On February 14-15, the Youth Assembly, a platform created by the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation to encourage youth to become involved in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, hosted its 25th session at New York University. Over the course of the weekend, students, entrepreneurs, and young professionals came together to learn from leaders in the international development space, as well as from each other, in a series of presentations and interactive seminars brought by the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation and their partners.
This year, the Executive team of the Penn Wharton Ideas for Action club hosted the “Taking the Lead: Youth Entrepreneurship” workshop. The team was composed of presenters Shivin Uppal (ENG’22,W’22), Pallavi Menon (C’21W’21), and Joud Tabaza (W’22), and facilitators Azd Billeh (ENG’23), Adam Goudjil (C’23), Aakash Jajoo (C’23), and Angel Wu (C’23). The eager attendees, who traveled from locations ranging from Brazil to Saudi Arabia, filled the seminar room to learn about design thinking processes. Uppal, Menon, and Tabaza led the attendees through the design thinking process, a method that draws from the designer’s toolkit and teaches a new approach to problem solving.
The workshop focused on the three core concepts that form the backbone of the design thinking approach:
•Starting and ending with the user
•Understanding not only what “is,” but also imagining what “could be”
•Prototyping solutions for feedback
The first step to implementing these concepts is to understand why design thinking is important for the ideation process. Design thinking unleashes creativity without losing sight of the communities a solution intends to serve. The design thinking approach starts with understanding the people who will benefit from a service or product. Through interviews and various other empathizing tools, valuable insights can be extracted from user experiences and journeys to uncover deep needs. Only from this can the nature and extent of the challenge be grasped and allow problem solvers to develop a creative and effective solution.
Yet, developing an idea is not the end of the design thinking method; it is only the beginning of the designer’s journey. The solution needs to be made into a prototype, a cheap and effective way to test whether a product or service solves the original problem. Moreover, testing a prototype also allows the offering’s creator to receive feedback from its users. Iterations are an integral component of design thinking. After a prototype is first tested, it is very likely that the solver will have to go back to a previous stage, tweak the product or service, and then test it again until the solution has been perfected.
This approach to solving problems is particularly relevant to the social impact space, where the goal is first and foremost to effect change in a given community. However, while making an impact on a community is the motive to start a social impact venture, it is often the case that the solutions initially offered are not appropriate to the problem or context at hand.
The infamous PlayPump developed by the South African company Roundabout Outdoor is an example of the failures that ensue from not heeding local context and populations. The story is quite simple—the founder of Roundabout Outdoor was once at a trade convention and bought the patent for what he thought would be a very successful product: the PlayPump, a water-pumping system paired with a merry-go-round. The founder believed he could solve the water supply problem that affected his fellow South Africans by harnessing the power of children’s play. But after the company invested tens of millions of dollars in building 5,000 PlayPumps, it was discovered that 27 hours of playtime would be required to provide enough water for one day’s worth of water consumption. This unreasonable amount of time required to achieve its intended goal is why design thinking is so important. Building off of the designer’s toolkit and keeping the users at the center of focus and prototyping a solution to hear their feedback can prevent wasting millions of dollars on equipment that might end up rusting under the sun.
It is with this vivid image in mind that participants started the design thinking exercises that Uppal, Menon, and Tabaza presented. Participants formed teams to work on finding a solution to a problem that one of their teammates had faced. They listened to the teammate’s story, drew a journey map, and came up with a problem statement. They then brainstormed possible solutions, picturing how they would navigate different constraints, like solving the pinpointed problem if they had all the money in the world, or if they could not invest a single penny. After that, they combined all of their ideas together and bundled them to create a robust and feasible solution. Finally, they started thinking about how they would prototype their product and service for their targeted community.
While the workshop and exercises were rather challenging, the participants’ response was astounding. One of the most profound takeaways was how groups of people who didn’t know each other before entering the seminar room formed impressively cohesive, collaborative teams to solve many of the world’s most difficult problems. Projects ranged from the Flint water crisis in the United States to access to menstrual products in Ghana. Some participants used this workshop to further develop their own existing entrepreneurial projects, while others took the opportunity to expand their understanding of different issues they had never thought of before.
All Youth Assembly delegates attending the I4A workshop came away with the knowledge to effectively start or enhance existing businesses and initiatives focused on addressing societal problems, as well as the tools to stay connected with and gain support from the Ideas for Action Initiative. After the workshop ended, the I4A team was energized to see how eager participants were to stay connected with each other and with members of our team to seek advice for their impact projects. Furthermore, we were thrilled to learn how many individuals planned to apply for the I4A competition. We look forward to following up with participants with more information about the proposal submission process and to help provide them with further resources to scale their ideas and business plans.
We want to thank our partners at the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation for providing us with the opportunity to share with the attendees of the Youth Assembly our expertise in design thinking and social impact entrepreneurship.