Building Genuine Relationships

Series 12/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 4/4: Enterprising Collaboration – The series investigates how collaboration and partnership can empower us to build a resilient and sustainable future.


Collaboration can enable us to design projects with a real impact combining skills from different sectors. The collaboration between entrepreneurship and social impact has empowered change makers to design and deliver sustainable projects. The partnership in between research organisations and the wider community can create projects delivering high impact and practical innovation. The difficulty with collaboration is the requirement for each of us to engage on a deeper level and develop our own sense of purpose. How can a sense of purpose enable us to build genuine relationships?

During the last immersive visit in Cambodia I had the pleasure of meeting Friend International. Friends’ is an organisation that brought the concepts of Human Centred Design (HCD) and Collaboration back home. Friends International is a social organisation that reaches out to children and youth providing medical care, shelter and opportunity. As James Sutherland, Friends international communication Coordinator, spoke about his vision and journey in setting up Friends I realised that the most important aspect of collaboration was being genuine and treating people with respect. Friends had done an amazing job at bringing the humanity back to the street children and youth; Friends doesn’t just provide an opportunity for the children to get off the street but with the grace of being treated with respect. In doing this Friends’ has provided a holistic solution which transforms and empowers life.

Friends’ achieves these great results through its values and purpose. Friends’ only hires local people to work with the community and do not work with volunteer tourism; this enables the youth to build a stable and trustworthy point of contact with Friends. Friends consider each youth individually considering the larger impact of their work on the families of the individual. Friends’ often provide solution for the whole family in order to break the vicious cycle of poverty. Friends operate with several social enterprises in the form of shops and restaurants in order to provide opportunities to the young people. Friends have also built up a CYTI alliance which creates a space for collaborative innovation. Everything Friends has achieved is led by a passion to build genuine relationships and a real sense of care for the community.

Friends’ sense of integrity is present throughout the journey of each individual; they do not create a system of dependency but independency in which they encourage the individuals to move on and pursue their own journey. How can we apply the same sense of passion and create a culture of collaboration in engineering? EngLancer is an organisation which aims to “re-engineer the way we engineer” and create a culture of collaboration and shared value in engineering. EngLancer inspires itself from the tech industry and the progression towards a more open source platform. The Tech industry has achieved far greater by creating a space for collaboration and shared knowledge. EngLancer aims to design a platform for engineers to create and share knowledge.

Collaboration is an important part of the HCD process. Encouraging collaboration and building genuine relationships is vital in achieving sustainable development. In order to achieve this we must each go on a journey learning more about ourselves in order to connect better with other.


Creating a Culture of Collaborative Innovation

Series 11/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 3/4: Enterprising Collaboration – The series investigates how collaboration and partnership can empower us to build a resilient and sustainable future.


A year ago I entered into the Environmental Agency Flash Flood Challenge. The problem set to students across England was to provide a solution that reduced the impact of Flash Floods. I went to work and started to ideate different technical solution to the problem. When it came to researching and developing these ideas I realised that there are plenty of well-developed solution already commercially available. I therefore started to re-frame the question and to investigate why so many people still used sand bags when far greater technical solution where available. This led to the realisation that people where widely unaware of the risks of floods and the products available to mitigate this risk. The solution therefore lies in empowering the community to work together to overcome the problem. How do you create a culture of inclusive and collaborative innovation?

Human Centred Design (HCD) provides the framework to design innovatively with the community; it therefore seems an ideal tool for collaborative research. CEDAC is a Cambodian agricultural research organisation that promotes sustainable farming. CEDAC uses the principles of Human Centred Design to empower the farming community by encouraging farmers to pioneer SRI (System of Rice Intensification) a simple method of plant, water and soil management which has increased yield by 66%. By encouraging farmers to adopt these new methods, CEDAC has created a culture of innovation within the farming community. In order to cultivate this CEDAD set up the Farmer and Nature Net (FNN). FNN is an independent network of farmers that share knowledge and new processes. CEDAC has therefore managed to harness a crowd sourced solution of practical research in which the farming community have become researchers.

Social scientists have pioneered these research principles through PPI (Public and Patient Involvement). PPI creates collaboration in between researchers and the wider community and works by involving the public throughout the project. It encourages the researcher to build up the research project around the public involvement getting to know the skills sets of the people involved. The role of the researchers is to work with the public providing training opportunities and sharing the recognition for the research. PPI also transforms the way we measure the impact of the research; It encourages researchers to consider the direct impact of their research on the community, the public involved and on policy. PPI is a great tool set to create relevant, inclusive and collaborative innovation.

