Catapult Design’s Secret to Success: Patience and a Grasp on Tomorrow’s Technologies

by Timothy A. Schuler
- Mar 10 2016 - 4 min read
Catapult Design conducted water-use research in Rajasthan, India, for social-enterprise client Wello. Courtesy Noel Wilson.

Ask anyone: Technologies such as email and cell phones have turned the already-rapid pace of modern life into a frenzied, nearly unmanageable need for immediacy and instant gratification.

The Pew Research Center warns that “hyperconnected” individuals may lose the ability to be patient, and psychologist Philip Zimbardo calls the compulsion to use social media a “present hedonism” and writes that overreliance on technology actually alters perception of time.

Catapult Design spent time in Rajasthan, India, to help improve Wello’s WaterWheel water-transport system. Courtesy Noel Wilson.

Although the Internet and other technologies allow, perhaps even drive, people to work and communicate more quickly, Catapult Design Creative Director Noel Wilson argues that the use of cutting-edge technology and patience are not incompatible. In fact, he says, designers need both technology and patience—especially those in the social-innovation space, where every dollar counts and the end goal is not maximized profit margins, but better quality of life.

Catapult Design is a nonprofit design-services company that specializes in resource-limited projects in developing nations, such as Ghana. There, Wilson is working alongside Burro, a West African product company, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop safer decentralized food-processing equipment for the production of gari, a couscous-like food made from the cassava root, a staple of the West African diet.

Other Catapult projects include the design of solar lanterns and solar home systems for off-grid families in Kenya with One Degree Solar, hand-washing hardware with Innovations for Poverty Action (also in Kenya), water transport and storage hardware with Wello in India, and a guide to entrepreneurship for the Navajo Nation.

A 3D-printed, scaled prototype of the improved Wello WaterWheel. Courtesy Noel Wilson.

Based in Denver, the company always works with local partners that are immersed and trusted in the communities and target markets that their projects serve. Between 2012 and 2014, Wilson spent at least 12 months in Indonesia working with local partners and entrepreneurs to improve access to renewable-energy hardware for remote communities.

Catapult Design is successful in large part because of its approach, which is as rigorous as the iterative processes employed by corporate design firms in, say, Silicon Valley, yet needs to remain more adaptable to accommodate the many types of organizations, bureaucracies, and contexts that the firm brings design into afresh.

“I think the fact that we’re doing design work, full-stop, for organizations that might otherwise not get a chance to engage with designers is what differentiates us, more than any design dogma,” Wilson says. In this world, he says, what designers and clients need more than an unlimited budget or a patented process is patience: “Patience, in terms of iteration and innovation—especially in places where things haven’t changed for a long, long time—is really important.”

The company goes to great lengths to establish a realistic time frame early on and encourages clients to set aside a portion of a project’s budget for prototyping, piloting, and long-term monitoring. “With a product, you cannot correctly judge its merit for a few years, in a lot of cases,” he says. “And that is really hard for some people to swallow.”

A concept sketch of the hand-washing station Catapult Design created for Innovations for Poverty Action in Kenya. Courtesy Noel Wilson.

Again, the process requires patience, which doesn’t always come naturally. “I want to see results too,” Wilson admits. “I’m pretty impatient.” He’s taught himself patience by avoiding becoming consumed.

“You have to be passionate about a project but not too obsessed and therefore not too impatient with progress,” he says. “You have to be able to let other people take control of something. You have to hand it over to manufacturers, who make changes. You have to hand it over to clients, who make changes. You are not the controller of the product; you’re purely an influencer along the way.”

The same factors that make patience an unequivocal virtue make technology a vital asset. “Because we have small budgets and high ideals, our process needs to be as efficient as possible,” Wilson says. Increasingly, next-generation manufacturing methods such as rapid prototyping and design software such as Autodesk Inventor and Autodesk Fusion 360 are providing an answer. “Give it five years, and we won’t know what the world did without [these tools],” he says.

Testing the first iteration of refined handwashing-station prototypes in Kenya. Courtesy Noel Wilson.

By employing methods such as 3D printing (once seen as science fiction or, at the very least, an expensive luxury), Catapult’s designers can work more quickly and therefore more efficiently. “3D printing is actually encouraging more iteration because of the speed of prototyping and the speed of being able to get something that feels real to people,” Wilson says. It’s a double-edged sword, however. If prototypes seem too real, he says, clients can easily lose interest in further iteration.

Throughout history, humans have had to remain adaptable to new technologies, and for the world’s developing countries, where populations are skyrocketing, it’s never been more important. “Part of the puzzle of solving these problems is to understand new technologies,” Wilson says. “It’s especially exciting when we think about generative design: We’re almost to the level where artificial intelligence can start helping think of alternatives that we can’t think of ourselves.” Artificial intelligence isn’t part of the process yet, but in the meantime, Catapult Design is providing plenty of alternatives that matter to developing communities around the world.

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