Grand Challenges Innovations at Design Public

The first day at the Design Public Conclave last week was dedicated to brainstorming new cross-sectoral engagement models to promote innovation in four challenge areas – post-grid energy, equitable water and sanitation, smarter cities and nimble agriculture. Participants split up into the four groups and talked about the greatest unsolved challenges within the track, and brainstormed ways in which design and innovation could help overcome these. More specifically, they discussed ways in which collaboration and partnerships could contribute to solving the track, and envisioned new engagement models that would help achieve this.

While a half-day session is naturally too short to be able to reach any definitive conclusions and really solidify the next steps to be taken by the different parties, there were some excellent ideas that emerged, that could be the seeds for further conversation and activity. These varied across the different groups, especially since the groups themselves tacked the problem and designed their sessions in very different ways.

In the Smarter Cities group, the first reaction was that the urban planning space itself was so wide in scope, and the problems so complex, that it was somewhat difficult to know where to begin. This is further complicated by the fact that the majority of the problems revolve around policy and social inclusion (and the lack thereof), which are not necessarily areas where design and innovation can be employed. However, there was a consensus amongst the group that the greatest problems do lie within social inclusion, implementation of policies and planning land use more effectively. Interestingly, there was not a lot of focus on technological solutions to these issues. Rather, the focus was more on mainstreaming behaviors and tackling the more intangible aspects of making cities smarter.

The Post-Grid Energy group took a very different approach to the breakout session, choosing to focus on a specific problem and design solution – that of the solar-powered lantern that D.Light Design has developed. While the product itself is sophisticated, technologically sophisticated and very efficient, the uptake of the product has not been as widespread nor as rapid as was initially expected. Participants of the group took up the issue of distribution, discussing the new kinds of partnerships that could be employed to promote its usage in rural India. They also spoke of the kinds of incentives that could be introduced to increase uptake of the product, as well as ways to make it more appealing to users. This would require user-centered research as well as an overall enabling ecology wherein different parties are all working together to promote such innovations.

The Equitable Water & Sanitation group split up into two sub-groups, which concentrated respectively on water and sanitation issues. The Sanitation sub-group spoke about how it was necessary to not only build new toilets or design new, more appropriate kinds of toilets that would fit the context, but actually focus on designing the kind of communication strategy that would influence users’ behaviors and encourage them to use the toilets. One of the greatest problems with the sanitation sector is that it is not necessarily seen as an urgent challenge or a real priority, and therefore, the issue is often sidelined. Moreover, there are also a lot of different initiatives or meetings that focus on the issue, but these are discrete efforts that don’t properly build on the knowledge of previous attempts and sessions. As Amy Lin said during the panel discussion the next day, there needs to be not just one or two innovations, but a series of constant innovations. This is also true of the water sector, where the problem is so large that there needs to be a series of constant, context-specific innovations involving a number of players, in order to make a significant impact within the sector.

The Nimble Agriculture session focused first on identifying some of the main challenges within the sector, which include a lack of proper infrastructure, gender discrimination against women in agriculture, improper or insufficient equipment and technology, a lack of supportive financial structures for small and marginal farmers, and a the lack of a platform where farmers’ resident knowledge can be showcased and leveraged. They spoke about Digital Green, an organization that has done exactly this – created a platform wherein they have enabled the farmers to share their own stories of success and failure using simple technologies. This allows the farmers to overcome the knowledge gap and empowers them to be the harbingers of information and change.

While the sessions did not all yield precisely the kind of integrated solutions that we had hoped for, and which we require in each of the sectors, they did produce certain nuggets of innovative reasoning that could be taken forward in a more structured way. We will be developing these further over the coming weeks, and will continue the conversations already begun with the different discussion leaders and participants. The outcomes of these conversations will be published as white papers, that can then be developed even further in focused follow-up events. We invite you to share your thoughts and join the discussion. Contact us on linkedin, twitter, facebook or right her on the blog. We welcome your thoughts and contributions.

About Ayesha Vemuri

Ayesha Vemuri is responsible for thought leadership and outreach efforts at CKS. She has undergraduate degree in Visual Art from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where she also studied such varied subjects as biology, literature and the humanities. At CKS, she is responsible for curating the Design Public blog, managing our various social media platforms, organizing Pecha Kucha Nights and contributing to the intellectual content of the Design Public Conclave and other CKS initiatives. Find her on twitter at @ayeshavemuri.
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