Archives For social impact


A few months ago, I wrote a post about five technologies in need of design makeovers in 2014. I’m happy to report my colleagues at, working with a group of NGOs and health and tech industry collaborators, have taken a shot at redesigning the most newsworthy item on that list, and the one with the worst reputation: drones.

The newly launched Drones for Health site focuses on the positive aspects of the remote aerial devices, asking the question, “How can drones improve global health?”

Rather than creepy privacy invaders or weapons of war, the team (Behrouz Hariri, Adam Reineck, and John Won) saw past the technology’s bad reputation and repositioned drones as “flying helpers,” coming up with scenarios in which unmanned aerial vehicles are uniquely suited to address big global health challenges.

In the aftermath of a natural disaster, for example, when the land is impassable, a drone could collect data from the sky; or what if they traveled the last-mile of the transportation infrastructure, delivering life-saving medicine and immunizations to the world’s hardest-to-reach corners?

The team’s vision, along with a set of design guidelines, are meant to inspire potential drone builders to create future flying helpers that look and act more human, contributing to the social good.

I’m inspired by this thoughtful, optimistic approach. In three short months, they were able to transform drones from dreadful to delightful. It made me wonder:

How might we inspire new collaborations and create more human-centered solutions to other maligned technologies like big data or email?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


We say we practice human-centered design at IDEO, but what does that really mean? Our friends at +Acumen and have designed a free online course to answer that question. Open to anyone anywhere in the world—no prior design experience needed— the class is called “Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation.” The goal is to teach budding social entrepreneurs how to develop solutions for those who live in such dire circumstances, they may not know where their next meal will come from.

The team-based, 7-week curriculum was first offered last summer and brought together over 13,000 people from 134 countries. Many inspiring ideas came out of the course, but one in particular caught my attention.

Two groups of staff members from Jacaranda Health in Kenya, which is dedicated to providing affordable, high-quality healthcare to low-income women in East Africa, looked at “barriers to good nutrition” for pregnant women. To better understand the problem, they interviewed people all along the healthy eating chain—pregnant women, farmers, community members, cooks, and food buyers—distilled the information, then brainstormed possible solutions. Then they built prototypes and showed them to patients in their maternity clinic for feedback.

What’s interesting is that even thought the two groups were looking at the same problem—“improve pregnant women’s nutrition”—they came up with very different solutions. One group thought better education was the answer, so they came up with healthy eating do’s and don’ts that they published in a local newspaper and posted in the clinic’s waiting room. The other group felt pregnant women know what to eat, they just don’t have the right resources, so they created a burlap-sack kitchen garden that would grow iron-rich greens in their homes.

Jacarada Health’s commitment to taking a human-centered approach to solving their communities’ maternal-health challenges is impressive and has caught the attention of the Gates Foundation, Heath Enterprise Fund, and others. In about the time it takes to get a passport, you, too, can be introduced to a whole new way to approach the world’s toughest challenges.

Specifically, the social-innovation course will:

  • Teach you human-centered design processes and methods
  • Help you identify patterns and opportunities for concept development
  • Inspire you to approach challenges differently and experience how human-centered design can add a new perspective to your own work
  • Give you hands-on experience speaking to, prototyping for, and testing solutions with potential users.

This year’s registration deadline—March 30—is fast approaching. Time to design a better, more human future together. Sign up now.


What challenges will you tackle with your newly acquired design-thinking skills?


(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)


At IDEO, we often start brainstorms with the phrase, “How Might We” (HMW, for short). We use these three words because they help frame a problem in an open-ended, optimistic, and collaborative way. “How” assumes there are solutions out there. “Might” says some of the ideas may work, others won’t—either way, it’s OK. And “We” says we’re going to solve the problem together by building on each other’s ideas. (I write more about this powerful phrase in my book, Change By Design.)

This is the first of several such HMW posts I’ll be posting over the coming months. The intent is to provoke conversation about some of the big global challenges we face and reframe them as creative opportunities.

The inspiration for this post was a recent discussion I moderated on “The Rise of Megacities” for the World Economic Forum. A megacity is defined as having over ten million people. One panelist informed us that as cities increase their gross domestic product, the average wellness of their inhabitants declines. At first, this seems counterintuitive. While city dwellers are undoubtedly earning more than they would in their rural homelands, dense living conditions, poor sanitation, and lax policing mean they’re also exposed to terrible diseases and increased crime. Over time, these things lead to increased income inequality. A small portion of the population does disproportionately better both economically and physiologically, while the majority stays locked in poverty with significantly shorter life expectancies. Social instability and violence quickly follow.

Another insight from the session: in many megacities, the lowest paid workers—drivers, maids, etc.—commute up to six hours a day. This has terrible impact on quality of life. Thankfully, some Latin American cities are beginning to address this issue. For instance, one of Rio De Janeiro’s most notorious favelas, Complexo do Alemão, has a sophisticated cable-car system that speeds 30,000 passengers a day to work in the city center. Each resident gets one return ride per day for free. Reducing commuting times means residents have more time to spend with their families, on education, or even second jobs.

Our thought-provoking discussion got me thinking in HMWs:

How might we redesign cities to increase the wealth and health of the majority of inhabitants?

How might we use open spaces in cities to promote wellness?

How might we reduce the amount of surface area currently dedicated to cars (now around 30%)?

How might we design new services to help city dwellers achieve sustainable livelihoods?

How mights we rethink zoning rules and exploit emerging digital-manufacturing technologies to bring work closer to where people live?

Data shows that megacities, in general, are a good idea. They reduce carbon emissions, generate wealth, and increase productivity and innovation. One of the greatest design challenges of the 21st century will be ensuring everyone benefits equally from these cities’ explosive growth—instead of some being unfairly exploited by it.

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

Photo: CC Image courtesy of Daniel Julie on FlickrPhoto.


According to a UN report on aging, the world’s population is aging at an unprecedented rate. By 2050, the number of people 60 years or older will exceed the number of young people under age 15 for the first time in history. The effects of population aging are profound and impact everything from economic growth, labor markets, and taxes to healthcare, housing, and family structures.

Simply put, aging is a fact of life. Our parents, grandparents, friends, ourselves: we all will age. Whether we’re able to stay active, healthy, and retain our sense of autonomy as we age, well, that’s another matter. Which is why this question is so pressing: How might we all maintain wellbeing and thrive as we age?

This is the latest OpenIDEO design challenge posed by Mayo Clinic and it’s one I encourage you to contribute your creativity to. After all, staying mentally active is key to healthy aging.

What aspects of aging are you most concerned about?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)

Filling Africa Up

March 22, 2013 — Leave a comment


Design is at its most powerful when it helps us take a complex, hard to imagine problem, and makes it simple. Water access in Africa is really complex, but the image of ‘filling Africa up’ with irrigation is very simple. KickStart is doing important work in bringing irrigation pumps to Africa but this image just may be one of the most exciting ideas they have had. Find out more about Kickstart here and World Water Day here.

What powerful image unleashes your imagination?

(Posted also on my LinkedIn Thought Leader blog)