Innovation springs from empathy in unique immersion experience

Maia Sternberg (right) engaging local girls and women during her team's "Bindi Club" prototyping. Picture by Nathan Wiltshire

Maia Sternberg (right) engaging local girls and women during her team's "Bindi Club" prototyping. Picture by Nathan Wiltshire

In summary: 
  • Nine UTS students recently returned from three weeks in India's historic northern state Bihar where they experienced the reality of rural village life
  • The visit was at the centre of an immersive innovation program designed to show the importance of understanding the people at the heart of the innovation process

With all the talk about innovation what's often missing is an understanding of what it means for people according to the co-founder of an initiative that's allowed UTS students to experience the reality of life in rural India.

Nine students from the Beyond UTS International Leadership Development (BUiLD) program recently returned from three weeks in India's historic northern state Bihar, where they explored the kind of innovation that can deliver "real solutions to real problems for real people."

Drishtee Samaahit Immersion (DSI) is the result of a two-year collaboration between UTS sessional academic and social entrepreneur Nathan Wiltshire and Satyan Mishra, co-founder and CEO of Drishtee, one of India's leading social enterprises.

Wiltshire said the immersive innovation program combined cutting-edge theoretical methods with experiential understanding of how to formulate meaningful innovations. It had initially been offered to corporate and social policy organisations, but the DSI team saw the potential to prepare the next generation of innovators.

He said the first step was to develop "deep, cognitive empathy-level understanding for people and their needs."

"Empathy cannot be developed by undertaking a survey or by reading trend reports," Wiltshire said. "Neither is it represented by kitschy stereotype‐laden personas and fictional customer stories."

Participant, Bachelor of Design in Visual Communication student Roslyn Coutinho, said through her degree she had discovered a passion for design thinking and its "potential for radical social innovation and development".

"At the core of design thinking is the ability to really understand the needs and feelings of the person you are designing for," Coutinho said. "As I came towards the end of my degree I was very aware that I had been talking the talk, but not walking the walk.

"The DSI program was an opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone and really practice the in-depth empathy research that is necessary to effectively apply design thinking to impact some of the world's most complex social problems.

"The villagers of Saurath welcomed us so warmly and generously, not only into their homes but into their hearts. I was part of a group of five UTS girls on the program who prototyped 'Bindi Club', an after school club for young girls aged between 10 and 14 that would not only provide academic support, but focus on developing the girls' confidence as well practical skills."

Utkarsh Somaiya (third left) with local farmers for whom he'd been designing a way of tackling agricultural efficiency and farmer disempowerment. Picture by Nathan Wiltshire Utkarsh Somaiya (third left) with local farmers for whom he'd been designing a way of tackling agricultural efficiency and farmer disempowerment. Picture by Nathan Wiltshire

Bachelor of Business student Utkarsh Somaiya said the experience had "truly changed" his perspective.

"The program really brought to light the importance of understanding the people at the heart of the innovation process," Somaiya said.

"We saw the power of making real connections with the locals, not only in the ideas that were produced, but in the sheer passion with which everyone was engaged in the design and innovation process.

"This was no doubt a direct result of the emotional bonds between us and the genuine empathy we felt towards the amazing people of the village."

Fabian Hawarth, who is undertaking a Bachelor of Global Studies with a Business major, said strong bonds had been forged among the BUiLD team.

"We grew so close – I know I've made mates for life from this experience," Hawarth said. "We were working on problems that seemed so big, but just breaking them down to a basic human level to come up with solutions was a valuable life skill."

Wiltshire said the DSI team was looking at implementing some of the ideas that had come out of the Saurath visit and this would be part of an advanced immersion program to be offered later in the year.