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Innovation Strategy


Photo by PopTech.

I first learned about Heather Fleming, founder and CEO of Catapult Design, almost a year ago when I read one of her blog posts, “The Future of Design: A U.S. Cell Phone Designed by Kenyans?“ on one of my favorite blogs,

After reading her poignant piece, I was blown away. The thing that resonated with me the most was Heather’s closing statement:

“Soon multinational design teams will be commonplace and developed countries will no longer host the lion’s share of design firms. Imagine 90% of the world’s designers finally being tapped into and how that will shape and shift everyday objects we use (a US cell phone designed by Kenyans?) and our understanding of social challenges. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a designer.”

After reading a few more of Heather’s stories on NextBillion, I decided to Google her. I noticed that Heather had an impressive resume of accomplishments, including being a designer, an engineer and an entrepreneur motivated by social inequality. In 2005, she helped found and then led a volunteer group of engineers and designers focused on humanitarian design projects via Engineers Without Borders. In 2008, Heather was named a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow, a program aimed at high-potential young leaders with new approaches for transformational impact. In 2010, she was selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader for her work with Catapult Design.

She previously worked in the Silicon Valley product development consulting world and has six years experience working with multi-disciplinary teams to design, develop and deliver product solutions for a diverse range of companies. Heather is also Adjunct Lecturer at Stanford University teaching “Design for Sustainability” in the Mechanical Engineering department. Heather has a BS in Product Design from Stanford University.

Last year, she presented on “The Human Factor: The Designer’s Approach to Societal Change” atTEDxSoMa. In her powerful presentation about social design, she points out something every designer should keep in mind, the golden rule principle of design: thy shall not design for thyself!

As a designer, environmentalist and social entrepreneur myself, I was ecstatic to learn that Heather was speaking at the 2011 Compostmodern conference. I emailed my dear friend Francisco Noguera, the managing editor of NextBillion, to introduce myself so I could meet up with her at the conference. Unfortunately, that did not happen, but I did score this great interview with the spirited, smart, passionate and very personable Heather Fleming.

Photo by PopTech.

Monika Kerdeman: What’s your story in 100 words?

Heather Fleming: The only info out there that people don’t usually know about me is that I am a New Mexican native. My cat’s name is Hanz Strudel. I’m an amazing bowler, lover of fast food, and my favorite hobby is walking.

MK: If you could solve one problem in the world through storytelling or design, what would it be?

HF: Probably not a single, big problem. I think I’d focus on the little problems and annoyances I experience on a day-to-day basis. Something measurable that I could see the impact of within my lifetime.

MK: What would you characterize as your biggest professional success?

HF: Hmm…still waiting for that to happen. Talking with other people who want to be in this field, to do the work Catapult does, I sometimes give myself a small pat on the back for quitting my old job and starting Catapult. But I would never advise anyone else to do this, unless you want to be a salesperson, manager and communicate frequently with the IRS.

MK: What are you working on now?

HF: Too many things, but mostly email. Catapult’s designers are working on hand carts, mosquito traps, birthing kits and the like for various countries and people around the world. My job is actually not as exciting as people think. The designers get to do the fun stuff. I’m just a professional emailer.

MK: In your current line of work, what have you found to be the hardest services or partnerships to find or develop?

HF: Partnerships with funders is a never-ending challenge. We don’t brand ourselves as “consultants,” but if you strip it down, that’s essentially what we are. No one wants to fund the middle man, it doesn’t look good on their reports.

MK: What inspires you?

HF: Going home to the Southwest. It helps me put things into perspective.

MK: Do you have any requests for collaboration for current or future work?

HF: We’re always on the hunt for organizations that can enhance the product development process in rural and impoverished markets. There’s a need for distributors, marketing agencies, networks of rural entrepreneurs, etc. These folks and organizations can be the hardest to find without actually being in-country.

MK: Who was your role model for what you are doing now in design?

HF: Definitely not a single person. A variety of people have influenced me at different times in my life. When I was a kid, my cousins in Arizona showed me how engineers could help people. A presentation by Martin Fisher in college showed me how design was being applied in poor parts of the world. Cathy Leslie of EWB-USA was someone I admired for being a woman leader of a successful non-profit.

MK: Catapult was recently named one of the 30 best places to work by GOOD. Do you think these types of accolades and media coverage have changed your business? If so, how?

HF: Sure! We haven’t had a traditional marketing campaign and rely almost solely on word-of-mouth to find our clients. The only way that works is if people are hearing about us through a variety of sources. We’re very grateful for the interest in our work and the media’s interest in sharing our story.

