Archive for the ‘Frameworks’ 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.

It’s way past the time to consider the Informal Economy as a distinct commercial environment

Brand stickers on avocados displayed for sale on a highway, Kenya. April 2013

Regardless of continent, it is now high time we accepted the informal economy (unformal or unrecognised or unorganized sectors) as a commercial operating environment in its own right.

The continued oversight is rapidly coalescing into a gaping void of hiccups and failures, by large companies, non profit institutions, and startups, alike. This issue goes far beyond “understanding the informal” or recognizing the fulltime professional status of the service providers that I’ve written about before.

It’s about the problems created by continuing to assume every individual is poverty stricken and struggling to make a livelihood simply because a significant portion of their commercial activity operates outside what is rarely defined but is assumed to be the formal, structured economy held up as the pinnacle of economic development.

It’s why academics can barely conceal their flabbergasted surprise that a person has a better quality of life, and a reasonably viable revenue stream in [gasp] informal market trading, or even agricultural work.

It’s why @pesa_africa questions the continued transplantation of e-commerce business models directly from Seattle to subSahara given that they’ve tended to wither on the vines.

It’s why market women and traders pay the price of daily harassment and abuse by those given authority over their peace of mind.

And, it’s also why the freshest produce gets to you first thing in the morning in Nairobi or Cotonou or Kinshasa.

This is not meant to be a paean to the hardworking women and men who keep the engines of commerce and trade humming in the harshest of environments with scarce resources and inadequate infrastructure.

It’s the first step in acknowledging yet another holdover from a colonial past that decades later still hampers and hinders the social and economic development that should have happened by now, by all rights.

It’s also the necessary counterpart to the recognition of agency required for design interventions to succeed once donor funding ends.

This theme is consistently covered in this blog in the category Biashara Economics and hashtag #biasharaeconomics

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.

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


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.

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.


Source: Ben Ramalingam

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?

Time to reach consensus on the #informaleconomy debate

As yesterday’s post showed, the unforeseen outcome of India’s demonetization initiative on the rural cash economy arose due to the lack of disaggregation of all that tends to get lumped together under the umbrella label “informal”. Segmentation would lead to more impactful design of policy and programmes.

WIEGO has an excellent review of the academic debates on the informal economy, covering the competing schools of thought. There is the Shadow Economy with its tax evasion and under reporting vs the livelihoods of the poor struggling to make a living in adverse conditions.


In 2009, Ravi Kanbur, Professor of Economics at Cornell University, posited a conceptual framework for distinguishing between four types of economic responses to regulation, as follows:

A. Stay within the ambit of the regulation and comply.
B. Stay within the ambit of the regulation but not comply.
C. Adjust activity to move out of the ambit of the regulation.
D. Outside the ambit of the regulation in the first place, so no need to adjust.

Under the Kanbur framework, category A is “formal.” The rest of the categories are “informal,” with B being the category that is most clearly “illegal.” (Kanbur 2009). […] Kanbur argues that using a single label “informal” for B, C, and D obscures more than it reveals – as these are distinct categories with specific economic features in relation to the regulation under consideration.

While acknowledging that it is useful to have aggregate broad numbers on the size and general characteristics of the informal economy, Kanbur concludes that disaggregation provides for better policy analysis.

So, why do we continue to wave our hands over the whole thing and conflate the legal with the illegal?

These distinctions are all well and good to debate in the cozy conditions of a seminar room without needing to come to any consensus, but as the human and economic cost of demonetization in rural India becomes clear, particularly the impact on the planting season, it puts a spotlight on the shortcomings of the way the rural and cash economies are currently dealt with. A pragmatic conclusion is urgently required.

My literature review on the past 20 years of research on the informal trade sector in Eastern Africa showed that this lack of distinction between what was shadow (B) and what was merely below the radar of the regulations (C &D per Kanbur’s distinctions above) gave rise to the criminalization of even the smallest livelihood activities of the local tomato seller who might cross a border to get a better price for her wares.

This in turn led to their harassment – particularly financial and sexual – by the authorities as there were no counteractive regulations in place that recognized fulltime crossborder trade as a licit occupation or profession.

What will it take for this to change?

India’s current experiences provide ample evidence of the dangers of leaving this untouched.

Unforeseen outcomes of India’s demonetization shine light on the value of our design philosophy

Informal Economy, Market Analysis and SegmentationLatest news on India’s demonetization informs us how the rural economy is bearing the brunt of this initiative.

The action was intended to target wealthy tax evaders and end India’s “shadow economy”, but it has also exposed the dependency of poor farmers and small businesses on informal credit systems in a country where half the population has no access to formal banking.

The details shed light on the consequences of implementing interventions without a holistic understanding of the landscape of the operating environment. In this case, it is the rural, informal cash intensive economy.

…the breakdown in the informal credit sector points to a government that has failed to grasp how the cash economy impacts ordinary Indians.

“It is this lack of understanding and not appreciating the importance of the cash economy in India on the part of the government that has landed the country in such an unwarranted situation today,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, an economist and director of public finance at India Ratings.

This lack of understanding the dynamics of the cash economy (I don’t mind calling it the prepaid economy, in this context) and it’s role in the rural Indian value web has led to unforeseen challenges at a time when farmers are planting seeds for the next harvest, hampering the flow of farm inputs as traditional lines of credit face the obstacle of an artificial shortage of liquidity.

