Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

Deconstructing “Formalization” as Panacea for the Informal Economy

IGO definitions of the informal economy are crafted from a top down perspective (Global North*) of the operating environment prevalent in the economies of the developing world (Global South*). Further, they do not distinguish between the operating environment of the shadow economies of OECD nations, and those which encompass the unorganized sectors of trade and industry in emerging regions.

Schneider and Enste describe this so:

A factory worker has a second job driving an unlicensed taxi at night; a plumber fixes a broken water pipe for a client, gets paid in cash but doesn’t declare his earnings to the tax collector; a drug dealer brokers a sale with a prospective customer on a street corner. These are all examples of the underground or shadow economy—activities, both legal and illegal, that add up to trillions of dollars a year that take place “off the books,” out of the gaze of taxmen and government statisticians.

And, this applies very well for the shadow economies of the OECD, and the transition nations per their classification (which are again in Europe). However, the question is, whether this applies, without caveats, to the developing world?

Deconstructing their definition shows a framework based on an implicit underlying assumption of a functional state, with adequate infrastructure and reliable systems of service provision. In fact, Schneider and Enste correlate size of shadow economy, as they label it, with issues of governance, corruption, and state regulation. However, their underlying assumption of a functional design for the bureaucracy required to govern that state still hold. And, critically, it assumes that taxes collected will be invested back into easily accessible and well designed citizen services, or that the licensing and permits are backed by enforceable rules and regulations on health and safety, for instance.

One example of inaccessible services would be from Kenya’s new Trade Policy (May 2017) which acknowledges the unnecessary barrier to formalization posed to micro and small enterprises countrywide by the centralization of business registration at government in the national capital. Thus, simplifying this process, and enabling it online would certainly have great impact on the numbers of micros/small enterprises still informal.

An even more complicated real world example is that of Somaliland, a rather peaceful, entrepreneurial trading nation who has yet to be recognized as such. Is their entire economy to be considered informal by the best definitions available? And if so, how exactly would any recommendations to formalize so that they can “join the global trading network” be implemented? The Financial Times offers some interesting answers to this conundrum.

… in the eyes of the international community, Somaliland does not exist. This causes innumerable problems, not least economic.
[…]
Yet Somalilanders pride themselves on their stoicism and resourcefulness; and in spite of the myriad issues that lack of formal recognition brings, the business community remains optimistic.
[…]
Those with the foresight to look beyond the question of recognition, and towards the potential that Somaliland offers, will be rewarded — and will help to make history.

This could be very well said for the entire informal economy in the frontier markets of the developing world. India, for instance, possessor of over 400 million people employed in the informal sector, has had no choice but to consider potential for job creation and employment opportunities serving 90% of her workforce as the mainstream. In fact, current analysis echoes the same sentiments as Somaliland’s:

The conditions under which formality – taken here as compliance with the rules and structures of a taxable economy – flourishes can be described by the example of Finland. The system of administration more or less works transparently, and with accountability, within the rule of law. Decent work is not only mandated by policy, but such social protections are enforced publically. Tax revenues visibly provide benefits such as free education through to post doctoral level, and supports healthcare and other amenities to the community. Bureaucracy mostly does its job sincerely and cheerfully – speaking from experience as an expat, and now an immigrant. One can become a properly registered business as a sole proprietor, or self employed entrepreneur, quickly and affordably either online or at the local authorities.

Without all or most of these conditions being met by the infrastructure and the systems, as currently designed and implemented, in developing countries, such as those on the African continent, or in India, can “formalization” be pushed unconditionally as the optimal solution to the development problem of their economies? Is it any wonder that nowhere has informality been eradicated as promised decades ago, in fact its only grown as new jobseekers face extreme competition for the limited number of positions available in the formal or modern or civil sector?

Zimbabwe offers a case study worth studying further to validate this given that their economy has informalized exponentially over the past decade or so.

 

* Hence why this label is in itself problematic.

On the relationship between economics and design

This is an extract from the Introduction to John Heskett’s seminal paper, “Creating Economic Value by Design


The work of Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate in Economics in 1978, is a rare exception of design being considered as a factor in economic theory. His starting point was acknowledging that the world we inhabit is increasingly artificial, created by human beings. For Simon (1981), design was not restricted to making material artefacts, but was a fundamental professional competence extending to policy-making and practices of many kinds and on many levels:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training; it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences. (p.129)

Implicit in Simon’s reasoning is an emphasis on design as a thought-process underpinning all kinds of professional activities; yet the varied skills through which design is manifested are not discussed. He did indicate, however, why design is so rarely considered in economic theory. Economics, he stated, works on three levels, those of the individual; the market; and the entire economy (p. 31). The centre of interest in traditional economics, however, is markets and not individuals or businesses (p. 37). A serious problem is thereby raised at the outset: two important considerations relating to design—how goods and services are developed for the market place and how they are used—receive scant attention.


