Archive for the ‘Perspective’ Category

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.

Not Disaggregating the Informal Economy Properly Hinders Development Efforts

Michael Kimani (@pesa_africa) brought this prize winning essay on the importance of understanding the informal economy to my attention, together with a snippet of text from our last inception report highlighting a major oversight that we believe is of critical importance.

Mike took issue on Twitter with the author’s very first sentence introducing his work as a PhD candidate in The Department of International Development, LSE, viz.,

I research smuggling, or ‘informal cross-border trade’.

and I offered to flesh out our concerns in a blogpost. Here’s the snippet Mike extracted from the tralac website:

C8oeVQ8XgAAnc-fNow, I won’t go into the full scale literature review on the challenge posed by the conflation of illicit activities such as smuggling with the licit yet unrecorded daily commerce in border markets as it’s clearly framed here on page 5 through 7 since the author is already in academia.

However, what I will do is just pull out Kanbur and Keen‘s specifically worded framing of the challenge of not unpacking the various elements of the informal economy as the first step towards understanding it better.

We think this is the wrong way to look at things. The key to policymaking towards informality is twofold. First, to specify more basic objectives, such as efficiency and equity, which transcend informality – informality and its persistence in itself is neither good nor bad. Second, to disaggregate informality into policy-relevant categories, rather than take it as an undifferentiated lump and then gauge policies by their impact on its magnitude.

Let’s take the problem of conflating smuggling with cross border trade in the context of Kanbur and Keen on Rethinking Informality:

In so far as any precise meaning is given to the term in discussions of taxation, informality is usually taken simply to mean non-remittance of tax due – failure to pay. But there are all kinds of reasons why a firm or individual might pay no tax. Maybe they are simply below the threshold above which they are legally obliged to; or maybe they are evading. Might not why no tax is paid matter for policy making at least as much as the fact of it not being paid? And how should tax systems be structured when it is recognised that their design may affect not only how much tax is paid, but the different ways in which it is not paid?

These questions lead, in our view, to a more useful strand of analysis than generalities about reducing informality.

or, in the case of this essay, to generalities about the need to understand the informal without distinguishing within it the various categories of trade that occurs across borders, both biashara and magendo.

Permanently seasonal

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Photo: Niti Bhan, March 2017, New Delhi

Now Dinesh, the chick (bamboo or rattan blinds and awnings) maker offers a seasonal service in the warmer months, yet his signage and product display seems to imply a permanent storefront.

chick1More likely, it’s permanent during the spring and summer, when the chicks are replaced and installed to protect and cool against the heat of the sun – Delhi’s summer temperatures are known to cross 50 Celsius and tend to average in the mid to high 40s.

If memory serves, he returns each year, thus assuring himself of a permanent yet temporary workspace seasonally, and thus dependably and reliably.

Predictability is a business investment in the informal sector

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New Delhi, India (Photo taken March 2017 by Niti Bhan)

Street vendors are often assumed to be livelihood actors, eking out a precarious living while darting in and out of traffic at the lights hawking their wares out of a basket or bucket. Not so in the south side of New Delhi where this trader in household linen and fine textiles has staked out his pavement storefront.

He’s not there everyday, unlike the fresh veg lady across the street, who has been there for the past thirty years, but he does show up every Saturday late in the afternoon, along with the housewares guys and stays until late in the evening. These vendors have been so predictable that they’re now known as the “Saturday market” although there are only three “shops” that one can see.

nightlightsHowever, each storefront is a joint effort by a number of vendors cooperating with each other to offer a larger, more attractive display and lights.

This predictability insures his reputation in the neighbourhood.

A matter of timing: seasonal opportunities

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Temporary stall for festive goods (Photo: Niti Bhan, March 2017)

These stalls full of water pistols and balloons sprouted overnight a couple of days before the spring festival of Holi (March 13th 2017) – these vendors are neither local nor regulars in the market complex. They’re here to offer seasonal products and might even have been invited by the local shopkeepers to provide attractive temporary displays not unlike festival shopping at the mall.

IMG_7356Seasonal opportunities for special offers and custom products are not to be missed chances for a boost in sales. India’s FMCG majors can’t afford to ignore the seasons that guide the cash flow for the majority in the informal and rural economies over the course of the natural year.

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

As global firms (MNC) pull back from emerging markets, what does this mean for Africa?

tumblr_nwsbz0ytDw1qghc1jo1_500Last week’s issue of The Economist drilled down deeper to cover the retreat of globalization – at least in the most visible form, that of the multinational brands dotting cityscapes around the world. The retreat of the global company, they trumpet, the end of Theodore Levitt’s vision.

Credit Suisse takes a concise yet comprehensive look at these weak signals in their well-written report that frames the situation as a transitional tug of war between globalization and multipolarity – an inflection point, rather than a retreat. They make it sound like missing the turn at an intersection and having to come back to the traffic lights to figure out which way to go.

Duncan Green of Oxfam captured the essence well:

But the deeper explanation is that both the advantages of scale and those of arbitrage have worn away. Global firms have big overheads; complex supply chains tie up inventory; sprawling organisations are hard to run. Some arbitrage opportunities have been exhausted; wages have risen in China; and most firms have massaged their tax bills as low as they can go. The free flow of information means that competitors can catch up with leads in technology and know-how more easily than they used to. As a result firms with a domestic focus are winning market share.

