Friday, September 24, 2010

"The Intersection of Design, Public Education, and Community" with Project H's Emily Pilloton

Emily Pilloton is the founder and executive director of Project H Design, a  non-profit team of designers, builders, and teachers with a current focus on using design to re-envision public education.  She’s also the author of Design Revolution:  100 Products That Empower People.
Emily says her twin goal for the book was to make sure people know that humanitarian design isn’t just about products, and that it’s not just about the developing world.  To illustrate her point, she uses examples like the Brita water filter and (a great website for promoting "walkable" neighborhoods) alongside more traditional humanitarian design products like Kickstart's water pumps in Africa.

In the book, she also points to some of her group’s own creations, like Learning Landscape, a grid-based playground system using reclaimed tires for elementary math education, as examples of designs that empower people.

                                       (The Learning Landscape in action)

Emily has been spreading the word about humanitarian design through public appearances at conferences like PopTech (she was one of their 2009 Social Innovation Fellows), and (not kidding) the Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Emily Pilloton
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

I recently spoke with Emily about her work with Project H, and how its scope has expanded recently.  She’s highly ambitious in her attempt to use design thinking and problem-solving to tackle some huge issues, like rural poverty, education, and community development through Project H's work in Bertie County, North Carolina.

But first things first...
ThinkingDesign:  How’d you get the invite to Stephen Colbert?  That must have been something.
Emily Pilloton:  They just asked me.  It was totally surreal.  He’s such a ham.  I totally have a non-romantic crush on him.

ThinkingDesign:  You handled him really well.
EP:  Thank you.  I totally blacked out.  I brought a posse with me, and afterward, I had no idea what I said and I asked them and they said, “I don’t know, but it was totally great!”
I was terrified.  I made the mistake of watching a bunch of different ones, and he just slays some people. I think it helps to have props, though, like the landmine shoes I brought.

ThinkingDesign:  How’d you get the idea to put your book together, and what was the process like?
EP:  In hindsight, when I was putting it together, Project H was not even a year old.  For us, the book was an exploration of what was out there, and we used it to sort of benchmark what had been done within humanitarian design. 

As a product designer, I sort of hate products.  And obviously there are products in there, but I wanted to show that humanitarian design is not just about products.  There are a lot of things in there that are websites or systems or just ideas or initiatives, and that they all came from a very specific design process.

I also wanted to make the case that humanitarian design is not just about the developing world.  There are a lot of things in the book that you can go out and buy at Target.  It’s not about the poor as much as it’s about smart, creative initiatives that came from the design process for a variety of markets.

ThinkingDesign:  Why do you hate products?
EP:  It’s not that I hate products; I love the idea of a product.  A thing that you can hold in your hand can have so much personality and impact on your life.  What I don’t like about products is how designers think of them.  A lot of times that’s the goal of a designer – it’s all about these artifacts that you can make a million of that you can sell and make money.

I’m much more interested in design as a process, and whether you come out of that process with a product or a house or a website or a business plan, that doesn’t really matter.  It’s the process that got me into design in the first place.

"Product design" just feels very outdated to me.  I’m interested in different models. Like, if someone commissions me to design a chair, why would I design a whole new chair when I can design something like craigslist, where people can go out and buy chairs in their neighborhoods, or get used ones for free?  Why do we always assume that the solution is a new product?

ThinkingDesign:  Okay.  Fair enough.  So you’re now working in education.  What’s meaningful to you about your current work?
EP:  More than a year and a half ago, we were approached by the superintendent of the Bertie County School District in North Carolina.  He asked us to come down here and build the learning landscape playground.  It’s made out of reclaimed tires, and you use it in combination with this whole series of games that we wrote that are in line with public school curricula. 

He wanted us to come down and build one for each of his elementary schools.  His district is falling apart at the seams. It’s the poorest county in the state, with 17 people per square mile.  In the whole county, there are three restaurants.  Up until a week ago, you couldn’t get Internet.  In many ways, it feels like the developing world.  It’s very rural.

So that’s how the relationship started.  We built the playgrounds and discovered that the superintendent was this amazing visionary and was brought in to fix the district.  As part of his strategic plan, he wanted to bring in young, innovative thinkers, and I guess we fell into that category.

So, learning landscape was the first project.  And we found out that he was this kindred spirit who really believed in design in a place where not many people even know what that word means.  He basically said, here’s my credit card.  Here’s your budget.  Go build three computer labs that will help get kids excited about technology.

                                (Coolest computer room in the county)

That led into a bunch of other projects.  We built a new weight room for the football team, then a big campaign for the whole county with this big green dot to try to get free broadband, which now we have.  Well, it’s not exactly free, but we now have cables that come out here now, which is the first step.

ThinkingDesign:  Do you live there now?
EP:  Yes, I do live here now. We moved here, because we were doing all of these projects, working with the superintendent.  But we got to the point where we still felt like consultants.  We were still doing projects and leaving.  We felt like we needed to be more a part of the community to get to the next level. These things were having impact, but they were still sort of viewed as like things from the beyond that were being dropped here.

