ZambiaA famous quote about problem-solving goes, “If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend 55 minutes determining the right question to ask.” When addressing poverty, organizations tend to answer the question of how poverty can be eliminated.

Design thinking demands to ask about the causes of poverty and targeting the root problem rather than its symptoms. Some causes of poverty that design thinkers consider include slavery, colonialism, resource plundering, structural adjustment programs and financial crises.

Unequal power structures are a common theme in the causes of poverty. Many nonprofits seeking to mitigate poverty do not address this fact, which limits their ability to provide sustainable solutions.

Poverty cannot be solved using the same logic that established it in the first place. A study of the language used on Twitter by antipoverty organizations revealed that poverty is commonly referred to as a disease, trap or enemy.

Each of these metaphors suggests that poverty is inevitable, and some imply that the poor are somewhat responsible for their condition. These misleading ways of thinking about poverty are not conducive to developing the best solutions.

The Millennium Development Goals rely on GDP growth to eradicate poverty. Even if a generous growth rate is assumed, 207 years will pass before everyone lives on more than $5 per day, which is the minimum income needed to reach normal human life expectancy.

Design thinking is a promising new way of approaching development issues, and IDEO is a global design company committed to using this approach to create a positive impact.

One of IDEO’s projects focuses on educating girls in Zambia about reproductive health. Aiming to shift the uneven power structure by providing women with access to information about their health, this project illustrates the power of addressing the root causes of poverty.

In Zambia, more than one-third of girls give birth before they are 18 years old. Access to safe, comprehensive health education provides the information girls need to finish school and be able to choose when to become mothers.

IDEO’s solution is the creation of Diva Centres, space for girls to do their nails and have casual conversations about boys and sex. When a girl is ready to receive more information on the topic, she receives counseling and access to several birth control methods.

In this friendly environment, girls learn about the importance of family planning for securing control over their life. IDEO’s human-centered approach allowed them to design a multi-touch system that effectively reaches teens and provides powerful information.

Marie Stopes Zambia, a traditional clinic that provides reproductive healthcare, rarely reached teenagers before IDEO’s help. Since adopting Diva Centres, 5,000 girls have received health education and 82 percent of them have started using some form of birth control.

Design thinking is a powerful new way of thinking about development issues. The movement towards addressing root causes and balancing unequal power structures will make great strides in eradicating poverty.

Kristen Nixon

Photo: Flickr

Kenya_Africa_health_povertyJocelyn Wyatt is the executive director of, a sister nonprofit to IDEO, a design and innovation firm. Wyatt was recently interviewed by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business on how human-centered designs help lift people out of poverty. tackles world challenges through design by partnering with nongovernmental organizations, governments, foundations and nonprofits and then going to areas where human-centered designs can solve poverty-related challenges.

Wyatt says in the interview that does a lot of qualitative research by spending time with those who are severely impoverished in order to figure out what they are willing to pay for services that could really improve their lives. The team then brainstorms creative solutions to these problems.

“The way it improves lives is that the solutions we’re creating—instead of being things that are immediately discarded or not sustainable—are solutions that people actually use,” Wyatt says in the interview.

One project that is working on is tackling reproductive health in Zambia and Kenya. They are working with Marie Stopes International, a global nonprofit for sexual and reproductive services, to help adolescent and unmarried girls who are not yet ready to have their first child. Typically, Wyatt says, programs focus more on mothers and birth-spacing and on women stopping having children once they’ve reached the number they want to have.

However, this project has a three-part solution. The first part is a communications campaign, where characters known as the “Divine Divas” educate young girls about different forms of contraceptives. The second part is a peer-to-peer outreach program for girls to share what they know about contraceptives and local clinics. The third part is designing the actual clinic. The purpose of the project is to reduce instances of unplanned pregnancy.

A large part of the human-centered design is learning to have empathy, Wyatt says. The team is trained in connecting to, relating to and asking questions of the girls and making them feel comfortable. also works in a range of different sectors to help alleviate poverty, including agriculture, water, sanitation, health, finances and childhood development.

By shifting the focus to human-centered, practical solutions, organizations can more efficiently and sustainably address issues and bring about change.

Kerri Whelan

Sources: University of Pennsylvania, IDEO 1, Marie Stopes, IDEO 2

Photo: Flickr