Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Systemic design thinking and complex adaptive systems

Going back to first principles has been a refreshing exercise. Even as our work has taken us into some wholly new places, there’s comfort in knowing that others have thought deeply about the concepts, though not in our context. I’m a firm believer in not re-inventing the wheel. Consider it a working prototype to be tested in a new environment, rather like I’ve been doing with Vijay Kumar’s innovation methods.

Here’s the context of the thinking I’d been doing on iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems – that is, taking on the wicked problem space of international development where the operating environment is rather greatly different from the predictable regularity of the developed world:

People-centered systems design thinking for complexity
Pivoting from “best practice” to “best fit”: An interdisciplinary perspective (Intro)
An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools (Part 1)
Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’(Part 2)

Thus, it was with pleasure that I dived into exploring Peter Jones’ publications on social transformation. Two, especially, caught my attention.
The first lays the groundwork in the work of bringing together the two disciplines – systems thinking and design.  From the abstract of his Systemic Design Principles for Complex Social Systems:

Systems theory and design thinking both share a common orientation to the desired outcomes of complex problems, which is to effect highly-leveraged, well-reasoned, and preferred changes in situations of concern.Systems thinking (resulting from its theoretical bias) promotes the understanding of complex problem situations independently of solutions, and demonstrates an analytical bias. Design disciplines demonstrate an action-oriented or generative bias toward creative solutions, but design often ignores deep understanding as irrelevant to future-oriented change.While many practitioners believe there to be compatibility between design and systems theory,the literature shows very few examples of their resolution in theoretical explanation or first principles. This work presents a reasoned attempt to reconcile the shared essential principles common to both fundamental systems theories and design theories, based on meta-analyses and a synthesis of shared principles. An argument developed on current and historical scholarly perspectives is illuminated by relevant complex system cases demonstrating the shared principles. While primarily oriented to complex social systems, the shared systemic design principles apply to all complex design outcomes, product and service systems, information systems, and social organizational systems.

And once I noted there was a bit of an overlap between the references I’d drawn on for my initial exploration of design planning as the discipline from which to source methods to address the challenge of complex, adaptive systems as currently explored in the development space, I was relieved to see that I was on the right path for our own theoretical evolution.

This paper is a great starting point for our methods development for the context of the informal sector in the East Africa, particularly outside the urban centers. And, a second paper by Jones – Design Research Methods in Systemic Design validates many of our assumptions while working with only the methods and systems thinking from one school of thought – the Institute of Design’s philosophy and approach.

In future blogposts, I will attempt to triangulate the thinking from all of these disciplines – design planning, human centered design, systems thinking, and international development. There’s a paper I’m hoping to write by the Autumn, if all goes well and the abstract accepted for a conference at the end of the year.

Frame Insights: Going back to first principles in the Innovation Planning Process

After conducting research, we need to bring structure to what has been found and learned. We sort, cluster, and organize the data gathered and begin to find important patterns. We analyze contextual data and view patterns that point to untapped market opportunities or niches. Finding insights and patterns that repeatedly emerge from multiple analyses of data is beneficial. ~ Vijay Kumar, 101 Design Methods

“It’s what happens after the research that’s important” is something I found myself saying three times to three different people in three different contexts over the past couple of days. Anyone can go out and interview users and beneficiaries. What’s important is what happens during the Analysis phase.

To ponder this in detail, I wanted to go back to first principles, and drill down into the post research stage where we are expected to frame our insights.

Vijay’s slide pops out 5 key outcomes from this phase, and these are critical for solution development in the subsequent phase. These 5 outcomes from analysis of the data collected during the research phase are:

  1. Looking for patterns
  2. Exploring systems
  3. Identifying opportunities
  4. Developing guiding principles
  5. Constructing overviews

It is this stage that distinguishes the quality of the outcome. Now, in the case of our work in the informal economy operating environment, we have built up an overview of the landscape over the past several years, primarily through immersion and thick data collection using design ethnography methods.

