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Northwestern University

EDI Alumni Finalists in Global Design Award

On August 27, INDEX: Award 2015 will announce the winners for its design award, celebrating designs focused on the theme “Design to Improve Life.”  Among the finalists who were selected from more than 1,120 nominations, are EDI alumni Jai Krishnan and Shannon McDevitt.

INDEX: Award is a global competition open to companies and organizations of all sizes with entrants ranging from early-stage startups to well-known entities like Google and Tesla. The award is split into five categories, each with a winner that takes home a prize of €100,000 ($111,442). The designs are critiqued on three criteria: form, impact and context.

Krishnan and McDevitt’s design New Hope EcoTech (NHE) addresses Brazil’s pollution problem while simultaneously helping to generate a more stable income for the country’s most underprivileged citizens. 

Krishnan and McDevitt originally developed their idea for NHE during NUVention, an interdisciplinary course offered by Northwestern’s Farley Center. In addition to Krishnan and McDevitt, the team comprised three Kellogg students and a law student, each bringing his or her strengths to the challenge.

Several of the NHE group members will be traveling to Denmark for the awards ceremony at the end of this month. 

Below is a Q+A with EDI alumna and NHE team member Shannon McDevitt.

To read more about the team’s research in Brazil, check out the team's blog.

Q+A: Shannon McDevitt 

Who is on the team for NHE?
Our group originally consisted of six members across three schools at Northwestern. There were three Kellogg MBA students, one law student and two EDI students. Thiago is from Brazil and brought the project to the class. Since the class ended, New Hope EcoTech became a real social impact venture and more people have been involved and taken very active roles in the business. Thiago's wife Luciana – also a full-time Kellogg student, but not in the class – has been involved with the project from the beginning and is now the acting CEO. 

Which category was your team designing for?
We didn't design New Hope EcoTech for any category in particular but we did have core criteria that we wanted our design to assess. We were aiming for a triple bottom line enterprise that was profitable and did good for people and the planet. We also wanted to make sure that our design was inclusive to the wastepicker community in Brazil.  

How did you choose the challenge you wanted to design for?
When we started we weren't exactly sure what problem we were designing for but as we did research – online and in the field – we discovered that there was an opportunity with new legislation to include and compensate wastepickers for the service of recycling post-consumption packaging that they provide to society and to big corporations. 

What did you group come up with?
The design is a business that tracks waste from the original source of collection to the facility where it is recycled, and issues credits that manufacturers can purchase to solve their recycling obligation based on the new legislation in Brazil. The revenue from these credits is distributed to all the actors that contributed to the material being recycled, including the wastepickers. Our business is designing and building the software required at all levels of collection to track and issue credits. We also aim to bridge the gap between the informal waste collection and the formalized recycling initiatives of manufacturers. 

What was the design process like?
Initially, we spent two weeks in the field meeting with wastepickers, members of recycling co-ops and other members of the recycling chain. We learned a lot about the recycling system in Brazil and how it differs from other countries such as the US. Through interviews and observation we gathered valuable insights that became the building blocks of our design. We prototyped rough ideas in the field and refined them when we got back to the United States. The summer after the class ended, the work continued back in Brazil by refining the business model and beginning to develop the software required for a pilot. 

How was the group dynamic?
Our group worked really well together. I enjoyed being part of such a diverse group of people and I think everyone's opinion made a valuable contribution to the design we presented. I was grateful that all the members of the group were very interested and committed to learning and applying the design process to our project. It was nice having another member of the EDI program in our group because although we have very different personality types, we both speak the same design language and we could check ourselves if we needed to converge or diverge our ideas. 

How did the skills you learned in EDI play into the process?
I think our EDI education was valuable because we brought a different way of thinking to the problem. The ability to jump in and make rough prototype ideas in a hands-on environment was really valuable. Having a solid understanding of the design process also allowed us to lead others through the process and work through ambiguity as a team. 

What were some of the challenges your group faced?
It took us a while to really understand and figure out what problem to solve. Our test project first quarter did not go very well and it was a challenge to learn from that, come back and stay committed to using the design process. 

It has been exciting to see the small success in prototypes and conversations. There have been little moments when you realize this could actually have a positive impact on people’s lives and that is really exciting. 

INDEX: Award’s three criteria are form, impact, and context – how do those play into NHE?
One of our goals from the beginning was that our project was inclusive and had a positive impact on the lives of wastepickers. That was one of the key criteria of our project from the beginning. With that criterion, we also realized that the form of our design had to match the demographic and the technology available to users, i.e. "Do they have smart phones?", "How do we create a technology platform for individuals that may not be as familiar with smart phones and, or computers?" 

How has the project changed since you all started the class to now?
The team learned that there is a lot more design work to be done to actually build and incentivize the adoption of a data-tracking platform in the recycling chain. The team focused in building a robust web app, which can be easy to use and offers a seamless user experience to make sure small aggregates can start engaging with the platform. Based on the acceptance of the web app, the development team will move ahead to the other steps in the chain - wastepickers and recycling facilities - who have different technical contexts (wastepickers are starting to adopt smartphones and recycling facilities need APIs that gather data from their current systems). 

How does it feel to be a finalist out of 1123 nominations?
It is all a little bit surreal. I didn't know a great deal about this award until we found out we were finalists; and the more I read about it, the more excited I became! It is a true honor that we are part of the group of finalists and it's exciting to know that someone else thinks your idea is a good idea. 

What happens to NHE if you win?
If we win, New Hope EcoTech will have relevance and funds to really focus in the credits business model and develop the technical expertise needed to be in this market for the long run. Recycling in developing countries is mostly made of “exceptions," AKA small processes and small CSR projects. With theses funds, New Hope EcoTech will be able to really build a strong and scalable platform  that solves consumer packaging goods and wastepickers' problems at the same time. Since the initial operation is based in Brazil it is not super realistic to be involved in the day-to-day operations, but I hope to continue to help in whatever ways I can, whether it is through design strategy, user experience development or just promoting New Hope EcoTech back in the US. I am interested in seeing New Hope EcoTech succeed. 

What personal significance will it mean to you to win?
Honestly, it's hard to imagine. It will be really incredible to see something that was just an idea a little over a year ago be recognized on an international level. I am really just excited about the opportunity to promote the project and business, and if winning helps to get our idea off the ground that would be the best! Being a finalist amongst so many incredible ideas is already a huge honor and I am just really excited to be amongst a group of such innovative and inspiring ideas and individuals. 

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