It was early 2014 and we had just wrapped up a three-month project with Marie Stopes Zambia (MSZ). The work was hard: Our job was to design services and systems to decrease instances of unplanned pregnancy among girls between the ages of 15 and 19. Before the project wrapped it felt like some of the most important work we’d done in our tenure at IDEO.org, a truly teen-centered take on reproductive services aimed at girls who are too rarely engaged in their sexual and reproductive health.
As usual in our design projects, we had left our partner with prototypes to run and a path forward, but our team was finding it hard to really wrap up our engagement. Our early prototypes were successful, but we knew that we had sunk our teeth into something really powerful, and that this work was poised to really change lives. But to get the solution to pilot and scale beyond the first clinic, we had a lot more work ahead of us.
Fortunately, in a conversation with our Program Officer from Hewlett Foundation, we found a way for our engagement with Marie Stopes to continue. Our team would have the opportunity to spend more time in Zambia supporting the MSZ team through the implementation of the Diva Centres and could work to get the second clinic up and running. In fact, we had the opportunity to put a team of designers on the project full-time in both Zambia and Kenya for the next year.
Up until this point, our business had been structured as a fee-for-service model. We would work on a project for anywhere between six and fourteen weeks and then we’d move onto the next one. We knew the importance of stewarding our design work from idea all the way to implementation, but with the model we had, it was simply just too challenging to provide continued and meaningful support to our partners beyond the scope of our engagements.
As we grappled with how we could maximize our impact on the lives of poor and vulnerable communities through design, we started thinking about doubling down on a few big focus areas and a few key partners. What if we started making a handful of big bets through dedicated programs, rather than undertaking an endless series of short-term design projects?
Previously, we’d described our strategy as “gardening,” planting a great variety of flowers to see what would bloom. Two years ago, thanks in large part to the sustained work we were able to take on with Marie Stopes, we came to see that if we really wanted to change lives and build a more human-centered social sector we’d have to pivot from gardening to hunting.
It took us nearly two years to fully make the shift from projects to programs, and it took an astounding amount of work, serious relationship building, a full docket of hiring, and fair bit of organizational soul searching.
Today, we’ve consolidated our efforts and our team into four programs: Health XO, Financial Health, Amplify, and Launchpad.
Health XO is our bet that reframing the conversation around contraception for teens in the developing world will lead to fewer unplanned pregnancies and brighter futures. The complications of pregnancy are one of the leading causes of death for teenage girls across sub-Saharan Africa. And for those who do survive, having a baby too soon can mean getting stuck in the intergenerational cycle of poverty. At Health XO, we’re designing a teen-centered take on contraceptive services, one that fits their lives and gives them control over their futures.
Our Financial Health program emerged as we came to see firsthand that most poor communities lack access to fair financial services designed to put them on the path to stability. Building on existing partnerships with organizations like the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase, we’re designing a human-centered take on mobile money, savings, financial literacy, and more.
Amplify is our longest standing program, and in some ways a model for how to go deep with a partner and drive toward impact. In conjunction with the UK Department for International Development, we’re identifying and investing in early-stage solutions to some of the world’s toughest problems. Winners of our 10 online Amplify challenges receive funding and design support to bring their ideas to life.
Finally, we’ve got Launchpad, our center for emergence, the laboratory where we explore the edges of design for social innovation. Launchpad is where we push hard and fast across a variety of sectors to understand where new businesses, technologies, and designs can meet the demands of poverty.
I’m often asked how we selected these program areas and I share that early on we decided to evaluate opportunities using three lenses. First, have we seen that design can have impact in this particular sector? Second, do we have design talent that is both well equipped to work on this topic and passionate about committing to it. And, third, is there a business model to support it, namely, can we secure at least 18 months of funding to allow us to dedicate a full-time team to the topic?
Now, nearly five years into our journey at IDEO.org, we continue to experiment, learn, and iterate. Each of our four programs acts a bit differently from the others, which, frankly, is great. Deep investment in a big problem shouldn’t be a recipe for homogeneity. Each problem is different, and what it takes to truly improve lives is bound to be as well. Our four programs allow us to try new things and to push the boundaries of design while continuing to remain laser focused on getting to impact at scale with the solutions we create with our partners.
Achieving our impact goal—that the lives of poor and vulnerable communities are improved by relevant and meaningful design solutions grounded in their needs—will take time. And the truth is, we don’t think that even if we create hit solution after hit solution that will be enough to put a big enough dent in global poverty.
We’re driving toward a moment when practitioners, funders, thought-leaders, and designers embrace human-centered design on a mass-scale.
One of the most important things we can help make is a thriving new marketplace for human-centered design—because we know that the solutions that last, put people first.
Illustration by Jess Zhang.