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Using Design Thinking to Solve a Social Issue

Since I joined the Design and Innovation Club this fall, our Monday meeting has quickly become one of my favorite times of the week. It’s an opportunity to get creative, a little weird, and find a brief repose from the more structured ways of thought that we rely on in our first two quarters.  

But the D+I Club is so much more than an opportunity to play with Legos and Post-it notes. At its core is a curriculum that teaches a way of thinking and problem solving that relies on empathy, synthesis, ideation, experimentation, and iteration, and which can be applied in almost any context.

The context we were presented with this November was centered on the question that two local design firms—CAMA and HoodenPyleGil (HPG)—are working to answer: How do we improve the lives of vulnerable populations, specifically the quickly-aging, HIV-positive population in New Haven?

The project is being undertaken in partnership with Leeway, a New Haven facility founded by SOM alumna Catherine Kennedy that provides nursing care for people living with HIV/AIDS. Their goal is to design and implement a new model for how to address the health and wellness needs of people living with multiple chronic illnesses. The thesis is that chronically sick people require more than just medical and health care; they need social support and a community to help provide their other wellness needs, like improved nutrition, access to recreation, and the ability to foster a sense of spirituality, purpose, and belonging.

Our role in the project was to interview potential providers of these wellness needs in order to create a stakeholder map, and eventually a business model canvas, based on our insights.

Interviewing several wonderful organizations like Creative Arts Workshop and the Neighborhood Music School (if you’re interested in music or art classes, check them out!) really reinforced two lessons that I had learned during my work in community development in East Africa. The first is that listening is just as important as asking the right questions. It’s easy to overlook subtleties in people’s answers and miss new lines of thinking if you’re only focused on your next killer question. The second is that, no matter how much empathy you think you have, nothing beats talking to the people you’re trying to affect. Unfortunately, because of the timeline of the project, we weren’t able to speak with any of the people for whom this work was being done. This certainly helped us stretch our empathy muscles but prevented the kind of deep understanding that the project will require.

The rest of our work on the project was a whirlwind. We presented our findings, synthesized our results, and developed several business model canvases to map out our ideas and recommendations. For CAMA, HPG, and Leeway this is just the beginning of an 18-month project that will officially kick off early next year. I plan on remaining engaged and look forward to speaking with and learning from the men and women that this project is intended to help, because there can be no lasting or complete solution without their full and active partnership.