CEDAC has created a platform for inclusive scientific research which uses collaboration and the theories of HCD. CEDAC works with the community and develops solutions which are not just innovative but practical and sustainable. As innovators and designers is it important that we learn from these collaborative approaches to research; applying the theories of HCD and PPI into the creative process. Open and collaborative research can transform the way we solve problems enabling us to create a sustainable and practical solution with the community.


Collaborating with Impact

Series 10/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 2/4: Enterprising Collaboration – The series investigates how collaboration and partnership can empower us to build a resilient and sustainable future.

Social Enterprise

Entrepreneurship and social impact is not words we tend to associate. When I first started to consider the world of social impact I completely ignored the concept of entrepreneurship. I perceived entrepreneurship to be the poll opposite of social action, to be a world focused on profit instead of people. I wanted to develop an idea and expected to get funding just because it was a good project; a nice project. I soon realised that enterprise was important; doing good is great but going good effectively, sustainably and independently is better. Social entrepreneurship is not a confused mix in between entrepreneurship and social action, social entrepreneurship in an incredible tool  that has the potential to create sustainable and long long term change.

WEDU is an organisation that is combining the world of entrepreneurship and  social action and through this empowering future generations of female leaders. WEDU does this in two ways, first they provide funding for eduction to the Rising Stars, young woman with incredible leadership potential, as well as a mentor. The combination of financing and mentoring is powerful and enables the Rising Stars to become incredible change makers. WEDU has also worked with its Rising Stars to create a sustainable funding model, in which the funding is repaid by the Rising Stars to the investors. This creates a sustainable model in which WEDU can have a greater impact and work with more Rising Stars. The Rising Stars want to give back and the model WEDU has created is based on the Best Alternative Charitable Option (BACO) developed by ACUMEN. This suggest that the financial product created by WEDU will generate a far greater impact than charitable donation alone.

Another organisation revolutionising the way we understand entrepreneurship and impact is YuGoFund. YuGoFund has developed a crowd funding model that those fare more than just raising funds.  YuGoFund works with the organisation, they are fundraising for, to understand and measure their impact; this empowers both the donor and the organisation. YuGoFund enables the organisation to understand and quantify their impact and in doing so work in a more effective manner. The donor is then informed of the impact of their donation and can understand how they are making a difference. YuGoFund is an innovative project that has the potential to change the way we give to organisation.

YoGoFund and WEDU have both inspired me in my understanding of social enterprise. Social entrepreneurship is more than a model, it is the collaboration in between enterprise and impact, it bring together the best of both worlds and enables a virtuous circle of sustainable development. If we are to bring about a global change in the way we design and problem solve then it needs to be led by collaborators, people who are not afraid to do thing differently and bridge the gap in between traditional disciplines. As designers we must be willing to go outside are comfort zone and collaborate with others, learn from others. Through this cross-pollination we can design new solution that meet ever increasing and complex demands.


Raitong Organics a Better Product for a Better Future

Series 7/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 2/3: Sustainability in Practice – The series researches the values and practices which lead to grass route social innovation.


Changing the way we perceive and understand our responsibilities and impact is a great path towards sustainable development. Applying Human Centred Design throughout the design process can enable us to design smarter cities, working with the communities to ensure strategic planning leads to a more sustainable and equal society. In this journey to develop new ideas and processes how do we ensure the impact spreads beyond the city? The farming industry is the lifeline of the city, yet in many cases farmers struggle to make a living. As the agricultural industry experience new techniques and processes which increase the productivity, the farmers haven’t seen any of the benefits. Instead the farming community has experience increased demands and stress on their systems whilst becoming more dependent on the consumerist industry. The industry is not sustainable with farmland becoming less productive and farmers struggling to get by. How can we change the industry around and support the farming community?

In Thailand the agricultural industry is highly dependent on one player; the farmers rely on supplies and wholesale prices from the same place. This does not just affect the sustainability of the farming community but also reduces the quality of the product. Bryan the founder of Raitong Organics believes he has a solution, and the solution involves going back to basics; we need to change the product. Raitong Organic is encouraging a return to organic farming in South East Asia, working with the farming industry to build up a better quality of life as well as selling higher quality produce. By producing organic products, the farmers are less reliant on the supplies of pesticides and chemicals and can therefore work more independently. The end costumer can then receive seasonal products directly from the producer and support the industry which provides for our urban lifestyle.

