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Core77 Year in Review

December 29, 2015

This past year, Core77’s Allan Chochinov had a chance to speak with leaders in social innovation about their projects, methods, and ideas about design for social impact. In looking back on some of those discussions and checking in to see how their year wrapped up, we found that these designers are approaching social impact challenges with many of the same considerations all of us in the design community are thinking about:how to best manage collaboration, how to reframe our thinking to make sure we’re working on the right problems, and how to innovate meaningfully through both the process and the final product.

COLLABORATION

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In February Allan spoke with Mariana Amatullo, Vice President of the award-winning Designmatters Department at Art Center College of Art and Design which she co-founded in 2001. Designmatters serves as a vibrant hub for strategic collaborations and, over the course of more than a decade, the department has built a broad network of innovative collaborations with social, public, and private sector organizations.

“Collaboration is a key factor that supports the success of the program,” says Amatullo. “Engaging in social innovation work through design is inherently about stepping into complexity; there is often a need to deal with ‘wicked problems’ — a class of challenges that are complex and systemic in nature.”

Amatullo also notes that collaboration doesn’t just stop with picking a group of partner organizations to work together. “Collaboration involves bringing individuals together for a common purpose,” she said. “Genuine collaboration can be messy and demanding in any context; it can be especially so when you are embarking on a design project with social innovation aims. It starts with the fact that the design brief may not clearly indicate what success looks like in terms of outcomes…. In addition, you are likely to be part of a team that has to integrate a variety of fields of knowledge within and outside design and reconcile the worldviews of diverse stakeholders and participants with very divergent perspectives and priorities.”

But, even with these challenges, collaboration is the name of the game. “I have learned to embrace collaboration as a sine quan non for success in our educational projects. It is always deeply transformative for all involved.”

THINKING REFRAMED

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In addition to collaboration, the reframing of a problem can truly unlock innovation. Robert Fabricant, co-founder and principal of the Design Impact Group (DIG) at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, spoke with Allan about how he works to consider problems from new perspectives when tackling root causes and complex systems to solve problems. Most stakeholders see human-centered design as a downstream issue, secondary to developing new models and technical solutions. We are working to flip that dynamic and to surface user needs and market context very early in the process.”

In November, 2015 DIG used this thinking in an important study that examines how farmers measure the impact of financial solutions. Using human-centered design methodology, the team interviewed 28 farmers in Ghana and Kenya in order to understand which outcomes should be measured and which can make the most impact in a changing world.

MEANINGFUL INNOVATION

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Evaluating and streamlining processes can both help companies achieve operational excellence and function as a catalyst for understanding the full impact of a company’s sustainability. In August, Core77 explored the work of BioLite, the Brooklyn-based company that designs and produces camp stoves, portable grills, lighting solutions, and cookstoves for campers as well as for emerging markets. BioLite founders Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond began their partnership as designers at Smart Design in New York. Through their mutual interest in sustainable design and a philosophy of applying its principles to real world problems, they began investigating thermoelectric technology as an alternative to traditional wood fires and for those without reliable access to electricity.

In 2009 they brought their work to market in the form of the BioLite CampStove which harnesses the excess heat from the combustion chamber to power a ventilation fan and generator, thereby reducing toxic emissions. Both the CampStove and the HomeStove, a low-cost, biomass cookstove designed expressly for daily use in remote locales and emerging markets, capture enough excess heat to charge devices via a USB port. Biolite’s hybrid business model uses sales generated from their  recreational audience who can afford the luxury of camping gear to subsidize their efforts in emerging markets. After just five years of operating on this business model, the Brooklyn-based company has recently delivered its first shipment of 10,000 HomeStoves to users in Ghana, India, and Uganda.

Over the last six months BioLite also took a look at itss production process. “When we make products we produce carbon, and that affects us all,” said Cedar. “It was time for us to take responsibility for our own practices and follow the same calls to environmental stewardship we ask of our customers every day.” BioLite conducted an internal carbon analysis of its manufacfturing and operational processes from 2012-2014 and identified an aggregate emissions footprint of 2,921 tons.. BioLite plans to use this data to identify opportunities to streamline logistics, packaging, and other areas in order to emit less carbon. In parallel with quantifying their emissions, BioLite was also able to measure the greenhouse gas reductions resulting from the use of their products in India and sub-Saharan Africa. As of November 17th 2015, BioLite has offset the full carbon emissions history of the company and plans to continue with carbon neutral operations in the future.

 

Images courtesy of Mariana Amatullo, Robert Fabricant and Biolite.

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