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Innovation Lab: Using design to meet Rwanda's challenges

On October 22nd, Autodesk hosted an Innovation Lab in Kigali, Rwanda to inspire local communities to embrace design as a way to tackle wicked problems related to water, health, shelter, food and energy. This life-changing opportunity was made possible through Autodesk’s Pro Bono Program, in collaboration with team4tech. The goal of this program is to increase the capacity for Autodesk's Foundation Grantees to learn and communicate through our software, build community partnerships and provide an impactful hands-on professional development for Autodesk employees. The Innovation Lab was designed to inspire radical collaboration between MASS Design Group, their new education initiative, the African Design Center (ADC), and several community partners like FabLab- Kigali, Water for People, UNHCR, Inema Art Center and EarthEnable. Its success was as a result of the participation from ten dedicated Autodesk employees.
The Innovation Lab opened with an immersive story to instill a sense of empathy for those living rural Rwanda: 

"Imagine that your family lives in a very small village in Rwanda... Although your family makes up a major part of the population, they continue to live in hardship. For instance, every day, your mother and youngest sibling have to wake up early in the morning to trek to a faraway stream to fetch water for cooking, bathing and tending to household duties. What if your sister becomes ill because she has developed a stomach parasite from ingesting unclean water? She needs to seek medical attention and you are worried if she will survive. What if your aunty lives in a house made of mud walls with a corrugated roof and a dirt floor? Last night she experienced a heavy rainstorm – portions of her home have disintegrated and water has entered her home because of the holes in her roof. What if her livelihood is sustained by the crops she produces from her farm? Although she has been working hard to manage the soil, she cannot afford the expensive of fertilizers or quick access to water to increase her crop yield.  What if your father owns a small sales business in the village? He is forced to work short hours because he does not have access to constant electricity and cannot afford fuel for a generator. Now, imagine that you have discovered human-centered design and you have developed a passion for making solutions in the service of your community. Today, your mission is to create a homegrown solution that addresses the challenges faced by your family: water, health, shelter, food, water and energy.


Images depicting the living situations of Rwandans as it relates to water, health, shelter, food, water and energy
All of the participants were assembled into five diverse groups, with at least one representative from each organization. This allowed everyone to have a seat at the table and contribute their perspectives towards one of the five challenge areas. For MASS & ADC, participating in this experience was an invaluable one because, for the first time, they connected to the larger community, under one roof, and collaborated for a common mission – to design for Rwanda. In four hours, all the group applied LUMA's human-centered design thinking methods like –  Walk-a-mile immersion, Stakeholder mapping, Statement starter, Creativity matrix, Rose-bud-thorn, Rough mock-up and Storyboarding, to generate a diversity of unique idea solutions, concepts and prototypes.

Sprint 1: Walk-a-Mile Immersion

Opening up with an immersive story provided a broader context to encourage participants to empathize and explore the real hardships and situations with living in rural Rwanda. Each member of the group discussed their personal experiences and certain homegrown methods for coping and living despite the realities. From this discussion, each group emerged with a deeper understanding of the challenges and appreciation for the communities who are impacted.

Sprint 2: Stakeholder Mapping

Using insights from understanding the communities and their challenges, each group was tasked with identifying and plot a map of stakeholders for are affected or are contributors to the issues pertaining to their focus area. This exercise encouraged people to get up and use sharpies & sticky notes to draw images on a large white canvas. They represented each stakeholder using simple illustrations and connected line while adding short descriptions to describe how each played a role in the larger system. It was a great way to inspire everyone to communicate visually.



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Members [left: Patrick- Autodesk, Jean Paul-MASS, Vital & Dominique- Water for People, Thandi & Brianna-ADC] from the “Water for Everyone Project” assemble to discuss the challenges and stakeholders

Sprint 3: Statement-Starter

After gathering insights from the previous sprints, each group crafted a problem statement starting with,  “How might we…”. This statement served as a starting point to begin exploring idea solution that could best address their challenges. This exercise motivated each group to agree on the challenges which were most impactful to their community.

