Student Perspective: How I Learned to Apply Design Thinking to the SDGs

ideas4action@wharton.upenn.edu Blog, Uncategorized

by Théo Maret

From August 10 to 13, I had the chance to take part in the 22nd session of the Youth Assembly as a French Delegate. Powered by the Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, this event gathers young people from all around the world to try and tackle concrete solutions for sustainable development. One of the most powerful messages we received was that most of the time solutions lie in partnerships. It may be partnerships across sectors, but also partnerships across generations: there is a burning need for both innovation and youth involvement on the difficult path toward achieving the SDGs.

This is exactly what “Ideas for Action” (I4A) is about. A joint initiative between the Wharton School and the World Bank, I4A aims to encourage youth to speak up and get involved in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development by focusing on concrete action like social ventures or startups. Dr. Djordjija Petkoski, co-chair of Ideas for Action, took part in the Youth Assembly in a panel session about cross-sectoral efforts to advance sustainable development. He highlighted how all sectors, be they public, private or NGO, now work hand in hand to build groundbreaking solutions. While the private sector is still often considered as primarily profit-seeking, it was interesting to see that companies can also be the most relevant players to tackle issues on all scales.

Dr. Djordjija Petkoski, co-chair of Ideas for Action

This conference was followed by a hands-on introduction to design thinking methods aimed at finding solutions to sustainable development problems. The workshop was led by Walid Beramdane, co-president of the Ideas for Action student club at the University of Pennsylvania, and John Cardone, founder of Being Design, Inc. Beramdane and Cardone informed us that the basic problem when designing solutions is that paradoxically the final user tends to be forgotten in the process: one often focuses too much on the product without taking the user’s feedback into account. Design thinking is an approach to innovation that does the exact opposite. It starts from the user’s needs and receives feedback at each and every step of the process. Needless to say, this is fundamentally important when it comes to sustainable development projects, and there are numerous instances when social ventures have ended up wasting huge sums of money after delivering poorly designed solutions.

After this short theoretical introduction we were split into groups, and everyone ended up with people they had never spoken to before this session: my group consisted of three Brazilians, two from France and a Saudi Arabian. We were asked to talk about the reason we were attending the Youth Assembly and a problem each of us was working on, then choose the one problem our group would be tackling during the rest of the workshop. Yara, a teacher from Brazil, told us how she was facing abnormally high dropout rates among her students and was having a hard time finding concrete ways to overcome this. We chose to focus on this very tangible and measurable problem that had complex causes on several layers.

The first step with design thinking is empathy: one has to put one’s self in the final user’s shoes. For us it meant analyzing the reasons why a student would drop out of high school in Brazil. The conclusion we came to is that it was the students’ lack of motivation, confidence and trust in their environment. The situation in Brazil, particularly in these students’ surroundings, is leading them to think they are better off dropping out of school and trying to get a job directly. We were then asked to think about the solution we would choose if we had all the money in the world, and then if we could not invest a single dollar, in order to go through all the possibilities.

I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical about our ability to actually make concrete steps forward in such a little period of time, as the workshop lasted less than an hour and a half.  But surprisingly enough we did achieve results that were quite convincing. Without involving any spending, we thought about inviting successful alumni back to Yara’s school and organizing conferences and meetings for them to act as role models for the students and highlight how important studying had been in the process leading them to where they stand today.

What struck me from this workshop was how different experiences were useful in coming up with potential solutions. Back in France, I am the president of my school’s Junior Enterprise, which is a student-run consulting firm specialized in data science. I explained how the concept worked and how creating something similar in Yara’s school could actually be really relevant. A Junior Enterprise would provide her students what they lack: confidence and motivation. They would gain confidence by realizing they can have an impact on their own scale while studying, and they would gain motivation to achieve success for a project that is their very own. The aforementioned successful alumni could also be part of the process, being patrons of the initiative or giving advice on how to grow an entrepreneurial project from scratch.

Théo Maret

All in all, this session ended up being even more enriching than I could have thought, for several reasons:

  • We made concrete steps forward regarding the problem we chose to analyze.
  • We all learned about issues and situations we were not aware of. It also helped us get a grasp of what it implies to tackle an issue in a country one has not been raised in, considering all of the cultural differences that appear at every step of the process.
  • We discovered how some things that might seem obvious can actually lead to huge mistakes when designing a solution for a sustainable development problem. Hence the importance of always working based on feedback from the final user.

As cliché as it seems, the most important thing for our generation today is to realize we can actually have an impact quite easily on the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Regardless of whether it is through an NGO, a private company or working for the government, there is always a way to work toward the SDGs. What we need is to reinvent the way projects are created by forging meaningful partnerships between sectors to achieve differentiation and flexibility, and to always get closer to local needs.

As a French delegate, this session and the event as a whole made me feel the urge to act as fast as possible. Growing up in so-called developed countries, one tends to take everything for granted and also consider there is little to change around him or her. But what makes the SDGs so powerful is that they consider every country to still be developing in a certain way: there are major flaws in rich countries that need to be tackled. For example, I developed a partnership between my school’s Junior Enterprise and the one in Sciences Po Paris. Together, I hope we can leverage data science and machine learning to improve French public policies and their implementation.

In every aspect of the SDGs, our youth have to get involved if we do not want the errors of the past to continue to happen over and over again. We can engage in politics, like the Jeunes avec Macron in France who try to empower youth through political activism by setting up innovative actions. We can have an impact in the companies we are working for or create our own social ventures. We can get involved in NGOs either in our home countries or abroad to advance international development. There are so many ways to have an impact—all we need is both awareness and motivation. I am convinced that platforms like the Youth Assembly and Ideas for Action make a huge difference by giving us those two things: in short, the desire to act.