Creative Capacity Building

Creative Capacity Building: An Interview with Amy Smith



MIT D-Lab and some of our friends around the world have been leading Creative Capacity Building (CCB) trainings for the past seven years. During a recent CCB training in Kafue Zambia, D-Lab Founder and Co-Director Amy Smith took some time with D-Lab Partnerships Coordinator Dana Gorodetsky to discuss the origin, goals, and evolution of CCB – and some special “aha” moments she had along the way.

DG: How would you describe CCB to someone new – as a design methodology, an approach, a philosophy to development, or a training curriculum?

AS: Creative Capacity Building is a methodology that was developed by MIT D-Lab and our partners to enhance people’s creativity and build their confidence in creating technologies that can improve their lives and livelihoods.

DG: How and over what period did CCB develop?

AS: Creative Capacity Building began in the post-conflict areas in Northern Uganda in 2009. We had gone there with the intention of sharing some technologies that would help people with the transition from the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps to their villages, but what we found was that rather than a need for a particular technology, there was a need for something that would counteract the sense of dependency that had built up in the camps. So, we thought it was more important to teach people how to make technologies rather than how to use a particular technology. People there really appreciated this approach, largely because we treated them with respect and valued their intelligence and input to the process. Since then, we’ve refined and expanded our approach to be relevant beyond post-conflict areas.

DG: How is CCB different from other approaches to design and other approaches to development?

AS: At D-Lab, we tend to think about some of the approaches to using design as a way of addressing problems in this way: you can design for people who are living in poverty, you can design with people who are living in poverty, and you can encourage design by people who are living in poverty. All three can be effective strategies in different situations. Creative Capacity Building encourages design by people living in poverty, and it is a very grassroots approach to design for development. Co-creation or co-design is an approach that brings together people from different backgrounds to design with people in poverty. Design for people living in poverty is more of a top-down approach, but if you do a good job of what many people call human-centered design, you can really engage users in a meaningful way as well.

DG: In what range of settings, locations, and with what kinds of participants have CCB trainings taken place?

AS: We have expanded CCB quite a bit since 2009, initially by continuing in Uganda after the encouraging results of our early work there, and also in other countries and regions around the world. In Africa, there are now particularly strong CCB programs in Uganda and Tanzania, and we have also done trainings in Zambia, Botswana, and Ghana. In other parts of the world, we have strong programs in Colombia and Guatemala, and we have also done trainings in Indonesia and the Philippines. In terms of participants, CCB tends to be a really nice fit with agricultural communities. Beyond learning skills and contributing to specific projects, people can sell the products they make with the skills they learned in a CCB training. For people with seasonal incomes like farmers, something like CCB can enable them to earn money during the non-harvest season, which can help them buy inputs they need to improve their crop. We’ve seen several examples of people in agricultural communities earning new streams of income from projects spurred by CCB trainings. We’ve also done CCB trainings in urban areas, working with young people to provide alternatives to joining gangs, and working with internally displaced people in Colombia to think about technologies that could help them move home after being displaced by the conflict there.

DG: How will CCB continue to grow?

AS: One of our approaches to strengthening the program and enabling scale has been to complement CCB workshops with efforts to train more trainers. We started this in Uganda, where we initially trained 20 local trainers who now work in 54 communities across the country to continue developing CCB – we’ve seen really wonderful things come out of this. Uganda has the biggest CCB program in the world right now, and they are actually part of a research project to understand the local impacts of CCB. Tanzania is another strong program, where two of our innovators from the International Development Innovation Network have been doing CCB trainings as part of a USAID-funded Innovation and Gender Equality project. Beyond this, we’re continuing to build our capacity to train trainers and we’re excited to be fostering a strong cadre of people who can conduct this type of training anywhere in the world.

An exciting direction that we are moving with CCB now is to work with humanitarian organizations to apply the CCB methodology in refugee situations, where we hope it will not only empower people to make technologies that can address the challenges that they face in the camps and settlements, but also help improve their psycho-social well-being. Design can be a powerful tool for development, as both the process and products can have an impact. This is especially important in the humanitarian context, where refugees have had to leave so much behind. CCB can help them regain a sense of control of their surroundings, build their confidence, create opportunities for income generation and make connections with other refugees as they work together on their design projects. We’re currently working on pilot projects with UNHCR, UNICEF and the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and hope that these will lead to larger projects in the future.

DG: Could you give me a couple of favorite examples of “aha" moments for you or for CCB participants?

AS: One of the things I love is the smiles on people’s faces as they complete their first corn sheller and realize how easy it was for them to build something that can impact their lives. There was a woman in one of the first trainings in Uganda who came up to me after making her corn sheller and said, “This is going to save me 100 hours of work this year.” Imagine in less than one hour being able to do something that could save you 100 hours!

Another thing I’ve seen, especially in Uganda, is the way that people are using design to generate income. For instance, a group there is using the design process they learned in CCB trainings to develop a full product line that they sell in the market. This group gets together at Lawrence’s house on Saturdays, listening to music and designing and making technologies. They’re now selling corn shellers, cook stoves, ground nut threshers, and potato slicers, and it’s just such a neat thing to see. For the farmers in the group especially, this is not going to be a full-time job, but it supplements their seasonal income.

And one more special moment. There was a woman in one of the trainings who, after she made her charcoal press, said, “You can call me Engineer Gertrude!” I think that really speaks to the power of CCB, which is not just about the technologies that you’re creating – although that’s part of it – but it’s really about the transformation of the people who go through the training. We’ve seen that they really think about themselves as people who can make a difference in their own lives, who can impact their own future. And this is one of the key things we want to do.