MK: As one of the pioneers in your fields, how did you get the idea to design for social good?

HF: Interesting, I don’t really consider myself a pioneer. I think there’s a misconception that this is a new field simply because lots of people are just now learning about it. But a lot of the terminology and philosophy we’re building on today was formalized at least 50 years ago by economists, engineers and designers working together. (Read: “Small is Beautiful” by EE Schumacher.) Prior to Catapult, I was volunteering my time with Engineers Without Borders and working at a product design consultancy. From there, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to combine the two.

MK: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the developing world in terms of improving people’s lives based on sustainable design?

HF: I think some of the challenges we face in the U.S. regarding renewable energy, green product adoption or sustainable business models are less relevant in rural or impoverished communities. That’s pretty exciting to me. For example, small-scale renewable energy is notoriously expensive (when compared to the grid) and almost financially infeasible in areas where the electrical grid is present. Whereas, in impoverished nations, the cost of implementing an electrical grid is so high that renewables make more sense. There’s also a lot of buzz in the U.S. these past couple months around collaborative consumption (read: Lisa Gansky’s “The Mesh“ or Roo Rogers’ and Rachel Botsmans’ “What’s Mine is Yours”) and how that will contribute to more sustainable lifestyles. Rural communities in impoverished communities have been living their lives by the principles outlined in these books for decades, not for sustainability’s sake but out of necessity. I think that’s interesting because it means we can’t assume that our consumption patterns resonate in other parts of the world. Consumers in developing countries could (and in many cases will) leapfrog our old school ways of doing business or buying and owning products.

To learn more, follow Heather on Twitter: @heatherfleming

Or read more about her work on Treehugger or Wired.


Let me start by stating: Compostmodern 2011 was one of the best conferences I have ever been to. I have been to a lot of conferences in many sectors in my life, including international and national symposiums on climate change, environmental, governance, greenbuilding, business, communications, innovation, technology and design. Not only was Compostmodern a great conference because there were amazing thought leaders that spoke about design issues, but the conference organizers also thought about every detail of the event to make it fantastic, including the fantastic moderation that featured a poem at the end of Day One.

The format of having a one-day conference followed by a second day with an “unconference” allowed for networking among the more than 600 attendees (all thought leaders in their own right). People united on thought-provoking topics, focusing their conversations on issues that are not traditionally thought of as design issues such as; social justice, community engagement, social entrepreneurship, open innovation and technology, how to effectively use the media for social good, the power of good storytelling, and educating people without monetary means (for example, Bruce Mau introduced an idea of trying to find an “EpiPen solution” to create a more universal education solution for people who don’t have access to formal education structures.) However, with all of this, what really qualifies as a “design” issue?

As someone who has lived in Washington, D.C. for the last six years, I had begun to attribute design to the building industry because that is mostly how it is referred when I go to meetings or conferences. Though trained as a general designer and even practicing the art of design for several years (as a jewelry and communications designer), I found myself attributing design to a sector of work and not a way of thinking. During the short time I spent at Compostmodern, I began to remember why I became a designer in the first place. The process of thinking, specifically “design thinking” (a way to solve the world’s many problems to create change in the world) is what attracted me to becoming a designer. Since design thinkers apply a seven-step process to the problems they solve—define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement and learn—they often believe there is more than one rigid answer for any problem. Most design thinkers share a common set of values that drive innovation. These values are mainly creativity, ambidextrous thinking, teamwork, end-user focus and curiosity. Therefore, having more than 600 design thinkers in one space attempting to solve issues like education and how to create a more socially just world was a powerful experience—one I will never forget.

As such, I have tried to decipher my scribbled notes in hopes of sharing with you and the world what I learned over the two days I was there. The following is a compilation of quotes and words of wisdom from the speakers, as well as a list of websites supporting open innovation sharing and design.