I was lucky enough to both work with him as a colleague as well as attend his classes in Design Policy and Design Planning & Market Forces as his student. I’ve been diving into my notes and his lectures of late as I wrestle with my theorizing on what I’ve been calling Biashara Economics, whose earliest avatar was the prepaid economy project of 2008/9.

A theoretical approach to Value for Money in aid & development: Optimizing research and design for ‘best fit’ iterative programming

Last year, I briefly touched upon this concept as an approach to cost effective programme design that was still flexible enough to provide room for iteration for best fit.

Today, I want to explore the concept further to evaluate its potential as a framework for incorporating the concurrent shift in development thinking towards Value for Money (DFID) principles, in addition to designing for best fit.

Value for Money as a Process Driver

Value for Money (VfM) is not the same as traditional monitoring and evaluation which seeks to measure impact of a project, and occurs usually after the fact. In many large scale projects, this may not happen until years after inception.

Instead, VfM is defined by the UK’s National Audit Office as ‘the optimal use of resources to achieve intended outcomes’, which in turn, the DFID document contextualizes for their aid programming investments as “We maximise the impact of each pound spent to improve poor people’s lives.”

If this applies to all investments in aid related programme development, then it follows that it must also apply to earliest stage of discovery and exploration that leads to problem framing i.e. the necessary groundwork to write a comprehensive and inclusive design brief for future programming.

Thus, the conceptual approach that I introduced at the beginning of this post, which is taken from the discipline of Operations Research, and seeks to solve the challenge framed so – what is the optimal solution that minimizes resources (inputs) for maximum outputs (value creation) – fits as a potential framework that can theoretically apply from the earliest stages of implementing development strategy, even before inception of any related projects, including early stage research and feasibility studies. After all, the function of Linear Programming is optimization.

Note: Here I will only consider the theoretical aspects from the point of view of programme design research and development, and not the mathematics. That will have to wait until I have gathered enough data for validation.

Design Research for Programme Design Purposes

In this context, the primary function of such an exploratory project is to identify the opportunity spaces for interventions that would together form an integrated programme designed to effect some sort of positive change in the ecosystem within which it would be implemented, and offer a wider (more inclusive) range of cross-cutting benefits.

In the language of product development, we are attempting to build a working prototype. We cannot build and test first prototypes to see if they work, directly, because our room for failure is much less spacious for experimenting with aid related programming, ethically speaking. This is not a laboratory environment but the real world with enough challenges and adversity already existent.

Programmes are not the same as consumer products, nor are they meant to be designed and tested in isolation before being launched for pilot testing in the market. Their very nature is such that innocent people are involved from the start, often with a history of skepticism regarding any number of well meant donor funded projects aimed at improving their lives. This changes the stringency of the early stage requirements for design planning.

At the same time, the nature of the task is such that no first prototype can be expected to be the final design. So, from the very beginning, what we must do is set the objective of the outcome as a Minimal Working Prototype (MWP) that meets all the criteria for an optimal solution, and NOT a Minimal Viable Product (which may or may not work wholly as intended until tested in the field for iteration.)

That is, the first implementation of the iterative programme design must fall within the bounds of the solution space – that which is represented by the shaded area in the diagram above.

The Optimal Solution is the Iterative Programme Design

Thus, what we must be able to do at the end of the discovery phase of research necessary to write the design brief, is tightly constrain the boundary conditions for the solution space within which the MWP can then be iterated. This minimizes the risk of utter failure, and maximizes the chances of discovering the best fit, and all of this within the definitions of Value for Money and it’s guidelines.

There are numerous ways to set the goals for optimization – one can minimize resources and maximize constraints, or minimize risk and maximize return on resources invested. These will guide our testing of this framework in field conditions to validate the robustness of this theoretical approach.

In this way, we can constrain our efforts to discover best fit within predefined limits of tolerance, while retaining the flexibility to adapt to changing real world circumstances and progressive transformation of operating conditions.

Best fit, then, becomes less a matter of experimentation without boundary conditions and more a discovery of which of the many right answers – if we take the entire shaded area as containing “right answers” to the problem at hand – help us meet the goals of intervention in the complex adaptive system in an optimal manner.

The point to note from this conceptual framework is that there is never any ONE right answer, so much as the answer will be that which we discover to the question “What is needed right now for us to meet our goals, given these changes since we last looked at the system?”

It is this aspect that loads the burden of a successful outcome on the front end of the entire research and development process, given that framing the problem correctly at the outset is what drives the research planning and steers the discovery process in the direction of relevant criteria, conditions, constraints, and user needs that will not only form the bounds of our solution space, but also act as waymarkers for monitoring change and evaluating its progression.

