Designing Solutions for Social Change

By Regina Hoo

Published on 2021-06-27 Updated 2021-07-06

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Establishing team identity.

LEARN. IMBIBE. REGURGITATE. These are hallmarks of rote learning and its derivatives are wide-ranging, from the attrition of critical and creative thinking to a slow dismantling of depth learning and social skills.

To redress this entrenched mode of learning, the Teen Changemakers Camp hosted its first-ever design thinking workshop last March at Penang Institute. The two-day camp was designed to equip participants with tools vital for today's world, e.g. the skills for problem-solving, leadership and communication; and to challenge their worldviews with prodding questions like "What is my place in society?" and "How can I better relate to others?"

"We live in a world that is becoming increasingly individualistic. We have lost empathy to the needs of our neighbours, and this stokes even more the trends of racism and xenophobia," says organiser Yap Jo-yee.

More importantly, the workshop was intended to empower its female participants, who came from the Children's Protection Society, House of Hope and Methodist Girls' School. "We want to assure them that their ideas are worth listening to and that they are intrinsically valuable individuals to society."

So what is design thinking?

Essentially, it is a human-centred approach to problem-solving. Facilitator Anand Markandu explains, "It's about going out and talking to as many people affected by a social issue, and taking these nuggets of information back for assessment, identifying first its crux, then examining the peripheral factors that have enabled its continued sustenance."

Mentors engaging with participants during the stakeholder mapping session.

"Different demographic groups are exposed to different types of problems. When we talk about social change, it can sometimes feel like a privilege to know social issues. Some students aren't even aware of what's happening around them; their biggest concern may be that when they come home, their parents aren't around," adds mentor Timothy Choy.

The framework too challenges the notion of being pigeonholed by one's life circumstances. "Children who have had a rough start especially, can feel powerless to rise above their difficult situations. But design thinking guides them to be resourceful, to come up with solutions in their varied versions, and putting them to the test again and again until the situation improves itself," says co-facilitator Bak Kah Fei.

The design thinking process is non-linear and iterative, and involves five different phases. These are empathise, define, ideate, prototype and test.

Participants were separated into groups during the workshop and given a selection of design challenges to choose from, e.g. child marriage, baby dumping and bullying for stakeholder mapping: Who is affected? Who can make decisions? Who is able to support? Who can advise?

Feedbacks from interviews with "stakeholders" were later synthesised as insights for ideation. "Design thinking is ultimately a thinking skill. We want to plant a seed, to tell these children that it's OK to have a lot of ideas and to not have them right on the first try, because children can get easily disheartened when their ideas are rejected. Rather, the emphasis is on getting the bulk of ideas out on the table for these to be filtered down to the most practical and feasible solutions. We believe that from quantity comes quality," says Anand.

Jo-yee agrees, "We want to engage them through the problems they care about; they themselves know the problems better and their solutions will be more relevant than what we adults can think of."

Preventive Actions instead of Corrective Ones

Collecting and piecing together data to form a bigger picture.

Anand, a learning and development specialist by profession, works with adults with underlying personality challenges brought over from childhood. "This covers the range of having low self-confidence to being less engaged in the workplace. A lot of times, it's almost like a corrective action to come in and 'diagnose' what their actual personality challenges are before trying to remedy them.

"I saw this camp as a wonderful opportunity to apply some preventive actions instead, to try to develop in these children self-assurance and a love for lifelong learning so that when they enter adulthood and into the workforce, they are already going into them with certain behaviours that are guaranteed to propel these children even further in their lives."

Regina Hoo

is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.