Creative Capacity Building from Guatemala to Ghana

Creative Capacity Building workshop, Ixil region, Guatemala.

D-Lab's Victor Grau Serrat preparing for workshop.


Creative Capacity Building in Guatemla

Greetings from rural and rainy Guatemala, where D-Lab Associate Director Kofi Taha and I are training community mobilizers to share D-Lab's Creative Capacity Building methodology with predominantly indigenous communities throughout the Ixil region.

Through a hands-on and project-based curriculum, we create a supportive environment for participants to design their own technologies to improve their livelihoods. 

To read more about this project, see last fall's MIT News Article introduing this program, MIT D-Lab promotes rural community innovations in Guatemala with Soluciones Comunitarias.

Building Creative Capacity with the Practical Impact Alliance in Ghana

Meanwhile, around the world in rural Ghana, using the same principles of community-based technology co-creation and innovation, D-Lab Founder and Co-Director Amy Smith, D-Lab Scale-Ups Program Director Saida Benhayoune and the rest of the Practical Impact Alliance (PIA) staff are leading the first annual PIA Co-design Summit with over 30 individuals including PIA Members from industry, international nongovernmental organizations, as well as Ghanaian innovators, social entrepreneurs, and members of the local community.

Advancing the discipline of collaborative design

Working at two very different ends of world, with people from a broad range of educational experience and professions, what unites both projects is the pursuit D-Lab's mission to advance the discipline of collaborative design and delivery of technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty.

Kicking off grassroots innovation in Guatemala

Victor Grau Serrat, D-Lab Co-Director

SolCom promotional mural 


Planning meeting with SolCom

Sunday market in Nebaj, Guatemala

SolCom president Miguel Brito wth Kofi

Reunion with Carlos Marroquin, from BiciTec

Weaving at home

Creative Capacity Building & MicroConsignment in rural Guatemala

There are many things that excite me about the work that Kofi Taha and I launched earlier this month in Guatemala, where, for the first time, we will be pairing D-Lab's Creative Capacity Building (CCB) with the Soluciones Comunitarias (SolCom) MicroConsignment Model. The goal of the project is to build the capacity of more than 800 rural villagers to innovate and create their own technologies, and then commercialize them through the region using SolCom's market-based distribution network.

The Ixil community of Guatemala

First and foremost, true to D-Lab's value of putting people first, I'm excited that we have the opportunity to bring the CCB methodology that has been developed and implemented in a number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to the Ixil, a Maya people indigenous of Guatemala that live in three municipalities in the Cuchumatanes mountains. The Ixil community has preserved a strong cultural identity and practices predominantly subsistence agriculture and colorful weaving. Sadly, poverty affects 87 percent of the population. The Ixil people were the target of a genocide operation during the Guatemalan civil war (1960-1996), when the population was halved, economic growth stunted, and basic infrastructure neglected. The population has since rebounded, but access to basic services remains limited, and there is little economic activity.

SolCom, a Guatemalan-owned and operated social enterprise

Given how important it is to find the right partnering organization whose mission and values align well with D-Lab's, I'm particularly enthusiastic to be working with SolCom, headquartered in Nebaj, the capital of the Ixil region. SolCom is a Guatemalan-owned and run social enterprise that brings the benefits of affordable technologies, but otherwise not locally available, to underserved rural communities. We met most of the SolCom's staff for the first time, and we were very pleased with the organization's capabilities and the strong team they are. We focused most of our time together doing the necessary planning and coordination to get the project started on the right path. There is much to be said for face-to-face meetings, and building that personal rapport that will undoubtly pay off throughout many of the the coming months of working remotely.

Coming back "home" to Central America

I'm personally excited to be working in Guatemala for a variety of reasons: my own Spanish heritage, fond memories of a visit I made to the country over a decade ago, and parallels that I established from the year that I lived in Bolivia back in 2001 that marked the start of my career in international development. After having worked in Africa and Asia, coming to Central America feels almost like coming back home.

Guatemalan inventor Carlos Marroquin

At the last minute on our way back to the US, we managed to reconnect with a old friend, and much admired (at the very least by yours truly) Guatemalan inventor Carlos Marroquin, the genius behind Maya Pedal, now leading BiciTec. We paid him a visit in his own home, where we were received very warmly, and where we plotted together his future involvement in the project. Having him as a local role model that his fellow compatriotes can look up to will be a great asset to the project. Carlos has also long been involved with the International Development Innovation Summit. See a recent profile of him here.

Kofi Taha - a wealth of experience with CCB

And last but not least, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to do fieldwork with Kofi for the first time, after many years of knowing him at MIT. Kofi brings a wealth of expertise in D-Lab's Creative Capactiy Building, having co-developed the methodology in Uganda with Amy Smith, and been involved in a variety of implementations since.

We're just getting started here!

For more information on this program, contact Victor Grau Serrat.

MIT News story: MIT D-Lab promotes rural community innovations in Guatemala with Soluciones Comunitarias


Pedal-Powered Paste Maker

Sesame and groundnut paste are staples in the Acholi diet. D-Lab worked with community members to design and then redesign a pedal-powered paste maker that could replace traditional grinding stones which are both time and labor intensive.

Mango crusher

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As part of a design challenge to get more value from mangos, participants in the Creative Capacity Building training session built a device for crushing mangos and extracting the juice.

Peace Corps Training Centers

Peace Corps-Zambia has partnered with D-Lab to develop six regional Appropriate Technology Centers where volunteers and counterparts can learn about and create a variety of small-scale, affordable technologies that contribute to food security, health and hygiene, environmental stewardship, and sustainable livelihoods.
Serenje and Chapata


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