In January 2015, I traveled to Kibera, Kenya – one of the largest urban slums in the world – in an attempt to introduce design thinking into a community that most desperately needs positive change. My two classmates and I partnered with the Human Needs Project – a town center that provides basic services (water, toilets, showers, laundry) to residents of Kibera – to bring together a group of teenagers and young adults from the community. Our goal was to walk through IDEO's design thinking process with the group with hopes that we could better understand the issues Kibera's residents were facing. The result of this project amazed me.
We started off by asking our new friends what frustrated them on a day-to-day basis. Our philosophy was that identification of problems arise when we are uncertain, uncomfortable, or frustrated. The uniqueness of each and everyone’s environments means that we all get frustrated by different things. We all notice and are bothered by different things. The key is to recognize when we are frustrated, and identify that moment as one of opportunity, rather than to do what humans are inherently good at: shrugging and living with that problem. Thus we posed the question to the 10 residents of Kibera: What makes your upset or frustrated? The responses we got were mind-blowing. Here is a sampling of some of them.
One teen said that the noise in the slums never stopped. He was frustrated with the never ending music his neighbor would be blasting, the commotion in the streets or the tinkering of pots and pans. All these noises, he described, would penetrate easily throughout the tin walls of the slums. He dreamed of a device he could stick in his ear to cancel the noises at night when he tried to sleep. Sleep, it seemed, was a priority for this young man and many of his friends.
Charles, a former science teacher who complained about the difficulty of teaching STEM without hands on demos, equipment and experiments, envisioned a method of collected plastic waste around the slum and turning it into a form of recycled 3D printing filament.
Ted, a manager at the center, explained that he had two frustrations: Ignorance and the Kenyan system. He spoke of his friend who was a pastor at his church. 80% of his disposable income would go towards buying the pulpit, chairs, and other decor. Why do you do this, Ted would often ask him. What about your family? Do you have enough to provide for them? “God demands it,” would be his friend’s reply. “I am frustrated that the Kenyan people cannot make decisions for themselves. It is the Kenyan way to wait and be told what to do. We need to empower ourselves.” Much of this causes ignorance, he explained. Ted walked over to the bookshelf in the center, where we were teaching the class. He pulled out a national geographic kids book entitled “Why?” a book that explained to kids a lot of phenomena in our world. He turned to a random page and read out a random question. “Why does it not hurt to cut hair? Why does hair grow even though its dead?” Next question: “Why do we need to brush our teeth?” Ted got irritated. “Why is it that kids in the United States know the answers to these questions but adults here don’t?! This needs to change! We need to educated our kids not just on traditional “subjects” of education but information that is relevant and applicable!”
My favorite response came from a young girl, Maureen, who graduated from primary school but couldn’t afford secondary school. “I am upset by the structure of our education system. We are forced to complete primary, secondary, high school, and college education in order to receive a certificate which can get us a good job. But these methods of education do not encourage us to do what we are passionate about. There is so much potential in the slum but most of these youth who are passionate about non-traditional skills (technology, manufacturing) are forgotten because they either do not perform well under traditional methods of school testing or they cannot afford to go to school. All their opportunity for moving out of their socioeconomic bracket is lost because they cannot get a certificate of accreditation upon graduating college.”
While the same issues are at hand with education in the United States, namely the complacency that many students have towards their style of education—one that is clearly not working—most students are not able to recognize this. They merely drift along the path, clearly defined, but really leading nowhere. I later wondered myself. It surely can’t be that the kids are naturally more intelligent than Americans. It definitely isn’t true the other way around either. Is it the environment that these kids have grown up under, one that augments the issues of education more than is true for Americans, that makes the problems of education all the more dire, noticeable and relevant? These kids deeply understand the need for change because the quality of their lives depends on it.
Next, we broke the group of 15 students into 3 groups, each tackling a different problem, which they had identified: How can 3D printing be used to improve the quality and delivery of education in the slums? How can transportation in the slums be made more efficient, safe, or effective? And how can household processes in the slums be simplified?
We put the groups to work brainstorming possible solutions (our target was 30 for each question) and our friends far exceeded the goal. We got answers ranging from a navigation app for the slums, a briquette maker that uses wood, waste paper, and leaves to form alternatives to charcoal briquettes (major source of energy in the slums), and 3D printing hands-on lab/educational kits to provide an enhanced experience in the classroom (currently, there are no STEM labs because of a lack of resources).
While the trip was brief, the lessons were plenty. Design is a visceral process. Creativity is a shared and collaborative experience. Change and opportunity coems from the feeling of vulnerability. Combined with passion and ambition, vulnerability becomes an asset, not a liability. And I hope we were able to leave that impression behind.