Five things we learned about change from a year of design fieldwork in India

Co-authored with Anmol Kaur.

This post references the yearlong journey we took to design our own education in design and social change. If you haven’t already, please visit our story website to get caught up on the The Designers of Tomorrow Project, and then come back here to see what we learned.


Today is August 24, 2017. Today marks one year since we kicked off an incredible journey with The Designers of Tomorrow Project in India.

A year ago, at the beginning of the project, we wrote this:

The journey we are taking started with a dream — a dream to build a better tomorrow — distinguished by commonplace compassion, ubiquitous access to opportunity, and generative economic freedom. We believe in the possibility of this better tomorrow, and in the idea that we can uncover the skills, tools, and mindsets we all need to create it.
Snippet from: On Starting with Questions

One year later, our belief in a better tomorrow is stronger than ever. The difference now is that we know a little more about what it’ll take to get there.

As much as we thought we knew what we were getting into, this year was about going deeper into all of the things we didn’t. To take this journey, we had to suspend much of our existing understanding of the world — our working context was wildly different, the challenges immensely unfamiliar, the methods of inquiry more creative and at times, ambiguous.

We now know this: creating change in the complexity of today’s (and tomorrow’s) world isn’t the same as it was in the past.

This year exposed us to scenarios which required not only the use of new tools and methods, but multiple shifts in mindset. Our fieldwork brought on as many sobering moments of clarity as it did bouts of confusion and anxiety. Over the last few weeks we’ve begun to break down and document these experiences, and now, we’re beginning to share pieces of what they’ve taught us.

So, let me tell you what we’ve learned about change.

Photo: Afternoon synthesis sessions, Himachal Pradesh, Summer 2017

1 | A village is a better workplace than an office.

Conducting global research in context enabled us to build trust, gain stronger perspective, and enhance our creativity.

Fieldwork

A year ago, we set off to India to work on international research projects. Taking these projects on came with a number of changes to how we were accustomed to working. The changes included embracing high levels of ambiguity, making sense of multilingual working environments, and working not just as colleagues, but as co-founders. The biggest change, however, was how our work took us out of the office and into the field over and over again — a hilly Himalayan village, a roadside tea stall, a whole slew of college campuses. These are places we didn’t just travel to, but ones we immersed and lived in.

Pop-up Studios

For this kind of rapid-immersion, we set up short-term living and working spaces, aptly dubbed “Pop-Up Studios” by global design research firm, Studio D. We established these spaces for the duration of each research effort, ranging from 5 days to 16 weeks. Our pop-up studios enabled us to go beyond a foundational understanding of a given project scenario, inspiring relevant ideas and creative thinking while in close proximity to the challenges. By actually embedding ourselves into the fabric of a place and its people, we were able to implement a more inclusive design process, soliciting substantial input from locals into every aspect of the projects.

Trust, Mutuality, and Perspective

Setting up shop in context granted unique opportunities to build trust and develop rich perspectives on the communities we worked with.

We lived and worked alongside the beneficiaries of our projects, allowing them to observe us just as much as we observed them.

In Naddi, for example, our interaction with locals wasn’t limited to research interviews and project meetings — villagers ran into us while grocery shopping, waved hello as we hung laundry to dry, and peered through the window while we prepared meals. To them we were not simply strange foreigners with strange questions, but respected as temporary members of the community.

This meant our interviews felt more like friendly catch-ups and our intention to build empathy felt less theoretical. As a result, our work was able to uncover insights far beyond the limits of official interview guides and research methodology.

Photo: some of the books we sourced this year in creating our curriculum

2 | Designing tomorrow is about so much more than design.

Something amazing happened when we integrated perspectives from multiple disciplines into the creative problem solving process.

Design-centered, but more than design

When we think back to the early moments of this year — crafting our learning experience — it all started with design.

Inspired by the well-known attributes which make the toolkit and mindeset of design thinking suitable for problem solving, our approach to learning was initially was grounded in its teachings and applications to social change.

But if this year has has taught us anything, it’s that design isn’t enough to solve the problems of a changing world.

Yes, design thinking can serve as the foundation for good conversation to sort out a messy situation. It can visualize problems and solutions without the ambiguities and misinterpretations of language. It can even help you figure out where to start when where to start isn’t so obvious. But design thinking alone struggles to do things like take a concept from prototype to operation. Design thinking is limited in its ability to build a business model. It struggles in synthesizing large chunks of quantitative data.

To address the complex challenges of the world, now, we’re required to go wide and integrate the perspectives of multiple disciplines. Stuff like social sciences, business strategy, behavioural sciences, statistics. Each of these disciplines addresses a integral piece of what we need to build a better world. This means we’ve gotta continue to go broad. We have to understand problems from multiple angles. It means our designers have to be just as strategic as they are creative.

