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Collaborative youth-centered design thinking to solve local challenges

Collaborative design thinking will help youth learn to analyze and solve local problems while building soft skills necessary for success.

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Half of the world’s population – 3.75 billion people – are under 30 years old. Nearly a quarter of the world’s population – 1.8 billion people – are between 10 and 24 years old, of whom 90% live in emerging and developing countries.[1]

Governments and communities are challenged to meet the diverse needs of this large and growing population, and are having difficulty in building on the assets and opportunities offered by youth. A “youth bulge” strains education systems already struggling to provide the education necessary to foster a productive and engaged citizenry. As growing numbers of youth seek and compete for jobs, levels of unemployment among youth in resource-constrained areas increase; for example, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia all have youth unemployment rates over 30%, more than twice the global average;[2] more than half of South Africa’s youth are unemployed.[3] These large numbers of unemployed youth can be a direct threat to peace and prosperity. Further, many youth in developing countries are both the victims and perpetrators of violence. The World Health Organization reports that homicide is the fourth leading cause of death in people aged 10 to 29, and that this age group accounts for 43% of global homicides. Further, they report that up to 24% of women’s first sexual experiences are forced.[4]

However, youth offer great, often untapped, creativity, innovation, and passion for solving the challenges they see in their own communities, and often feel deep concern about issues of fairness and justice. Their developing cognitive capacity also helps them think outside the box more easily as regularly evidenced in the technology sector. Youth have the potential to be significant change agents and a source of innovation and creativity.

Whether large youth populations create strife or solutions depends on many variables. FHI 360 believes that a carefully facilitated iterative design process, combined with an evidence-driven, project-based learning approach will help youth build essential foundational (or soft) skills, equipping them for their futures, while channeling their significant energy, passion, and creativity towards addressing community challenges related to the overlapping domains of peace, planet, and prosperity.

FHI 360 has conducted research that identifies the most important soft skills for youth outcomes, related to work, health and violence prevention,[5] and will apply this evidence to develop a project-based and facilitator-led youth soft skills and design thinking curriculum that leads youth through an iterative design process of identifying and solving a real community problem, and doing so in partnership with a similar group of youth from another community. The curriculum will enable youth to address any of the IDEO challenge priorities pertinent to their local community and gain the confidence and capability to continue to be change agents in these communities.

This idea is grounded in the successful Design Squad Global (DSG) program, developed and implemented in partnership with WGBH in Boston, MA, and funded by the National Science Foundation and the Lemelson Foundation. DSG has designed a 6 or 12-week club-based curriculum that connects kids ages 10–14 in informal club settings. Kids explore engineering through fun-packed, high-energy, hands-on activities in partnership with a DSG club from a different country.

Aimed at younger children and primarily focused on engineering, DSG combines the design process (and the creative problem-solving and critical thinking skills this requires) with collaborative group work and international partnerships (and the communication, social and self-control skills this requires) enabling youth to develop these priority soft skills.

Our DSG experience, in particular, has given us significant insights into how to develop a curriculum that leads youth to understand and successfully apply an iterative design process to effect real change. It has afforded us valuable understanding of how to help youth make innovative ideas tangible, practical and implementable and how to appreciate the centrality of customer needs, perspectives and insights in this iterative process.

This experience has also shown us the value of a well designed and easy-to-implement curriculum. While FHI360 and WGBH have been involved in promoting the dissemination of DSG in 8 countries, almost 30 DSG programes are now running in 20 other countries through no project intervention.






Explain your idea

We will develop and test an open-source, project-based, evidence-driven, robust, easy-to-implement and cost-effective 3-month facilitator-led soft skills and design thinking curriculum, aimed at youth 15 – 24 years old. It will be applicable to multiple contexts and implementable in formal and informal education settings. The curriculum will lead youth through an iterative design process of identifying and solving a real community problem within the overlapping domains of peace, prosperity and planet, and to do so in partnership with a similar group of youth from another community. This inter-group collaboration will give youth the opportunity to articulate their ideas, thinking and solutions and to give and receive critical and constructive feedback from a different perspective at each of the following steps. 1. Define the need (not just including identifying the basic problem but also understanding the larger context including root causes and the nature, culture and perspective of potential “customers”); 2. Brainstorm solutions (defining and selecting potential practical and tangible solutions and then considering their scope, feasibility and suitability for bringing real change); 3. Design (producing detailed designs and initial prototypes to test suitability and effectiveness); 4. Build, test, redesign (an iterative cycle to build, deploy, test and further refine the solution); and 5. Share (sharing the final solution with the wider community and then possibly initiating a business model around the solution to take it further). The curriculum will be developed and tested in South Africa. The country’s large youth demographic, struggling education system, high levels of youth unemployment and poverty, high levels of societal violence and racial conflict (especially among youth), growing environmental degradation and diverse urban and rural contexts make South Africa an ideal testing ground. The development of the curriculum will itself follow an iterative design process where continual testing and refinement, driven by youth and facilitator feedback and experience, will help to ensure a curriculum that delivers tangible and lasting benefits to youth and their communities. This will occur through 2 rounds over 14-months (3-month initial curriculum development; 3-month round 1 testing; 3-month curriculum review; 3-month round 2 testing; 2-month facilitator training development). In this way, continuous evaluation and reflection is built into the project design. Should funding be available, this process will be repeated in a second country. The curriculum will be developed for open-source global dissemination and so will include a detailed guide along with comprehensive facilitator training materials. It will require a minimum financial investment to implement, the only costs being those associated with design and building materials and inter-group communication.

