Stanford's Institute of Design: School for world changers
Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, create 'empathy driven' curricula, which push design that improves lives.
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Such explorations have led to products like a low-cost infant warmer to decrease the number of newborn deaths, solar devices for the poor in rural India and Africa, and irrigation systems for small-plot farmers. (See a roundup of success stories, bottom right, next page.)Skip to next paragraph
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To find the right blend of students each year, Patell says he selects candidates with the skills to tackle that year's focus – be it agriculture, health, or environmental technology. But the most important attribute, he says, is a "strong desire to make things." D.school's passion for design, innovation, and entrepreneurship relies on that kind of hands-on approach.
Patell doesn't just look for the right students, but also the right partners outside Stanford. "Eventually, we work hard because we become so attached to our partners," he says. "We very much want them to succeed."
Nonprofit entrepreneurs Jim Taylor and Debbie Aung Din, in particular, have become popular collaborators for the students in Patell's course. The husband-wife team runs Proximity Designs, which works with rural Burmese farmers.
Patell's students have designed several products for the organization, such as low-cost, tripod irrigation pumps in 2006. When the pump launched in Myanmar (Burma), Proximity sold nearly 5,000 pumps in the first six months. That success led to future collaborations. And now, when Mr. Taylor and Ms. Din visit the Bay Area, they regularly stay with Patell and discuss upcoming projects with his students.
Bringing together students with nonprofit collaborators, says Stanford political science professor Joshua Cohen, is what helps his classroom thrive. Even though these students are crafting prototypes for business, many of them do not have a business background. Rather, the emphasis is on "empathy driven" research, requiring students to understand the individuals they're designing for.
Dr. Cohen, who teaches "Designing Liberation Techniques" with computer science professor Terry Winograd, works closely with students to develop mobile-based solutions.
Their latest project, M-Maji, is what sent Jeon to Kenya. There, he and his fellow students worked with the Nokia Africa Research Center; the University of Nairobi's computer science department; and the Umande Trust, a nonprofit organization addressing water and sanitation issues in Kenya.
Working in small, interdisciplinary teams, students designed mobile-based programs similar to M-Maji in an intensive 10-week course led by Cohen and Dr. Winograd this past school year.
The result: six different ideas, ranging from a text-message-based system for prenatal care to digitizing data collected by health workers in Kenya.