Exploring Design at the UNICEF Innovation Lab in Uganda

October 10, 2012
Students and faculty from the Art Center College of Design will spend six weeks this fall conducting fieldwork at the UNICEF Innovation Lab in Uganda as part of a new master’s program focused on design for social impact. At our studio in Pasadena, California, in a gigantic wind tunnel originally built to test jet engines, we are busy prepping for our six-week trip to Kampala. In the process of preparing for our first on-the-ground engagement, we have been studying a variety of subjects and methods. Central to our research and practice is designing to help people express themselves and to foster new and different conversations.

Art Center College of Design team. Photo by Eric Battin

Art Center College of Design has confronted complex situations before. Graduates have tackled everything from urban transportation infrastructure to global communications and new products. Also, over the past decade, the college’s Designmatters department has been an active partner with the United Nations family of agencies and funds in addressing key issues through the lens of design innovation. Launched last year, a new track within the graduate Media Design Practices program (called MDP/Field) is focused on bringing a different kind of design to Uganda—one that aims to learn from people as much as share its expertise. Through our collaboration with the UNICEF team in Uganda, we will explore what happens when design as we know it is informed by local expertise, co-created with local partners, and gets out of the way when appropriate. A key component of the MDP/Field program, and the core of the student experience, is an immersive project that includes field research in partnership with an international development agency, NGO, national nonprofit, or local community organization. We are excited to partner with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and to be working with the UNICEF Innovation Team at the new UNICEF Innovation Lab in Kampala, Uganda, for this inaugural MDP/Field experience. The UNICEF Innovation Lab platform provides a rich and unique opportunity to design with local communities and focus on challenges affecting the quality of Ugandan lives, particularly when it comes to addressing the needs of children. Instead of solving problems from afar, we aspire to engage in daily activities in order to listen to local participants, amplify their voices, and facilitate communication. Our collaborative approach will be used in a number of exploratory projects that fuse design, ethnography and technology. We anticipate our collaboration will result in insights that can help advance UNICEF’s efforts, enabling a broader range of community participation. While we expect to develop new forms of engagement, UNICEF is already doing great work in this area: One project we love is U-report, a text- messaging system in which UNICEF polls more than 100,000 Ugandan youth about issues important to children’s rights, and creates a national dialogue based on the results. U-report is a promising foray into mediated electronic communications, leveraging large-scale data for youth education and advocacy. You can see U-report in real-time at http://www.ureport.ug/.  Our cohort of seven graduate students, two undergraduates, and three professors reflects a wide variety of professional backgrounds and research interests. One student has worked with Kaiser’s Innovation Unit. Another one has extensive product design training, and another worked with an international NGO. Others have focused more on the humanities and literature. Despite our diverse backgrounds, we each bring a passion for the role of design and communications technology in fostering social impact. We look forward to arriving in Uganda soon and to sharing our experiences. You can follow us at www.mediadesignpractices.net/field. This blog post was written by the MDM team at the Art Center College of Design.