Mahali Lab is a community-driven innovation lab started by the International Rescue Committee’s Airbel Center in Jordan, focused on fostering community engagement in identifying and solving challenges posed by long-term displacement. As a designer manager of Mahali, I helped design and implement the lab's tools and processes, identify community problems through design research, and train high-potential lab participants.
International Rescue Committee
2017 - 2018
Amman, Irbid, and Mafraq, Jordan
In 2017, the IRC’s Jordan Country Office and the Airbel Center launched Mahali Lab, a community-driven innovation initiative designed to enable Syrians and vulnerable Jordanians affected by the Syrian crisis to identify problems in their community and develop local solutions to those problems. Mahali’s community-driven approach is based on the fundamental premise that those who are affected by the problem are best placed to solve them. It is part community consultation (to identify and solve problems), and part incubator (supporting entrepreneurial individuals and teams to help them develop innovative solutions to these problems). When I joined Mahali in its early days, we were grappling with three critical questions:
- How do we ensure that we are providing solutions to the right problems?
- How do we ensure that we're finding the right people who are best suited to find and formulate those solutions?
- How do we ensure that we’re providing the right support to those people to test, implement, and scale their solutions?
COMMUNITY-DRIVEN PROBLEM FINDING
We embarked on a three-month journey to let the community guide us in defining problems worth solving. In our mind, the key research question was: What are the articulated and unarticulated challenges and needs that occupy the time, efforts, and mental energy of Syrian refugees and their host communities? We conducted a series of open-ended, semi-structured interviews and focus group discussions in three localities with high concentrations of urban refugees: Amman, Irbid, and Mafraq. We met in neighboring community centers or people’s homes. One benefit of this method was the potential to gather more people by going to someone’s apartment and bringing in additional residents from the same building.
SYNTHESIS AND VALIDATION
After a long process of synthesis, we held a larger community workshop to validate our understanding and interpretation of the data with community members. Invited attendees were asked to confirm, reject, or nuance our understanding of the problems and issues they shared, or add anything to the materials that we might have missed the first time around. Equipped with this validated data, we extracted key patterns of experiences across locations, genders, and age groups, culminating in 6 main problem statements. We represented each one with a storyboard, based on the stories and quotes we heard during the consultation process, and then asked the community to vote on the challenges they believed were most crucial for them.
We ended up with one challenge that was voted on as the most pressing by community members: income. That was, however, such a broad topic that framing an opportunity space — a lens for constraining the problem that would maximize potential solutions and inspire participants to join — became difficult. As a result, I led a short design research sprint to map out different aspects of the income problem, their inter-connectivity, and the relative importance to community members. All the insights and materials created during this design research sprint were used as inputs for a challenge framing workshop, where we invited economic specialists working on home-based business regulation in Jordan, a Syrian business owner (and employer), and a young Syrian jobseeker who generates income through virtual/online opportunities. Based on discussions in the workshop, the critical elements that emerged were income sufficiency, predictability, and safety — the degree to which the income source exposes the income generator to risk (mainly exploitation or deportation). This led us to formulate the final challenge statement: How can we ensure that vulnerable households have access to sufficient, predictable income that does not expose them to risks?
Now that Mahali’s first design challenge was defined, it was time to begin identifying and recruiting Mahali participants from a variety of backgrounds (refugees and vulnerable people living in Jordan, civic and social leaders, community-based organizations, and local entrepreneurs) interested in working to address this challenge. Before designing the application process and channels to funnel and identify changemakers as potential participants, we spent time thinking about the attributes and personality traits that would make for ideal candidates, and determined a set of 6 attributes: empathetic, systems-thinker, facilitator, action-oriented, curious, and creative; a combination of which ideal applicants would possess. I turned these six attributes into approachable cartoon characters to easily convey these sought-after traits to both prospective applicants, as well as community outreach volunteers who will support Mahali in identifying and finding potential candidates.
In order to support an equitable application process, we designed a two part application that would allows people to demonstrate their capacity, in addition to expressing their ideas. The first round of the application was written, and could be done either online or with the assistance of community outreach volunteers, to ensure that neither previous education levels nor access to technology would be barriers to entry. The top-scorers from the first round were then invited to participate in the second round, an in-person application event that incorporated a combination of interviews, role-plays, and individual and group activities aimed at assessing the participants’ strengths in communication, critical-thinking, systems-thinking, idea generation, facilitation, creativity, curiosity, and passion. I helped create the outline of the application process as a whole, and took the lead on developing and implementing the in-person application activities.
From the application process, 40 participants were selected to participate in a 5-day design bootcamp. There were three main goals that we intended to achieve through the bootcamp: (1) Having teams work on the design challenges through a more focused lens to constrain the problem space in a way that enables meaningful community-driven solutions; (2) Transferring knowledge of the problem space and foundational human-centered design skills to participants; and (3) Evaluating and selecting the 12 individuals who are best suited to participate in the subsequent design sprint. I led the process of designing the bootcamp curriculum, helped create the participant selection methodology, and co-facilitated the training.
The design sprint is a ten-week program meant for participants to develop a validated solution with a promising pathway to scale. Unlike the bootcamp which detailed a day-by-day, minute-by-minute agenda, we approached the 10-week design sprint with a broadly-stroked weekly outline that offered more flexibility to adapt to the needs and progress of the teams, while still hitting the necessary milestones. I served as the main trainer and facilitator during the design sprint, providing technical support to participant teams in validating their problem space, coming up with solutions, prototyping and testing their solutions, as well as building a user and business case for the solutions.
CHALLENGES AND OUTCOMES
The participants I supported through the design sprint went on to pitch to a business incubator, and two out of the four participating teams were selected to receive support in implementing their solutions. While my tenure with Mahali coincided with the timeline leading up to the end of the first design challenge, the lab subsequently tackled two additional challenges. This was an opportunity to reflect and iterate on the first design challenge, resulting in changes to how Mahali approached the second one.
TO LEARN MORE
- My first blog post describing the problem-definition stage: “Community-Driven Problem Finding in Jordan.”
- My follow-up blog post describing the challenge framing phase: “Framing a Design Challenge: What Do We Mean by the Income Problem in Jordan?”
- My last blog post describing the design training and facilitation process: “Cooking up a Design Training Curriculum for Non-Designers,” which was featured by DAI Digital.
- Featured in the Jordan Times: “Local Innovation Lab to Develop Solutions to Refugee Crises.”
- Featured in a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Video for the 2018 Humanitarian Day 2018.