Design Thinking for Community Development

Asset mapping exercise

Centre for Social Innovations –CSI is a mission driven not for profit social enterprise headquartered in Kumasi, Ghana. CSI Ghana harnesses Design Thinking approach in empowering entrepreneurs in collaboration with community members to address issues which are of priority to community members. What this means is that the program participants are trained in how to identify needs or issues of priority concern to community members, and work with them to find solutions using local assets and resources prevalent and then develop strategies to scale up solutions into innovative social enterprises.

Our approach combines theory and practice in such a way that program participants get the opportunity to learn the concepts before applying them on the field to solve real world challenges. Through participation in our community innovation programs, students and young entrepreneurs gain hands-on skills in leadership, teamwork, problem analysis, solutions design, testing and refining as well as scaling up solutions into sustainable social enterprises.

Community development and design thinking are by no means mutually exclusive, though different practitioners tend to prioritize one approach over another. Both seek sustainable solutions to seemingly intractable problems such as access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare access, safety, or education.

Engagement with community members to co-create sustainable solutions

But while design thinking stresses on being efficient and able to scale, community development places more emphasis on finding solutions that are specifically tailored to the community itself—even if that means painstakingly slower progress. Communities abound in tacit knowledge which are valuable to members. Hence, the community innovation program ensures that practitioners appreciate that before they can help make meaningful change.  Rather than listing social problems and then coming up with solutions, community innovators focus on unique strengths and tacit knowledge and value. By this, they try to build from what’s already there.  Community innovators first approach a problem by engaging in “asset mapping,” or identifying the strengths and resources that already exist within a community. Assets might include the skills of local people, the networking potential of local institutions, and any underutilized infrastructure—even the local culture.

Consider, for example, the organization expertise in cocoa growing communities in Ghana, which has been instrumental to building better agricultural cooperatives, or the “communal culture” indigenous to Ghanaian farmsteads, an asset that makes it possible collaboration on farm labour management to reduce cost. In both cases, tapping into local assets—ones that may not be immediately visible from the outside—makes a significant difference in the durability of the outcomes.

An added aspect of the community innovation program harnessing design thinking is through a partnership with U.S based Think Impact, college students and young professionals from around the world team up with their Ghanaian counterparts to live in rural communities and to experience cross-cultural innovation and collaboration making use of Uncovery. Uncovery means collaboration, crossing cultures, and working together to reveal hidden opportunities. In collaboration with community members, students and entrepreneurs identify opportunities and co-create   products and services with social impact. CSI Ghana facilitate community immersion and long term partnerships that advance sustainable and meaningful impact. Students’ ingenuity during the Institute leads to the creation of hundreds of jobs.

Below is a summary of the processes that our participants go through to enhance their skills at innovating in communities making use of design thinking and asset based community development approaches;

Orientation Phase: Students and entrepreneurs receive training to help them understand the basics of social innovation, our approach to social innovation, teamwork and leadership.

Immersion Phase: The participants are taken to the field, usually a community to identify local assets and resources, issues of priority concern to the community and what daily experiences of people in the community need improvement.

Inspiration Phase: participants or community innovators form design teams with community members who will meet to deliberate on the issues of priority concern to the community and brainstorm solution ideas. These ideas are put into action in the next phase of the institution through an experimental process of prototyping, testing and iterating.

Innovation Phase: Innovation is the last stage of the program and the design process. The innovators (students, entrepreneurs and community leaders) begin to put their ideas into action by producing prototypes for testing and collection of feedback for improvement. They also develop business models for growing their innovations into sustainable social enterprises.

CSI Ghana community innovation program has largely been implemented in the Atwima Nwabiagya District of the Ashanti Region with very useful results. The success of the program has led to a partnership for replication of a community innovation on nutrition in Liberia.

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