“As designers we have the ability to create the obtainability and opportunity to bring products at the right price and level of sustainability to the world. We as designers are uniquely placed to do this at scale.” Yves Beher, Founder of Fuse Project

“Design to take things out when designing for sustainability.” Yves Beher, Founder of Fuse Project

“Designers should aim to earn a seat at the table with CEOs. Currently, we don’t speak the language; we’re unprepared.” Christopher Simmons, Creative Director at MINE

“What is most important in our space is creating authentic experiences while thinking about the consciousness of working… It’s the little things that make big things.” Janine James, President, Chief Creative Officer, The Moderns

“My challenge to all of you: How do we take scientific information about products and processes and get people to care about the products they consume?” Dara O’Rourke, Co-Founder of GoodGuide

OpenIDEO was created as a market place for human-centered solutions in order to help solve problems without an intrinsic incentive for money… Collective creativity and knowledge are less about the individual and more about the community.” Nathan Waterhouse, Lead at OpenIDEO

“The most important thing that has happened as a result of Soup is that we have invested in our own neighborhoods bringing people together face-to-face within our community.” Kate Daughdrill, Founder, Soup

“Simple solutions are the best solutions.” Scott Thomas (a.k.a. SimpleScott), Design Director of New Media at Obama for America

“Design offers the ability to communicate visually.” Scott Thomas (a.k.a. SimpleScott), Design Director of New Media at Obama for America

“In order to create lasting partnerships for cause marketing, you must build and invest in partnerships that commit and invest in you and your cause.” Julie Cordua, Communications Director at (RED)

“One: People like freaks; apomorphic animals are the most popular. Two: Tell stories about villains who break the cherished norms or rebels who defy hated ones. Three: Tell stories people can instantly identify as their own and give them easy entrance points to the story.” Jonah Sachs, Founder, Free Range Studios

“We need to increase research for designing social problems and systems because the impacts and outcomes are vast.” Heather Fleming, Founder and CEO, Catapult Designs

“How do we make sharing irresistible?” Lisa Gansky, Author of the Mesh

“Efficiency = abstraction.” Lisa Gansky, Author of the Mesh

“Don’t just speak the language of facts but speak the language of possibilities.” Nitzan Waisberg, Professor, Standford’s d. School

“The status quo of comfort and convenience are our biggest constraint.” Nitzan Waisberg, Professor, Standford’s d. School

“As technology gets more efficient the behaviors of humans are becoming more unsustainable.” Nitzan Waisberg, Professor, Standford’s d. School

“Change is gradual and uneven.” Nitzan Waisberg, Professor, Standford’s d. School

“We need to design sustainable interactions.” Nitzan Waisberg, Professor, Standford’s d. School

“It’s not about getting to green but it’s really about getting to greener.” Nitzan Waisberg, Professor, Standford’s d. School

“Consumption is a design problem… Consumption is a linguistics problem Consumption has created more wealth than anything. We need to rethink the design of consumption.” Marc Mathieu, Founder, BeDo

“Design is a place where sex and smart happen simultaneously to brains and beauty.” Bruce Mau, Chief Creative Officer of Bruce Mau Design

“We need to redesign wealth… redefining and refining wealth… we need to redistribute access in new ways.” Bruce Mau, Chief Creative Officer of Bruce Mau Design

Bruce Mau is launching the Massive Change Network and the 10 principles are:
1) Purpose inspires learning
2) Worst = best
3) Public is perfect
4) Design is core to culture
5) Experience is doing
6) Renaissance teams are best
7) Real cannot be faked
8) Experience is content
9) Design systems not objects
10) The future will be beautiful (if we have one.)


The CompostModern Website

In closing, design change in your own vision and don’t be afraid to push the barriers. Not trying is the only way you can fail. The world is in need for a whole bunch of innovative solutions that encompass design solutions. But designers need partners to challenge and guide them to ensure implementation for a sustainable future.


  • CivicActions: Empowers social-change organizations with emerging technologies.
  • Visual Economics: Unraveling Complexities in Financial Data (and check out the best infographics of 2010.)
  • OpenCloud: Provides the telecommunications industry with a real-time Telecom Application Server (TAS) for agile development, deployment and efficient management of person-to-person communications.
  • Digitally Creative: Freelance consulting and development services that help our clients grow and improve their online business presence.
  • OpenStreetMap: Allows you to view, edit and use geographical data in a collaborative way from anywhere on Earth
  • Tomorrow Partners: Brand building strategy consultants
  • Living Principles: Guide purposeful action, celebrating and popularizing the efforts of those who use design thinking to create positive cultural change.
  • The GreenXchange: An innovative partnership that brings together companies, people and ideas
  • Cleantech Open: To find, fund, and foster the big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental, and economic challenges
  • Aspiration Tech: Better tools for a better world
  • Open Architecture Network :The Open Architecture Network is an online, open source community dedicated to improving living conditions through innovative and sustainable design
  • Next Agenda: Next Agenda is a startup media company that knows how to harness the best new media and new tools and apply them towards solving these complex challenges, both in a public sphere and in private realms
  • DocumentCloud: DocumentCloud is a catalog of primary source documents and a tool for annotating, organizing and publishing them on the web