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OPINION: Human-centred thinking in a virus-centred world

Author: Charleen Duncan

As part of an engaged university, connected to the community and contributing to debates relevant to civil society, including challenges posed by COVID-19, the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at UWC has begun addressing these issues virtually.

(Published - 5 August 2020)

As part of an engaged university that remains connected to the community and contributes to the debates relevant to civil society, including the challenges that COVID-19 has posed, the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has begun a series of webinars that address these issues.

Its first webinar in July, entitled “Human-centred Design: Creative solutions to critical challenges in South Africa”, was aimed at a general audience as well as the CEI’s core audience of students and entrepreneurs.

At the CEI we believe that a human-centred design (HCD) approach to problem-solving can assist in providing the critical solutions needed across all sectors, and all UWC students who participate in CEI programmes are therefore exposed to the HCD model.

The webinar format creates an opportunity to extend audience and sector participation. The Zoom platform allows for many voices and many narratives to contribute to the discussion. Zoom has allowed the CEI to grow its ecosystem and to engage with people both inside and outside of academia. Comments or questions posted in the chatbox also allow for real-time audience participation.

The CEI hosted three civil society representatives on the panel that I moderated. Lorenzo Davids is the CEO of Community Chest, a founding board member of The Big Issue magazine and a well-known social activist and thought-leader in the non-governmental sector. Geoff Jacobs is the current President of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He had a long stint in the corporate human resources sector before founding a management consultancy focused on executive coaching. The third panelist was Lana Franks, CEI’s Student Entrepreneurship Programme co-ordinator. She is a social entrepreneur who is adept at the teaching of entrepreneurship thinking.

HCD is a disarmingly simple concept, but is difficult to implement in a business or corporate environment unless the individuals involved consciously submit to its inherently democratic processes. It involves accepting that the user or beneficiary, the person who experiences the problem, is the most qualified to inform and guide the process of designing solutions. For technical experts and academics, participating in HCD requires emotional intelligence, empathy, humility and integrity.

The webinar panellists pointed out that for some people in authority or those holding material power, the hardest part of the methodology may be checking their egos or presuppositions at the door and trusting the process. As Davids succinctly put it, “HCD begins with us assuming we do not know, and we must listen without preconceived notions and co-create the solution.”

Explaining the CEI’s approach to HCD, Franks said, “The idea of solving problems for others, as ‘experts’, is problematic. We should rather solve problems with others. HCD brings on board the voice of those who have the lived experience of the problem and connects them with those who have the necessary technical experience. The mind shift required is to see those who have the lived experience as the experts.

“In a recent project with final-year dentistry students, we required students to find a community to partner with at the start. This encourages empathy. Students use prototyping before piloting, where they model an idea and take it to the community for feedback.”

HCD can help trans-disciplinary collaboration and bring together different skills in design teams, but, to avoid collaboration becoming an academic exercise, it was essential to involve civil society and to keep the most powerful voices from dominating the decision making.

With the crisis state of the economy exacerbated by COVID-19, and Parliament somewhat subdued, the discussion ironically took place against the backdrop of the most authoritarian approach to government that we have seen in the democratic era. It was noted that all tiers of government had adopted a top-down approach more reflective of self-interest or narrow agendas than what Jacobs termed “steward leadership or servant leadership”.

“One of the problems with the COVID-19 crisis is that leadership has not responded well to the challenge. We’re using the same thinking and approach to solve the problems, and it’s never going to work. HCD is an opportunity to reframe the questions to involve those who are directly impacted,” said Jacobs.

His closing comment gave the audience much food for thought.

“Since 1994, we’ve taken a back seat and allowed government (at all levels) to make our decisions for us... We need to regain the activism and the agency that we had before 1994, but we need to do it in a way that shows steward leadership, integrity, humility and empathy,” he said.

The webinar was a great learning curve. While the time allocated restricted panelists’ responses to audience feedback to a few comments, we hope to address this in the design of future webinars and CEI masterclasses incorporating HCD methodology. Two more webinars are in development, and a video explaining the HCD process will soon be available online. The webinar can be viewed at: https://www.facebook.com/uwcentrepreneurship/

Charleen Duncan is the Director for the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of the Western Cape.

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