Designing for sustainability – what we learned from three weeks in a small Guatemalan village

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By Valeria Gaitan and Titiaan Palazzi

We spent the last three weeks in a small village on Lake Atitlán, one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In addition to its natural beauty, the lake is a resource for surrounding villages. Unfortunately, population growth, modern innovations (such as motorized ships), and climate change are threatening the lake’s health.

Families around the lake face many challenges: lack of clean drinking water, high costs of wood and electricity, respiratory disease, and a local economy based almost entirely on tourism. These challenges are interconnected, so addressing them requires a systems perspective. How can we improve quality of life for people in such vulnerable conditions? How do we design for sustainability in such a complex system?

IDDS: summits to design for local development

We were in Guatemala exactly to answer these questions, by participating in an International Design for Development Summit (IDDS). IDDS summits are organized by MIT, IDIN and local professionals. For three weeks, we went through a design process to design and prototype solutions around the theme of sustainable homes. Our group included about 20 facilitators and 50 participants. Importantly, we were not working for the community but with the community; 16 of the 50 participants lived in Santa Catarina Palopó, a picturesque town of about 1,000 families where the summit took place.

The group was split into smaller teams, each addressing one specific subtopic of sustainable homes: energy, cooking methods, organic waste, plastic waste, food, water, sanitation, and construction methods.

Learning about people’s needs: Observe, Ask, and Experiment

Our team focused on energy. Our initial goal was to build relationships with the local community. To identify a specific problem, we had to learn about our users. To do so, we used a framework of Observe, Ask, and Experiment. We went from home to home, guided by our local team members, to interview people. We observed how people prepared their meals and washed their clothes. We spent hours in small kitchens learning to make tortillas and bathing in temazcals (a local form of sauna or sweat lodge used 2-3 times per week for bathing).

Energy influences every aspect of daily life

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As we lived with local families, we realized that energy informs almost every element of daily life. The wood burnt in open fires or cook stoves causes respiratory diseases and eye problems. As villagers collect wood from surrounding hillsides, forests are decimated. This in turn can lead to destructive mudslides (a 2010 mudslide destroyed many of Santa Catarina Palopó’s homes). Families spend as much as half their income on energy; as a consequence, many families can’t keep their kids in school or visit a doctor.

This stands in stark contrast to the United States and Europe. Here, a shift to clean energy is critically important to prevent global climate change. But after switching a home in Copenhagen or Texas to solar PV, the people in it don’t perceive a difference in their daily lives.

Prototyping solutions to reduce the use of firewood and electricity

After our first week, we narrowed our focus to two problem areas: high consumption of firewood for heating the temazcals (used 2-3 times per week), and high electricity costs, largely as a consequence of incandescent lighting.

We then developed design requirements for each problem. Based on these design requirements, we brainstormed different types of solutions. During the final week, we focused on two efforts:

1. An effort to redesign burners in temazcals, with the key purpose to reduce wood consumption while improving the user experience (e.g., by reducing smoke inside the temazcal).

2. An effort to reduce electricity bills by changing incandescent bulbs to LEDs.

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Most villagers heated their temazcal by building an open fire inside, on which they rested tiles and a pot of water. We built two wood burner prototypes applying the rocket stove design. We tested these prototypes with the families in Santa Catarina Palopó. Their feedback was positive: the prototypes reduced wood consumption from 10-15 logs to just 3-4 logs of firewood, while reducing smoke in the temazcal via a chimney. The prototypes are still in pilot phase at the homes, to analyze burner performance and user adoption.

To show the quality of LEDs, we developed a wooden box that fit an incandescent bulb, a fluorescent bulb, and two LEDs: one white, one yellow. We also developed marketing materials to explain the economic benefit of LEDs.

Reflecting on our experience, here are three key lessons about design for sustainability:

1. Design with the community, not for the community

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At times, we were tempted to move ahead with a design without extensively consulting the local community. The organizers constantly reminded us to listen to the community and to engage them in the design process.

Although sometimes frustrating, we listened. The effort paid off.

First, by engaging local women in problem selection, we worked on problems that mattered to them. During a local workshop, we asked women what they found most frustrating in the experience of using the temazcal. We learned that the large volume of smoke was particularly challenging, especially for the women who were asked to start the fire inside the temazcal.

Second, by engaging our two team members from the community in every step of the process, we created advocates for our solutions. Days after we installed the first LEDs, Jessica and Lidia told many others about the opportunity to save electricity by switching lightbulbs. A message from them has an impact far greater than any message coming from people outside the community.

