Case Study: Innova Schools: Designing a School System from the Ground Up

InterGroup Corporation
Project Title
Innova Schools: Designing a School System from the Ground Up
August 2011–December 2012

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2014 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 19 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments below.

How does it feel to be a family sending your child to a school system that ranks 65th out of 65 countries in a global survey? Like the odds are stacked against you.

After decades of political turmoil, Peru’s youth can look forward to growing up in a nation at peace, with one of the best performing economies in Latin America. But a thriving middle class depends on a well-trained workforce, and if the upward trend is to continue, Peru’s educational system will have to improve.

Few know this better than Peruvian innovator Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor, the head of InterGroup, who asked our design firm to help address the problem by building a new school system—one that would offer students a quality education and prepare them for the future for about $100 a month.

After months of fieldwork, prototyping and collaboration with the Peruvian team, we designed K–12 curricula, teaching strategies, buildings, operational plans and an underlying financial model for a network of schools.

Today, Innova is one of Latin America’s most ambitious privately funded educational projects and is on track to become the region’s largest private school network by 2018. More importantly, Peruvian kids and their families have a school of which they can be proud.

Project brief

“All of our businesses serve the emerging middle class,” explains Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor, CEO of InterGroup. “What the middle class really needs is great education.” But meeting this need was no easy task in Peru, where the education system ranked dead last in the Programme for InternationalStudent Assessment’s 2012 global rankings.

In response, Rodriguez-Pastor and InterGroup purchased a small startup school in 2010. With a new leadership team, they re-launched Innova Schools with intentions to expand. After building five schools, they realized that Innova’s existing education model—a social constructivist approach that relied on hands-on, experiential, collaborative, project-based and task-based learning—would not be sustainable at scale. The shortage of high-quality teachers in Peru, combined with rising land costs, meant that Innova would need to change course to succeed.

Struck by the difficulty of designing scalable schools, Innova Schools asked us to help redesign its entire K–12 learning experience and strategy, from the individual classrooms to the overall business approach. We worked with Innova to redesign its school system from the ground up.

The audience:
The intended audience is students, parents, teachers, school leaders, investors and the community-at-large (including business and government leaders) in Peru. That’s a huge, diverse audience, but overlooking any one group could hinder Innova’s sustainable success.


Innova’s business is direct to consumer (parents and youth). Parents generally choose which school to send a child to, but children are often involved in the decision.

Peru is at a crossroads: The country has moved more than 65 percent of its 29 million people out of poverty in recent history. Despite an emerging lower middle class and a rapidly expanding economy, Peru has a public education system that ranked 65th among 65 countries in PISA’s 2012 global study. Although the government makes public education accessible, students do not necessarily benefit from spending time in class, as demonstrated by Peru’s PISA scores. The system also does not produce great teaching talent. In Lima, 50 percent of families send their children to low-cost private schools, making it a highly competitive market. However, many private schools are isolated institutions that don’t provide quality education. In this context, Innova provides a private-school alternative to failing public schools and serves as a leader in Peru’s education market.

This project was to design a holistic business—academics, classroom space, operational tools and financial model—that would help Innova evolve as an organization and support its continued growth in a tenuous and faltering market.


We brought a holistic point of view to the project that has led to a significant and ongoing influence on Innova’s entire organization. Our comprehensive, human-centered approach to rethinking the educational system means that the final design takes into account the interests of all stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, administrators, investors, government leaders and the greater community.

We ultimately addressed the original brief: to design a school system that is international in quality, affordable to families in the emerging middle class and able to grow to a significant number of schools, thus having nationwide impact.

Additionally, we helped to align the client organization on its core mission and purpose, so that everyone can make decisions based on the same priorities as the system continues to evolve and expand. We helped Innova establish a means for continuous innovation and to understand that it can integrate human-centered design into the daily management of its large and growing network of schools.

In order to create the strategy, implementation and stewardship of a scalable K-12 school system, we had to design a wide yet integrated range of tangible experiences and process frameworks: the curriculum, teaching strategies, buildings, operational plans, data dashboards, knowledge-sharing systems and underlying financial model.

The team needed to be comprised of designers who not only understood the content, but also could bring different disciplines to bear to create an entirely new system. Our group was spearheaded by two system designers and also included: design researchers who could lead the connection to people’s needs; interaction designers who could conceptualize and build-out tools to manage and run the network of schools; architects who could design the physical spaces in which learning would happen; graphic designers who could bring communications to life; and business designers who could make sure it was all buildable. Each team member brought his or her unique skills, which enabled the different aspects of the design to come together and produce a wholly integrated, coherent system.


At the project’s onset, the design team spent a month in Peru to understand the needs of the different stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, government and business leaders and investors. We conducted hundreds of interviews to understand people’s needs and ensure we were designing a desirable system. We also did in-home observations and held small and large group discussions.

We also used more traditional secondary research methods: investigating scalable school models around the world, visiting inspirational schools and learning programs and looking to analogous systems such as retail, hospitality and healthcare to understand their approaches to scale.

Throughout the project, we constantly sought feedback from our various stakeholders, often engaging teachers, students and our larger client team in co-designing the work.

Design Solution

It’s changing the lives of students and their families for the better. The project has allowed Innova to open more schools at an affordable cost to families, ultimately giving more of Peru’s youth the chance to compete in the global economy.

