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Learning to Talk Trash in New Longoro

Design is hot. Universities, businesses, and NGOs the world over are jumping on the bandwagon with design thinking and human-centered design. This is a good thing. In the Melton Foundation, we are incorporating design thinking into the curriculum for our fellows so they can create and implement great projects and “Acts of Global Citizenship”.

6786885b565bb69Co-design is one of the latest in the spectrum of various design approaches. But what is co-design? As put by one of its champions, Amy Smith, founder of MIT D-Lab, the “co” in co-design means that, from the outset, the design team includes end users themselves. This is different from human-centered design in which the solution is carefully designed around the end user by designers. In tackling entrenched problems linked to poverty in developing countries, co-design breaks the traditional mold of international development organizations providing aid or “innovating solutions” for poor communities to, instead, co-creating solutions with communities. In this way, the co-design does not segregate communities and international protagonists into separate camps of innovators and beneficiaries, a model which perpetuates instead of solving inequality.

In September, Senior Melton Fellow May Garcés and I represented the Melton Foundation, a partner in MIT D-Lab’s Practical Impact Alliance (PIA), at the Co-Design Summit hosted by MIT D-Lab, the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science & Technology (KNUST), and the community of New Longoro. We spent an intense week in Kumasi and New Longoro with our hosts and other PIA members from corporations, NGOs, and social enterprises. Together, we learned the co-design methodology and applied it with the New Longoro community.

“Co-design breaks the traditional mold of international development organizations providing aid or ‘innovating solutions’ for poor communities to, instead, co-creating solutions with communities.”

285a2b306ecf7a0Our Summit of 40 divided into six design teams of PIA and host members. My team focused on recycling. However, instead of simply assuming that recycling was a “solution” in search of a problem, we first had to understand whether there was indeed a problem that could, potentially, be addressed by recycling. To do this, we first needed the appropriate mindset which entailed deep listening and suspension of judgment. As human creatures, we are by nature rift with biases. These biases lead us to erroneous assumptions when encountering new people such as our team mates and new environments – such as, for many of us, New Longoro.  So, before launching into the technical aspects of the design process, we first did exercises in deep listening, understanding assumptions, and team building.

“As human creatures, we are by nature rift with biases. These biases lead us to erroneous assumptions when encountering new people such as our team mates and new environments”

68b676733af55caAfter two days of fine tuning our attitudes and design skills, we took the two-hour trip to New Longoro.
There, convened by the community’s chief, we met many more members of the community. Each team introduced itself to the community and invited members to help them with their project. Starting here, New Longoro opened its homes, business, and schools to our team and shared insights into their routines. We talked with farmers about composting, visited local dump sites, and chatted with families in their homes about how they dispose their garbage. Following two days in New Longoro, we returned to KNUST in Kumasi for sketch modeling and prototyping. In the end, we came up with a proposal to jumpstart recycling of organic waste for composting and household animal food. Our New Longoro team members are currently consulting the community about whether to implement it. Whether or not it gets taken up with or without the team’s involvement, we all gained some profound lessons.

The most profound lesson for me is that true co-design is very, very hard. But, like most things we value, from its difficulty comes great power. By the end of the process, the community members on our team were no longer shy about sharing their insights and people like me learned to talk less and listen more. We all recognized that our sketch model, while at times agonizing to develop, was also thought-through and grounded in reality and thus with a far better chance of success than something dropped off by outside “experts”.

For me, in addition to continuing to work with PIA on projects such as this, May Garcés and I are eager to incorporate co-design principals into our work with the Melton Foundation. Stay tuned!