Design a Difference

What is the Design a Difference programme?

Design a Differences helps to address the challenges that under-served communities in South Africa have with their infrastructure and information systems. Under-served communities are typically too poor to be able to afford the engineering services and the infrastructure and information systems that are enjoyed by wealthier people. Design a Difference works to close this gap by connecting engineering skill with community needs. 

Under-served communities in South Africa face a wide range of infrastructure and information related challenges. These range from a lack of access to clean water, all the way to exclusion in infrastructure planning. These challenges require the help of engineers and many other professionals (including sociologists and psychologists)  to work with these communities to design and build solutions to them. As a result, “Community Infrastructure and Information” is one of three strategic areas for EWB-SA. 

The Design a Difference programme encourages working engineers to donate their time and skill to selected challenges. These engineers volunteer via EWB-SA to help with challenges that are chosen by EWB-SA. One of the key ideas that underpin the programme is the use of “systems engineering” approaches to connect the limited time and specific skills of  working engineers to community challenges in a way that allows busy professionals to bring their skills together to create a difference.

Another key idea behind the programme is that complex community challenges require a “socio-technical systems” approach – it’s only with a deep understanding of the social dynamics of the challenges that technology can be used to improve the lives of people.

How does it work?

EWB-SA selects challenges faced by specific communities whose solutions might prove to be scalable to other communities. This is an important point that is elaborated on later. EWB-SA then establishes a project to tackle this challenge, and assigns an experienced Project Manager to the project. The Project Manager is typically a staff member, or a highly dedicated volunteer. 

The Project Manager proceeds to identify the potential skills needed for the project, and recruits a team of volunteers. Together with the team, a design process is developed, followed by a corresponding project plan, and the project is executed accordingly. 

The number of projects in the programme is constrained by the availability of people’s time, in particular the availability of Project Managers. This essential role requires experienced engineers who have the time and passion to drive a project through to completion. 

For this reason and others, we have limited the number of projects in the programme to three at this point in time: Bicycles in Maker’s Valley, Towards a non-profit IPP, and “Water for Bergnek.” The programme is currently closed to new challenges/projects, unless a project is proposed by a volunteer that a) meets the general criteria of the programme and b) can guarantee long-term and consistent commitment from at least two people

The Project Manager proceeds to identify the potential skills needed for the project, and recruits a team of volunteers. Together with the team, a design process is developed, followed by a corresponding project plan, and the project is executed accordingly.

Why the emphasis on scalable?

The programme is designed to work on community challenges who’s potential solutions might prove scalable to other communities and similar contexts. The simple reason for this to best leverage the efforts of the programme to benefit as many people as possible. 

Our hypothesis is that there are potential solutions to community challenges that, when modified slightly for different contexts, can be replicated to benefit many people. An example of this is bicycle sharing – South Africa is a country with very limited everyday bicycle usage. We believe that creating better bicycle sharing solutions for communities would dramatically increase the transportation options available to those communities. 

Scalability however needs to be balanced with understanding each community’s dynamics and uniqueness. We believe that taking a socio-technical systems approach to these projects will allow us to identify solutions that can be adjusted for different contexts.

What are the projects in the programme?

There are three projects in the programme.

Bicycles in Makers Valley

How might bicycles be used to increase the mobility of people living and working in Maker’s Valley?

That’s the design question in the “Bicycles in MV” project. Continuing EWB-SA’s relationship with Makers Valley (via the Maker’s Valley Partnership), we intend to design solutions that make use of bicycles to help people in Maker’s Valley get around more easily. Click through to the project page to learn more.

Towards a non-profit IPP

How might we use the “Independent Power Producer” (IPP) model to bring the benefits of cheaper, renewable energy to non-governmental organisations that care for the under-served?

That’s the design question that we’re tackling in this project. This is an exciting opportunity to work on an idea that may prove very helpful to Children’s Homes, Frail Care Facilities, Shelters for Women, and other NGOs caring for vulnerable and under-served people. Click through to the project page to learn more.

Water for Bergnek

Water constraints for rural communities is a massive challenge. This project aims to explore ways to develop scalable solutions to these challenges.

The “Design Process” and Management

This section will cover the following elements and will be updated shortly: team structures, concepts underpinning the programme, thoughts on the design process, an overview of tools used etc.