Starting from the purchasing patterns and buyer behaviour of low income consumers, back in early 2008, all the way through to the development of guiding principles such as flexibility, we have explored and mapped the ecosystem from numerous vantage points.

Today, our synthesis of user research does not happen in isolation from the body of work – intellectual property – that has been developed over time, through experiential and practical knowledge.

This, then, is what underlay my conviction when I spoke about the importance of the quality of interpretation of the data, and the transmutation of these interpretations into implemented insights in the form of new product features, service design elements, or nuances of the payment plan in the business model.

Increasingly, the Frame Insights phase of our work has led to the evolution of our understanding of the commercial landscape in rural and informal markets where incomes tend to be irregular and volatile, and infrastructure is inadequate or missing. It is this that I’ve been attempting to capture under the category of Biashara Economics.

It’s not Africa specific. The patterns hold, give or take ~30% margin for historical/cultural/social differences, across continents. That is because these patterns are the natural response to the common characteristics of seasonality, volatility, uncertainty, and unpredictability. And this is why one can see the success of the prepaid business model around the world.

It strikes me here that this in fact validates the methodology and approach to exploration and discovery in unknown contexts, something I had framed as the starting point for the very first such project almost a decade ago. Over time, I discovered how much the methods, as delineated by Vijay in Chicago, had to be adapted for the context but that is a topic for another time.

How the African movable assets bill can unleash innovation opportunities for the rural economy

Somewhere in Kenya, 4th June 2012 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

As Kenya joins Zambia and Zimbabwe in ratifying a Movable Property Security Rights Act, there’s a sense that the floodgates to innovation in access to finance might be taking place in rural Africa, south of the Sahara and north of South Africa.

Kenya’s law also goes beyond the cows and goats and allows a borrower to collateralise future receivables arising from contractual relationships.

How it ends up being implemented will set the stage for the next big disruption in financial inclusion. In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at the opportunity space for innovation in the informal and rural economy that dominates these operating environments.

 

1. A whole new bank, designed to meet the needs of rural Africa

Last night, a tweet by Charles Onyango-Obbo struck me forcibly, and reminded me of our Banking the Unbanked proposal crafted for ICICI back in January of 2007.

The very fact that contemporary thoughtleaders in the Kenyan banking industry are unable to take the concept of livestock as collateral for loans seriously, taken together with the deeply embedded assumptions of the formal economy’s financial structure leaves the door wide open to disruption.

It would not be too difficult to conceptualize a rural, co-operative bank custom designed for the local operating environment. In Kenya, where the mobile platform provides clear evidence of the viability, feasibility, and desirability of innovative financial tools and services that work for irregular income streams and provide the flexibility, reciprocity, and negotiability inherent in the cooperative local economies, such a bank could change the social and economic development landscape overnight.

In fact, one could conceivably foresee this “bank for rural Africa” scaling far beyond Kenya’s borders.

 

2. Insurance sector must respond to banking disruption

The domino effect of disruption in the banking sector should kickstart the stagnant insurance industry that has been ineffectually attempting to scale outside of the formal economy’s neatly defined boundaries. Bankers willing to take livestock as collateral for loans will therefore require insurance on their movable asset as a surety against the risk of disease, or drought.

Current products tend to emerge from the international aid industry, seeking to insure smallholder farmers against the shock of losing their livestock to climate related disasters such as prolonged drought, or an epidemic of illness. There is a dearth of relevant and appropriately designed insurance products from the private sector targeting the needs of the rural economy. For all the talk of African urbanization, even the most optimistic projections show that East Africa’s rural population will continue to dominate.

Thus, this an opportunity ripe for the plucking, given the right mix of product, pricing, and promotional messaging.

 

3. Disrupting assumptions of Poverty and Purchasing Power

Whether it is Kenya’s significant non profit sector or the nascent consumer oriented markets, the redrawn lines defining assets, collateral, and the floodgates of access to finance will require a complete overhaul in the way the population is segmented and measured.

