KDI was founded in 2006 by six students at Harvard Graduate School of Design. We were interested in understanding the role that design could play in alleviating poverty and environmental degradation. We applied for an independent research grant and with it, set out to answer our question in Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi, where Arthur, one of our co-founders, is from.

Though our design education had focused on the designer as sole author, it was our hypothesis that our design skills could only be genuinely useful in addressing poverty, if those living in poor communities were actively guiding us. So our goal was to deconstruct this traditional designer-client relationship and introduce new voices into the design process to create an end-product designed by multiple authors and multiple critics all acting within the same landscape.

We sketched out a model whose basic premise was to listen, ask, collaborate, repeat. And then we came up with a name, that echoed the idea of getting to know... Kounkuey.

Kounkuey: /con-coo-ee/ is a Thai word, that Kotch Voraakhom, our Thai co-founder thought perfectly captured our approach to design.

In our first two weeks in Kibera, we worked with about 100 residents asking them what they saw as their priority needs, and how they envisioned meeting those needs.

To get at the answers we used a range of activities from group discussions to mapping, photography, transect walks, and modeling. We learned all kinds of things in those two weeks, chief among them, was that our original question could never be answered in just two weeks!

We returned to school committed to do something real. We then spent the next year designing a pilot project and arming ourselves with the tools we would need to succeed as a firm.

It was in that year, that KDI began in earnest, the journey we still find ourselves on today.