Roughly, this is how the story went:
The Stanford Graduate School of Business offers a multi-disciplinary course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability. In 2007, the course challenged student teams to design an incubator for developing countries that would cost less than 1% of the price of a traditional $20,000 incubator. Some members of the student teams were sent to Nepal to visit local hospitals, speak with stakeholders, and inquire about users’ needs.
During their visit, the members of one team observed that the hospitals had many baby incubators yet these incubators were empty. Intrigued, they inquired with the local doctors and staff about why it was the case. They learned that while price of the incubators is important, hospitals have to deal with the fact that 80% of babies in Nepal are born at home; women living in the countryside and giving birth to a premature baby are usually unable to bring their baby to the city hospitals because it is too costly to do so and because they have no means to transport their baby safely. Indeed, one of the main criteria for babies’ survival is hypothermia: babies are not able to regulate their own temperature; hence babies need a device to keep them very warm.
This was a big “Aha” moment for the student team who realized that the ‘users’ were not necessarily the hospitals but mothers in rural areas who need to keep their premature babies warm; however, there isn’t always electricity in rural areas to use a traditional incubator. Moreover, mothers potentially need to transport their babies safely to a hospital for further care. Hence, the team reframed the problem around the specific needs of mothers living in the countryside, with no electricity.
The story of the team learning journey and design process is fascinating; unfortunately, it would take too long to recall here. The solution they developed is astonishing in terms of the innovation it represents, its technical ingenuity; its shear simplicity and beauty; and the obvious love and empathy that the product emanates throughout. Now produced by embraceglobal.org — a company subsequently created by some of the student team members — the product is “an innovative, low cost infant warmer” that looks like “a miniature sleeping bag that incorporates a phase change material, which stays at a constant temperature for up to 6 hours.” (See a picture of the Embrace Infant Warmer.)
This story offers many important lessons about the process of innovation, creativity and problem solving for social change. Questions that intrigued me most are:
• How does a design team learning process evolve from focusing on developing “a cheap incubator” (I like to think of it as a “cheap box”) to a safe warmer device that saves lives? In other words, how does the process of reframing take place? And why is it important?
• Why is it that only one of all the teams involved in the design challenge came up with such a reframing of the challenge, hence a completely different solution to the problem?
• Why is it that the Embrace team could not find any interest for taking their innovation, i.e., the “low cost infant warmer,” to the next stage of development? Indeed, the organizations involved with the course thought that, “because governments in developing countries are trying to get women to give birth in hospitals instead of at home, the group thought Embrace was “too much for a home setting”. In other words, despite addressing a ‘real’ user need, the Embrace solution did not meet the ‘accepted’ perceived needs and requirements of the main stakeholders.
I will not answer these questions directly here. I will only says this: I believe that the teams, groups, organizations, communities, local governments and so on, who are able to successfully address the complex challenges of our times are the ones who are able to reframe their problems — usually by reframing a technical problem (e.g., a cheaper “box”) into an adaptive challenge (e.g., saving babies lives); by moving away from addressing symptoms to uncovering root causes of the issues; and by believing that solutions to deeper issues exist and are achievable. This is indeed hard work. The process is inherently collaborative and requires us to challenge our assumptions and beliefs. It forces us to overcome our doubts and fears about challenging the status quo and fears of potential failure. It demands that we rise to our highest potential and address the “impossible.” But as the Embrace team demonstrates, even what seems impossible can be overcome — with a combination of love, empathy, collaboration and hard work!
This is the way I want to address complex problems. Will you join me?
Note: I first heard about the story of the Embrace team and of their innovative solution by watching a documentary video produced and realized by Corey Ford, an adjunct faculty at the Design MBA at the California College or the Arts, while I was sitting in Corey’s Venture Studio class early on this year. I found this story deeply moving and rich in lessons on how to address complex social issues. It is a success story on how to make a difference in the world. We need more stories like this one.
 You can find a more in-depth overview of this story on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website: http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/news/bmag/sbsm1109/embrace_chen.html