Design 4 Impact: Zero Waste Challenge

Ivan Cestero, Coordinator of Social Innovation

How might we become a zero waste school?

This ambitious question was the focus of Design 4 Impact’s (D4i) first design challenge of the year. D4i, Avenues’ student-run social innovation startup launched in 2016, aims to bring real-world problem solving to all schools through a combination of its signature daylong design challenge offering and related curriculum for design thinking and entrepreneurship. So far, the organization has hosted more than a dozen challenge events at Avenues, the United Nations, partner schools and conferences to show the power of teens as leaders and change-makers.

The event pivoted from the traditional model in two ways: first, students debuted a condensed three-hour version unfolding over the course of an afternoon; and second, the client, instead of an external community or industry partner, was Avenues’ very own Zero Waste Club. The club had been exploring this topic – which has gained popularity recently and “isn’t just for hippies anymore”– as a provocative response to school shortcomings around recycling and waste management. But what was the best answer given our school’s context? How to get all stakeholders on board? What would implementation look like?

Enter D4i, whose challenges force participants to break through the paralysis often felt in the face of a complex problem and enable them to leave with the prototypes and inspiration to take action steps. Over the course of the afternoon, six D4i leads facilitated a full design cycle with four teams of Zero Waste Club members and other D4i club members. Here’s a phase-by-phase breakdown:


“We’re here to practice real world problem solving,” said senior Eleanor Duvol, who led the event planning and introduced the concept. “You will be employing the same essential [design thinking] process used by designers and professionals around the world,” continued fellow lead Kyla Windley. After a silly icebreaker meant to loosen up students, junior Fiona Jasper introduced the day’s guest expert, entrepreneur and Avenues parent Sarah Currie-Halpern, who described her startup’s mission to achieve zero waste at a scalable level and possibilities for Avenues. This intro served to legitimize both the process of design and provide background and concrete examples of the zero waste concept.


With proper context in place, it was time to begin! In order to gain insights on user experiences with waste disposal in the building, groups embarked on empathy interviews with stakeholders throughout the building. Students then shared out insights upon reconvening. As lead Spencer Chandlee described, this data helps designers get out of their own heads and into the users’ heads.

Empathy interview with Dean Tim Hudson

Empathy interview with Dean Tim Hudson


Next, it’s time to make sense of all the data teams collected, draw conclusions, and identify a particular problem to solve. The Define (or Synthesis) phase is often considered the most intellectually challenging phase and did induce some head-scratching from students. Here the lead facilitators at each table are critical to guide participants through “point of view” and “how might we” statements, which frames the solution that teams build in subsequent phases. Thus each team discovered a particular problem for which to solve.

Students share insights from empathy interviews and discuss common themes.

Students share insights from empathy interviews and discuss common themes.


With problems identified, teams busted out the ubiquitous colored Post-its for more intuitive brainstorming. Leads introduced a new role play, pitting “angel editor” against “devil ideator,” modeling how to betray our instincts toward quality of ideas and focus on quantity. This is harder than it seems, but a fantastic exercise for lateral thinking and creativity. Teams then performed simple exercises to narrow down the ideas and eventually choose a winner.

With ideas on the board, a team begins prototyping.

With ideas on the board, a team begins prototyping.


Soon teams were crowding around Carter, D4i’s famous plastic supply cart, for materials to prototype bins, signs, posters and more for the services and products. This phase tends to be the most fun and energetic of the event, as students use cheap materials to create as realistic a version of their idea as possible in limited time. Creativity, expressiveness and sheer production are the emphases here as the goal is to ensure their concept speaks for itself, with minimal explanation, during testing phase.  


Student groups test their prototypes either on strangers in the street or, in this case for the sake of time, other teams in the same space. Lead Brandon Bunt notes the maxim “prototype like you’re right, test like you’re wrong,” which suggests that the confidence integral to building an idea must be replaced by humility when sharing it. You’re not trying to impress; you’re trying to gain honest user feedback that will influence later iterations of the design. Thus testing is a great opportunity to lose your ego, dive into the minds and experiences of your users, and make adjustments accordingly.

A team iterates on its design after testing feedback.

A team iterates on its design after testing feedback.


Finally, students prepare to present or pitch their solution to the full group and audience. The goal is to provide an entertaining and informative four-minute presentation in which everyone on the team speaks, and students creatively use their prototypes, props, role play and other resources to pitch their solution to the full group in a compelling way. The zero waste challenge saw three distinct approaches to developing and presenting physical trash and recycling bins, and one service that limited food distribution in the cafeteria.

A team presents their final prototype of colored waste bins and symbolic instructions to the rest of the group.

A team presents their final prototype of colored waste bins and symbolic instructions to the rest of the group.

In the end, the event was a hit; club members walked away with promising prototypes for further development and improved design skills. And, since most of the products were recycled or returned to Carter, it is possible that zero waste was created.

Look out for more D4i challenges in 2018. In January we welcomed visiting Chinese and then Indian high school students (in a partnership with WFUNA). In February we are debuting at our new campus in São Paulo, Brazil; in March we presenting a summit at the SXSWedu conference; and we will be offering a student-led immersive Minimester and Fifth Term elective classes in spring!  



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