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Members [left: Jeremiah- ADC, Gaya- EarthEnable, Kenneth- Inema Art Center, Aziz-MASS, Yemi- ADC, Oliver-Water for People] from the “Shelter for Humans Project” define their problem statement

Sprint 4: Creativity Matrix

With the problem statement identified, each group transitioned into creating a 5x5 matrix to generate conceptual ideas that connected their communities to enabling solutions. This exercise was mentally stimulating because it pushes everyone to be creative, expressive and think outside of the box. As a result of this exercise, everyone felt happy about contributing their ideas and showing team spirit! There were sticky notes flying everywhere and ideas started pouring on paper!

Sprint 5: Rose-Bud-Thorn

After the creativity exercise, a few members visited their neighboring groups to give feedback on their ideas. They identified which ones were amazing using the red sticky note (a rose), which ones had potential using the green sticky note (bud), and which ones may not be successful using the blue sticky note (thorn). This exercise was  a great way for each group to sources new ideas, connect with other groups, use those insights to deliberate and converge on one ideal solution.

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All participants [from MASS Design Group, African Design Center (ADC), FabLab- Kigali, Water for People, UNHCR, Inema Art Center and EarthEnable] cross-collaborate with each other and give feedback to their neighboring groups

Sprint 6: Rough Mock-Up

Each group was tasked to create a rough prototype of their solution using cardboard and simple craft supplies. This exercise was really exciting because it encouraged everyone to be creative and use their hands to make something. All of the prototypes successfully illustrated how their solution will be used in a given scenario.  

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Members [left: Jeremy & Yemi-ADC and Kenneth- Inema Art Center, Aziz-MASS]  from the “Shelter for Humans Project”  working together to construct physical prototypes that illustrate design concept

Sprint 7: Storyboarding

In the storyboarding exercise, each group crafted a story to complement their physical prototype. The challenge was to use postcards to visually tell their story and to make it as completing as possible. Some of our favorite stories include “The Shelter for Human’s Project” – a weeklong immersive program that brings together influential people from the private sector, the community and local builders to the co-design and builds an educational center. Another one was “A Self-sustained Health and Wellness center” – a community-driven initiative to train the community on building skills, facility management, disease prevention, counseling. Other wonderful solutions include “The Food Reborn Program” – A sustainable clean-tech greenhouse for growing foods off and on season; “Safe Drinking Water for Everyone Project” – a home-grown rainwater harvesting and collection system for home use; “The Sustainable Energy Project” – an education system to teach communities how to generate their own energy using animal dung.

At the end of this exercise, all of the groups shared their storyboard and prototype solutions with everyone and received a lot of wonderful feedback, comments and opportunities to for future. Their experience was a testament to the potential of applying human-centered design methods to better engage with people from various different backgrounds and understand the real challenges from their perspective. In summation, the “Innovation Lab” was a true success and we received great feedback of our participant. We received so much excitement about it that we hosted the second one for ASI-D which attracted 20 students secondary and university students. We even trained them in 3D design using Fusion 360, which they loved.  

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Members [left: Ben-Autodesk, Moses & Victor - ADC, Lambert- FabLab]  from the “Food Reborn Project” celebrate their success by showing off their certificates and physical manifestations of their creativity.


The Innovation Design Lab organised by the Community Outreach Team was intended to create new relationships and good practices for the local community to improve the chances of new and worth actions for the society. The “Shelter for Humans Project” and “Food Reborn” were just some of the projects we came up with. Thank you Autodesk Team for making this happen!”
– Jeremiah Oonyu, MASS/ ADC Fellow

"The training was really interesting. I think I learned most of all I would need to get started with Autodesk Fusion 360. I really like the way you divided us into different groups and gave us challenges to work on. After the training, I took my time and reflected on what I have learned and how it can be applied in my space, Kepler Tech Lab. I found Human-Centered Design approach super cool and I have to introduce it to my students as well. Keep up the good work!’’
– Alphonse Habyarimana, FabLab (ASI-D)

"Our group focused on how to find a solution to a real problem we face in our society relating to health. For that, we would like to organise more workshops and trainings whenever possible!
– Vital Nshimiyimana, Water for People

"Thank you so much!  Please come back and do this with our team!"
– Gayatri Datar, EarthEnable

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