Project Manager Irena Bakić and her peers getting to work on prototyping solutions in Uganda. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, Aalto University
Project Manager Irena Bakić and her peers getting to work on prototyping solutions in Uganda. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, Aalto University

In seeking to find solutions, the Innovation Unit has a strong (if relatively short) history of looking to external and often unexpended minds for inspiration and collaboration. Students are some of the most valuable partners we’ve had the opportunity to work with through a broad variety of programs: global challenges, design courses at universities, hackathons, and other innovation lab projects. In this blog series, we’ll be looking at three things that worked best for each project and why, along with the three biggest failures and what we can learn from them.

In 2011-2012, UNICEF acted as a sponsor for the course “Product Development Project” that has been running for 17 years at Aalto University in Finland. This course tasked students with coming up with a way to improve water sanitation/ hygiene in schools across northern Uganda in 2011-2012.

What worked?

  1. Diverse, international and interdisciplinary teams
  2. Exploring local context, working with the users
  3. Local manufacture

What didn’t work?

  1. Lack of Background on UNICEF’s programmatic structure/ function
  2. Underdeveloped partnership with local university professors
  3. Lack of student incentive for involvement

What worked:

1. Diverse, International and Interdisciplinary teams

For this project, students from Aalto University partnered with students from a local Uganda university, Makarere University to complete a major task: to make the whole project plan themselves, manage the whole process, and ultimately to come up with a life-changing device for schools in northern Uganda. Having engineers, business people, art people, and people from different cultures involved in this project was critical to being able to tackle each different aspect of the project, and ultimately to coming up with an innovative product.

This highlights one of our core principles:

Be Collaborative:

  • Engage diverse expertise across disciplines and industries at all stages.
  • Work across sector silos to create coordinated and more holistic approaches.
  • Document work, results, processes, and best practices and share them widely (as we are attempting to do here in this blog series).
  • Publish materials under a Creative Commons license by default, with strong rationale if another licensing approach is taken.


2. Exploring local context, working with the users

The Aalto students were able to visit the context that they were designing for on a trip to Uganda. This trip allowed the students to witness the kind of problems that were occurring on the ground, and understand which issues they could most easily address. In the end, they identified the accessibility and hygiene of drinking water at a school to be a critical issue with viable solutions. After months of research, site visits, brainstorming, and design work, the student team came up with an innovative water tap device (“The Elephant Tap”) that is hard to break, hard to steal, more robust, promotes hygiene, and stops recontamination of users’ hands. They were able to prototype and test prototypes with the users, and involving users in the design process.

This finding resonates strongly with UNICEF Innovation’s principle:

Design with the User:

  • Develop context appropriate solutions informed by user needs.
  • Include all user groups in planning, development, implementation and assessment.
  • Develop projects in an incremental and iterative manner.
  • Design solutions that learn from and enhance existing workflows and plan for organizational adaptation.
  • Ensure solutions are sensitive to, and useful for, the most marginalized populations: women, children, those with disabilities, and those affected by conflict and disaster.


3. Local manufacture

Part of the project requirements stated that the design must be able to be manufactured locally, so that production could be continued after the team was gone. This allowed the project to be sustainable, and the solution to be impacting and lasting.

Build for Sustainability:

  • Plan for sustainability from the start, including planning for long-term financial health.
  • Utilize and invest in local communities and developers by default and help catalyze their growth.
  • Engage with local governments to ensure integration and national strategy and identify high-level government advocates.
Uganda. Students from Makerere University brainstorming solutions to water sanitation and hygiene issues. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, Aalto University
Uganda. Students from Makerere University brainstorming solutions to water sanitation and hygiene issues. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, Aalto University

What Didn’t Work:

1. Lack of Background on UNICEF’s programmatic structure/ function

Aalto students weren’t given comprehensive background info on the UNICEF focus areas, and the programmatic structure it usually employs to address them. Without an understanding of the social, political, environmental, economic, and health issues facing northern Uganda and the historical context that led to them, it was hard for the students to identify what problem they were best equipped to target/ build solutions for in the early brainstorming phases.

What could be done differently?

  • UNICEF partners could develop an “intro to UNICEF” program geared towards academia to be distributed at the start of projects like this one, accompanied by a project-specific guide developed for each individual project.
  • A UNICEF supervisor/ partner could be identified for each project as the go-to for students with questions about context etc.
  • Students could be connected with peers in the project region to correspond on these issues (this happened in the Aalto course, but perhaps a little late into the process).

2. Underdeveloped partnership with local university professors

One of the main issues in terms of support for the student teams was that the Makerere university teachers were not very well integrated into the project. Because of a communication gap between the program supervisors in Aalto and the local professors in Uganda, the Makerere professors didn’t entirely understand the process the students were going through (design thinking – product development), and weren’t given the resources to participate in the project as supervisors or advisors. This led to a situation where the local students didn’t have enough support from their faculty throughout the course.

What could be done differently?

  • Local university professors should be connected to UNICEF sponsors/ supervisors earlier on, identify a contact point-person on each end responsible for maintaining communication.
  • Project development process could be carefully documented next time so that the lessons learned could be distributed to future partners and professors involved.

3. Lack of student incentive for involvement

Makerere university students were not offered academic credit for their involvement in the course, making it hard at times to motivate the students to choose to work on this project over other responsibilities.

What could be done differently?

  • Students could receive credit for their work (this modification was made for the following year’s project).
Students at a school in Northern Uganda benefit from the installation of the Elephant tap, designed by a team of students from Aalto University, Finland and Makerere University, Uganda. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, Aalto University
Students at a school in Northern Uganda benefit from the installation of the Elephant tap, designed by a team of students from Aalto University, Finland and Makerere University, Uganda. Photo credit: Irena Bakić, Aalto University

The current Aalto-Makerere-UNICEF collaboration (2014-2016) was built based on these lessons learned, and all of these challenges are in the core of the new collaboration model. The academic knowledge transfer and capacity building are some of the most important parts of the model (also involving local SME’s).

In the next post in this series, we’ll hear from Makerere University student participant Felix Mwebe, who will share his thoughts on the project.

A special thanks to Irena Bakić, former Innovation Unit team member and project manager for this course in 2011-12, who I spoke to in order to gain some insight into her experience as an Aalto university student in the course.

By Jennie Bernstein
Project Assistant
Innovation Unit, UNICEF NYHQ

See our principles for Innovation and Technology in Development here

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Relevant stories:

UNICEF innovations at Core 77 2013 Design Awards (Elephant Tap – student runner-up)

Academia – Design for UNICEF

Learning from our students

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