Once these hundreds of movable assets have been valued, insured, and registered officially, even the most reluctant banker must now count the pastoralist among his wealthiest local clientele, able to draw a line of credit against his true wealth to the tune of thousands of dollars without feeling the pinch.

 

4. Triggering a rural investment and consumption boom

From mabati for a new roof and simti for the backyard wall, to the latest model smartphone or pickup truck, the concurrent boom in investments and consumption provides an ample playing ground for new products and services tailored for the contextual needs upcountry. Finally, Farmer Joe can install that solar powered irrigation pump for his orange groves in time to reap the next big harvest. And Mama Mercy can think of building up a nest egg of investments faster from the income provided by her farmyard animals.

Kagio Produce Market, Kenya, April 2013 (photo: Niti Bhan)

This might turn out to mean upgrading to a breed of high yield milch cows or being able to provide them with better quality feeds and medicines, but the financial bridge that a well designed strategy leveraging this movable assets bill and it’s timely implementation could mean the difference between the brass ring or treading water.

 

5. Trade and Commerce will open new markets

Given that the Kenyan Movable Property Security Rights Act 2017 goes beyond livestock to include other stores of wealth and value creation, there will be an undeniable impact on regional and cross border trade. No trader will give up the opportunity to leverage their existing inventory if it qualifies for additional credit that can be plowed back into the business.

On the road to Bungoma, Western Kenya, February 2016 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

Trader’s mindset and the documented biashara growth strategies already in evidence point clearly to the productive economic use of this access to finance rather than passive consumption alone. As their business grows, they will require a whole slew of tools and services tailored to their needs. This could be as simple as a basic book keeping app or as complex as customized commodity (assets, livestock, non perishable foodstuffs, grains and cereals) exchange platforms that integrate the disruptive new services percolating through the entire ecosystem.

 

In conclusion

These few steps outlined above are only the beginning of laying the foundation for disrupting the current social and economic development trajectory of small town and rural Kenya. I see immense potential for both direct to consumer as well as business to business segments for forward looking organizations seeking a foothold in the burgeoning East African markets.

We, at Emerging Futures Lab, would be pleased to offer you customized white papers on the opportunities for new products, services, and even business models, based on this emerging financial environment recently signed into law by President Kenyatta. Contact us for an exploratory conversation on the scope and scale of your particular industry’s needs. Our experienced team can help you maximize these opportunities from concept design and prototyping all the way through to path to market strategies.

The importance of user agency for good design in the humanitarian and development context

humancenteredThis is a topic that has come up so often on Twitter that I thought to write it out once and for all. A link would be ever so much easier to argue with than to make the case for recognizing the agency of the end user – whether an intended customer or beneficiary – of an innovation.

At some point, I’ll get around to writing a much longer version with citations and links to contemporary research in iterative programming for complex, adaptive systems i.e. the ecosystem intended as the target recipient for the implementation of a socio-economic development program or project. For now, this short version will do.

The late John Heskett, professor in Design Planning and Market Forces at the Institute of Design, IIT, Chicago, once said in the classroom (notes, Spring 2003) that an invention could not be considered to be an innovation until it had been embraced by the end user. Witness the difference in adoption between Apple’s iPod and the Segway human transporter.

This metric of success for the novel – be it a product or a service, or even a business model such as the prepaid/pay as you go means of using mobile phones – requires that the customer (the end user or the beneficiary, as the case may be) be given the opportunity to choose, that is, to make a decision on whether to adopt, adapt, or reject the innovation in question.

In order to choose, and to decide, the user for whom such systems are designed must then be imbued with agency, rather than be considered passive recipients of the innovation.

This respect and recognition of the recipient’s agency forms the core of our work in innovation planning and concept design inspired by primary research in the informal markets of rural and urban sub Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the ASEAN. It has been informed by more than a decade of practical knowledge from experience in the field.

