Lessons from Human Centered Design in the Context of Environmental Policy Development

by Victoria Pilbeam, Australia, ELP 2014
Written on July 21, 2014.

 
On July 17th, three dynamic young professionals from IDEO.org (the not for profit foundation attached to the internationally renowned design company IDEO), Raphael Smith, Yennie Lee and Jessie Chamberlain, came to visit the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program. The focus of their workshop was Human Centered Design and its application to development issues. The central tenet of Human Centered Design is, in essence, to put the needs and wants of the people that you are designing for at the forefront of the design process, rather than coming in and imposing preformed solutions. As part of this endeavor, IDEO.org will spend weeks in the field talking to a range of different clients in order to identify what the issue is. Once they have identified the issue, they then go through what is known as the "ideation" process, where they brainstorm as many solutions as possible. From there, they pick the best ideas and prototype them to see how they would work in the real world. After testing these prototypes and analyzing the way people respond to them, they then use this data to inform the final product. After discussing Human Centered Design and some examples of IDEO.org's application of this concept in the field, participants were led through the process of designing a wallet for another participant using the HCD process.

Image iconpibleam-1_2.png Above: Annibeth Jacob with her prototype wallet made for her by another participant.

In many ways, Human Centered Design's approach of putting people at the center of design is well suited to the context of development, especially when it comes to introducing new technologies to developing communities, such as sharing best practice models with farmers or making clean water more accessible. Within the context of aid, where NGOs and policy makers use their limited resources to create solutions for complex development issues, understanding the needs and desires of people is essential. Here, development practitioners often speak of “appropriate technology” and the need to introduce technologies that will actually have the desired impacts in a cost effective way. However, there is often a focus on technology at the expense of what people in affected communities actually want and all over the developing world there are many expensive infrastructures that stand unused, as a testament to this. Human Centered Design attempts to address this by ensuring that the end users of a product are considered at every stage of the design process.

However, another application of Human Centered Design, which we did not discuss, was the ways in which it can inform environmental policy and policy development more broadly, since critique that is often leveled at environmental policy makers is that they favor a top-down authoritarian approach and ignore the interests of people who have a direct stake in the end-product. For example, in a conflict over the creation of a wind power plant in South Gipsland, Australia, many local people felt as if their concerns were not being listened to and decided to block the construction of turbines.

Image iconpilbeam-2_2.png Above: Protesters in South Gipsland, Australia make their concerns over wind power known to policy makers after what they claim was an inadequate consultation process.

One key lesson from Human Centered design is a need for extensive consultation in a way that is accessible to different stakeholders. If more policymakers incorporated more consultation into their programs, then not only would they find new approaches to environmental issues, but they would minimize perceptions of procedural injustice among relevant stakeholders. Similarly, this idea of prototyping early and often would allow policymakers to test their ideas before investing resources into projects that are somehow lacking. Human Centered Design also has a heavy focus on interdisciplinary collaboration, which could help innovate new policy directions by widening the expertise of an organization. Including more people in the formation of policy and design builds a sense of empathy, which is necessary to a successful end product.