Samsung took its commitment to the African market very seriously

This article in the Financial Times caught my attention first for it’s mention of Samsung’s seemingly innovative adaptation to the harsh operating environment prevalent across the African continent. It reminded me of the very first exploratory user research programme I had been part of, for Samsung, back in early 2008. That was a seminal trip for me, 3 weeks by Landy through the bleakest parts of rural South Africa, in search of how people lived, worked, and played with their mobile phones.

Mobile phone repairman, Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa, January 2008 (Photo: Niti Bhan)

We discovered what I would now look back and recognize as a whole new world. This fieldtrip was the turning point in my career, and the prepaid economy project was the outcome of questioning many of the assumptions around what were then called “Bottom of the Pyramid” markets, which had been shattered, in my eyes, by this journey’s end.

Life is hard” became my mantra for the next couple of years, as I illustrated the vast chasm between the mainstream consumer market’s mindset of credit driven consumerism, and the cash intensive hitherto ignored reality of the townships and informal settlements. The article I wrote on the mindset and values of Africans in their guise as customers for consumer goods – who had not been conditioned by generations of advertising messaging since the poor (the BoP, the bottom of the pyramid)- went on to be cited by the late CK Prahalad himself in the revised 2010 Introduction to his seminal The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.

Next came the development of a holistic strategy to reach these untapped opportunities, with a semblance of a value system rather than be driven by the pure profit motive alone.

The core values, then and now, for a consumer appliance, device, or hardware, any durable really, was the following:

Simple
Easy
Endurance
Survivor/al
Commitment

If Samsung is established in its foothold in Africa today, and their appliances are designed to survive the environment and meet the needs of their African customers, then I am very pleased to read it.

That first photograph is of the slider that Samsung models being sold at that time had. And in Africa, as the repair guru holding the part was showing us – and two of Samsung’s own mobile design team members – was the weakest point of failure in their phones. Grit would get in and jam the part, and most such phones came in for repair within a few months of their purchase date.

Later, in London, where the Samsung Design Europe office was located, we walked into one of their phone shops – somewhere near Harrods, if I recall correctly, and asked about the longevity of their slider phones. The salesman gave us a long song and dance about how these parts had been tested to “slide” a thousand times before each model went on sale. Yes, I mused to myself, it had. In the dustfree laboratory conditions of their engineering unit, or the less harsh environment of London or Seoul. What about upcountry South Africa? Or Senegal or Kenya or even, India?

The 2009 models introduced for emerging market opportunities, such as those on the African continent almost a decade ago, were all candybars.

As for me, I’ve never stopped using a good oldfashioned “dumb” Nokia that stolid Finnish engineering and product development ensured would survive and endure anything – even being run over by a truck.

Key Competitive Advantage for Frontier and Emerging Markets

There’s a nuance, I’ve discovered, in the application of user centered design methods for entering the frontier and emerging markets of the developing world where a significant proportion of economic activity is confusingly labeled “informal”, rather than unformal as the case tends to be.

In more advanced consumer market contexts, where there are umpteen data flows, and decades of consumer research and insights to draw upon, the unquestioned assumption is that user research tends to level the playing field among contenders.

However, this doesn’t hold true, in my experience, in the emerging and frontier markets, such as those in East Africa. Simply basing one’s product development and market entry strategy on even the most rigorously designed user research program does not suffice. At the frontier, competitive advantage boils down to how well you interpret your data so gathered using design ethnography methods and quantitative surveys.

The biggest and best data collection in the world cannot help you if it’s not answering the right questions, nor the insights drive design if there are underlying biases filtering the inputs.

The key, as any trained anthropologist will inform you, is in being able to shift one’s perspective sideways, enough so as to perceive the landscape and the context from the viewpoint of the users being researched. And, perhaps, that is why increasing the diversity of experiences and perspectives of your team can make or break your new product introduction and/or your competitive strategy.

An amusing example of this kind of problem is one I discovered yesterday when poking around my twitter profile after the sudden change in UI that took place without warning. It seems that because I hadn’t input my real gender in the system, Twitter’s data analytics designated me “male” based on my tweeting behaviour.

Their age range is vast enough that they cannot go wrong, and besides, a lady never shares her real age. In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter if I’m considered male or female in the system. What is of concern is the underlying assumptions that the designers of the system have made when assigning behavioural choices to one or the other gender.

Now, if we were to extrapolate this relationship between initial design settings in the system, and the inaccurate output – as clear a case of their assumptions being rooted in stereotypes as any that I’ve seen – imagine for a moment what would be the case if the same sort of unthinking, unquestioned stereotypes were applied to the interpretation of user research data collected from a geography or context vastly different from one’s own?

