Reflections on our first design project

Post by Michael Lindenberg

When those of us who traveled to Sierra Leone arrived back on campus, we brought with us real determination to do something useful for Simeon Koroma and the ordinary Sierra Leonean villagers whom we met while in country. The empathy work we had done had left us feeling they were getting a raw deal and that Simeon’s group, Timap for Justice, was positioned to do something about it, if only it could focus its energies on the right agenda.

Our first challenge in helping develop a solution for him, and for the people his agency helps, was to engage the two members of our team who weren’t on the trip. This was both easier and more difficult than it may seem at first.

It was easier because of the skills, smarts and commitment they shared with us in engaging this process. Chi, for instance, has had more design school experience than the rest of us, and was able to help draw out of Ramya and myself concrete images from our time in the field. He asked, for instance, how a particular chief felt when it became clear he lacked the power to protect his people. He knew to ask what the context was, and helped us flesh out our reports. Guy was able to bring a businessman’s focus to some of our discussions, and helped keep me, anyway, more organized in my delivery than I might have been otherwise.

The task of firing up our team members was difficult in other ways. Not having been there, there wasn’t the immediate emotional commitment that I believe Ramya and I felt form the beginning. The challenge for them, at the outside, was likely more of a puzzle to solve, or a set of questions to answer.

I think we succeeded in bridging that gap, but I do think it’s one of the key challenges to consider when designing future projects of this nature. It’s possible that a higher level of engagement from the at-home team during the week might help narrow that gap. Rather than just conducting one set of interviews with a mining company in an analogous situation, for instance, maybe the at-home team should seek out Sierra Leonean expatriates and do more in-depth empathy work.

The point here is only to suggest that there might be a way to make the two teams situated on more common ground when the go team returns.

Once we moved into the needs stage and later began brainstorming, the differences between the two halves of our group faded, however. That was helpful, because the ideas presented needed to be, and were, treated equally regardless of whether they sprung out of observed experience or second-hand accounts.

The other challenge, I think, of this process had to do with time. Five weeks is a short space. There are real benefits of being on a tight deadline. Toward the end I was actually relieved that we were nearing the end and that we had been forced to decide quickly on a specific challenge for which we were looking to design a solution.

Still, we all had, I think it’s fair to say, a feeling that other good ideas – rival users whose needs were equally great, competing how might we statements and the also-ran solutions – were left on the table without really being evaluated. We were asked to keep notes of these in an appendix and I think it’s smart that we did because in a more traditional setting we’d almost certainly have to revisit some of those key ideas as we run into problems with the solution we ultimately chose.

Bottom line: The whole endeavor at times felt like the academic exercise that it was, and less of an project intent on create real solutions.

One possible improvement would be to keep the clock ticking – forcing the next group to just as speedily make decisions – but built into the schedule two or three classes where the object is to circle back and consider the ideas that were given short-shift, and ask what elements of those insights or discussions could be relevant going forward.

A closing note about what we did come up with. We’re quite proud of the results. We believe that the core of our idea, namely the creation of an association of landowners that could work across village borders, has the potential to create a people-powered platform that could implement, or experiment with, all sorts of improvements in the future.

It could start small, say by encouraging a few landowners to share information, and could eventually be as large as creating a powerful check against self-interested rules or companies seeking advantage,

That we arrived at this solution was a testament to the team-building aspect of the project, and to the capacity for members of the team to have their minds changed by ideas they got excited by. 


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