Sustainable Bolivia is a non-profit organisation in the Amazon rainforest of Bolivia. Located in the city of Riberalta, they host international volunteers who work on local projects. During my own travels through South America, I facilitated a one-day workshop for their volunteers introducing them to Design Thinking as a method for social and ecological change.

As a case for the workshop, the participants worked on a local issue they really cared about: In Riberalta it was common to recieve a plastic bag on the market for pretty much everything. The amount of plastic being disposed per day was worrisome, especially since Riberalta lacked a proper disposal system and more often than not the garbage ended up in trees or in the river.

After learning about the basic concepts of Design Thinking, the participants went to the local market to interview customers and shop owners on their attitudes and needs regarding the plastic bags.

Before the workshop, the volunteers – an international group of students in their early 20s – where quite judgemental about the bag issue assuming a lack of awareness of the Bolivian locals to be the root cause. The interviews changed their views entirely: Not a lack of awareness was the problem, but a lack of applicable alternatives.

Riding a motorcycle (usually without a helmet and a driving license) was the standard way of getting around in Riberalta. Though locals worried about the plastic issue as well, hanging plastic bags on the handlebars of their motorcycles had proven to be the best way for them to carry around vast amounts of groceries. The plastic bags were smaller than any fabric bag and therefore easier to manage when balancing the weight on the bike.

Not just customers were well aware of the negative environmental impact of the pastic bags and concerned about it. Also shop owners turned out to be no fans of the bags either, as they had to purchase them while giving them out for free. However, fearing the competition of other shop owners, considering a fee for the bags was off limits for them.

The volunteers came up with several solutions addressing different angles of the problem. They narrowed down their ideas to two favorites: 1) a basket that customers could put on their motorcycle to carry their goods and 2) a reward system that would incentivise customers to return their bags so they could be reused.

Due to the limited workshop time of only one day, the participants tested only the reward system with a shop owner. They presented their solution and interviewed them about their thoughs on it. The take-aways from this feedback covered mainly consequences the participants couldn’t have forseen. Therefore it could have served as a starting point for an iteration.

Though the discovered solution would have had the potential to be tested further with local shops, the purpose of the workshop was more focussed on the process than the outcome. Getting to know the approach of user-centric thinking as well as the concept of iteration was eye-opening for the young women and left a deep impression in their understanding of how to approach a problem.

Instead of running another iteration cycle, the workshop ended with a little dinner party at 30 degrees, 100% humidity and a tropical thunderstorm, as they are usual in the Amazon rainforest.

Organisation: Sustainable Bolivia
Role: Facilitator
Year: 2019