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Helping People Connect and Thrive at Home

Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab student innovations take on more meaning during quarantine

May 13, 2020
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USC Marshall’s Social Innovation Design Lab course is all about helping people. 

The 24 students in this semester’s class submitted an application to Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab Executive Director Abby Fifer Mandell last semester because they wanted to help a population that is “under-designed.” As Fifer Mandell explained, that means a population that doesn’t get enough face time when it comes to traditional design. 

For the last few years, BSEL has worked with older adults at ONEgeneration, a senior enrichment center in Reseda, Calif. “Over the course of a semester, students talk with older adults, get to know their needs and challenges, and create products and designs that respond to the challenges that they hear about,” Fifer Mandell said.

Working in cross-disciplinary teams of three, each student spent more than 100 hours doing field work, communicating with more than 960 older adults. Students identified challenges older adults face every day—problems like chronic pain, isolation and lack of stimulating activities—and leveraged assets and opportunities,  such as values, buying habits and geography, to spark solutions. 

These students never could have imagined how much more meaningful—and widely applicable—their projects would be when COVID-19 forced everyone into quarantine.

“This class continues to be a meaningful way Marshall is able to engage with the community, a powerful way to see—in real time—the skills of entrepreneurship being used to impact some of the most pressing challenges today.”—Abby Fifer Mandell, Executive Director, Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab

Of course, with the quarantine, field research became a challenge, but not an insurmountable one given BSEL’s connections. Students were able to continue field work online thanks to ONEgeneration, Carolina Meadows retirement community in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Los Angeles. 

Connie Chen, whose team came up with a game app, remarked: “The transition online was almost like it was supposed to happen, to show us what the purpose of this class is: helping people connect.” 

Mind Shift

Offered for the past nine years, the BAEP 471: Social Innovation Design Lab course in 2018 won the Academy of Management Award for Innovation in Pedagogy. The course is by application-only and open to students university-wide. Between seven and 10 USC schools are represented in the class each year.

“Most of the students who take this class say it’s one of the hardest classes they take at USC,” Fifer Mandell said, “and I think that is because it requires a tremendous amount of time outside of class and a mind shift. The students who take this course are some of the most hard-working, heart-centered, professional, business-minded students at USC, and I feel grateful to have this opportunity every semester.”

The mind shift is required because the class teaches human-centered design, a way of thinking about designing products, systems or services that starts with the user in mind. “We design around the needs, challenges and core emotions of our users,” Fifer Mandell explained. 

This kind of design thinking requires extreme empathy, the ability to recognize the gaps in our awareness or knowledge of other people’s needs, challenges and emotions. “This means we think about the problem not from our perspective, but from the perspective of the user,” she added. “We lead from a place of curiosity and are always interested in feedback. We are constantly thinking about: What am I missing, overlooking or assuming about our user?”

Kaitlyn Chu, whose team came up with a service connecting people dining alone, has been looking forward to this class since high school. She wrote about it in her application to USC. “I have always loved giving back and staying in touch with my community, and this was something that I was really looking forward to doing in college,” she said. “I felt like this class was a great opportunity to make a positive impact and learn about human-centered design. Learning this new way of thinking, a new problem-solving mindset, is going to stay with me for my whole life.”

And the Innovations Are…

Because the students’ solutions focused on problems of staying healthy at home and making social connections, their usefulness and the opportunities for expansion beyond their target market were enormous given the pandemic.

Following are the social innovations from the eight cross-disciplinary student teams, who presented their final projects on April 29 via Zoom for faculty, their classmates, guests from the population with whom they did their research, and professionals from those facilities.

Staying Healthy

The team behind We Move (Sadie Byun, Amy Chong and Cecilia Pou) asked: Have you ever had to give up something you love? They found that 50 percent of older adults suffer from arthritis and give up physical activities like dance and tai chi because of chronic pain. While physical therapy could help, it can be hard to remember to do the exercises at home or find the motivation. We Move is a digital solution to chronic pain. It offers video exercises (the ones prescribed by their own physical therapist) in a TV window so that older adults can do their exercises while watching their favorite TV program.

Serene Space (Nicolette Harutunian, Mahin Tahsin and Shala Munn) offers a solution to anxiety-provoking medical waiting and exam rooms. The team created a digital wall with calming scenes and sounds of nature that could serve double duty for the doctors to display information as they explain the patient’s condition. 

Mindspace (Lindsey Campbell, Sofia Bosch and Connie Chen) is a game app to enhance intellectual stimulation and memory, reduce boredom and increase community (though live games). 

Making Connections

Paper Brain (Montana Denton, Chloe Keywell and Aya Shimizu) and HearU (Kevin Lu, Candy Win and Nick Wagener) proposed two very different ways (old-school and high-tech) to promote meaningful conversations and connections between grandparents and grandkids. With Paper Brain, adults receive postcards with a writing prompt and stock or personal photos pre-addressed to their grandkids. They fill in the prompt and drop it in the mail to their grandkid, thereby passing on their life stories and experiences. HearU allows grandparents and grandkids to overcome distance and scheduling problems by having virtual conversations through video or audio messages recorded in answer to conversation prompts.

All Bite (Eva Wu, Kaitlyn Chu and Annika Paseta) solves the problem of eating meals alone. When adults order food delivery through a service like Grubhub, they can add on the All Bite option to dine with someone via Zoom. 

Heritage Cooks (Eunice Huang, Harmony Esqueda and William Biermann) promotes cultural and community engagement through recipes from paid creators 65 and older. 

Yule Pride (Kim Pramana, Rishi Thomas and Dane Archer) connects LGBT older adults with young people during the holidays for online and in-person activities, including holiday shopping and sharing meals.

Double the Impact

Fifer Mandell, who has taught the Social Innovation Design Lab course for nine years, said: “This class continues to be a meaningful way Marshall is able to engage with the community, a powerful way to see—in real time—the skills of entrepreneurship being used to impact some of the most pressing challenges today.”

Over the years, she has seen students change their career goals as a result of their experience. She stays in touch with former students, and connected with many of them in last year’s BSEL Alumni Tour across the country. “Part of what was so moving was seeing a few hundred people talk about how human-centered design impacts their work, how they have integrated the lessons of this class in whatever industry they moved into,” she said.