As designers we often strive towards advancing practices and building better technologies. This model of development can lead to more harm than good; with technology being introduces which isn’t required, needed or sustainable. This can lead to two outcomes; it increase dependency of the community on outside support in maintaining and purchasing expensive goods and services or the technology is abandoned. Both these outcomes are unsustainable; the only solution is to communicate with the customer to ensure that the product fits within their social, environment and economical context. Raitong Organics is a social enterprise that achieves this, they communicate with farmers to discuss products which can empower the farming community. Organic products do bring their own challenges; the product is seasonal and less visually appealing. The consumer is therefore less likely to purchase organic products.

A return to basic is a great way towards achieving sustainable development. It is quite often the simplest solution which leads to real challenge. A perfect example of this is the Yellow Shoes Project which teaches rural farming communities in Northern Thailand to build bio-sand water filters. An engineer we can constantly innovate and create better and more effective water filtration solutions. Or we can provide a framework for the community to design their own filtration system using the resources to hand. A sand filtration can improve the quality of the water and by built and maintained in remote communities. The challenge in returning to basics is the consumers’ attitude; we have encouraged throw away superficial consumerism. How can we change the consumer attitude and encourage a more sustainable consumer?


Zero Baht Shop an Alternative Currency for an Alternative Future

Series 6/14: Grass Route Social Innovation – Understanding the road towards integrating genuine grassroots social innovation into sustainable development.

Mini Series 1/3: Sustainability in Practice – The series researches the values and practices which lead to grass route social innovation.


Photo by urbanmkr

The principles of Human Centred Design starts with reflection; in order to design well you need to be aware of your identity and purpose as a designer. Over the last couple of years I have consciously set time apart to reflect on who I am as a designer, and the reason we need to create space to reflect is to listen. Listening is the second principle of Human Centred Design; it enables us to connect and empathise, understanding the end user in order to design solution which work for the community. Meeting with the different community led initiatives was a great opportunity to apply these principles. The first reason I was there was to reflect and learn from the people who were making a difference in their community. I was there to tell their story and to understand what could be applied into strategic planning and engineering to create solutions which empower the wider community. These Individuals where inspiring; meeting with the Zero Baht community I was humbled, they had built up a design solution which works for the community. They had derived a solution which creates shared benefit and leads to an equal and sustainable growth. This was ground-breaking innovation!

Zero Baht shop is a shop which does not use Baht; the currency of Thailand. Instead the Zero Baht shop has an alternative currency; recycling. This offers a lifeline for the community; a life line which does much more than recycling product. The Zero Baht shop is designed based on collective power, the shop sorts and manages large quantities of recycling, this can then be sold on to a recycling plant and secure a higher revenue stream. Community members can therefore make a living from collecting recyclable goods; this leads to a much cleaner environment and empowers individuals. The Zero Baht shop has also developed health insurance and built up a community centre in which products are crafted from upcycled recycling providing an extra source of income to the community. The Zero Baht shop has also developed a self-sustained organic farm in order to grow its own produce. In doing this the Zero Baht shop has been designed as a community hub; building up the connectors and breaking down dividers. The Zero Baht shop therefore creates a long term sustainable development, creating a wider sense of wellbeing and purpose within the community as well as securing opportunities for future generations.

The Zero Baht shop is an example of the limitation of strategic planning; the recycling plant is a great resource to effectively manage waste, it is however not designed to empower the local community; it creates a sustainable future for the few not the many. The Zero Baht shop provides the missing link it enables the positive impact of the recycling plant to reach the poorest communities within Bangkok. This combination of strategic planning and organic development is a great example of processes which can lead to a smart city; where sustainable growth is combined with equal opportunity. Throughout this process the recycling plant can achieve a higher economic impact; recycling more waste, social impact; providing a livelihood for the community, environmental impact; reducing the amount of waste left on the streets. If we could capture organic development within the strategic development then we could achieve more community led initiatives and considerably impact on the sustainable future of our cities. Using the process of Human Centred Design in the strategic framework of the recycling plant we could achieve this. Designing with ground-breaking innovation and genuinely designing smart cities, cities which grow sustainably and offer equal opportunity.