2. Local entrepreneurship can keep small communities alive

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We asked several community members—most of whom were in their late twenties or early thirties—about their dreams. Many did not have full-time work. Most expressed a strong desire to find a well-paying job so they could support their families and create a better life.

Typically, jobs can only be found in larger towns and cities. If much of the younger generation leaves to find work elsewhere, this could mean the loss of many small towns and communities.

We learned that one path to create professional opportunities is through local entrepreneurship. What if young people can stay in their communities by creating new businesses?

This is exactly what both our initiatives are set up to do. Tech-savvy community members could manufacture the temazcal burners out of local materials and sell them to families in and around Santa Catarina Palopó. Well-connected local women can go door to door to inform people about the potential savings from LEDs, and then sell LEDs to families.

One of the most exciting moments was when Jessica, one of the two community members on our team, took us to several homes to inform people about LEDs. Typically shy, Jessica blew us away by giving a passionate, clear pitch at every home. Jessica showed herself to be a true advocate. She expressed a strong interest to build a local business to sell LEDs.

3. Business is a double-edged sword

New businesses can greatly improve quality of life. Cell phones allow people to be in touch with their families, avoiding many unnecessary trips. Better cookstoves reduce smoke, related health problems, wood burn, related energy costs and deforestation.

At the same time, big businesses have negative consequences. A national fried chicken chain, Pollo Campero, drives out many original, local restaurants. A national chicken vendor reduces the business opportunities for local villagers to grow and sell chickens. Toritos bags and Coca-Cola is sold in every small store and clearly leads to unhealthy diets.

The types of businesses that seem to add most value are those that provide high-quality products sold by local people.

Sustainability = Continuity

Of course, the work to date is just the beginning. Impact in the community requires sustained efforts. Fortunately, three of our team members live in Guatemala. They are already planning a next visit to the community, to ask about the two prototypes, and to organize a workshop for local people to build temazcal burners using locally available, reused, and low-cost materials.

We also seek to partner with a top-tier LED manufacturer to bring high-quality bulbs to the community, and to continue to train the local community members to become a door-to-door information and sales force.

Thank you to the Energy team who made all this possible: Maya Pérez, Lidia Cúmes, Jessica Pérez, Andrés Viau, Daniel Connell, and Amit Gandhi.

Thank you to the IDDS organizers María José Saenz, Sher Vogel, Omar Crespo, Oscar Quan, and Paul Crespo.

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A quest for learning – summer 2013

This summer, I embark on an epic quest. With 8 students from MIT and UC Berkeley, I’m cycling 4,000 miles from San Francisco to Washington. Along our journey, we will teach hands-on science classes to a total of 1,000 high-school students on topics we deeply care about, organized as “Learning Festivals”.

Classes range from “How to build a heliostat solar panel?” to “How does the brain work?”. Each Learning Festival will end with a session in which we invite students to work on their own ideas. The goal of our journey is to let children experience the joy of learning and the power of turning ideas into reality.

Updates

For email updates of the highlights of our journey (2x per month), please leave your information here. I keep another blog during the summer, please find it here. 

A demo class in Amsterdam

A demo class in Amsterdam

How can you help? 

Thank you for taking the effort of reading this page! There are several ways in which you can help:

(1) We are looking for teaching locations across the country (see the map below). Are you in touch with school teachers, librarians or summer camp leaders along our route? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(2) We will be camping all the way. Do you have friends who live along the path, who are happy to host 8 students for a meal or a night? Please introduce us, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

(3) This journey will lead into a structural organization to support children in developing their own ideas beyond summer. Do you want to work on or fund the future of hands-on learning? Definitely reach out, spokes [at] mit [dot] edu!

Team

Along our journey, we are supported by a large team of web designers, educators and funders. During our trip, we will be 8: 6 MIT students, 1 UC Berkeley student and myself .

Our team of 8

Our team of 8

Curriculum

1. COMPUTERS, ART:  The algorithmic beauty of plants

Do you like computers, plants, or art? How about the intersection of all three? In this course, we explore the recursive structure of plants and learn how to make pretty pictures of trees, flowers, and abstract fractal-like patterns using a clever technique called L-systems. Everyone will have a chance to create their own computer-generated works of art inspired by life.

2. NEUROSCIENCE, GAMES:  EyeWire: a game to map the brain

EyeWire is a puzzle-meets-coloring book online game that enables its players to contribute to the brain mapping initiative, which was announced by President Obama in March. Developed in part by one of the Spokes teachers in the Seung Lab at MIT, the game teaches its players how to trace the “branches” of neurons through 3D reconstructions of brain tissue. To do this task, players “spot check” computer algorithms, with the ultimate goal of obtaining a connectivity map with synaptic-scale resolution of the “connectome.”

