To the layperson, the words “design thinking” might not conjure much. If you’re a designer, an engineer, or an architect, it might be the idea of iterating to build the proverbial better mousetrap (or a remote control that doesn’t drive users crazy with superfluous buttons).
Team4Tech, a startup dedicated to bettering the world by sending volunteers to promote digital literacy and technology in developing countries and underresourced corners of the globe, makes sure all of its innovative participatory projects are deeply grounded in design thinking, taking the whole concept a step further.
Maria Posa, Team4Tech’s program manager, is charged with shaping the design-thinking aspect of each volunteer project. “In a nutshell,” she explains, “design thinking is a problem-solving framework or methodology of studying a given user, identifying a problem that user is facing, and then testing and iterating solutions until you have something that’s fantastic.”
Those solutions can include the eye-catching aesthetics that most people think of when they hear the word “design,” but more often, the goal is to solve the user’s problem and to fill a need. A well-known example of what design thinking can do in the context of international development is the Embrace Warmer—an inexpensive, portable warmer for premature babies that can do the job of incubators found in first-world hospitals.
Companies like IDEO and Frog Design utilize design thinking to develop products, but within the context of Team4Tech’s mission, the design-thinking model is primarily used to develop the “four Cs”—creativity, collaboration, communication, and critical thinking—in their volunteers.
“The act of going through the design-thinking process helps people develop those skills,” Posa says. “For our volunteers, it fosters solutions-oriented behavior and creativity, especially in highly constrained situations. This comes in handy when they’re in, say, Tanzania and they need to set up a classroom projector with only duct tape, cardboard, and some zip ties.”
For two weeks last summer, seven Autodesk volunteers partnered with Team4Tech in Kayamandi Township, near Stellenbosch, South Africa, to train teachers and school administrators on digital literacy and 21st-century education methods. In addition to bringing over donated 3D printers and 35 laptops loaded with Tinkercad and other Autodesk tools, the volunteers were charged with inspiring local educators to go beyond traditional “chalk-and-talk” teaching methods to engage their students.
As part of their orientation before heading to South Africa, volunteers took part in Team4Tech’s design-thinking workshop, which took them through the process of identifying a need, developing prototypes, and iterating solutions. “Each workshop is tailored to each particular project, focusing on the skills our volunteers can use in country, and that they can then try to foster in the teachers they’ll be training,” Posa says.
Using design thinking in the context of Team4Tech’s volunteer projects takes the entire endeavor to whole new levels. Noel Durrant, program director, saw this with his own eyes in South Africa. “[Autodesk’s] team, who are used to the design environment and the design cycle, got right into how to improve the next day,” he says. “We had that design cycle going on every day, every evening.
“By the time we got to the end of the project, we had a very refined delivery, a very targeted delivery,” Durrant continues. “We heard that coming back from the teachers, and that they’d never had an experience like it.”
On another Team4Tech project that illustrates the benefits of using design thinking, volunteers in Vietnam—a country where bicycles are a significant form of transportation—had taken up the challenge of building a better bike seat. But the project was based in an orphanage, where none of the kids owned bikes.
The volunteers pivoted. It was the windy season, and stands selling elaborate kites had popped up like mushrooms. This presented the perfect design-thinking opportunity—the team switched its challenge to designing kites.
According to Posa, the lesson is that design thinking is a very nimble thing that can be applied anywhere. “Relevancy matters,” she says. “Why bother designing something people don’t have access to? With a little creativity and a problem-solving mentality, you can do so much.”
The benefits of design thinking—and of Team4Tech’s efforts to the developing world and its communities—are obvious, but what about the benefits to the volunteers who are doing this work? They’re bringing back more than just inspiring stories.
“This is really a leadership development program for tech employees,” Posa says. “Our volunteers are developing more than the ‘four Cs’—they’re also gaining a global mindset. We’re taking them out of their comfort zone, asking them to wrap their minds around the task at hand, to work closely in teams in a foreign environment while tackling a highly complex problem.”
Stepping out of familiar roles, expectations, and hierarchies can be uncomfortable, but no one said changing the world was easy. After returning home, Team4Tech volunteers bring this fresh perspective—and new design-thinking skills—to bear at their jobs here in the States.
Just as importantly, the positive effects linger in the good work those volunteers leave behind. “This was a very special project,” says Hannes van Zyl of the Greater Stellenbosch Development Trust in Kayamandi. “[Autodesk’s] team came out here, put in very long hours, with the utmost professionalism. They were truly inspiring in terms of hard work, innovation, and teamwork. The facilitators, teachers, and children, they’re all asking, what are we doing next? It’s clear that we must start a computer club for children.”