I want to use this clear example of systems design failure to explain my philosophy and approach to our work in the informal economies of the developing world. I’ve written often enough about what we do, now I have an opportunity to explain why we do it, and why it’s important.

Read On…

Analysis of the mobile phone’s impact on cash flows and transactions in the informal sector

As we saw, Mrs Chimphamba needs to juggle time and money as part of her household financial management in order to ensure that expenses can be met by income. We also saw that the mobile phone was made viable and feasible by the availability of the prepaid business model that gave her full control over timing and the amount required to maintain it — how much airtime to purchase? when? how often? — all of these decisions were in her hands, within the limits of the operator’s business model. Now, we’ll take a closer look at the impact of the mobile on her domestic economy.

Readily available real time communication has helped Mrs C by speeding up the time taken for a decision on a purchase or a sale. That is, the transaction cycle has been shortened. As the speed of information exchange increases, it increases the speed of transactions — it shortens the duration of time taken to execute them from inception to completion. This, in turn, implies that more transactions can now take place in the same amount of time thereby increasing the frequency and the periodicity. When mobile money is present, one can see that as both quantity and frequency of transactions speed up, so does the cash flow. We’ll come back to this factor.

To explain using a real life example, Mrs Chimphamba does not need to sit at her homestead wondering if today someone will pass by to purchase a bottle of wine. Similarly, Mrs C’s customers do not need to go out of their way to pass by her homestead to see if the wine is distilled and ready for sale, or whether it will still take another day or two for the next batch to be ready. Further, the uncertainty of whether they’ll have cash on hand on that future day, or if they’ll return as promised are all elements that real time communication have minimized.

Now, Mrs C is able to let her regular customers know that she’s making a new batch for sale and do they want to reserve a bottle for purchase? It allows her customers to put aside cash for this purchase. She is even able to accept and execute larger orders for some future date, and even accept some cash advances if her operating environment includes the presence of a mobile money transfer system such as those more prevalent in East Africa. This in turn changes her purchasing patterns and decision making as the pattern of cash flows — timing and amount — changes. She isn’t making do anymore on an unknown and predictable sale based on sitting and waiting for someone to show up to buy her wine.

Real time communication has improved the decision making cycle for both buyer and seller in a transaction as it counteracts uncertainty and information asymmetry even while speeding up the time take for a decision.

As the quantity and frequency of transactions increase— first, in cash conducted face to face, and then later, remotely by mobile money, regardless of the size of each transaction — the change in cash flow patterns begins to smooth out the volatility (the uncertainty factor has changed completely) between incoming and outgoing, as well as the decisionmaking involved. That is, the gap between income and expense starts becoming less in terms of both timing and amount — there is the possibility of a steady stream in the pipeline. Calculus offers hints of how the curve can begin to smoothen out as frequency and periodicity of transactions begins to accelerate.

Size of transactions thus begin to matter less in that the incoming amount now does not need to be so large as to cover expenses for an unknown duration of time before the next incoming payment; nor do expenses have to be tightly controlled constantly due to the uncertainty of the duration of time before the next payment, and the types of expenses incurred during this unknown period of time.

So the boost in decision making — how long it takes to complete a transaction, how often can transactions be completed — enabled by the real time communication facilitated by the mobile phone; plus the attendant immediacy of receiving payment via the same platform is the root of the improvement in the hyperlocal economy and consumption patterns among the informal sector actors. This is why large established traders (with sufficient financial cushion) were heard to observe that both purchasing power and consumption patterns had changed in their market town (Busia, Kenya Jan 2016) in the past 10 years since first the mobile phone, and later, mPesa, were introduced into their operating environment.

Uncertainty and information asymmetry that have long characterized the fragile and volatile nature of the informal sector operating in inadequately provided environments with unreliable systems and scarce data. In the next chapter we’ll step back and take a broader look at communication, connectivity, and commerce in the informal economy starting with the description of the operating environment’s characteristics regardless of continent.

This is part of a newly launched Medium where I will write in detail on economic behaviour and its drivers in the informal economy. Much of it draws upon the original research in the field from 2008-2009 which was shared on the prepaid economy blog. I found that time had passed and increased my understanding and I wanted to explore those discoveries in writing. Much of this is the foundation for recent works on ‘Mama Biashara‘.

Systems design and the Monster who squats between the formal and the informal


This framing of the real challenge to development and poverty alleviation comes from Ken Wong writing on his experience in Malawi:

We can only win the war on poverty and hunger in Malawi by targeting the real enemy – and that enemy is the system of how the world tries to help. Specifically:

The system that demands foreign aid be funneled through the government or large NGOs

The system that creates a hierarchy of aid and government workers whose job security and quality of life depends not on their wanting what is good on the ground, but pleasing whoever is above them in rank

The system that discriminates against on-the-ground, local initiatives because of a lack academic credentials, English-speaking skills, and the ability to complete unwieldy applications and fulfill misguided metric targets

If we are to win the war against poverty, we need to face the truth and admit that the system has not only not worked in Malawi, it has made the situation worse.

The system itself is the barrier to progress. The System Monster, as I dubbed it, is quite a nice fellow really, rather well meaning and all that, but he doesn’t see how he’s just stuck there inbetween, unable to adapt to the context on the ground.

Here’s is a 5 minute video where I introduce the concept, from the BankInter Foundation’s Future Trends Forum on Inequality and Technology held in Madrid in early June 2016.