Doing Good with Design Thinking

David Maren
Dave Maren
Nov 1, 2017

I. Finding Inspiration

There’s this special time in life, when you’ve accepted a job offer, but don’t yet have to do the job. We all know this time. This past Spring I accepted a job with Spire, but had a few weeks to basically do whatever I wanted, before the job officially began.

So I made my to-do list. It had only two items.


#1: Swim with sea creatures off the coast of Baja.

That’s me with my daughter Jane. She’s a fearless 7 year old (and makes a wonderful human shield).


#2: Go to the Skoll World Forum in England.

The Skoll World Forum is an annual gathering held at Oxford University. The purpose of the Forum is to accelerate entrepreneurial approaches and solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. It’s the kind of event where you can find yourself in the lunch line with Bono, Larry Brilliant, Al Gore, Barbara Bush, Michael Porter, Michael Franti, Don Henley, Richard Branson, and over 1000 other delegates from 65 countries.

Both trips were unforgettable. The first one reminded me just how lucky we are to live on this amazing planet. And the second one gave me a lot of hope for our future. In fact, it’s what inspired me to present at Denver Startup Week a few weeks ago (and to follow that up with this post). That inspiration stems from the realization I had at the Forum: When it comes to addressing the world’s most pressing problems, design thinking has moved squarely into the spotlight.

The first night I was at the Forum, I found myself talking one-on-one with Tim Billing, a Director with the Skoll Global Threats Fund. Tim explained to me that the organization is focused on addressing what they see as the big 4 global threats: climate change, water security, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation. I thought that sounded pretty overwhelming, so I asked him how in the world they attack these problems. He gave a two-word answer: design thinking. And then he told me a story, which I’m going to tell to you.

I first want to ask if you remember a movie from 2011 called Contagion? It stars Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Marion Cotillard. The movie paints a vivid picture of the apocalyptic havoc that an epidemic can unleash.

The executive producer of the movie is none other than Jeff Skoll. The same guy behind the Skoll World Forum, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship that’s housed inside Oxford’s Business School. You see, Jeff was employee #1 at eBay, and he’s using his fortune to attack the world’s most pressing problems.

Like Jeff’s other movies, such as An Inconvenient Truth, Contagion is a great tool for raising awareness about one of the biggest issues facing civilization. And this brings me back to the conversation with Tim Billing, where I learned how the Skoll Global Threats Fund has been taking action, and the vital role that Design Thinking plays in their organization.


II. Ending Pandemics with Design Thinking

That night in Oxford, Tim explained to me how Skoll Global Threats Fund embarked on their goal of ending pandemics. The story follows (enriched with additional details from the organization and

Skoll’s quest began with inquiry. Interviewing experts around the world, they all said the key to stopping pandemics is early detection of animal-borne disease outbreaks. But early detection is harder than it sounds.

The team wanted to understand the design challenges they would face with enabling early detection, and chose Thailand as their laboratory.

In 2004, Thailand had been at the epicenter of an avian flu outbreak that killed more than 50 people, and resulted in an economic loss of roughly $1.7 billion.

Nearly half of Thai citizens rely on backyard animal production for their livelihood, so millions of animals are spread throughout remote villages, outside the formal agricultural system.

Let’s think about this for a moment. How do you create an early detection system for animal-borne disease outbreaks in this setting?

Years after the 2004 outbreak, Skoll reported,

“Awareness of avian flu and other zoonotic diseases was alarmingly low in these communities. Many were still consuming or selling chickens, cows, and other animals that died of unknown causes. Those who buried the carcasses weren’t taking measures to protect themselves. In the rare event that farmers reported an illness or outbreak to the local government, they seldom got a response—in part because governments had no budget, bandwidth, or strategy for disease control.”

Indeed, the perfect laboratory.

With an empathetic understanding of the problem, Skoll Global Threats Fund partnered with Chiang Mai University to design, prototype and build a first-of-its-kind community-owned pandemic surveillance and response system.

In March 2014, Skoll sponsored an epidemiology hackathon in Chiang Mai to explore what this system might look like. The event brought together a multidisciplinary team of over 40 experts, most of them Thai, including:

  • Veterinarians, physicians, and environmental health specialists
  • Technologists
  • Economists
  • Anthropologists
  • Engineers
  • Local government representatives

Out of the event came numerous prototypes that were then further refined into a system design. The team tested the system in 75 of the 210 sub-districts within Chiang Mai, each of which had both a high density of livestock and a local government willing to participate. Each of the 75 sub-districts was asked to select 4 community members to serve as volunteers responsible for reporting incidents. A significant number turned out to be either housewives or car mechanics—two groups highly plugged into local gossip.

Each volunteer received training on animal health, clinical signs of illness, and disease prevention and control practices. Each also received a smartphone, along with technical training on the disease reporting system.

