Why Every Public Health Student Should Try the Fast 48

My design group, considering the challenge

The Fast 48 is a weekend-long, intensive workshop that introduces participants to design thinking by having them tackle a real-world problem in a mere 48 hours — and I think every public health student should consider signing up.


The seeds of a solution

In our schooling, we have been taught to research, get feedback and think through implementation and evaluation exhaustively while planning, but once a plan is implemented, the feedback loop that leads to change and improvement in the program is slow, non-responsive, or sometimes nonexistent. Problems in an active program may not be addressed and new ideas are difficult to incorporate.

Not so in the Fast 48. Through the prototyping process, my design group’s idea was immediately critiqued and given feedback for improvement, making our idea stronger and a better fit for the needs of PlayBuild, the organization we were working with.

Having fun at PlayBuild

The Fast 48 also teaches an important lesson about empathy and understanding the needs of the community you are trying to serve: planning must start with a visit to the community with eyes, ears and minds open. Many times in public health, we plan from afar, perhaps with the help of background literature on the problem we are tackling. But people are more than numbers. I’ll never forget the visceral experience of walking the streets of Central City, how I could heard children playing behind closed doors, but saw almost none outside. Later that day I read about two daytime shootings in Central City, one involving a 13-year-old boy, the other at a location we had walked past just hours before. The safety concerns we had heard from caretakers all day suddenly felt more real — how can you feel safe sending your children outside to play when deadly violence is all around?

At the PlayBuild site

In my professional life, I hope I will work with an organization that agrees that program planning should start from a place of listening to the people you want to serve, in a humble, responsive and engaged way that puts their needs at the center of what you do. I have actively been following organizations that do innovative work related to food in Los Angeles — where I will likely eventually settle — because I realize that a major barrier to doing this kind of work is the existence of organizational norms that are at odds with design thinking approaches. Luckily, L.A. has a lot of organizations doing innovative work in the food world.


The muscle I hope to keep exercising in Life After Fast 48, the one I felt waking up and stretching over the course of the weekend, is approaching a problem with a totally open mind, and letting it stay open throughout the duration of the process. I am a person who likes to be prepared, and sometimes that means I land on what I think is the best solution early on — in class assignments, at my internship, in my personal life — and all my energy goes into making that solution work. At the start of the Fast 48 weekend, I promised myself that I wasn’t going to do that, a promise I stuck with for the most part, and I was rewarded with the experience of seeing a solution get shaped and strengthened through prototyping and feedback. It was powerful, and I hope to continue making the choice to be open to new solutions and new directions, even if they are different from what I originally had in mind.

My first prototype of the day