Who Benefits?

As the objective is to develop, pilot and refine a curriculum, the number of direct beneficiaries will be limited during the project period but will grow over time as the curriculum is implemented in other countries. Youth will benefit by gaining critical soft skills which give them a greater chance of becoming economically productive and reduces the likelihood of them engaging in destructive behaviors. They will also gain the ability to apply design thinking to understand and solve problems which can potentially create future income generating opportunities. Communities will benefit from youth applying the design process to solve real community challenges and from having youth energies and passions directed towards community engagement and benefit. International development practitioners benefit from gaining an evidence based and field tested curriculum for youth soft skills and design thinking development to implement “as is” or from which to derive new programs.

How is your idea unique?

This idea is unique in its ability to target the full range of essential soft skills for youth. This uniqueness derives from a rigorous application of an iterative design process within a partnership model that forces design decisions to be articulated, communicated, defended and refined. This idea is also unique in that it places youth in a position to solve real community problems for real people and, in so doing, develops their ability to apply design thinking, gives them valuable entrepreneurial skills, delivers tangible good to the community while also helping to enhance interactions between youth and the wider community. Finally, the intention to release the resultant curriculum as an open-source product is relatively unique. While FHI 360 is certainly interested in developing this curriculum for dissemination to the various other contexts in which it works, it also intends to benefit the larger youth development community by offering it for free under an open license.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.
  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about you

FHI 360 is a non-profit human development organization dedicated to improving lives in lasting ways by advancing integrated, locally driven solutions. Its staff includes experts in health, education, nutrition, environment, economic development, civil society, gender, youth, research, technology, communication and social marketing — creating a unique mix of capabilities to address today's interrelated development challenges. FHI 360 serves more than 70 countries and it has a multi-sectoral youth-focused portfolio of approximately $100 million. All of FHI 360's work is grounded in research and science, strengthened by partnerships and focused on building the capacity of individuals, communities and countries to succeed. If selected, this idea will be developed by FHI 360’s youth development team which represents a deep and wide reservoir of knowledge, skill and experience in the field. The idea development team will be led by Dylan Busa who is currently the Southern African Programme Manager for DSG for FHI 360 and has worked on the development and implementation of DSG since the inception of the project in 2015. In this role, he has worked with and supported over 60 organizations to successfully implement the DSG program. DSG currently operates in 28 countries. Dylan will be supported by experts (described below) in youth development, soft skills development, entrepreneurship, community development, and environment to ensure that the curriculum can be applied to all three IDEO themes. Kristin Brady brings more than 25 years experience in youth development and education and has led projects in Brazil and Mozambique that use project-based learning to prepare youth for employment, encourage maintaining healthy lifestyles and enable meaningful community contributions. Obed Diener has managed and led FHI 360’s research efforts to identify the key soft skill for different youth outcomes and to define evidence-based principles to guide soft skills development and brings more than 15 years experience in workforce development, entrepreneurship and economic growth. Nicholas Wedeman is an expert in climate change, environment, and natural resources management. He has been actively engaged in designing and delivering “climate change boot camps” to support building the capacity of university students to carry out projects that address environmental concerns in their communities. He has more than 25 years experience developing and implementing projects focused on engaging stakeholders, at all levels, that address environmental sustainability and climate change issues and has worked in over 15 countries. Riley Abbot, a civic engagement specialist, has more than 10 years experience working with communities to bring diverse stakeholders together to reach consensus on addressing challenging issues. He will bring his expertise in community engagement to the curriculum development process.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.


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