And during the course of the year, we’d gotten to know a lot of the students and a lot of teachers, just by bringing them into design brainstorms or whatever.  We figured what better way to take the design to the next level than become teachers ourselves.  We believed that design could become more than something you hire consultants for, but something that could be bred from within in the public school system.

ThinkingDesign:  How have the students reacted?
EP:  It’s going to sound terrible, but the teachers here are not good, and the students haven’t ever been challenged.  I don’t think that anyone ever believed in them.  There’s just not a lot of pride in education.

What design has offered to these students is not only something hands-on – like our first project was to build corn hole boards.

   (I never thought I'd use Corn Hole and Design Thinking in the same sentence.)

Now we’re doing graphic design on them to auction them off to raise money for our next project, which is public chicken coops.  It’s not a text book to memorize for a test.  It’s something that these kids can pick up and understand, and it’s really challenging.  It applies all of their core subject learning.  

ThinkingDesign:  Do you teach this stuff as individual skills, or as a design thinking toolkit?
EP:  Both.  In the wood shop, they need to know how to use a router, a table saw and a chopsaw.  But we went into it and started at high-level design thinking.  We started with discussing the strategy they should take when they enter this space.  
We made a list of all the ways we could build the corn hole boards and ended up with four different ways.  The process helped them problem solve their way through it.  It’s important for them to take that problem-solving approach, and then learn tools like Illustrator so that they can go produce it.

ThinkingDesign:  To what extent are you trying to incubate ideas, processes, and solutions that other places can implement or learn from?
EP:  It’s really tough.  We get asked all the time -- like with this curriculum -- about how we’re going to scale it.  Of course I want to do that.  But one thing I’ve learned over the past two years is that it’s really dangerous if you celebrate too early.  I wanna make sure these things work first. Even with the computer labs- they’ve only been built and in use for a year now.  It’s an architectural solution, and we know it’s going to stand up, but it takes a long time to measure its effect on the students’ test scores and overall engagement.

With this one-year curriculum, I’d love to see it in other communities, but it takes time, and I’ve learned to take things sort of slow.
The other thing, with the Studio H program, we wrote it as a one-year program that you could conceivably drop into any rural school district.  But instead of scaling it that way, we’ve started looking at it from another way.  Could you take this program and turn it into an entire charter school?  Because right now, it’s only available to the junior class, so they spend the other three years doing the same old thing.  So that might be a different approach.  

ThinkingDesign:  Now you’ve gone from small-scale projects into huge, daunting community development and education projects.  What's your end game?
EP:  With Studio H, this not about us teaching design.  I don’t care at all if any of these kids go to design school.  That’s not why we’re in it at all.  But by the end of the year, they will have the creative and critical skills to call themselves designers. They’ll have the construction skills to call themselves industry-relevant contractors.  And so over next summer, we are going to hire them as our construction crew to build a farmer's market downtown.  So there is a community development angle here.  We’ll spend the summer practicing pouring foundations and actually building.
I’m really interested in that intersection between design, public education, and community. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Design for the BoP: Irrigating the "Perfect Solution" with DripTech's Peter Frykman

Peter Frykman is founder and CEO of DripTech, a low-cost drip irrigation company based in Palo Alto, CA.  I first met Peter when I moderated a “Design for Affordability” panel at last year’s Net Impact National Conference at Cornell.

I've since learned how extremely affordable DripTech's product is, and how important that is to the company's value proposition.  Says Peter:  "A small system could cost as little as $5, but typically farmers will invest $100 or more for a larger installation.  This is almost always purchased without any formal financing, though we look forward to adding this option in the future.  The purchase price of the system is usually paid back with 6 months in savings and gains."

A lot has changed in Peter’s world since last November, so I thought now would be a good time to catch up with the mechanical engineer-turned-start-up CEO.

I wanted to ask him about how design and the design thinking methodology he learned at Stanford has helped fuel DripTech’s growing success, and also how design thinking expands into business model development  as Peter and Co. begin to scale DripTech in India and China.  Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:

ThinkingDesign:  How did your business idea come about?
PF:  Driptech was founded out of a course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability at the at Stanford.  The is an interesting organization -- it’s an example of the benefits you get when you cross-pollinate and collaborate in different fields. 

                (Pollination or cross-pollination?  That's for Peter to know, and for you to find out.)

We were the only three-person team in the class:  one business student, one mechanical engineer (my background is in mechanical engineering – I studied that as an undergrad and stayed on to do masters degree), and one designer from the masters program in product design.  I had been familiar with the Stanford methodology for user-based design for some time, but that was my first experience working with business students.

Our product designer had a good business sense, and I was good at product design.  Our business student was really good at corralling us.  We were prone to getting wound up on tangents and going crazy with some of the design, so she did an effective job at managing our progress. 

ThinkingDesign:  How’d you go from taking the design from class to actually starting the company?
PF:  The best advice I ever got was from a mentor and advisor.  I told him I thought I was entrepreneurial and wanted to start a company or join a start-up, and could he give me any advice?  He said that, every year, about 50 people came into his office and told him the same thing that I had just told him.  The only difference between them, he said, was the ones that started a company just did, and the ones that didn’t didn’t.  They were all smart motivated people.  He said:  “If you want to be entrepreneurial, you just have to go do it.”