And it is this recognition of agency, which is that which empowers, that provides the foundation for our processes and systems, our methods and tools, and thus, our learning and teaching of how to think differently across the bridge of disparity, and inspires conceptual design of holistic solutions.

Without explicit acknowledgement of the individual’s agency or recognition of the diversity of circumstances, abilities, and aspirations in a community, any designs meant to effect positive change will remain lifeless attempts to intervene from the outside. Witness the number of pilots that fail to scale, or programmes that remain unsustained once external funding ends.

Launching Our Digital Documentation Project: Ibadan’s Tailors, Traders, and Textiles by Nigerian/British artist Folake Shoga

finalcopyAfter months of hard work, I am very honoured and proud to announced our new digital documentation project by my friend Folake Shoga, a Nigerian/British multidisciplinary artist with more than three decades of experience.

She went on a journey of discovery through the twists and turns of the informal value web that holds together West Africa’s famed textiles and fashionably styled culture.

Her window to this world is centered around Ibadan, Nigeria, and she takes us through an illustrated, personally narrated documentary that spans the experience of getting a new dress, from choosing the right fabric, all the way through building a fashion brand.

Come and join us for this fascinating peek behind the scenes! You can also find this unique photo-documentary again on my portfolio page.

India: Dragging the reluctant elephant into a digital, cashless future

IMG_6947

Final processing for India’s digital identity platform Aadhaar, New Delhi on 3 March 2017 (Photo Credit: Niti Bhan)

My recent immersion in Delhi a mere four months after demonetization (or, notebandi as it’s locally known) was a bit of a letdown. Oh sure, there were numerous, visible changes in the 2 years since my last trip – mostly very clear indicators of India’s socio-economic development – but none of the sense of chaos that I was expecting, having relied primarily on third party news sources, that too, in English, in the weeks leading up to my departure.

The headlines would have it that people were dropping like flies on the streets. A grand total of 187* people died visibly due to notebandi, or so I heard. The two most common responses were either sympathy – people should not have had to die for something like this and it was a sad thing to happen; or pragmatism – “people die everyday, who knows why, maybe his time had come and he was standing in line.”

The overall atmosphere was one of energy – there’s less of a sense of lackadaisical chaos that used to characterise the neighbourhood market and it’s sleepy vendors waiting for the evening strollers. There’s a sense of purpose in the hustle, as though there was money to be made. Digital money.

IMG_6950The combination of a digital identity platform and the disruption of demonetization could indeed be said to describe ideal conditions for triggering cashless India. Cards are accepted far more easily than before. “Paytm” – a local payments app – is visible everywhere, from on demand cars (Ola, Uber, Meru, etc), small kiosks, through to shiny upmarket shops. As a taxi driver told me with a smirk, everyone’s using Paytm now, even the beggars.

Rural India is said to have suffered far more, according to the reports I’d read prior to my trip. This might be unevenly distributed according to geography and growing season – a factoryworker returning from his home village in Bihar said he’d attended a wedding with hundreds of people and surely someone would have had a sob story to share.

Instead, he’d heard it was the intermediaries in the farm to fork supply chain who purchase from myriads of small farms in order to aggregate in bulk prior to selling onwards towards the cities who’d been hit harder by the sudden lack of liquidity. They were caught in the middle of the cash based chain of transactions and had to carry the burden of wastage if they weren’t able to move produce fast enough. Anecdotes included them distributing potatoes freely to farmers to use as seed for the next harvest, and tomato prices crashing.

Articles in the news state that the economy was hit harder than people would admit to but none, as yet, have complimented the common man for his endurance under conditions of scarcity and hardship, nor praised the hardworking women who kept their families fed through their social networks of give and take.

All the papers – domestic and foreign – only go on about India’s GDP, the economy, the vast business sectors, and the politics. If at all the average Indian is mentioned it is through the lens of pity – “oh, the poor farmer is suffering” or some such heartrending sob story from the “informal sector” – there’s never any mention of their ingenuity in keeping things going without cash; or the way it was all held together under conditions of adversity and scarcity.

