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Championing universities to integrate United Nations SDGs and Design thinking

Project Status: Ongoing and under development

Article by: Ycenter design team  •   January 2021

The origin story

We have been designing and conducting workshops for top universities in the USA, India, Africa and for global conferences on Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation since 2014. A lot of the entrepreneurial ventures or capstone projects designed by students are way too much focused on the technology rather than the problem it solves. So we created a simple problem statement formation toolkit called C.A.S.E. (cause based, action oriented, specific, empathetic to stakeholder) methodology to help participants focus on making a problem statement before they jump onto making apps and other solutions.

In 2016, Ycenter officially became UN Sustainable Development Goals commitment partner. We got a chance to be part of UN HESI - (United Nations Higher Education Secondary Initiative) events organized by UN ECOSOC and the SDG Partnership exchange HLPF (high-level political forum) events at the UN headquarters in NYC. Ycenter also became an official partner of GODAN (Global open data for Agriculture and Nutrition) in Africa. These affiliations helped us connect with the right network of people and organizations to build high impact partnerships.

The big question

The big question for us was how do we take all this learning and experience we are getting through the UN SDG events to classrooms and to the field. We started seeing business professors talking about Sustainable Development goals alongside supply chain, economics, and entrepreneurship. The first workshops that we did along the lines of SDGs were with the professors who reached out to us. These were the early adopters and knew that they needed to build a bridge from classroom to real world and a framework such as SDG could be a good starting point.


One important thing for Ycenter was to not just talk about SDGs but bring some context on how to use them in action. We started combining our Design Thinking framework with SDGs to create Entrepreneurial solutions. These were offered in the form of a short 1 day workshop, 2 day workshops, or a semester wide program where SDGs are integrated into an ongoing existing course. In the last 4 years, we did SDG based workshops in the USA, Kenya, Egypt, India, Burkina Faso and 12 other African countries. We trained roughly 4000+ participants that included students, professors, business executives in using SDGs framework while working on their next big project.

Sustainable Development Goals Grid

Stories from our workshops

We loved Ycenter workshop because it taught our students empathy to solve world problems.
- Ying Zhao, City University of New York

We partnered with Cornell University in late summer of 2019 to train 10 faculty members in SDGs and how they can integrate SDGs into their Fall curriculum. That same fall we also worked with the Social Enterprise student club at Cornell to build hands-on projects. We saw people creating a green credit card that rewards you for purchasing products and services from companies that align with Sustainability standards. You also get an app to manage your purchases and explore more businesses online and in your zip code to shop from. Shopping equals saving the planet. Activism never looked this good, before 😉

We had students from University of California Davis building services to help connect older people with other like minded communities to explore their hobbies and interests. This was on the lines of building tech that’s inclusive for everyone.

Workshop in Fresno State Uni, California Workshop in University of California, Davis
Workshop in University of Virginia, Charlottesville

Taking it global

We took this workshop framework to India. We started with a high school in Nashik, India where students built everything - From Emergency Ambulance Innovation to Redesigning experience for movie streaming beyond Netflix (think of combining Airbnb and in India). Design Thinking in India has started to gain traction amongst large companies, especially product driven. And we have a few partners we work with in the corporate space, but we are equally excited about the possibilities of bringing this framework to a much younger audience. This creates a solid fundamental skill set and a knack for non-linear, intuitive and humanitarian thinking which helps these students as they advance in their career from college campus to corporate campus or to a startup garage. One of the parents in our workshop, mentioned how this experience has transformed her son even at home, where he uses design thinking to help resolve conflicts and manage daily chores for his grandmother. While we are not entirely surprised by knowing this, what’s truly remarkable is the ability for parents to recognize this new pattern of thinking in their children and truly invest in giving them a global experiential education.

Here is an excerpt from a blog on my experience of attending UN HESI event in 2019,
The next two panels had speakers discussing the Direct correlation of Higher Education and its impact on the Development of Nation’s economy. There was discussion around assessment of Business schools, the role they play in shaping careers for graduates that are coherent with needs of our modern complex economy. I particularly enjoyed the opening remarks of Ann Rosenberg, who talked about —
How might we use technology to solve global problems combined with the power of imagination of young people? She discussed the need to unleash story-telling and how Next-Gen program is merging Science Fiction and Storytelling for creating solutions centered to meet SDGs.

5 ways to bring Design Thinking to universities

1. Make it Experiential
It is very important that Design thinking based workshops are experiential in nature. They cannot be about students listening to a teacher or a lecturer or watching slides. Students have to move around the class, collaborate across the tables, generate new ideas and ask many questions. To truly make it Experiential, the journey of student learning should go from Learn, Act to Reflect. The important part is to encourage collaboration between students, having them ask questions and challenge each other, but very important to remember to create a safe space. That means, no questions are stupid, not questioning or challenging people’s faith, beliefs, political ideologies and practice active listening. This starts by the facilitator setting the norms of the space. At Ycenter, we call it “Culture Creation”. We build our own culture crowdsourced from participants which includes setting up norms for debating, asking questions, appreciating someone else’s point of view, what happens if you show up late, how do you ask for help and how do you give help.

2. Make it Socially Responsible
Design thinking is powerful when applied in the context of solving problems that have a direct impact on people’s lives. Using the UN SDG framework or just any social issues as a hook point for students to solve, will inspire them to build powerful solutions and in the process learn the art and science of USING design thinking steps in action. You can have students do a small field visit, sometimes it could be as small as 1 hour walk around the campus, to observe and take notes. Or if you have a larger duration workshop, dedicate a day/days for field work. As we are facing this pandemic, you could replace this activity safely through interviews with community stakeholders or NGO leaders via online video conferencing.

3. Global mindset to solve local problems
Even though the problems you might be tackling could be hyperlocal to your community or neighborhood, you want everyone in the room to think about humanity-at-large across different cultures and nationalities. This helps you to discover new things about other parts of the world sitting inside your classroom and also opens up to the possibilities of creating something local but with a potential of scaling it to solve a similar problem for a completely different group of people in some other part of the world. Many times students romanticize the idea of solving problems for someone in another part of the world on the basis of an article, book or blog they read. While it should be highly appreciated, you may want to show them the benefits of first solving something local, build up skills, gain some creative confidence before setting out for global adventures.

4. Don't teach; Facilitate
This is extremely important, especially for professors, who wish to run Design thinking sprints themselves. They would benefit from becoming a facilitator that guides student learning and curiosity. This is not a plugin for our services, but we seriously believe that facilitation requires a different skills and approach than teaching. So if you are a professor or a student or a design thinking enthusiast looking to bring programs to your university campus, please reach out to us for potential collaborations.

5. Use storytelling for presentation
Finally using storytelling as a tool is a powerful way for students to present their work and show empathy to their stakeholders. It is a skill not restricted to the design thinking domain, but extremely effective in today’s world to help become a genuine and powerful communicator. From using Storytelling for Public narrative tools by Marshall Ganz from Harvard University to watching a few good TED talks can show you some quick effective ways to engage your audience.

Ycenter Learning Texture Background

Overall, covid-19 pandemic has exposed the extreme disparities in our world. The need to work on sustainability, equality and equity is more important than ever before. While we had a few moments of joy in terms of lower emission rates or lesser waste during the lockdowns, it is not enough to tackle the mammoth challenge of climate change. We need to work on the SDGs now and we need to work on them together.

Let's collaborate

Reach out to Ycenter for potential collaborations for creating greater impact with your institution or community. You can check out a list of our workshops on our Learning Page.

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