Design Thinking in Malawi

John Bonnell speaking in front of a blackboard

Design Thinking in Malawi

Bill_blogheadshotBill Heinrich, Director of Assessment
Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

 


libbyheadshotLibby Hoffman
, Designer and Researcher
Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

 

 

carolinewhiteCaroline White, Designer and Researcher
Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology

 

 

Over the past few months, the Hub has facilitated a number of projects that utilize design thinking principles and processes. Based on our previous work with the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation (GCFSI), John Bonnell, Capacity Development and Outreach Specialist at the Center for Global Connections (CGC), and John Medendorp, Project Manager at the CGC, asked the Hub for ideas and support as they planned a design thinking exercise for faculty selected for GCFSI’s International Scholars Program (ISP) and academic leaders from the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) in Malawi. The nine LUANAR faculty members—each with a unique proposal for agricultural development—and the academic leaders attended a two-day workshop to refine their project proposals and learn how design thinking methods could inform their process.

In addition to spending a few days with the CGC providing some initial planning and logistic support, we engaged in a week-long work sprint with Bonnell and Medendorp to help get the logistics and materials designed and organized for their journey.

Together, we worked to develop reflection points for Stanford’s Virtual Crash Course in Design Thinking, which would serve as the introduction to the five design thinking principles (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test) and be the main focus of the first day of the workshop.  For the second workshop day, Libby, learning design intern at the Hub, created a 12-page workbook to prompt participants to think about how their current project proposals fit into the design thinking framework and identify areas where they could expand. Participants would also be outlining a timeline, budget, and design team to support their projects.   

 

John Bonnell speaking in front of a blackboard

John Bonnell opens day one of the workshop. Photo by Christie Kang′ombe

“The faculty and academic leaders appreciated the participatory fashion. We’ve done a lot of workshops in Africa, and it’s standard to see people working through email. That didn’t happen here,” said Medendorp. “The intensity of the engagement was very palpable. They were having fun, they were enjoying themselves. Lots of conversations were happening at the tables, and they were very deeply engaged in the sequence of events.”

One of the most exciting elements for the Hub and for our partners was seeing how participants were engaging with and applying design thinking methods to their projects. Consistent reflection sessions and intentional work time to rethink their ideas and get peer feedback led to high workshop ratings from the participants and enthusiastic feedback. “As we were talking about forming a design team, they were asking questions like what’s the difference between a design team and a focus group, or subjects in a study,” said Bonnell. “It was obvious that they were taking this concept of the design team and connecting it to older knowledge and research processes and traditional approaches and terminology and trying to figure out where to go from that. When we got into those discussions, it was very evident that there were some new ideas and ways of thinking and approaching. There was excitement about taking this to the next step.” 

 

A pair of hands writing on a sticky note

Brainstorming ideas. Photo by Christie Kang′ombe.

“This is the first time the administrators have considered that they have the obligation to create the atmosphere in the university,” added Medendorp. “They see themselves as managers. For them to think about what their obligations are in order to set the stage for certain things to happen was somewhat eye opening for them.”

One of the Hub’s functions is to help MSU think differently as a necessary step toward reinventing ourselves as a learning institution. To meet that expectation, we have been developing new models for design thinking grounded in our projects in order to help us and others to learn from these experiences. Since this workshop, for example, we have started to analyze the data with and for our partners to contribute to our shared understanding of how to use design thinking to inform innovative projects, including improving food systems. We’ll also focus on how design thinking constructs developed in the U.S. need to be translated to be useful and appropriate to other contexts.

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