What if this same approach was used for the system of designating assumed behaviours and user needs meant to guide the design of solutions for the rural African market woman?

If the most modern and global social media messaging systems of Twitter are unable to distinguish something as basic as gender – they state based on your profile and activity – they’d do better by stating they are unable to distinguish gender based on these factors than to make gross assumptions on “What do women tweet?” in 20 foot pink letters.

I’d have more respect for them tbh instead of feeling I’ve been put in some fluffy fuschia box, as a woman, just because the stuff I do (my profile is professional) and the stuff I tweet about (business, trade, economics, and design strategy) flags me as a male?

Extrapolating this challenge further, in the context of frontier and emerging markets, where the markets are not crowded with competitors at this early stage, nor is your brand recognized, is this the first impression that you can risk making?

I’ve often said that these are some of the most challenging markets, and affordable connectivity is only making it harder – word of mouth now flies at the speed of silicon, and a new entrant must stand up to social media scrutiny.

Frankly, in my own discipline and field of focus, it only makes me more confident of my team’s ability to offer a distinct competitive advantage.

Cognitive dissonance and smartphones in East Africa

via twitter, a modern day kanga from East Africa

Its jarring to see high level INGO messaging still talking about “ICT4D” not doing it’s part to bring about technology driven transformation in rural or informal sector Africa when every other sign from the continent points to a mainstreaming of ICT that goes beyond the individual’s capacity to tweet.

The kanga is a traditional item of women’s clothing worn all along the Swahili coast of Eastern and Southern Africa. Probably originating from the monsoon driven textiles trade with the west coast of India long ago in the mists of history, the kanga is rather well known for incorporating Swahili proverbs and aphorisms within its design.

While traditional sayings might refer to love or social relationships, warnings and idiomatic sayings, this photograph of the kanga, now making the rounds on social media, which I’ve shared above, provides clear evidence of the ubiquity of smartphone technology and social media communication in local culture.

Surely your screenshot is waiting in your inbox isn’t a traditional proverb nor an age old Kiswahili aphorism.

Improvising when work gets in the way of a laptop breaking down

Aalto Design Factory, one Monday in January 2014

Just over a fortnight ago, I nudged my coffee cup over a corner of the full size design award winning keyboard embedded in my rather obsolete but much beloved Lenovo.

Today was a very important deadline that my team and I had to meet. And my work involved writing over 5000 original words in response to a wicked problem, one of those that would wring your heartstrings if you knew.

Simultaneously, I had an entire market entry strategy to complete and submit for a client project that had been ongoing since earlier in the spring. My intent had been to get that done and dusted before the 1st of June leaving me the balance of time available to focus on the complex analysis and synthesis of a narrative by today’s deadline.

A few drops of coffee was all it took to disrupt my intended plan of action.

I’m sharing this anecdote here, now, because I learnt something about myself that I’d not have noticed had this not happened.

Improvisation is the key to success in challenging situations where the infrastructure we take for granted, or the tools we come to rely on, refuse to perform the way we expect or they should.

Slow down during a crisis, and you will have that unique center of calm grounding you instead. It may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but if you step back and consider the whole, this singular moment in time – infinity – can allow you an unprecedented opportunity to envision the whole, recognize the landmarks, and the obstacles, and then, plan your navigation all the way through to your goal. That is, instead of diving in deep into the urgency, take a step back off the edge of the cliff instead.

Then, and only then, when you have your roadmap in mind, take that critical first step forward to begin.

We submitted over 10 megabytes of materials last night, well in advance of our deadline. And, after a day or so of letting my poor old tired eyes rest from switching back and forth between two screens and flipping the trifocals on and off, I’ll sit back down to complete the interrupted strategy for my patiently waiting client.

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.

Prepaid Mobile: The Business Model that Empowers

It feels like a long time since I last pondered the nuances of the prepaid business model, until I came across some words written by Indian social media researcher Swati Janu. She documented her observations on the infrastructure of insecurity from the tenements of New Delhi.  There’s value in reflecting on how our understanding only increases over time, and we can never say that we’ve stopped learning

This sentence caught my attention:

From a rural population that is fast going online to the resourceful teens in urban slums, the lower income demographics are choosing to buy internet, through small but recurrent amounts, which enable them to straddle the line between affordability and aspiration.

The small but recurrent amounts – the Rs 10 mobile recharge Janu writes about – are the lifeblood of the prepaid payment plan for voice, text, and data (airtime) for the now ubiquitous cellphone that has changed the landscape of the developing world.

To enable the lower income demographic’s ability to straddle the divide between their aspirations and their ability to afford them is empowering. One could say that:

Prepaid is a business model that empowers aspiration, through affordability, incrementally.

Instant gratification has never been within their purview.