Design Engineering
Showcase 2020

M-KOPA Solar / hydroCotton

Ben Collis
Dr Marco Aurisicchio
R&D Intern / Design Engineering Intern

Over the last 6 months I worked at 2 companies, one big, one small. hydroCotton is a start-up which grows sustainable cotton through precision agriculture, and M-KOPA Solar is a medium-to-large enterprise delivering life-changing technologies to rural Kenyans through solar energy. Where hydroCotton has 4 employees, M-KOPA has over 1000. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to both ends of the spectrum in corporate structures, experiencing both a fast paced start-up culture and a slower but high impact large corporation with all its sub-departments and vast amounts of resources.

 — M-KOPA Solar / hydroCotton

Demonstration of Design Engineering Thinking and Skills

Although both companies were driven by sustainability, there were major contrasts between the two companies. I was able to be a design *engineer* at hydroCotton, focusing more on my technical engineering skillset; and a *design* engineer at M-KOPA, focusing more on my human-centred and user-research skills. The binding of the two being a consistent design thinking mindset and process throughout. Thus, I have understood even more what it means to be a design engineer (a mysterious and misunderstood discipline in industry), dipping in and out of all sorts of differing skills to solve complex problems and feeling comfortable while doing it. I am particularly pleased with this as I never wanted to specialise and become a ‘designer’ or an ‘engineer’ I wanted to remain balanced between the two, and I’m well on my way to ensuring this is the path I take in my professional career.

Role and Contributions

At hydroCotton, I was a jack-of-all-trades, as is standard at small-scale start-ups. There was no department due to the scale. I had immense freedom and was given a huge solo project responsibility from the outset: redefining how to pick cotton for small-hold farmers. This project took me across the double diamond from user research to problem definition, and from ideation to prototyping and testing. I finished early, and thus also completed a side project developing a clickable app prototype that identified cotton plant disease through machine learning via Google AutoML. I also developed an accompanying UI prototype for this through Adobe XD.

At M-KOPA, I was a part of the Labs department who are dedicated to developing brand new products & services 12-18 months from market release. I was a design thinking 'guru' as they called me, teaching current employees of the innovation department how to run design projects and supporting on existing projects such as how to conduct user research in a COVID-19 world. I created a 'design thinking cheatsheet' to facilitate this, which was spread across the entire company to promote a design thinking culture.


My expectations going into this placement period were very low following the shortening of my 6-month placement with M-KOPA to 3 months due to COVID-19. However, I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. In this unlikely stroke of luck, I have had a richer and more varied experience had I simply stayed with M-KOPA. My advice is to take a long hard look at your career aspirations and choose an industry that you want to dedicate your life to. For me, this was sustainability, climate, and the environment.

 — M-KOPA Solar / hydroCotton


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