By Favila Roces - Jean Haag studied industrial design in the French city of Nantes, but his education has been a much more complex process. It has taken him to India and Nepal for over three years and culminated in Nicaragua, thanks to an internship as a social design teacher at the Innovation Laboratory at the Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University (BICU) in Nicaragua’s Southern Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS).
“I went to India to study a master’s degree in transcultural design, an area that analyzes how local cultures influence a product’s design process in different ways,” explains Jean, who was able to experience Nicaragua’s multiculturality while living in the city of Bluefields, which is inhabited by people from the Miskito, Rama, Garifuna and Creole ethnic groups, as well as mestizo people. “I also went to India to travel and develop my capacities in a broad sense,” he adds, smiling as he remembers and reflects on his time there. “I learned to take good photographs and to translate from French to English. I even took meditation classes. I definitely wanted to get to know myself a bit better and discover what I wanted to dedicate myself to.”
It was a great challenge for Jean to interact with people he had nothing in common with either socially or culturally. “The only way of identifying myself with them, creating a link, was to put my knowledge at the service of improving their living conditions,” he states. He also recalls the difficult circumstances of the educational projects in which he cooperated, including schools with stony ground that flooded when it rained and badly-paid teachers that did not give their classes. “They were big challenges for me as a social designer because design is not just for people that want beautiful products; it’s also for people that need them,” he explains. “That’s why I think designers can change the world.”
It was design’s transforming capacity that brought Jean to Nicaragua, where he discovered a society with “a culture totally different to India’s, but with certain common aspects.” Jean explains that he requested the internship even though he could hardly remember the Spanish he had studied at school, but “thanks to my year in India, I learned to communicate with gestures and not be embarrassed about not knowing a language perfectly.”
Jean was selected by UNICEF to work as a design teacher at the Innovation Laboratory the BICU is running in Bluefields. UNICEF is supporting that university to promote innovation in relation to the human rights of children and in the academic world. For the five months the internship lasted, Jean collaborated with Professor Kevin López Masis, who is heading up this initiative.
For Jean, one of his great successes was obtaining a physical space for the Innovation Laboratory. “The Laboratory was an idea, a non-tangible concept, that was difficult for the students to recognize,” he explains. “Ideas like ‘laboratory’ and ‘innovation’ are difficult to bring together mentally if you’re not used to the subject.” To solve the problem, Jean got in contact with Philippe Barragne-Bigot and Rinko Kinoshita, the representative and deputy-representative of UNICEF in Nicaragua, respectively. In the end, they decided to establish a physical office within the office of Professor Kevin López, which was then equipped with a large table, chairs, a whiteboard, poster paper and marker pens. “It was as simple as that,” says Jean, adding that from that moment on the laboratory became a living entity where people could go to develop their projects at any time and the wall filled up with sheets of paper displaying all kinds of ideas.
The students participating in Jean’s course had to present a final project that was both innovative and helped improve some aspect of their surroundings. That is another of Jean’s best memories, as he recalls “mobile cinemas that can be transported on a bicycle to make Bluefields a more fun place; school classes broadcast by radio to rural communities; an agency to help young entrepreneurs establish themselves for the first time; workshops to teach neighbours to keep the water clean; and pretty fashion accessories made out of reused materials.”
Those ideas were presented not only to students, but also to decision makers and to members of the BICU, UNICEF and the local government, which motivated many of the students to continue their efforts, working with those contacts or even independently. “In fact, two students are going to do internships in the Prevenir Programme of German Cooperation in Nicaragua,” he adds.
In the opinion of Jean, who has now returned to France, the country of his birth, the greatest challenge for the Innovation Laboratory in Bluefields is “to keep on doing things. The students have spent two months learning about social design and have to continue practising those skills to perfect them.” However, he also points out that UNICEF has the will to periodically organize events and to involve these students in the process of prototyping innovations for the implementation of the new RACCS Children’s Policy, which has also been created using innovation techniques, in a collaborative way and using a design methodology with a human focus.
Jean also has advice for anyone interested in inventing or designing new products that help improve society: “Instead of focusing on one idea, think of another 20, another 100 and develop them, and you’ll gradually see which ones work and which don’t. Keep working until you hit on one that has a greater impact, a greater capacity to change things. The first idea may be nice, but number 100 could be the best, and you’ll only find it after trying out the other 99.”