of mind.  This insight gives us pause around the innovation partner and incubator models for the Collab.
  • Hands-on coaching makes a big difference. It was clear that teams got further when we engaged directly and actively in helping them to construct points of view, brainstorm possible solutions, and prototype their innovations. This stems in part from our familiarity with the design process, but also because of the substantive expertise we bring on many of the issues the participants care about. This is good news as we are enthusiastic about getting our hands into each of the problems we bring to the Collaboratory, but also underscores the importance of finding ways to bring design thinking together with substantive issue expertise.
  • A lot of progress can be made even in a very short time. The workshop was only three days long, but the teams generated a set of really creative ideas about how to solve the design challenges they faced. For example, for the health care challenge, the teams developed prototypes around a community-based information service (in-person and on-line) to help residents navigate the web of licensed and unlicensed service providers; a mobile clinic that leverages medical students to provide quality care in the slums and ensures (via an SMS platform) that individuals know when and where they can get the proper medication they are prescribed; and a crowd-funding strategy for supporting unlicensed providers to get the extra skills and formal qualifications they need to serve their communities. We can’t wait to see what kind of ideas teams develop when they aren’t so constrained by time and have a few design cycles behind them.

The biggest takeaway of all is that it feels like we’re really on to something.  It was incredibly energizing for both of us to finally roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty, putting together our backgrounds in political science, economics, and technology with our newfound skills in design thinking.