IMG_7319That, perhaps was my biggest takeaway from my open ended conversations with a wide range of people from different socio-economic strata, professions, backgrounds, and age groups.

Their palpable pride in themselves in having come through upheaval relatively unscathed, or having the wherewithal to manage.  All the rest of it, the Aadhaar digital ID, the use of technology for transparency and accountability, the mobile platform and its ubiquity, all of these and more, I believe, will sort themselves out in time.

I’m minded to end this with a quote from Rositta J. Valiyamattam writing, ironically, on the topic of Indian fiction (page xii):

“Their novels testify to the amazing resilience of the masses in a nation wherein the commoner is rendered helpless by an often corrupt mighty polity. What stands out is the assertion of the individual will over uncontrolled powers and unfavourable circumstances. They salute the heroic struggles of ordinary Indians in times of extraordinary transformation.”

 

 

*Word of mouth number, every report has a different total, so whatever. All photographs not captioned were taken in Delhi by Niti Bhan during March 2017.

On Seeing

DSC09056

Microtrader’s market stall, Karatina market, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2013)

Michael Bierut writes a paean to the power of observation in his introduction to the new print run of George Nelson’s How to See. His concluding words resonated deeply:

The unifying theme behind all of Nelson’s lectures – and, indeed, behind his life’s work – was a simple, and optimistic one: by seeing more clearly, one could make better, more thoughtful, and ultimately more humane choices about our manmade environment, that world “God never made.”

Not only did it make me want to run right out, on a snowy Sunday night, and buy the book – I’ve made a note to myself – but it made me reflect on my own work and it’s underlying philosophy of Understanding and Sensemaking before attempting to design for complexity and diversity.

vfm hidden

How value flows in informal trade networks, Busia, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2016)

When I read Michael’s words describing Nelson’s methods for photography and documentation, I recognized my own. And more importantly, I recognized George Nelson’s contribution to the discipline of industrial design, even down to his undeniable influence on curriculum along with Charles Eames.

My first exposure (yes, you saw what I did here) was in 1989 at the Eames’ inspired National Institute of Design where the introduction to photography as a design tool included developing your own black and white snaps in the darkroom. It changed the way I thought about the function and utility of a camera – from vacation accessory to appendage and tool. Three decades later, my preferred choice is a small point and shoot that comfortably and inconspicuously fits into the palm of my hand.

Niti with her camera, Mamelodi Township, South Africa (Photo: Dave Tait 2008)

I learnt to look for patterns in the photographs, at night, after the end of each day out, when the daily routine of downloading, sorting, filing, and transferring a copy to the external drive took place.

The first two or three days are often just noise, the stimulation of the overburdened senses in the sights and sounds of the bazaars and the landscape and the people. But soon, if you know you’re looking for it, the chaos starts to coalesce into signals that begin to weakly emerge and this then helps refine the focus of the discoveries and the directions for further exploration.

Eastern Cape, South Africa (Photo: Niti Bhan 2008)

And, sometimes, if you’re very, very lucky, that series of snaps taken from a speeding car, can turn up a thing of beauty. Or a mundane visit to the wet market provides a composition of harmonious hues and textures.

dsc05714

Kibera Market, Nairobi, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan 2011)

I’ve never been able to do it as deliberately and consistently as professional photographers, but it doesn’t stop me from taking my camera out whenever something catches my eye.

Snapshot of the Dynamics of the Urban Informal Retail Trade in Nairobi, Kenya

Informal Economy Dynamics - Updated

Made by Latiff Cherono – click for larger image

Latiff Cherono quickly made up this diagram during a brainstorming session with Francis Hook and myself on the ways and means to further disaggregate the general category of “Informal wholesale and retail trade” that the Kenya National Statistics Board uses to lump together the second largest sector providing employment in Kenya after agriculture.

jobs2 In urban conditions, vending and hawking of this sort is the largest source of income for the formally unemployed.

