From fashion to designing for improvement: Q&A with Sophia Sunwoo – Devex


Sophia Sunwoo, CEO and co-founding father of the Water Collective. Picture by: Kimberly Jauss / Water Collective

The Water Collective’s goal for 2017 is to present water filters to 156 households residing in Dabal, Uttar Pradesh, India. The primary water supply for households in Dabal is the Kali River, closely contaminated with toxic metals equivalent to lead and chromium.

That is fairly completely different from the nonprofit’s initiatives in Cameroon, the place its work centered round constructing catchment programs in communities and rehabilitating water programs by including new faucet stands and fixing damaged ones.

However that's the mannequin Water Collective follows: nobody-dimension-matches-all method. The help group tailors its options to what they uncover is required locally they’ve partnered with, which isn’t all the time in regards to the lack of faucets or water pumps.

“My co-founder, Josh [Braunstein], and I began Water Collective as a result of we’re seeing that plenty of the water initiatives within the growing world wherever you went 30 p.c to 50 p.c of those water initiatives could be damaged,” Sunwoo informed Devex. “So it actually began out from this query of why are these water initiatives damaged and why aren't many water organizations speaking about this side of the water disaster?”

It took each Sunwoo and Braunstein a number of years of researching and revising earlier than arriving with their present mannequin, which finally ends with a Water Independence declaration — that second when communities not depend on exterior assist to preserve their water programs. How lengthy communities take to get to that time of self-sufficiency relies on plenty of components, such because the complexity of their water programs and skill to set up.

Right here’s an excerpt from Devex’s dialog with the CEO and co-founding father of the Water Collective, edited for readability and size.

Your background was in design. How did you find yourself working within the water sector?

I did my undergraduate research in design technique, however prior to Water Collective, a pair years again, I had began a clothes firm with a good friend that grew to become actually profitable. We ended up promoting the corporate, and that's form of the backstory as to why I wished to go to design faculty. However once I was in design faculty I spotted that I wished to discover design as applies to fixing social points. So I truly spent a yr doing my senior thesis on learning that particular area: How can we use design to assist remedy the world’s largest issues?

How did you determine you need to concentrate on water?

My senior thesis was particularly centered on pure disasters. I used to be learning what do locations like Haiti and different growing communities which have completely no sources do when there's a pure catastrophe. They don’t have ambulances. They don’t have instant medical care, and possibly not the most effective infrastructure to shield them throughout a pure catastrophe equivalent to a twister or hurricane.

So I studied particularly that, after which when it got here to water, I feel that I used to be at some extent the place I graduated from design faculty and I actually wished to go into the NGO world, however it didn’t prove the best way I wished to. I ended up working at a consulting job, [and then] I met my co-founder Josh, who has been within the water house since he was 15. He had been engaged on water initiatives in Kenya, Uganda, Southeast Asia, and he had heard from a colleague of mine at my outdated job that I’d been an entrepreneur and [that] I wished to go into the social affect house.

So he had that info in his head, and when he and I began speaking it was only a very pure dialog of him saying “oh I would like to begin a corporation,” and I used to be like, “I might love to assist,” and it advanced from there.

I feel it was only a very serendipitous assembly of two folks which are simply very motivated, and after they mentioned they need to do one thing they really do it.

Was there something specifically from design faculty that closely influenced in your working mannequin at Water Collective?

So for me that’s form of the identical method I had with the options for these social points. When it got here to water particularly, clearly there's this water disaster and folks not having water, however this underlying downside of individuals getting water, however a yr or two later they might lose that clear water due to poor design. It simply feels to me that there’s a lot alternative for somebody like me to are available in and determine how will we redesign this in order that it’s higher and extra environment friendly and it serves the particular person on the receiving finish higher.

Sophia Sunwoo with co-founder Josh Braunstein. Picture by: Kimberly Jauss

How did you apply that method in follow?

After we analysis why these water initiatives had been breaking, our first assumption is it’s most likely an engineering downside. However whereas we’re researching, we understand that it truly had little or no to do with engineering. It had to do with the truth that plenty of these communities dwell in rural areas and due to this fact they’ve often by no means seen or had to deal with maintaining with the upkeep of a water mission.