ThinkingDesign:  How do you design differently for the Base of the Pyramid (BoP) than for the developed world?
PF:  To me, design thinking has to be user-focused.  It comes down to whether it’s participatory, whether the user is at the focal point of the design process.  In many ways it’s even more important that you involve the user heavily in the design process when you’re targeting the product or service towards an emerging market or BoP customer, because there’s less wiggle room in getting the value proposition right.  If you don’t get it perfectly right, it’s not very forgiving, because these customers don’t have a lot of capital. They’re unable to take lots of new technology risks, so you need to make sure it’s the perfect product for the customer before you sell it to them.

You and me buy all kinds of junk that’s not perfect because we have money and it’s not important.  We can buy something with three features that we like but five that don’t really fit because we’ve got that luxury of those extra financial resources, but that’s not necessarily the case for a farmer that earns $2/day.  They have to get what they need and nothing more.

                                                   (DripTech's "perfect product" in India)

ThinkingDesign:  How did you get to that “perfect product”? 
PF:  We were very fortunate that the product we were looking at – affordable drip irrigation – is a good product for lots of farmers.  If you’ve got an enormous market, then finding a niche that your product really fits can be easy.  And when you’re a start-up, you need to focus on getting those first customers and finding the farmers, in our case, for whom the product is a perfect fit, then branching out from there and adding additional products and configurations.  That's what opens up new markets and new market segments.
So, you go out and you meet with farmers, you design your product, and then you come back and deliver it to them and the farmers that are like them.  There’s no such thing as a product that will fit everybody’s needs, but you have to pick somewhere to start. 

One of the main challenges is that you have to pick your ideal customer, and then, when you go to market, you have to target that ideal customer.  Because ultimately, if you’re going to be sustainable and scalable, you have to get the ball rolling and start getting some volume.  That starts with your early adopter customers.

ThinkingDesign:  Where did you do your research?  And did you go back to them for feedback once you’d done the initial design?
PF:  We did our initial user research in Ethiopia and sent some of the product back to them once we had produced it.  But when we went to start the company, we needed to find a place that could be a little more welcoming in terms of market infrastructure – democracy and banks and the ability for us to come in and out and operate, and shops where people buy things – so when we looked at that, we saw that India is really the easiest place for us to start.  There are more subsistence farmers in India than there are in all of Africa. 
After we had done our initial product testing and shown that the product worked in the lab, we needed to show that it would work in the hands of actual customers, so we went and did a pilot study.

ThinkingDesign:  What did you find when you commissioned the pilot?
PF:  We had a small team and very limited resources, so we tested it with about 15 farmers, and they all said that this saved them water of course, but also time and labor.  And that was a big surprise for us, because we didn’t know how much labor flood irrigation requires.  And these farmers were quite happy that they didn’t have to do all this backbreaking work.  They could just turn the drip irrigation on and have their elderly father watch it and turn it off when it was done and go do other work.

People will always say that BoP customers won’t pay to reduce their labor, because it’s a sunk cost and their own time that they’re not paying for out of pocket.  Sometimes that’s true, but they certainly appreciate it when you save them hard labor.  They might not pay much to forgo it, but they are certainly happy when it happens.

                                                 (Some very appreciative Indian farmers)

ThinkingDesign:  So you’d proved that the product worked.  How did you prove the business model from there?
PF:  We knew the product was good, but we had to show that people were willing to buy it at a price we could make money on and scale with.  We started looking at where we could make our first sale, so we actually got connected with somebody who introduced us to local government officials in China.  They wanted to buy our product for local farmers, and that was how we made our first commercial sale to 200 farms through a local government in China.  We went over and installed those at the beginning of this year.

Now, the farmers have been using the system for at least six months and we’re getting great results back.   

ThinkingDesign:  Have you found any unintended uses of the product, or people imitating it yet?
PF:  No imitators yet.  Of course, there are lots of commercial drip irrigation companies out there.  Our system have these little micro-jets of water, which are really neat because you can see them squirting up at the same height if the holes are facing up.  We always install them with the holes facing up as a technical test, but what we realized is that, usually when we do an installation like this, it looks really cool.  So all the kids in the area come out into the field and sort of play in the system.  So that’s been an unintended use for our product – as entertainment for the local children.

                                     (An unintended but wonderful use for DripTech's design)

ThinkingDesign:  You have to design the whole business spiel -- the supply chain, the business development and sales infrastructure and all that.  Do you revisit the design thinking process at all from here on out?
PF:  I think the concept of rapid prototyping and iterative design is really ingrained in our company culture, so even when we’re thinking about business model and marketing materials and anything that’s sort of customer –facing, we go through the same process and we get a lot of quick ideas and test and refine them.  And that’s kind of who we are. 

We’re very methodical about testing things out, and of course, there are lots of good examples of models that have started to work in this space for distribution and marketing, so we can borrow from other peoples’ success as well.