Blending design and strategy

This year was about learning new things. The experience we took on was about applying those newly minted skills to real world projects, serving as the grounds for both deeper learning and real change.

But this year wasn’t only about acquiring and applying new skills. The work we did called upon our backgrounds in strategy, business operations, and global development more than we would have ever assumed. Nine years of collective professional experience in more conventional roles proved incredibly valuable in the most unconventional of moments.

Take for example our second field experience, where we conducted ethnographic research and business modeling to guide a venture team through the process of building a new startup working on college affordability in India. Going into this project, our first task was to zoom out. We poured over datasets from government publications, consulting reports, and university research centers to redefine the existing understanding of the problem. This insured that our next step — design research — focused on the right questions.

Ultimately this resulted in the identification of a more interesting and meaningful opportunity to make a difference in the education sector.

As we synthesized the research, our findings began to materialize into a number of product and service ideas. And while design helped us to uncover good insights, our business experience helped us to pair the sensibility of our design concepts with the viability of a solid business model.

Photo: Anmol and Parveena during a design research session, Naddi, India, Winter 2016

3 | The smallest voices make the most important contributions to change.

When we gave more attention to society’s most marginalized, their stories and ideas inspired unexpected insight into the most promising opportunities for change.

This year reminded us that when looking for the answers to our questions, where we might think to look first isn’t always where we should. Meeting people like Parveena — a rural mother of two — challenged our assumptions about which individuals unlock access to the best insights on a project.

Admittedly, it’s easier to listen to the loud and traditionally influential voices — they’re more accessible, don’t require as much facilitation, or translation.

But the problems of now are emergent, and the ways we solve those problems are not so obvious by conventional means of investigation.

That’s why we think we all need to be better at learning how to uncover the latent wisdom of people like Parveena. As we look ahead to future projects, we have confidence that an inclusive design process is not only possible, but absolutely critical to unlocking the infinite potential that exists within all of us.

Photo: Girls from a Delhi government school, Spring 2017

4 | Our world is not as divided as we think it is.

We can bridge existing barriers by understanding the common connections between global challenges and the people who face them.

Common connections, common challenges

Our field experiences this year took place across multiple geographies, characterized by a disparate and unique set of social, political and economic factors. In each of these contexts, we were surprised to encounter individuals who reminded us not only of ourselves, but of our colleagues, our friends, and our families. Despite the difference in setting, this happened over and over again. Their experiences felt common, their fears felt the same, their dreams akin to ours.

The challenges of the people who will shape tomorrow are nuanced, but at their core quite common. Recognizing this can give us new hope and motivation to bridge our divides by seeking inspiration from places we normally don’t.

Global change demands global changemakers

This year, we immersed ourselves in environments drastically different from those we had been exposed to before. We did this by throwing ourselves into a country where everything was foreign — India.

The skills we acquired this year hold as much relevance in New York as they do in New Delhi — we’re now better prepared to address problems not just in India or the developing world, but at home too. The reality is, global challenges are interconnected. Working across borders isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s what the world needs.

5 | Creating change isn’t quick, it requires a patient commitment to curiosity.

When we invested more time to understand the challenges, we unlocked more meaningful insights and opportunities.

In praise of incrementalism

In the worlds of design and social change, prized most are the breakthrough innovations and celebrated most are the individuals who pioneer the swift development of these disruptive solutions. But as history has shown us, the most meaningful shifts of progress don’t happen overnight. They don’t even happen quickly. Instead, they come about as a result of many people, working tirelessly, for what often amounts to a very long time.

From Freakonomics Radio,

What do Renaissance painting, civil-rights movements, and Olympic cycling have in common? In each case, huge breakthroughs came from taking tiny steps. In a world where everyone is looking for the next moonshot, we shouldn’t ignore the power of incrementalism.

As much as we value innovation, we also think it is important to celebrate the individuals who grind along everyday, committed to the long-haul, taking those tiny steps.

The value of research

This year also taught us another lesson — sometimes the impact you make won’t be in designing solutions, but in investing the time required to produce great research. We are grounded in our belief that taking this time to truly understand a problem is how we will identify the most promising opportunities for change. As we look to the future, the work we do must continue to be driven and informed by understanding and inquiry, not project timelines or a misguided impatience for disruptive innovation.


We’re not done learning yet

While our year has ended, the next phase of The DOT Project is just beginning. We’re committed to continuing to explore new ways of preparing tomorrow’s changemakers through alternative models of education and immersive experiences in fieldwork.

In addition, each of the learnings from this year form a piece of our new perspectives as global changemakers. We’re carrying these lessons as foundational principles into our next venture, Stepwell, a global design research and strategy studio committed to creating positive and developing future changemakers.

Learn more about the The Designers of Tomorrow Project.