Less than 24 hours in, Congo comes into sharp focus. We’re in a rural church about an hour outside of Bukavu, Eastern Congo’s main town. This is where we start, in the heart of the community, at a Sunday mass in a Catholic church founded by missionaries.
As Chief Creative Officer at IDEO, the global design and innovation firm, I’m here to help IDEO.org’s team with a project that we believe is changing the lives of this community. And to submerge me into the culture, my colleagues have brought me to Sunday mass. Empathy is the foundation of the design process, and religion matters to this community; it forms the root structure on which it grows.
To be clear: this is my first time in Africa. I’m acutely aware of my naiveté, but many years of practice have taught me that this learning mindset is critical to acknowledge, to the team and to myself. I’ve been asked to see this through fresh eyes, and that is often our role – to see our client’s worlds and the problems contained with them with a clean slate. To feel and intuit our way through it as much as think and rationalize. So with much the same approach as I take in conference rooms and boardrooms, I now approach Sunday mass in Congo.
In my starched shirt and tie in the boiling heat, I am an object of intense curiosity, and the children gather round. One little boy comes forward, stands by me and giggles. I look at him and say “Bonjour.” He laughs. He strides into church with me, sits down beside me, and stares as I smile. Ten minutes later, he is falling asleep in the heat and bobbing into me. I put my arm across his back to steady him. A lady in front of me with six or seven children looks round and smiles. Mass begins.
A Swahili choir bursts into song, children dancing, wearing crisp white dresses and white caps. I’m overcome with the piercing beauty of this moment. It feels hopeful, together, open. Our practice has taught us that design is a visceral act as much as an intellectual one: I can feel this on my skin and I’m ready to learn more.
But the evidence indicates that things are not good. The conflict in Congo is the bloodiest the world has seen since World War II. Rampant health issues continue to spike: yellow fever, malaria, HIV. Ebola came and has hopefully gone. Rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality are staggering; one in seven children dies before reaching the age of five. Mothers die in childbirth in 13 out of every 1,000 deliveries. Less than half the population has access to a safe source of clean drinking water. At least 70 armed groups are active in the eastern Congo, and approximately 1.6 million people remain displaced. Only the hardy and the brave can thrive here, and there is a pervasive sense that few try.
In this fraught context, a two-year-old community-run social enterprise that we have created with our partner American Refugee Committee, Asili is offering a ray of hope.
Run by locals, Asili offers clean water, agricultural services, and health clinics. It has already distributed millions of liters of water helping local farmers hold onto their livelihood, and treated thousands of patients at its two health clinics since it launched in 2014.
Designing to Communicate Intentions
I’m standing outside one of the Asili health clinics. It is beautifully designed, a repurposed shipping container, balanced on breezeblocks: white, shiny and colorfully painted with graphics and patterns. It has a little garden, a clean water supply, and it feels hopeful. Health care providers are giving shots, educating patients about maternal health, diabetes, HIV. The clinic nurse, Bienfait, introduces himself to me wearing a clean white coat, and makes piercing eye contact. He tells me how proud he is of what he is doing and shows me his dispensary. I tell him I’m a diabetic and he asks me how my health is. Emboldened by this moment of intimacy, I ask him his hope for Congo. He pauses, faltering for a second. “We need peace here. We need it to stay,” he says.
I tell him how much I love the clinic and how beautiful it is. “Yes. But…it is a shipping container,” he eventually says. “Shipping containers come into our village, but we worry that they might go away again.”
It becomes clear to me in that second – local residents want concrete assurances that community support structures have a place in their future. Permanence matters here.
Hours later, we visit a different kind of Asili clinic.
It is a little house built into the ground, not sitting on blocks. It is the center of the village. It has a stone path with flowers and a swing set in the garden. You take your shoes off to enter the clean space. It embodies everything that the imaginary clinic of your dreams would contain — fresh cool air, beautiful colors, intimate spaces, kind staff. Calm, quiet. It feels like peace. It feels like it is part of Congo, not dropped onto it. It feels permanent.
