Applying the human-centred design (HCD) approach to healthcare is a recent innovation that should be credited for changing the most lives in the developing world. This is in the opinion of Melinda Gates, who describes HCD as “Meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account”. Viewing ‘innovation’ from this design perspective seems especially relevant to healthcare, which is (or should be) essentially about people. 

Most problems in healthcare are found ‘in the field’ and are directly experienced (and created!) by people in the system. Enabling the people who feel the pain to participate in the design process and to contribute their own ideas and insights about what innovations could really help to overcome their problems is at the core of Human-Centered Design and is the basis for the idea of Inclusive Healthcare Innovation. 

We expect these approaches to bring more realistic understanding of the challenges people encounter in the ‘whole system’ of their lives. For instance, introducing a great medical innovation at a clinic might not produce the better health outcomes we expect if people don’t have transport to get there! Truly ‘inclusive’ innovation is not the same as the ‘participatory’ approaches practiced in the past (when the main focus was on bringing stakeholders together). Inclusive innovation requires iteration and interaction, so that the hard questions can be refined from each learning experience (success or ‘failure’) and potential solutions can be discussed and prototyped ‘in the field’. This demands shifts in organisational culture within our healthcare system, but it feels like now the time is right for this. 

Inclusive healthcare innovation can build new problem-solving competencies over time.

Inclusive Healthcare Innovation

Inclusive Healthcare Innovation

For individuals in the system who share this journey, the experience of how to make their own ideas happen can inspire them to continue persevering and iterating proactive ways of engaging with and fixing the system ‘from the inside out’.

We should be pragmatic about the cumulative effect of solving ‘small’ problems (such as how to make healthcare more efficient and effective) through incremental innovations and improvements over time. This is where Human-centred Design excels, with its emphasis on iterated observation, ideation and testing. 

But we should also dream big, to re-imagine healthcare by tackling the biggest challenges in our current systems. This needs radical innovations that are unlikely to come from Human-centred Design processes. Radical Innovation comes from changes in either technology or meaning (Norman & Verganti, 2012).  Inventors and tinkerers produce technology innovations and we can admire the genius of their inventions, when these give us (sometimes unexpected) new solutions. However, meaning-driven innovation has the potential to be driven through research and by creating the spaces for people to explore new meanings and interpretations that can give rise to fundamentally different ways of perceiving the possible solutions.

With all the information we now have available at our fingertips and the means to connect to highly qualified ‘solvers’ from all over the world, we should find problem-solving through these various forms of design and innovation becoming more routine. 

But finding the most relevant and critical problems to tackle will remain the real challenge to innovators. ‘Crowdsourcing’ and ‘open innovation’ have become buzzwords for these more inclusive approaches to design and innovation, so how about crowdsourcing problems and new meanings, not (just) technological solutions?

I am part of a small University of Cape Town team preparing the first annual Health Innovators Review that will be published in January 2014. Our current review focuses mainly on what pioneering South African innovators/solvers have achieved. A worthwhile focus for the future could be to find much more innovative ways of the surfacing better insights from more people into the real problems that millions experience. So the thousands of creative solvers - including designers and innovators locally and globally, can start to work on these problems in much more systematic and connected ways!

This could be a relevant role for the Inclusive Healthcare Innovation initiative I am helping to build at the University of Cape Town. Based at an academic institution, this could serve as a connector of people, ideas, meanings, problems and ways of solving these.