Ripple Effect

How one course catalyzed this engineering student’s career and changes across multiple industries

December 07, 2016

When Erik Jensen started college he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do professionally  solve problems. However, it wasn’t until he encountered +Acumen’s course on human-centered design did he understand how his passion for problem-solving could evolve into a viable career and outsized impact.

Fully aware that he couldn’t major in “problem-solving”, Erik chose to pursue a degree in civil engineering. “Civil engineering became a strong passion because for me, structures were my way of connecting to people,” Erik said. “We don’t think about it every day, but the built environment provides the core framework for all of our interactions. Structures were the way that I saw that connection to people.”

It was this connection between structures and people that led Erik to join Engineering2Empower (E2E), an organization whose mission is to provide access to sustainable housing solutions to the Haitian poor after the devastation of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Upon traveling to Haiti, Erik quickly found that addressing the problem of sustainable housing involved much more than just the homes themselves. “We were trying to solve problems related to flawed buildings, but we started to see that the underlying problem was much bigger than just infrastructure,” he said.

It was then that Erik enrolled in +Acumen’s course on human-centered design with his E2E team and recognized that you couldn’t think about housing in isolation from the people whom the homes were built for. By speaking with many locals, Erik and his team uncovered areas where true innovation was needed—construction methods and finances. He realized that without access to the proper financial mechanisms, or if the underlying construction is poor quality because laborers haven’t been trained properly, you could end up with empty buildings or—even worse—homes that could collapse in the next earthquake.

In order to address the issue of construction quality, they needed to find people with quality control skills. So Erik and his team ran three local Innovation Incubators where they recruited 42 of the most innovative people in communities across Léogâne, Haiti and trained them in human-centered design. This included identifying people working in the most detail-oriented jobs they could think of—such as fish net makers and seamstresses. They paid them for their time and presented them with a design challenge to build a cardboard toy car according to certain specifications and judging criteria. Then they asked them to design a process and teach five of their friends to build that same car. The true test would be to find the group of friends that could take the instructional design and create the highest quality of car, judged by known measurements. Erik and his team thought whoever could design the process and train other people to build the highest quality car will be the people they want as consultants to their construction project.

Once they identified the people who were best suited for quality control-related work, they ran them through a rapid human-centered design training based on the Design Kit course resources and put them to work designing processes to make construction practices safer. This included going out and looking for analogous examples of how people approach quality control challenges across Haiti. They talked to police officers, hospital staff, and teachers about how people in each of these disciplines encouraged adherence to rules. They kept their ears open for insights that could inspire a similar type of culturally tuned compliance to construction codes.

Then, the teams came back and prototyped solutions. One of the most promising ideas to emerge were “visual construction quality manuals.” Teams of builders could be given a booklet of visual instructions of all the steps they would need to take when constructing a new home safely. For example, they could see step-by-step photos for how to properly mix and pour the concrete for the foundation. They could also use their phones to take pictures of their own process at each of these steps. They would hand assemble their photographs into visual evidence that they had carried out each procedure correctly and this would become the “insurance booklet” that they would then hand over to homeowners to certify building compliance in order to receive their pay. Known safety is precious for families in Haiti.

Since then, E2E has been working to pilot this “visual construction manual” approach which never would have happened without going through the human-centered design process.

Additionally, a few of the original 42 Haitians that Erik and his colleagues trained have gone on to start “innovation clubs” in their own neighborhoods that are now reaching other adults and kids across the city. “They are going after wildly different problems,” Erik says, “One leader is working with food vendors to come up with ideas for making healthy options.  Another is looking at how you can identify more productive after-school programs for kids. I admire them for how gutsy they are, and for their willingness to dig into any challenge.”

And the ripples of Erik’s work continue to spread...

By using a human-centered approach to construction management, Erik gained a more holistic appreciation for all of the factors that go into making a housing project successful. This approach is distinctly different from the way Erik was used to thinking as a civil engineer, where he was trained to focus primarily on building code regulations. This shift has been so pivotal for him personally he parlayed his experience into a project with the SAP University Alliances, where he’s thinking about ways design thinking methodology can be integrated into engineering programs. His team has found that the idea of “empathy” can sound too touchy-feely or abstract to engineers who are used to working on technical problems with tightly regulated types of solutions. As a result, they’ve been integrating the design thinking process into “Global Challenges,” and are emphasizing the language of experimentation to find ways to connect engineering to the needs and aspirations of people. The goal is simply to get engineers to embrace creativity, reframe problems, think more about people, and crave user insights when building prototypes. Since then Erik started working full-time in design and innovation at RocketSpace in San Francisco. Knowing Erik, he’ll continue to expand the scope of this ‘simple’ goal.

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