The simple beauty of this place hits me: brightly patterned clipboards, murals, children’s drawings on a little washing line, primary-colored IKEA furniture. It becomes clear to me that every community, and especially this one, deserves a beautifully designed health clinic, one that symbolizes optimism, peace, hope.
It turns out that this clinic cost the same to build as the shipping container; that it costs no more to till into the red dirt than to sit on top of it. And it’s evolved into a business: more than 3,700 visits, 3 million liters of water sold, 13,000 people with first-time access to improved sanitation. Asili is helping 500 local farmers grow potatoes and has sold 250,000 kgs.
Together, we have designed an integrated platform for serving the community’s water, agriculture, and healthcare needs – and we believe that this model can work elsewhere.
Designing for Trust
As I traveled through Congo, I thought a lot about how design has a role here far beyond that of surface beauty — that of engendering trust.
In Congo, where the future is fragile, the notion of permanence, a key principle of good design, establishes a much-needed sense of trust, something the community can rely on to be there even after aid workers have left. I recognize that trust is a loaded construct here: after all, many have come, done things and then gone, leaving behind them a sense of mistrust, but I wonder here if we are talking about something more fundamental, the sense of just trusting communities with nice things. The clinic subliminally says to me: this stuff is nice, and we trust that like us, you’ll appreciate it, because we’re all part of the same community, and why would you not do that? We often describe beauty as a business tool to our clients; I wonder here if beauty is a tool of cultural stability as well.
One thing I have learned again and again over years of business consulting is that good stories help make new possibilities more sticky – helping our clients feel as much as understand the issue at hand and in a way that allows them to see themselves in it. One metaphor occurs to me again and again as I drive around the agricultural villages of Congo: that what are creating here is actually a crop, no different to the potatoes, manioc and corn that are planted here. At IDEO, we see design as a way to solve problems, a way to ask questions, generate ideas and build futures together. Design used this way is farmable, harvestable and above all, a sustainable source of growth and nourishment. We can plant seeds here; the red dirt can sprout something equally important for Congo: its own ideas for tomorrow, its own crop. Organizations like ARC are not just providing aid; through designing systems like Asili, they are helping to harvest hope.
Designing for Involvement
That next week, we used another of our key design principles and asked everyone, as I had with Bienfait, about their hopes and ideas for Congo’s future. We helped the local Asili team paint a blackboard outside the clinic and children and adults alike talked about their dreams and their vision.
We called it the “Wisdom Wall,” and talked about how it was a “village Facebook.”
When we do this kind of work with large corporations, we find that it unleashes new ideas and builds consensus around taking actions that help organizations break out from ineffective, engrained practices.
Introducing communities to processes that yield imaginative solutions – and creating safe spaces that can play host to such processes of open engagement – is an important next-step for unlocking and empowering the ingenuity of people everywhere, especially in places like Congo where progress is most needed.
At IDEO, we believe that human-centered design can yield breakthroughs in even the harshest environments, and that is why we are committed to making sure that our methods are available to non-profits like Asili that are working to drive change in parts of the world that need it most.
We also believe that good ideas can come from anywhere, and that constraints often breed innovation.
In all corners of the world, the more we are able to introduce collaborative processes that engender trust, involve local populations, and create pathways for fresh thinking to bubble up in the places that need it most, the closer we’ll be to finding pathways to a better future.
With that in mind, the next clinic is being built – also a house, into the ground, in Mudaka, a suburb of Bukavu. It is across the street from a school, and every child there is going to get a tour of the new clinic and an invitation to play there. We are already talking about how it might not just be a clinic but a “community design center” of sorts; a place where better health is not just achieved, but where everyone’s hopes and ideas can grow. A chalkboard for ideas, and an ongoing commitment to listen to them. And hopefully a place where a new set of roots can bury deep into that red earth, and hopefully, a place where peace will stay.
Paul Bennett is the chief creative officer of IDEO. Apart from working alongside clients and colleagues on human-centric and socially significant products, services, and experiences, Bennett has created IDEO’s largest global practice – consumer experience design – ran its San Francisco office, established its New York office and grown the firm’s business in both Europe and Asia. Bennett provides creative leadership on an extended scale by traveling, learning, speaking and working across the globe.