As you can see in the map visualizing Latiff’s analysis of a well known location for street vendors and hawkers to operate breaks down traffic flows not only by speed but also takes in account both static and dynamic forms of informal trade.

It may look chaotic but there are principles underlying the decisions made by both pavement vendors and mobile vendors (streethawkers in traffic) for their location of choice. These relate to the speed of passersby and potential customers – both wheeled and heeled, as Francis is wont to say – and closer analysis will most likely provide evidence of attempt to drive more footfalls to the shopfront, so to speak.

An example is the way pavement vendors locate themselves on either side of the busy bus stops, while mobile vendors who vend their way through traffic focus on the bottlenecks created by the roundabout and the traffic police.

We’re still in early days yet but time and money seem to be two of the factors that describe the attributes to segment and categorize the informal retail sector in urban Africa.

Innovation, Ingenuity and Opportunity under Conditions of Scarcity (Download PDF)

coverIn July 2009, I was inspired by working in the Research wing of the Aalto University’s Design Factory in Espoo, Finland, to launch a group blog called REculture: Exploring the post-consumption economy of repair, reuse, repurpose and recycle by informal businesses at the Base of the Pyramid*.

Within a year, this research interest evolved into a multidisciplinary look at the culture of innovation and invention under conditions of scarcity and it’s lessons for sustainable manufacturing and industry for us in the context of more industrialized nations.

reculture research bed

Emerging Futures Lab, July 2010 (Aalto Design Factory)

As a preliminary exploration, my research associate Mikko Koskinen and I timed our visit to Kenya to coincide with the Maker Faire Africa to be held on the grounds of the University of Nairobi in August 2010.

This photographic record of our discoveries (PDF 6MB) among the jua kali artisans and workshops of Nairobi, Nakuru, Thika, and Kithengela, guided by biogas inventor and innovator Dominic Wanjihia captures the essence of the creativity and ingenuity it takes to create without ample resources and adequate infrastructure.

A synopsis of our analysis is available here.

 

* The publishing platform, Posterous, died a short while later and we lost years of work. I’m looking into reincarnating REculture on Tumblr soon.

 

Does the human-centered design industry believe in it’s own process?

Generic diagram found online

Generic diagram found online

Listening to users, and incorporating their feedback is considered the key differentiator for the practice of human-centered design. Yet, one wonders, if the design industry has understood that this philosophy must necessarily include the feedback from their clients as well. That is, while we are all aware of the navel gazing tendencies displayed by design thinkers and writers, we very rarely come across any pragmatic criticism of the industry itself, and it’s approach and processes, by those purchasing their services.

Yesterday, during my reading on ‘Doing Development Differently’,  I came across an incisive critique of what can only be called Big Design, by Geoff Mulgan, the Chief Executive of Nesta – the UK’s innovation foundation. His insights are worth pondering.

design-industry

Source: Ben Ramalingam http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/development-innovation-taking-high-road

One could almost interpret this as saying that human centered designers are unable to incorporate user feedback.

As Mulgan himself says on page 5:

I’ve several times sat in meetings with designers and design promoters, alongside policymakers, where the same pattern has repeated. The policymakers grudgingly accepted that they might have quite a bit to learn from the designers; but the designers appeared baffled when it was suggested that they might have something to learn from the policymakers, or from the many other organisations and fields with claims to insight into service design: social entrepreneurs, professions, consultancies, IT, policymakers. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule: but overblown claims that design methods are uniquely placed to tackle complex, holistic problems has not always helped to inspire a culture of collaboration and mutual learning.

When an overweening sense of one’s place on the team overrides ‘deep craft’, what are the future implications for the designer’s role in shaping their own environment?

And, what are the ramifications for the entire design industry, when Big Design’s Big PR hampers progress more than it helps?