Bootcamp in Dominican Republic provided students impactful innovation training

By the end of the week, each of the 10 teams had developed an interesting solution for motor vehicle accidents and built great first prototypes.


Motor vehicle accidents caused about 38,000 deaths last year in the United States, according to the National Safety Council. But when put in the context of a country’s size, that’s nothing compared to the Dominican Republic.

The most recently published World Health Organization report on road safety reported that America had 14.2 road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles. The DR’s rate? 94.9 deaths.

Last year, I was awarded a grant from the U.S. Embassy in the Dominican Republic to conduct an innovation training bootcamp in Santo Domingo. I had done a similar program there in 2018, where other professionals and I challenged students to make it easier to grow plants at home.

It was a fun challenge—and as a plant lover, close to my heart. However, this time I wanted to take on a challenge that would be more impactful. Given the issues of road safety on the island, that was an obvious choice.

A premise with promise

The bootcamp was held in Santo Domingo, February 18-21 at the Centro Cultural de las Telecomunicaciones (Telecommunications Museum and Cultural Center). It was the perfect venue and conveniently located in the heart of the Colonial Zone, a popular tourist area of the city.

I was joined by Eric Gorman and Julia Jackson of Wily Design in Charlotte, and Emil Rodriguez, CEO of Xolutronic, an electronics design firm in Santo Domingo. Together we led 50 students through the activities of the four-day event that included university students, industry professionals from companies such as Eaton, and a group of high school seniors from Instituto Técnico Salesiano, a tech high school in the area.

The bootcamp’s goal was to use hands-on workshops to teach fundamentals of innovation through the concept of design sprint methodology; to teach practical applications of IoT; and have students build awesome prototypes for user feedback. To address the issue of motor vehicle fatalities, we presented the students with the challenge of how to reduce car accidents caused by drunken or sleepy drivers.

By the end of the week, each of the 10 teams had developed an interesting solution to the problem and built great first prototypes.

The backbone of our innovation training program is design sprint methodology. The idea is to quickly innovate around a challenge question, develop a solution, and build a prototype to elicit feedback in just one week.

It can take years and a huge budget to develop a product or service, but it is important to know that what is being developed will resonate with consumers or end users. Design sprints push you to build a prototype with a “Goldilocks Quality” in that it should be “just right.”

The prototype should have just enough fidelity to seem real but without the time spent to refine every detail. The “Goldilocks” prototype is then used to gain feedback to see which features are working and which are not, so that you are not designing in a bubble.

The challenge begins

Eric and Julia led the start of the bootcamp and introduced the challenge question. They helped participants define and map the challenge to deepen participants’ understanding and identify opportunities.

Students were encouraged to view the problem from two years in the future to see what success would look like. They were also asked to consider factors that might cause them to fail, and reframe them into opportunity statements to guide them in their development of solutions.

Participants learned how to sketch potential solutions through a series of idea generation activities, developing early concepts, rapidly exploring variations, and ultimately developing more detailed sketches. Once teams voted and selected concepts, they were guided through storyflow and storyboard activities that helped each team illustrate their solutions in more detail. These would later be used to guide the development of their prototypes.

The concepts were interesting and varied, and the prototypes came to life rapidly over the next two days. A few teams created devices that would recognize drivers falling asleep and use LEDs or vibration in the steering wheel to keep them focused.

One team used an alcohol sensor that would keep the car from starting unless the driver is sober; another team added a device to a seatbelt to provide an alert for a sleepy driver.

In the spirit of the design sprint, the teams used materials and techniques that were easy to manipulate. The physical parts were made from foam and cardboard or 3D-printed parts, and one student even brought in a sewing machine to help.

IoT hardware company Particle donated 50 of its Photon WiFi development boards to the program, and we instructors provided a kit of sensors and actuators that helped the teams with the electronic aspects of their prototypes. The result was a great set of prototypes that had enough fidelity to show to potential users.

Feedback time

On Day 3 of the program, teams stopped building and set out to get feedback on their devices. Eric and Julia helped the students prepare an interview script and gave them pointers on how to elicit meaningful feedback from interviewees.

Fortunately, the venue was very close to a busy tourist area, so students were able to show their concepts to people from all over the world without having to walk more than a few steps from the front door. Using that feedback, teams spent the final day refining their prototypes. I presented information about crowdfunding and how best to run a campaign.

To finish the bootcamp, the teams all developed a three-minute presentation that was used to show the rest of the class—as well as representatives from the U.S. Embassy—how their device worked and how it addressed the problem of reducing accidents from drunken or sleepy drivers.

It was fun to learn more about the Dominican culture—the challenges in general (an issue with national elections while I was there prompted protests around the city and country) and in innovating on the island.