The reporting system itself was designed to be simple and intuitive. Volunteers would report potential animal disease outbreaks through an app. They could take a photo of the animal or hazard or select one from a photo gallery. GPS would tag the photo location, or volunteers could choose from a predefined list. Then the app would walk the volunteers through a series of short questions that captured what they were seeing. To ensure constant engagement, volunteers had to report in every day, regardless of whether they had an event to report.

The app was simple enough that 89% of volunteers could use it proficiently after basic training, even though half had never owned a mobile phone. On average, users required less than 3 minutes to submit a report.

All volunteer reports were fielded by a central hub at Chiang Mai University staffed by analysts and researchers, many of them veterinarians. If a report was concerning, an analyst would call the volunteer to ask clarifying questions, then, if needed, send a team to investigate and collect specimens.

If something significant was found, the case would shift to “suspected outbreak” status and alerts would be automatically sent to the volunteer, the village headman, local government officials, public health officers, and the district livestock office.

These authorities would then stage a coordinated response—ranging from quarantine and vaccination to eliminating animals, disinfecting the area, and communicating the risk publicly.

During the response, all stakeholders would receive real-time updates to avoid gaps in information and awareness. Stakeholders could always review incoming reports or pull up a dynamic situations map that showed all active cases, offering a systems view of the case landscape.

Within 16 months, 1,340 abnormal events were reported. Among those, a total of 36 incidents of dangerous zoonotic diseases were verified. Twenty-six were “chicken pest”—the villagers’ term describing sudden, abnormally high mortality in chickens, which can also be indicative of avian flu. Another four cases proved to be foot and mouth disease, which can truly devastate a country’s economy and trade. The early detection of those cases likely saved millions of dollars, and many lives.

What I really love about this story is that community volunteers play a central role in pandemic surveillance and response. A more traditional response would have been to demand that an overburdened government fix the problem. But this was a beautifully designed team effort, and a true collaboration between community, government and the nonprofit sector.

The system is now scaling across Thailand and neighboring countries. Volunteers are also using the system to report a range of other hazards, from fraudulent medication sales to landslides and flash floods.


III. Design Thinking Made Simple

As you can probably tell, my conversation with Tim Billing was truly memorable. But he wasn’t the only one talking about design thinking at the Forum. In fact the very next day I found myself in a design thinking workshop with Colleen Cassity, who runs philanthropy for Oracle. What really intrigued me about this workshop was the way in which she defined the term. I think she was actually quoting someone else, but she described design thinking as “the scientific method for everything else.”

I really love that definition. It recognizes they are not one in the same. Science is slow, design thinking is fast. Science is quantitative. Design thinking is more qualitative. Yet both incorporate similar principles:

  • Inquiry & Observation
  • Generating Hypotheses
  • Running Experiments
  • Feedback and Iteration

Recall that each of these principles came into play in designing the pandemic surveillance and response system in Chang Mai. That story also reminds us that real progress on global issues can begin at a local level – finding something that works and scaling it.


IV. Tackling Homelessness with Design Thinking

My presentation at Denver Startup Week then led into a workshop focused on a problem in our own backyard, homelessness. It’s a problem we walk by everyday, but during our DSW event, we walked into it. Thanks to Matt Zwiebel, Director of Pledge 1% Colorado, the workshop began with a cast of experts who expanded and dimensionalized our understanding of this population and the challenges they face.



From left to right:

Tom Luehrs, Executive Director of the St. Francis Center, explained what’s it like to provide services for those experiencing homelessness.

Cole Chandler, Co-founder of Colorado Village Collaborative, told us about his work on building tiny homes for the homeless, and the challenges they have encountered with the camping ban.

Leanne Wheeler reminded us that homelessness can happen to anyone. As a military veteran whose work took her from Iraq to NORAD, she found herself homeless in 2009.

Jamie Rife, Co-founder of Purposity, spoke about the high incidence of homeless families and youth, and some of her own experiences growing up homeless.

Tyler Jaeckel described what it’s like to tackle the issue while working inside the City and County of Denver.

Dr. Don Burnes, Founder of the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at DU, talked about why we haven’t been more successful., and what we can do to enable real change.

Their words were incredible, and helped build a real sense of empathy with the audience. So much so that the audience then turned into active participants for the next part of our event, an ideation facilitated by Sarah Cohen, Director of Colorado Programs at Upstart Lab. It was amazing to see a room full of people self-organize into small groups and ideate with passion around homelessness for 45 minutes. Many later said it was their highlight of Denver Startup Week.



The event was closed out by Jonah Berger, Founder of The Possibility Pool – a nascent startup that is helping Denver’s disabled community find meaningful employment, through a match-making application that Spire Digital is building to connect this population to local employers.

The event turned out to be the beginning of something special. A number of participants have starting convening regularly at Spire to continue our work using design thinking to attack homelessness. Our next session is 2pm on November 8th, and if you’re still reading, we invite you to join us!

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