Putting the “Fun” in Social Innovation

An Interview with Behrouz Hariri, Global Fellow of IDEO.org

August 4, 2014

Designer, NBBJ


Recently I invited IDEO.org (the non-profit arm of design firm IDEO) to share their work at NBBJ’s San Francisco office, as a participant in our Bi-Lateral series. Founded in 2011, IDEO.org has been leading the “design for social innovation” industry by bringing a rigorous design lens to the fight against global poverty. We pitted three IDEO.org members (Dave Zhou, Behrouz Hariri and Rafael Smith) against three NBBJ SF colleagues (Mike Kaiser, Cat Peterson and George Waters) in a fierce yet friendly “ping-pong match of ideas.”

We learned much about IDEO.org’s history, design process, recent projects, and what makes them tick. The organization was formed when those working on social innovation within IDEO recognized they could have more impact with a different business model. Together they decided to spin off a separate organization, inextricably linked with IDEO but focused completely on designing to alleviate global poverty. As a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit, IDEO.org is able to target impact more than profit, working with purpose-driven clients who seek top-notch design partners, but who may not have Fortune-500 budgets.

IDEO.org shares the blessing and challenge of carving out a niche alongside a critically-acclaimed design firm: being tied to a well-known brand brings amazing resources and experience, but also the opportunity to establish a unique voice for design in the social sector. IDEO.org differentiates itself not only by being a non-profit, but with an entirely different staffing model centered on two types of employees: a core team that runs operations and programs, and four to five “global fellows,” who bring expertise from various industries (business, design, non-profit, journalism and more) to collaborate on design projects throughout the world. Additionally, IDEO.org has carved out their own niche and distinct identity by attacking global poverty through development areas such as health, water and sanitation, financial inclusion, agriculture and gender equity.

We learned that their rigorous and adaptable “Human-Centered Design” process has enabled IDEO.org to design solutions as diverse as a mobile app guiding financial literacy in youth, to launching a social enterprise focused on curbing childhood mortality in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. We also had a great laugh learning the AOL Instant Messenger names that Dave, Behrouz and Rafael once used: Tarzan84, ClownCarnival and Liquorman8… I’ll let you guess which screenname belongs to whom.

As you can tell — it was not only informative, but a total blast!

After the lively idea exchange, I had the chance pick the brain of current IDEO.org Global Fellow Behrouz Hariri:



Matthew Ridenour: What most inspires you about IDEO.org?

Behrouz Hariri: Collaborating with partners and people closest to the problems we are trying to solve.


MR: Define (in 2-3 sentences) the meaning of “social innovation”? What do you hope for the future for social innovation?

BH: I like to think of social innovation in its broadest definitions. We should constantly look in all unlikely places for potential social impact. With that said, I hope in the future any innovation is considered incomplete until its social implications are understood.


MR: What is the basic idea behind Human-Centered Design (HCD), and how does it work BEST?

BH: At the core of it, it’s about common sense, starting with what is really needed, and staying focused. It works best when the work is so rooted in observations that allegiances to a profession, technology or mindset can’t distort the reality and the solutions.


MR: Describe (briefly) a time the HCD process opened up a surprising insight you hadn’t expected?

BH: There are literally hundreds of instances, and that’s exactly the point. We always go to the field with the expectation to learn from the context and local knowledge.

In a recent project in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we held a workshop with local mothers to determine the location of a community water point and clinic. Our hunch was to put them side-by-side for convenience. But everyone was quick to point out that the water point is too loud to be close to the clinic. It’s the place where children play and get rowdy, since they are the ones waiting in line to get water for their families! These are the type of seemingly small details that we can never know from afar, but will affect the experience of a service every single day.


MR: Why is it important for industries that have different perspectives to get together for forums like this Bi-Lateral?

BH: I think new ideas and collaborations are much like precious stones, and conversations are like exploratory excavations. Having unexpected and new conversations (like the ones you host at the Bi-Lateral) can lead to discovery of some fantastic new mines!


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