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Cultivating innovation

Promoting design thinking everywhere we work

Published by Abby Nydam on May 23, 2017

“Innovation is hard,” says Nadia Campos, a designer in iDE’s Phnom Penh Cambodia office. “It takes people, it takes time, it takes money. But you have to do it. Because if you don’t, you fail.”

Traditionally, solutions for addressing poverty came from think-tanks or universities, emerging from hypotheses about the causes and issues that kept rural farmers and low-wage workers from being able to increase their income. Three decades ago, iDE challenged that tradition by taking a new approach: discussing poverty with those farmers and workers directly, hearing from them about the challenges they face and what they needed to make more money. This client-centered focus on designing solutions has now become common in international development.

But it’s not enough.

“Innovation is not something you do once, check off the box, and then move on,” says Abby Nydam, iDE’s Director for Design. “Innovation comes from always challenging yourself, at every step of the way, to ask: can we do this differently? And it’s not just the designer that needs to be thinking like this—from the program director to the field staff, everyone needs to be questioning, searching for improvements.”

Past successes that emerged from design-thinking prompted iDE to apply this idea to itself: What can we do as a business to encourage every employee to act as a designer?

Design everywhere

The answer: let’s embed innovators in every office to help coach their colleagues on incorporating design thinking and innovation in their daily work. We realized, from a pure economics standpoint, it wasn’t feasible to hire or create a design team in each country we work in. But what we could do was identify key staff members who had the skills, experience, and mindset to promote design thinking amongst their colleagues, and then provide them the support they need to accomplish this.

We call these staff Design Ambassadors, and they are making a difference.

The team in iDE Bangladesh conducted user testing on the Drinkable Book in 2015.

The catalysts for change

As champions of design thinking and innovation, iDE’s Design Ambassadors identify new opportunities to inject innovation and design—be it a product, service, or business—within local programming. They also advocate within their country office for innovative thinking, acting as both a resource and example for their colleagues.

The Design Ambassadors participate in project planning and design field-work in collaboration with iDE’s design leadership and key experts. They are the in-country, second, or third researcher/designer when design activities are underway. 

Being there

“It’s much better to be in-country,” says Nadia Campos. “You have the context, the experience, the background. When a project comes up, you don’t have to learn all this or re-familiarize yourself with it, as you’re already there, living it daily.  Having local designers is easier, more cost-effective, and more impactful.”

iDE’s Design Ambassador initiative is still in its infancy, however. “Changing people’s behaviors and mindsets takes time,” says Abby Nydam. “We know that, because that’s what we’re working with every day with our clients. But because of that, we also know how to encourage those changes within our own culture. Design Ambassadors are our front line. They inspire and lead their colleagues to both think and act differently, which ultimately solves the challenges for those we work with.”

Meet the Design Ambassadors

The Design Ambassadors are key to embedding a culture of innovation and Human-Centered Design best practices and methodologies across all existing and future program activities.


Read More

Design for developing countries

Establishing a methodology for Human-Centered Design in a challenging context

In 2009, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded a collaboration that combined experience and wisdom of designers and field staff that eventually coalesced into the HCD Toolkit, a methodology specifically for organizations working with poor communities to create products that are feasible, desirable, and viable.


Read more: How human-centered design was adapted for use in developing contexts