Design-Led Innovation & the Humanitarian Sector

Young girl fetching water from a community well in rural South Sudan.

Quicksand began working in the humanitarian space in mid-2015. This is a relatively short period of time, but the engagements we have been involved in have provided an incredible window into the sector, its challenges, and the opportunities for a design-led approach to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues.

Over the past year-and-a-half, we have embedded teams in countries throughout Africa to engage with those at the front lines of addressing crises both naturally occurring and man-made. The purpose of these engagements was really to holistically understand specific problems (i.e., malnutrition, education) in order to frame them in the broader everyday experience of people most affected by them in order to collaboratively develop potential solutions.

As with any engagement in a new context, we invested a great deal of time in conducting secondary research seeking to understand the drivers behind the challenges we were to work on. We pored over as much information as we could in order to establish some foundational knowledge to build on as we shifted into primary/field research, but as with most things in life there really is no substitute for first-hand experience.

Training community healthcare workers in the use of new diagnostic tools for severe acute malnutrition in South Sudan.

Our work frequently affords us the opportunity to witness and evaluate problems directly, in context. This is an invaluable aspect of our work to allow ourselves the benefit of observing a solution or innovation in-situ to help ensure the greatest impact. After all, it is only with a holistic understanding of a particular challenge that we can sufficiently address all of the drivers helping to perpetuate a particular challenge.

We provide our clientele with a fresh perspective, and help people see the forest from the trees, using an outsider’s perspective presented without any bias. This leads to many “a ha!” moments both for ourselves and our clients. Individuals so ensconced in a particular stream of work at times can take something for granted, or assume a particular aspect of a challenge is too intractable to overcome; sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to see a different way forward.

Our work in the humanitarian sector exposed us to manifold stakeholders in some of the most challenging settings in the world. We embedded ourselves with those on the front lines battling these issues to experience firsthand a bit of what their daily lives are like, and the challenges that define them. It was an incredibly powerful experience in many ways, not least of which in affording us a front-row view of the challenges and opportunities permeating the sector.

Congolese children living in a refugee camp in Tanzania.

We came to realize that a design-led approach in the sector could lead to significant changes in organizational structure and operations, funding mechanisms, field engagements, and program development to arrive at greater impact. We have always held that the problem-solving approach inherent to design thinking methodologies can add overwhelming value to any sector and challenge.

Putting people at the forefront of our activities, and embedding ourselves in their daily reality, allows us to frame challenges and responses to the same with a level of intimacy that more detached approaches cannot match. With this in mind, we set out to unpack all of the learnings that emerged from our work in the humanitarian sector and draft a manifesto of sorts that posits our take on what could and should be done to maximize impact.

We invite you to read through our note on the sector, and to start a conversation with us about it:

Do you agree with our assertions? Is there anything we have missed? What is your take on how best we can collectively solve these crises that affect far too many people in the world today?

If you are working in these contexts and would like to bring a human-centered design approach to your work with communities there, we would love to explore such opportunities with you.

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