One of several portraits I drew for 星星家园.
Copia and IVHQ China, Programs that BridgeMay 19, 2019 - Services that lower the activation energy for social good
I spent some time this year at Xi'an Lianhu District Stars Disabled Sunshine Home*, a care center for individuals with special needs located in Xian, China. One of the most frequent questions I have been asked is: of all places, why did you choose to stay HERE?
There are several reasons — to improve my Mandarin, to meet new people, to indulge in culture— but the topic I want to focus on is: design.
'Design' is an umbrella term that shifts in meaning depending on who you ask. Here, when I refer to design, I mean the intentful shaping of artifacts, systems, and environments centered around users; around people.
** "西安市莲湖区星星残疾人阳光家园", in Mandarin; "星星家园", for short.*
My decision was in large part driven by this one design concept: design that accounts for the deepest disabilities is design that benefits everyone overall. Curb cuts  are my go-to example. These are the slight slopes where sidewalk meets street. For the average person, they are a standard of everyday life. However, for those with a wheelchair, curb cuts are a relief—an avenue of independence—for they enable street-to-street mobility without aid. With curb cuts, their handicap is no longer an obstacle. They can navigate the streets of their campuses, workplaces, and neighborhoods the same as anyone else.
Okay, but what do you mean by "benefits everyone overall"?
Those who require a wheelchair are not the only curb-cut stakeholders. Mothers with carriages; delivery-workers with wheeled packages; riders with bikes: anyone rolling anything benefits as an unintended side-product.
Lesson: inclusive design is better design, for all users.
My Rough Goal
To this end, I was hoping that I could extract design insights from my time at the center by directly observing the daily troubles that the individuals with special needs faced.
Did I succeed?
To tell the truth, I did not have the time nor the background to envision feasible technologies, products, or systems that could truly benefit the center. What I did think was useful, however, was the volunteer service itself (IVHQ China), bringing PEOPLE, not products, to show care for the kids.
At the start of my program, I was curious about the origins of IVHQ China. As the founder David Zou spoke, his story bore parallels to another program for social good: Copia.
Copia  is a start-up that bridges surplus food to non-profit shelters. It was founded by Komal Ahmad, a UC Berkeley alumn and enterpreneur, whose project took root when she noticed a wide disconnect on campus. Each day, perfectly good, uneaten food funneled into the trash, while, right at the edges of Berkeley, hunger lingered in the places where the homeless sat . Two disparate realities existed around one college campus — two disparate realities, Ahmad noticed, that could be bridged.
What gives? Well, beyond the fact that, sometimes, we are simply not conscious of our waste, the logistics of food donation often deter those who would like to. Locating a nonprofit, navigating food needs and constraints, scheduling, packaging, transportation, legal liabilities: these are all complications that take time and effort, each step making the alternative — food-dumping — ever more tempting.
Copia ruthlessly cuts down this friction by sorting out logistics beforehand. "It shouldn't be this hard to do a good thing," Ahmad says .
The company also tracks food-waste data for its client businesses (preventing future over-purchasing and over-production) and offers a tax-deduction service. This way, Copia reduces not only waste, but cost as well. The result is a seamless food-donation experience in which everyone gets a slice of the pie.
David's story, too, took root in college. Volunteering as an undergraduate, his path crossed with a number of foreigners. Their eagerness was apparent, but the sheer foreign-ness of the country created endless bumps in their volunteering experience. By starting the program, David:
- Matched volunteers with places that genuinely needed volunteer help.
I asked David if there were trained special-needs professionals in China. The answer was: yes, but not at the centers IVHQ China worked with. David selected centers that were most under-resourced, that could not afford expertise: these were the places that would benefit most from volunteer help.
- Arranged an accommodation to stay at.
Not only did this provide a cheap, safe place to stay, it also provided grounds for different volunteers to meet one another, creating lasting memories with people from all walks of life.
- Helped volunteers navigate the local city.
Through David's program, a system was implemented where number of trusted locals could reach out and introduce the volunteers to different cultural sites, local grocery stores, restaurants, etc.
- Helped ensure background checks on all volunteers
The necessity of this is obvious. The children and adults of the special-needs center must be kept safe.
- Allowed volunteers to pass on accumulated information onto the next set of volunteers.
David maintains a notebook in which volunteers document advice for future generations so newcomers do not have to begin afresh. This contributes to long-term, lasting impact, even if the individual volunteers themselves are there short-term. David's ongoing involvement allows him to access the impact of the volunteer program as well, maintaining contact with the teachers of the special needs center.
Tying Strands Together
Copia and IVHQ China — both these programs (1) bridge surplus to deficit, and (2) organize logistics so the "activation energy" of doing good is lowered. They make it not only easier, but more rewarding, to do good*.
For Copia, the surplus is food. The deficit is hunger. The cherry on top is the data and tax-deductions that Copia enables.
For IVHQ China, the surplus is well-meaning volunteers with time and energy. The deficit is kids who could use that positive social interaction*. The cherry on top is the lasting memories participants create through cultural exchange.
So, what does any of this have to do with design? Well, design is about shaping environments, systems, and artifacts to fit or influence human behavior. By pre-organizing logistics and providing other incentives, both Copia and IVHQ China reduce the "activation energy" of a positive activity so more people are willing to engage in it. These paths of lesser resistance inch our world towards a more sustainable, more compassionate, future. Which makes me wonder: what other problems can be approached this way? Where else can we fashion ligaments of society, bridging parts together?
*I also must acknowledge the controversy  that surrounds voluntourism. I still question how much of a practical difference I made, especially as an untrained 18-year-old there for short-term. From what I can see, however, David's program allows foreign volunteers to safely and responsibly support the goals of the special needs center and local volunteers, even if the impact is small, and even if more trained expertise could produce more benefit.
On a personal level, however, I believe that my time at the center was meaningful — both for me and the children and adults of the center. I do not see them as sympathetic 'victims' who need my help, but as equals. As friends.
 99% Invisible — Episode 308: Curb Cuts
 UC Berkeley's Engineering Center — Komal Ahmad – Bridging the Food Divide by Saad Hirani
 Vox — Food waste is the world’s dumbest environmental problem
Komal Ahmad at 7:51
 The Guardian — Does voluntourism do more harm than good? by Matthew Jenkin