Rethinking WHO: Students see a bigger role for frontline health workers

Students from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and across the University came together at the Harvard iLab over the fall semester of 2017 for an innovative new course—Design of Social Innovation. While some may have thought of “design” as the process of creating a building or smartphone, by the end of the course, they realized that they could utilize design to tackle large, ambiguous problems in public health.

Led by Patrick Whitney and Andre Nogueira, the course gave students a hands-on introduction to design methods such as modeling, reframing, and prototyping. Whitney, one of the foremost experts on the discipline of design as an approach to solving complex human problems, taught students new ways to approach public health challenges—as a supplement to standard science-based approaches—when information is incomplete and fast-changing.

As a case study, students were tasked to look at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the way it addresses pandemics, and then design solutions to help it more effectively manage disease outbreaks. To keep their thinking fresh, students were forbidden from researching how WHO already works. They looked at different models of change, made conjectures, and then researched whether their ideas could work.

Whitney said during the students’ final presentations on December 8, 2017, “This course is not about what is, but what might be.”

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