So our crew in Cameroon and India first assess if a neighborhood is in want of a brand new water system, or if they've a damaged water system, how will we go about fixing that? As soon as we determine that out, all through the entire course of our water independence program will practice the neighborhood to create these programs I used to be speaking about. They're ensuring the caretakers are checking up on the system each month, ensuring there’s a treasurer and a secretary offering that system, educating these ideas, after which going to the stage of being fingers-on about it, as a result of we’re realizing that we might do as many coaching periods as we would like, however folks don’t retain info except they follow it and do it themselves.

So up to two years after a water system is put in, our groups on the bottom will truly act like in-particular person buyer help the place at any time when the neighborhood has points. For instance, a water system is allotting a low quantity of water, our crew will probably be within the area and troubleshoot with them, saying “the place ought to we glance first? OK there’s no downside with that catchment plate. Why don’t we stroll the pipeline and see if there are any cuts into the pipeline or blockages within the pipe?” In order that they stroll them via that complete pondering course of, in order that in some unspecified time in the future they’ll truly have the ability to suppose for themselves and have the ability to troubleshoot with their fellow committee members.

However it’s humorous as a result of all of my [initial] concepts by no means turned out the best way it ought to. So, for instance, within the first yr we had a very completely different mannequin. We weren’t centered on upkeep. However once we had been gathering analysis and again from the sector, we realized that our first idea within the first yr didn’t make any sense in accordance to what folks wanted on the bottom. So we saved on revising our mannequin to accommodate.

What was your first mannequin and the way come it didn’t pan out?

The primary mannequin was centered on not solely offering clear water, but in addition financial empowerment.

In these rural communities we work with, plenty of their deterrence to improvement progress is the truth that they don’t have many sources when it comes to earnings-producing actions and that was additionally a blockage when it got here to bringing a water system into the neighborhood — as a result of they only didn’t have the monetary property to make that attainable.

So we did a few workshops for the primary years. For instance, we might maintain a piggery workshop with the Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Fishery explaining how does it work, how do you handle the pigs in order that they're in a position to be bought and issues like that.

That was nice, however it simply acquired to the purpose the place we had been simply doing too many issues directly, and it was actually not sustainable within the respect that we had been doing so many various issues that we weren’t good at one factor.

We simply felt like we had been contributing a pair nickels and dimes right here and there to completely different buckets, however we weren’t contributing sufficient to one large bucket that was making a huge effect.

So we went again to the drafting board and actually tried to concentrate on, “what's the strongest want when it comes to what our companion communities are saying that they want? How will we deal with that in essentially the most environment friendly method attainable?”

What number of revisions did it take for you to determine what communities want?

I might say that we knew at the back of our heads that upkeep was what we wished to concentrate on, however we simply didn’t know the way.

So our second inclination after we determined to let go of the financial empowerment half was upkeep, however the revision course of to rebuild that took about two years the place not solely did we collect analysis from the sector, we additionally labored with a corporation that focuses on design technique on shopper analysis and we labored with them to determine what's going to the precise program and modeling will seem like for this water independence program that we’ll finally be creating.

So it took a few years of not solely working with skilled consultants on how to even construct one thing like this, but in addition gathering the analysis and in addition testing that to make it possible for this system truly made sense and offered one thing helpful for the communities we’re serving.

Any lesson from design faculty and your expertise you suppose different nonprofits can study from?

I feel my finest recommendation is listening to your customers. I feel the underlying precept with design is all the time ensuring that whenever you design an answer, you don’t say, “oh, I have already got the most effective resolution. Now let’s determine how to deliver it to market.”

That’s not a great resolution since you are actually utterly eradicating the person from offering their very helpful perception on what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. What designers all the time take into consideration is that they all the time begin from the person first. For example, with water, we’re asking: What does this particular person like and doesn’t like when it comes to water? What are their pure behaviors when it comes to accumulating water? What do they even take into consideration clear water and what are their opinions about soiled water? Why is it that, regardless of them realizing it’s soiled, they carry on ingesting and utilizing it?

When you begin from there you'll be able to actually create an answer that’s helpful for folks and it actually addresses their pure inclination when it comes to gathering water. And a extremely sensible resolution is one which understands the obstacles as to why folks maintain ingesting soiled water they usually create an answer that reverses that habits.

So undoubtedly the best, easiest recommendation is begin from the person, speak to them, determine why they do sure issues and determine why they like or dislike sure issues.

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From fashion to designing for improvement: Q&A with Sophia Sunwoo - Devex