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Darla Moore School of Business

  • MIB students working on their design-thinking project

Sprinting to solutions for housing crises

An MIB design thinking course created a plan for international affordable housing

A group of Moore School Master of International Business candidates took a crash course in international consulting and design thinking in summer 2022. While they learned how to manage a complex and international scenario with multiple stakeholders, they also tackled an important social issue — affordable housing.

Working closely with the Hilti Foundation and various organizations whose missions focus on affordable housing, the students’ main goal was to provide recommendations for increasing the building and adoption of  structures made of bamboo and concrete in the Philippines.

Focusing on this bamboo technology for a developing country presented intricate challenges, so the design thinking process the students used helps them understand international business and ubiquitous problems like the lack of affordable housing, said Hildy Teegen, Moore School international business professor and instructor for the design thinking course.

“As my peers and I learned, the execution and acceptability of such a project involve lots of people and moving parts that we were then able to bring to the client to help them carry out their vision,” said Juliana Franco (’23 MIB expected graduation). “Additionally, the human-driven and empathetic part of this experience reinforced the importance of qualitative data compared to quantitative measures. This project demonstrates that having both numbers and human conversations results in impactful solutions.”

Building new skills

Skills the students gain during the two-week intensive course include becoming acquainted with corporate philanthropy, scaling challenges for an international issue and learning to collaborate with and learn from a wide range of stakeholders.

“Personally, I really appreciated the opportunity to meet with key members of some of the largest international organizations involved in development financing,” said Sebastian Nieves (’22 international business and management; ’23 MIB expected graduation). “It was interesting to learn from them some of the details of how they choose projects and how they support them.”

Along with their stakeholder conversations, the students dedicated themselves to a team-based approach balancing their own different backgrounds and cultures.

“I was surprised how well we worked together and how many ideas we came up with,” said Robin Thomas (’23 MIB expected graduation; double-degree student from the University of Mannheim, Germany).

Why the Philippines

The course focused on the Philippines because Hilti, Moore School corporate partner and collaborator on the project, owns the patent on bamboo and concrete building technology.

The Moore School has a strong relationship with Hilti North America, based in Plano, Texas, and the Hilti Foundation, based in Liechtenstein, thanks to Martina McIsaac (‘95 MIBS), Hilti North America’s recent CEO. McIsaac is a current member of the Global Advisory Board of the Folks Center for International Business at the Moore School.

“The Folks Center continues to expand its relationship with Hilti and its international foundation in mutually beneficial ways through project development as well as providing a talent pipeline to the company,” said Karen Brosius, executive director of the Folks Center for International Business.  

The Hilti technology includes bamboo because it is a key element to build affordable housing, Teegen said.

“Bamboo is abundant in much of the world and can be treated using technology to make it pest- and rot-resistant and capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and earthquakes,” she said. “Combined with cement, bamboo provides a way to cheaply, locally and very resiliently build affordable housing.”

The Kawayan Collective is an affordable housing materials supplier based in the Philippines that agreed to participate in the MIB course because “affordable housing in the Philippines is the largest un-served housing market and is ripe for disruption,” said Amy Villanueva, co-founder of Kawayan Collective, who was new to the design thinking process.

Understanding the design thinking process

The MIB students learned the business analytical process of design thinking, which includes the stakeholder interviews to build empathy for the project they’re undertaking and to understand the complexity of the issue they’re addressing.

“The most rewarding part of this project was allowing myself to be more creative and flexible with my thinking process,” said Tori Kucharski, (’22 accounting and international business; ’22 MIB expected graduation), who said she’d never used the design thinking process before this course. “Coming from an accounting background, most of my studies in undergrad were simply either you get the answer right or wrong. This class allowed me to break that mindset and learn to explore my creative side to find solutions.”

The 24 MIB students performed dozens of interviews over the 10-day course; they worked 12-14-hour days engaging with people across multiple time zones.

One of the stakeholders the students collaborated with was Moore School alumna Alayna Wells (‘19 finance and international business; ‘20 MIB), who is the operations manager in Greenville, South Carolina, for CommunityWorks Carolina, a nonprofit community development financial institution that works with underserved families on affordable housing.

Wells completed the design thinking course as an MIB student and worked as a consultant with SC Housing using human-centered design to develop strategies for confronting “Not In My Backyard-ism” in the state.

“We talked specifically about the barriers to affordable housing production,” Wells said. “I loved that the design thinking teams had students from different countries — I think that cross-cultural learning is invaluable.”

During their empathy interviews, the class initially gathered information to craft eight personas or archetypal users or collaborators important for the project’s success. Consultation with the client about priorities led to a more focused set of four personas, which the students focused on for their final recommendations, Teegen said.

Creating recommendations

The solutions the MIB candidates recommended were stellar and can realistically be implemented, said Johann Baar, Hilti Foundation’s director of affordable housing and technology who was the Hilti lead for the design thinking course.

“I'm really impressed by the level of understanding that the students showed of all the challenges that we face building affordable housing in the Philippines, by the creativity that they showed and by the level of detail in which they developed those recommendations,” Baar said. “That's really impressive. I find so many good ideas for us to proceed in bringing our technology to scale from the students’ recommendations.”

Every student in the MIB program should take the design thinking course to learn the human-centered approach to problem-solving, Franco said.

“The course gives students the time to strengthen their soft skills and value the importance of being empathetic in business,” she said.

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.