30 Jun 2017 by Mark Yiu
BarnRaise Edmonton: Social Innovation through Design-Thinking





Earlier this year, Carson and I attended BarnRaise Edmonton, a two-day conference aimed at applying design-thinking to social challenges. Conceived by the Institute of Design (ID) in Chicago, BarnRaise is a “uniquely structured two-day maker conference that brings together community partners, design facilitators, and participants to collaborate and co-create viable solutions to social problems embedded in the community. Done twice in Chicago, once in San Francisco – now Edmonton”.

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In truth, Carson nor I knew what to expect from the days ahead. Our organization is very familiar with design-thinking and its methods, but witnessing its application to a social cause was intriguing and exciting. So, with open minds and a healthy curiosity, we gave in to the process and settled in for a jam-packed weekend of lectures, group sessions and presentations.

The Challenge

In collaboration with EndPovertyEdmonton, the challenge for BarnRaise Edmonton was lofty, but not impossible: “Improving childhood development for a poverty-free future.” In other words, how can design-thinking positively impact childhood development to help lower poverty levels? Studies have shown children living in poverty suffer higher incidences of adverse health, learning disabilities and developmental delays, limited school achievement, and emotional and behavioural problems. In the Edmonton context, this is not a small, isolated problem:

“One out of every five Edmonton children – nearly 33,000 – is living in poverty. Just over one in three Edmonton children who live in a lone-parent family live in poverty.”
— CANADA (2014), TABLE F-18 FAMILY DATA

Participants enlisted to tackle the challenge included government officials, academics, not-for-profit agencies, childcare professionals, social workers, students, technologists, consultants and designer facilitators from Edmonton and across Canada and the United States.

Divided into groups, participants were assigned more specific problems brought forth by local community organizations (‘the Client’): e4c, Bissell Centre, The Family Centre, Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre and ABC Head Start. Each group, with the help of a facilitator and client representative, was then led through a series of activities and methods to work through each challenge. From interviews, affinity mapping and clustering to role playing and empathy mapping, the human-centered design approach spawned a great deal of empathy, creativity and discussion, culminating in prototypes of their solutions.

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Prototypes ranged from tangible ‘welcome kits’ for new Canadians to experiential ones designed to create a sense of belonging and community. Others included a journey map of a parent’s experience through a community program; community quilting as the medium for education and storytelling; and a role-play to demonstrate the intended impact of a solution on its participants. The process of getting to a prototype also resulted in new ways of thinking, not only for the group participants but for the clients as well. They began to build a deeper empathy and understanding of the challenges and needs for those they serve.

What did we learn?

Reframe the problem.

Perhaps the first thing we learned was how we couldn’t tackle the problem of fixing childhood poverty directly. We had to break the problem down into smaller, more tactical pieces that we could properly address in a weekend. What we discovered wasn’t a solution, but that the problem needed to be reframed so that new and fresh approaches could be conceived. Learning to never take the problem that is given and reframing it was an important reminder for anyone dealing with complex problems that feel impossible to solve. The hard work is in simplifying the complex and identifying the true problem to be solved.

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Prototype to think; build to learn.

The concept of using “prototypes to think; build to learn” was introduced early in the weekend—a concept that stuck with many participants—and became the modus operandi for almost every group. Generating a quick and dirty, tangible representation of an idea is powerful. It creates understanding and alignment where confusion and lack of clarity often reign.

Prototypes also offer a method for evaluating an idea’s efficacy. Will this particular product/process work? What if someone holds it like this? What if this thing encounters a problem? How will it be resolved? In the case of BarnRaise, prototypes became the output of a human-centered understanding of the problem. The opportunities that surfaced through interacting with each prototype is where the innovation happened.

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Design-thinking is inclusive.

Within the realm of innovation, there exists the Innovation Gap: a concept that recognizes the understanding of what users really need is missing. Attempts to innovate without a firm understanding often results in a lack of differentiation in the marketplace, over-engineering of product features or feature parity, and declining relevance to customers.

To avoid such results, closing the gap means participation in design-thinking activities should be open and inclusive. In siloed organizations it’s not only people who are siloed, but the thinking as well. When you open up the design challenge beyond those who are tasked with the problem, the solutions are further reaching, insightful and meaningful. Everyone—customers, students, professionals, employees, volunteers—has something worth contributing from their own personal experiences to help build the empathy that is key to creating human-centered solutions.

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The opportunity to participate in BarnRaise Edmonton was not only educational, but personally satisfying as well. By the end of the weekend, there was a real sense of accomplishment from all attendees. Knowing that each solution would have real-world impact within our local community made it all the more meaningful. We are excited to participate in future BarnRaises and eagerly await next year’s challenge.


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