Specifically, the project:

  • Improves the overall system . As the client increases its profitability, it can scale rapidly and reach more students.
  • Lets technology do more . Blended learning combines hands-on experiences with digital learning. Students use computer-based tools to discover and work through concepts. Teachers monitor students’ work online to see where they’re succeeding and struggling and to offer personalized, data-driven guidance. Parents can view their children’s process on computer and smartphones.
  • Makes the classroom space work . Dynamic learning environments allow for flexibility without hindering profitability. Furniture is on wheels; foam cubes form flexible seating or tables.
  • Supports teachers . Innova supports teachers via the Teacher Resource Center—the online home for the learning program and the brain of the school network. The center lets Innova see what’s working and what isn’t working.
  • Builds sustaining business systems . Leveraging the networked world provides a number of advantages: centralizing data; giving access to the client’s leaders, teachers and community; and making systems efficient and effective.


This project—based on a core strategy of affordability, scalability and excellence—led to the design and implementation of an innovative, holistic business model for the company that could be scaled to meet the needs of its growing network of private schools. The work included developing an approach to learning that would be engaging and effective (i.e., meet international academic standards); redefine the role of the teacher; offer a flexible classroom/campus design that complemented the new learning model; and enable the development of tools to help standardize content, drive data feedback (to further improve effectiveness) and provide a financial model that would support sustainable growth.

To this end, Innova Schools is on track to become the largest private school network in the region by 2018. It has begun to open schools outside of Lima, extending its model to various regions of Peru. Each school has more prospective students than it can accommodate, with long waiting lists. Children report that they love this new model of learning (compared with public schools), particularly because it engages their imagination. Parents report feeling proud to send their children to Innova. The international education community is noticing, too. Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy says: “I was blown away by Innova… it is inspiring to see such an affordable school deliver a quality of education that would rival schools in the richest countries.”

The strategy and its systems approach resulted in the most ambitious privately funded educational project in Latin America. As of February 2014, Innova is operating 23 schools that serve 13,500 students and employ more than 900 teachers using the newly designed model. Innova is now on track to become the largest private school network in the region by 2018, growing beyond Lima into other regions of Peru. Each school has more demand than it can support—with long waiting lists of parents who want to send their children to an Innova school. Meanwhile, academic results are starting to show. Innova students are significantly outperforming public school students in math and reading on the national exams.

Additional information

“The future of our country rests on our ability to successfully educate the next generation. [The design firm] helped Innova design a school model that brings international quality education to Peru.” —Carlos Rodriguez-Pastor, CEO of InterCorp

“Innova has a different methodology … more active, experimental and customized for each student. I have seen great changes in my son.” —Parent

“Innova Schools is showing how the private sector can play a leading role in the transformation of our society by investing in the formation of human capital. Our strategy is to expand nationwide in emerging middle class districts and become the first company to offer top quality education for a segment of the population that has traditionally been underserved. Education is one of the key problems of our country. We will be viable in the long run only if we are able to distribute knowledge fairly.” —Jorge Yzusqui Chessman, CEO of Colegios Peruanos

“Innova Schools is the first chain of private primary and secondary schools to be financed by the IDB in the region. It seeks to contribute to the improvement of school educational outcomes in Peru by delivering a competency-based learning model designed to replicate international accreditation standards. This innovative methodology, centered on inquiry, collaboration, use of technology, reinforcement of character, and an intensive use of English, charges a competitive tuition per month, which is accessible for the target population.” —Inter-American Development Bank

Comments from the Jury

“This is a great example of design running the full spectrum of concept — from business model and curriculum design to building architecture and design. I was impressed how this program brilliantly tackled Peru’s challenges to create a new and better school system.” —Dana Arnett

“This project is an excellent example of design applied to a topic from start to finish. From the business model to the curriculum and physical setting and branding, design thinking was carefully applied. At a time when education could use more creativity, this project does a great job of scaling this thinking to multiple schools, having impact on many children.” —Kate Aronowitz

“What I admire about the Innova School program is that it isn’t just simply planning for basic educational needs; it’s inventing the future and new ways to get ahead.” —Cameron Campbell

“After debate we agreed this was a great example of design applied to broad systems thinking.” —Joe Gebbia

“We reviewed a lot of great business designs but most were still in prototype. Innova, however, has transformed education in Peru by making an international-level education available to middle class families in more than 23 communities, with projections to be the largest private school provider in the country by 2018.” —Jennifer Kinon

“Innova Schools exemplifies what is possible through a multi-disciplinary design approach. Going beyond the brand, the firm developed the curriculum as well as the physical space of the school, generating a synergy between the educational program and the learning environment. Data shows that the project has been the most successful privately funded educational projects in Peru to date.” —Jeremy Mende

“We tend to place design into buckets: communication design, interaction design, experience design, etc. In other words, we categorize design by what the outcome looks like. But design describes a process as much as it does an outcome. As an approach, design can transcend these and other categorizations. Such is the case here. IDEO used a design methodology to create a K–12 curriculum and teaching strategies, layout buildings and develop an operational plan and financial model for a network of new schools in Peru. It’s an ambitious project that succeeds on the strength of its thinking.” —Christopher Simmons