3. ENERGY, CONTROL SYSTEMS:  Build your own solar panel heliostat

Through assembling their own solar panel heliostat, students will gain insight into the fundamental working or energy from renewables. This class combines knowledge in mechanical engineering (designing a technical system), computer science (programming an arduino) and electrical engineering (soldering the board).

4. FOOD, GARDENING:  How to grow your own vegetables: inside, for free!

Don’t you wish you know how to make your own delicious food? With a few old plastic gutters, a handful of plant seeds and a bit of daily care, you will grow your own veggies in no-time! Add in a few quick and easy recipes, and you will be the most popular chef in your high school – period.

5. MUSIC, PHYSICS:  The Science of Music

Music has been called the universal language. In some sense its building blocks of rhythm, harmony, and melody arise from the nature of the human mind. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions! Come learn about the math, physics, and psychology behind the music we love and how to take a scientific approach to solving its mysteries.

Journey

Our route from San Francisco to DC

Our route from San Francisco to DC

Partners

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My class

The class I will teach is called: “Grow your own vegetables – the joy of making what you’re eating”. I have created an entire outline of my class (using pictures, very few words) here.

See you in DC!

See you in DC!

Design in entrepreneurship: essential or a luxury? A report from A Better World By Design.

This blog was originally written for MIT Entrepreneurship Review

What is the role of design in improving the world we live in? This was the central question at the annual “A Better World by Design” (ABWxD) conference, hosted by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) last weekend. While some may associate design with beautiful buildings or intuitive software interfaces, conversations at ABWxD extended far beyond this realm. The key take-away from two days in Providence, RI: design plays a fundamental role in the success of any project, extending its influence from technology development to product sales.

In technology development, design is too often an after-thought. Noel Wilson shared the process of redesigning a rollable water vessel for developing countries. Previously, a product had been developed to eliminate the need for people to carry heavy water containers on top of their heads. As Wilson and his team were testing a prior version of the product in the field, Wilson observed that people had difficulties using the sealing mechanism. By involving the end-users, and setting up a prototype facility in a local village, Wilson was able to rapidly iterate through design features, and find those design elements that were most appreciated by users.

It is specifically the interface between user and technology that requires careful design. In a personal conversation, Steve Daniels – who founded ABWxD in 2008 – shared his experience working with IBM Research, by most standards an advanced technology company. For IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative, engineers have been avidly developing technologies that can communicate energy and water consumption to residents. Despite excellent engineering functionality, the researchers realized that analytics alone aren’t enough to change consumer behavior. To create such behavioral change, beautification is not enough: design must be grounded in cognitive psychology and sociology to influence behavior.

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Besides technology and product-interface development, the importance of design extends into marketing and communication. A well-visited workshop on Saturday focused entirely on persuasive communication. To make a message stick, good design is essential. Design does not only relate to the form and quality of the communication (e.g. a YouTube video), but also on the source of communication.

Giles Holt, architecture student at RISD University, is one of the co-founders of Consignd. In place of brick-and-mortar stores, Consignd allows users to buy from an influential expert, changing the way we find the products we love. Fundamental to the stickiness of the system is the design, and judging by their website, these guys have a lot up their sleeves. Beyond their product, Consignd has brought a design approach to their business development by applying the same sequence of steps employed by Noel Wilson throughout as they go to market.

If design is fundamental to development and diffusion of innovative products and services, how can it be further integrated into university education? A good example is the annual course Product Design and Development. Taught by MIT professor Steven Eppinger in collaboration with RISD professors, this project-based course stimulates small teams of students to develop a physical product. Beth Soucy, an industrial design student and part of this year’s ABWxD organizing team, was positive about her experience taking the class, collaborating with MIT engineers and business students to develop a tangible product.

Beyond MIT, startup accelerators are picking up on the importance of design too. GreenStart, a San Francisco based accelerator, focuses on giving renewable energy companies a redesign of business, branding and communication.

Having highlighted the importance of design in many different stages of a company’s value chain, it must be noted that design is not a cure-all medicine. Beyond excellent design, transformational companies require an element of technological or business model innovation. In the energy space, this is highlighted by the “energy dashboard delusion”: the idea that visualization of energy consumption would automatically engage home owners to hugely reduce their utility bills.

How do you integrate design into your work? Is design a core element of your business, or do you see it as an extra? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!