In the “headquarters countries”, the mood changed after the financial crisis. Multinational firms started to be seen as agents of inequality. They created jobs abroad, but not at home. The profits from their hoards of intellectual property were pocketed by a wealthy shareholder elite. Political willingness to help multinationals duly lapsed.

Of all those involved in the spread of global businesses, the “host countries” that receive investment by multinationals remain the most enthusiastic.

The first thing to note is that the global MNCs being considered by The Economist are primarily the legacy ones  – fast food chains like McDonalds and KFC (Yum Brands) – whose shiny logos used to represent the liberalization of the closed markets of India and China.

Even at powerhouses such as Unilever, General Electric (GE), PepsiCo and Procter & Gamble, foreign profits are down by a quarter or more from their peak.

or the few examples of emerging market brands that have gone global such as China’s Lenovo which purchased IBM’s Thinkpad and India’s Airtel which bought into the African market.

What’s being touted as their competition are regional brands, who aren’t as stretch out globally in terms of their supply chains, and less vulnerable to currency volatility. Further, the majority of these global brands are heavily dependent on their B2C marketing and sales – the question of whether they ever managed to understand their new markets is a topic for another post.

And so, we ask, what will this mean for the emerging economies of Africa, who are only now seeing the first fruits of FDI? Who will come and develop their consumer markets?

India and China apparently. And strategically – through unbranded affordable commodities and the acquisition of successful regional consumer brands – rather than the legacy MNC approach influenced by Levitt. Even Japan recognizes this, as they seek to piggyback on the Indian experience.The economics of scale that propelled the first rounds of growth for the manufacturers of washing machines and the automobiles never did make sense infrastructurally for the majority of the African consumer markets.

Instead, the patterns pointed out by The Economist and Credit Suisse imply that opportunities will lie among regional stars – Equity Bank of Kenya, for instance, whose regional footprint is surely but steadily creeping outwards across the East African Community and trading partners – or, the telcom brands such as Tigo (Millicom) who innovate for each of their local markets.

The jobs and exports that can be attributed to multinationals are already a diminishing part of the story. In 2000 every billion dollars of the stock of worldwide foreign investment represented 7,000 jobs and $600m of annual exports. Today $1bn supports 3,000 jobs and $300m of exports.

Godrej, for instance would be considered a regional Indian giant rather than a multinational in the conventional sense of a Unilever or P&G.

Where [MNCs] get constrained is, they are driven by lot of processes that are global. For a smaller organisation like us, we are completely empowered; decision-making is quick and we can initiate changes very fast. We are more agile and have an advantage over them.

Yet their expansion outside India shows a “pick and choose” strategy of markets they’re comfortable entering.

The group’s acquisition strategy hinges on identifying unlisted companies built by entrepreneurs looking for capital, picking up stakes and working with them to scale up their businesses.

At least two homegrown Kenyan FMCG brands – skincare by a global giant and cosmetics by private equity – have been acquired. As have snack foods, spices, dairy products, and other products that cater to local tastes. The best known being Fan Milk of West Africa. Private equity such as Abraaj make no bones about going after consumer driven opportunities.

Given these choices, sustainable African businesses who understand their consumer markets have an opportunity to establish their brands and grow – with the financial help that’s strategically becoming available.While Chinese imports make the market highly competitive and price conscious, fish and tyres are substitutable goods in a way skincare and cosmetics are not.

African consumer companies – formal, informal, or semi-almost there-formal – need to hustle right now.

The retreat of the MNCs offers a chance to exhale, and expand, and grow, but the advent of the East implies waking up to the need for serious strategic thinking about domestic comparative and competitive advantage – one of which is incomparable knowledge of local consumers, culture, and needs, and critically, experience of their vast informal sectors and cash intensive economies.

A Precursor for Systems Design and Social Change from Finland

Sitra, the Finnish innovation fund, has released an excellent analysis and work plan for systemic change at scale – how to change the national mindset to become a society focused on sustainability and wellbeing.

I remember noting Finland’s leadership in systems design and strategic planning back in 2007 during our Cox Europe Mission to observe multidisciplinary creativity in business and higher education. One of the reasons, I still believe, why Helsinki became a World Design Capital.

This report considers the circular economy (or, REculture as I’ve often called it). While the whole document is entirely the work of Sitra, one cannot help but recognize the contributions made by Doblin, the pioneer of design planning back in Chicago. After all, all of us who were taught by Larry Keeley were introduced to the 10 types of innovation  page 44).

This gives me hope, as my team and I start exploring the method for triggering systemic change for an entirely different kind of complex, adaptive system – that common in the developing world context. This means that we can draw upon the lessons we learnt back in school and then seek to evolve them for the disparities in the operating environment.

Unlike Finland, where there is high trust in the system, and things run rather smoothly, even after the worst blizzard, the average rural market town in East Africa has unreliable and inadequate infrastructure, higher mistrust in systems, and almost no credible sources of historic data for any kind of trends analysis much less an easy and affordable way to monitor and evaluate anything less than highly visible (mobile phones) gross changes in the ecosystem.
sitraThus, while we can be inspired by this straightforward roadmap for the Finnish context, I already know that our progress will not be as simple or linear. Most likely we will have a lot more exploration and discovery, such as mapping the landscape, as well as needing to adapt our approach in conditions of greater uncertainty where planning is a challenge, and preparation means survival.

As a Finnish entrepreneur, I’m grateful for this contextual opportunity to be inspired by this living example even as I proceed further with my own work.