Testing Collab Prototypes at Nairobi’s iHub


After a terrific fall quarter of need-finding work with governance innovators from around the world, both of us were itching to get on the ground to test our initial prototypes and begin to hone our ideas about how the Governance Collaboratory might work in practice.

Our first stop was in Nairobi, Kenya at the much vaunted iHub. This super-cool tech hub lives up to the hype – the design is impeccable, the space is energizing, and it boasts an inspiring group of young activists and tech entrepreneurs who are looking to shake up the political, business, and social scenes in Nairobi.  We partnered with iHub’s new UXLab (and its fearless leader, Mark Kamau!) to host a three-day design workshop for a mix of civil society activists who work on governance and politics, along with a crop of technologists and designers from the iHub community.  This prototype was designed to extract a pertinent challenge from a local organization close to the problem and then harness the energy and creativity of a diverse group of participants to design solutions (essentially testing the consultancy model we outlined in a previous post).  Few workshop participants had prior exposure to design thinking, so this was also an experiment in how first timers might deploy this new approach to challenges in their local environment.

We planned an intensive workshop modeled after the d.school’s executive education program: a combination of short lectures on each part of the design process followed by working sessions in which the participants (working in teams) applied what they learned to a specific problem.  After consulting with Mark and a number of local NGOs, we scoped a design challenge focused on issues of quality health care for Nairobi’s urban poor that stem from governance failures: design ways to increase access to quality health care for residents of Nairobi’s slums in an environment in which government health facilities are inaccessible, unlicensed medical providers are common, and counterfeit drugs are rife.

As we unveiled our design challenge, we unexpectedly encountered a revolt.  Many participants had hoped to spend their time in the design workshop on challenges from their own organization.   Since most of the people in the room were engaged in work relating to the upcoming Kenyan elections, why not focus on something pressing that could generate real impact, now?  We explained that we had received strong advice not to focus on elections-related issues during the politically charged weeks leading up to the vote, and underscored the value of trying out these new skills on an issue outside of their primary expertise as a first step.  While there was some reluctant agreement to our logic, given the participants’ enthusiasm to tackle their own issues with design thinking we opted for a mid-course correction: two days on health care, and one day with each organization working on their own problem.

Once we got the workshop back on track, the first step was empathy work in Mathare, a dense urban slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.  For everyone in the group, the experience was eye-opening.  Many of the participants had never been to the slums, so it was powerful for them to be confronted by the harsh realities of the area and to engage directly with local residents.  We returned to the UXLab the next morning to unpack the interviews and define a set of “point of views” to guide the teams’ thinking about potential solutions. The participants uncovered a number of powerful insights from their interviews that caused them to reframe the problem.  They saw that lots of the unlicensed providers were not opportunists seeking easy money; instead, they were hardworking professionals, without adequate training, but with a desire to do good and serve the needs of the locals in the area. They also found that women were ensuring that their kids had access to the best health services and high quality medicines – often traveling to government facilities whenever a child was sick – but that these same mothers put their own health at risk by relying on unlicensed providers or self-medication when they faced any illness.

The group then turned to ideation and prototyping. Two of the teams focused on the challenges of a single mother who needs to know where and how to access quality care and medicine for her children, while a third explored how they might support an unlicensed health provider who wants to improve his skills and qualifications. It was energizing to watch the teams generating tens of ideas of how they might address the needs of these two different users, and then working with construction paper, pens, and other low resolution supplies to generate experience-based prototypes that could communicate their ideas.  Unfortunately our programming change didn’t allow teams to go back to Mathare to test their prototypes, but we did have teams present their ideas and provide feedback.

On the final day, we turned our attention to specific design challenges of three of the organizations represented at the workshop: SmartVote, Uchaguzi (Ushahidi’s election-related initiative), and iHub Research’s m-Governance team.  SmartVote focused on how to empower citizens to ensure that new county governments effectively use funds for service delivery; Uchaguzi wanted to think through how best to deliver election-related information to citizens; and iHub Research tackled the issue of how best to help people in rural areas to access reliable information about clean water sources. We cycled through the first half design process in one jam-packed day with empathy work, a definition of a single user, and ideation.

Ultimately we were very happy with our unexpected programming change.  Having the teams apply design thinking twice, once to a problem outside their area of focus and a second time to their organizational priorities, allowed us to understand some of the questions we’ve been asking but weren’t planning to test in our Nairobi prototype.  The final day focused on an organization’s own challenges allowed us to test the innovation partner and incubator models for the Collab, in addition to the consultancy model.  Our jam packed three days were invigorating and encouraging: we’ll discuss our key learnings in our next post.