Archive for the ‘Systems’ Category

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.

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.


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…

An economy of trust

_92445052_02Cash on credit is the caption given to this cartoon by the BBC. Neighbourhood groceries are offering their regular customers cash advances in addition to bread and milk.

While the media is filled with a plethora of stories of heartbreak, my own suspicion is that we’ll discover the resilience of the cash intensive informal sector lies in the relationships between people, once the hubbub has died down.

Balancing the outcomes in systems design

The Carpenter’s Problem as a solution framing tool is quite flexible. It permits a spacious solution space in the shaded area of the graph, that allows for localization and customization for best fit to particular region or geography.

For instance, the challenge of designing the most inclusive internet for all the newcomers from emerging economies, must map against the minimum viable and optimal solution.

Is access to a signal the actual problem to be solved?

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.

People-centered systems design thinking out loud

feature_jaimeThis morning I was pondering the complexity involved in weaving together four separate threads of ‘innovation’ into one holistic system. They were not unrelated to each other, and the end users are more or less the same for each, but each is also a standalone solution to a pain point in an ecosystem. I was tinkering with the idea of trying to knit them into one – would it be far too complicated, both to implement, and to develop conceptually? Or, would the complexity be worth the additional headaches because the outcome would be well worth the effort of integration into a holistic and seamless concept?

From the product development point of view, the research question is whether an integrated, seamless solution is more viable and desirable than four standalone solutions developed by individual teams, in parallel, within the same ecosystem, and for the same target audience. Feasibility is the question being evaluated, from the value for money perspective. Of course it could be tried, that’s the beauty of design – one attempts to build prototypes to test one’s paper based theories to see if they break in the real world. But was it worth the time and resources to build the prototype in the first place?

It was while grappling with this minuscule yet wicked problem that I was reminded of a gentleman I once heard speak at the Better World by Design conference in Rhode Island about 8 years ago. Jaime Lerner is very well known to urban planners and city designers, I’m sure, but perhaps not as familiar a name to the rest of us. He conceived the idea of the city as a living, breathing, organic system – a turtle, as you can see in the diagram above. Life, work, movement, are all integrated together.

While the systems design challenge I’m pondering is more technology based, as is usually the case in today’s world, and not a cityscape, I believe that one can take away some powerful insights from Mr Lerner’s philosophy for design planning for a complex human ecosystems. In this context, its the informal and rural economic system prevalent in the developing world. Not unlike Brazil, where Mr Lerner perfected his vision.

Commerce in the informal sector is a living, breathing, organic ecosystem made up of human beings in flexible, negotiable, and thus, reciprocal relationships with each other. Much of the groundwork for this conclusion can be discovered in the reports linked to here. If we set aside the cityscape, and consider the essence of Mr Lerner’s philosophy, we see that his three key concepts are life, work, and movement.

In the context of the informal valueweb, movement could be considered with far more layers of nuance than simply transportation or mobility as one would in the context of urban planning. And, in the context of an ecosystem, it could be stretched to cover the flows of value in between the nodes in a value web – these we’d earlier identified as information, goods, services, and currency. That is, movement is the lifeblood of the organic network, the transactions that take place, and most importantly, the element of give and take which distinguishes human to human interactions.

Thus, if we were to step back from the design of the details of such a complex human interaction system, we too could conceivably think of it as living organism – perhaps not a turtle, which is a better metaphor for a city; perhaps there’s some other metaphor waiting for us to stumble over. In the meantime, I do wonder if we have the underlying philosophy for the design of complex, interdependent human interaction systems?



Part 2: Enabling development’s paradigm shift from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’

Workshop I_end user in sight during evaluation

Programming in International Development jumps directly into the Design phase of the projects. This is the root of the challenge they face now as they seek to change the paradigm away from ‘best practice’ to putting the end users at the center of their strategies, with ‘best fit’. I identified this problem in the Autumn of 2012 whilst delving into the internal project development processes with civil servants at the Netherlands Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economy during a customized internal workshop.

It should be mentioned at this point that while Robert Chambers has extensively promoted the participatory approach, there were issues in the process that were explored during our work, and can be covered in a separate article. Participatory design is not synonymous with user centered design, and neither approach includes a robust methodology for assessing the landscape of the operating environment in conjuction with solution development for ‘best fit’, particularly in the developing world context.

Before we can jump into the design of a project or programme – whether with or without the participation of the end users/beneficiaries, we need a structured approach to grasping the context of the challenge. Without a map of the landscape of the ‘wicked problem’, one cannot navigate the complexity (1). This so called landscape map of the ecosystem in which the development project will be introduced, should not only include understanding the people and their operating environment, but identify and frame the touchpoints for the design of ‘best fit’ interventions.

That is, there’s a need for framing the problem in a manner such that the outcome narrows down the solution space i.e. delineating the boundaries for ‘best fit’ prior to the inception of the design process. In the field of design, these boundary conditions can be known as design criteria and constraints, along with filters for assessing optimal solutions at the conceptual stage from the plurality available.


These first three steps in the process BEFORE jumping into design are collectively known as Design Planning, and their outcome minimizes the wasteful experimentation of ‘suits to try’ for ‘best fit’ as the design phase begins with the ‘measurements’ necessary for a ‘bespoke suit’ tailored to fit, to stretch the analogy. Bespoke tailors do not expect their carefully measured suit to fit their client on the first try, and usually one returns two or three times for the final fitting. Similarly, customized programming may require tweaks and can be considered a working prototype (a pilot program, for instance, prior to scaling) where the kinks are worked out together with the participants.

This will require work upfront at the start of the multi-year programmes. There are no silver bullets to addressing complexity.


(1) Part 1: An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

An Interdisciplinary Approach to “Best Fit” for International Development: Process and Tools

This post follows on from the previous one which introduced the concept of a ‘best fit’ approach to the ‘wicked problems’ in development. There I posited that consumer facing private enterprises looking at the African market would benefit from considering Development’s thought-leadership in this regard, given their experience in the challenging operating environments of the developing world.

I also noted that while the ‘best fit’ concept was a welcome paradigm shift for addressing complexity, the siloed thinking common to academia left far too many gaps in their approach and process.

In this post, I will begin to explore the seminal thinking (1) at the intersection of business and design  – also known as innovation planning – for methods and tools to address complexity in a holistic way, all the while keeping in mind that we need to ensure the end users (the rural poor, the people, or the beneficiaries) are at the center of the strategy (Chambers 1988).

Where is the gap?

A careful review of the working paper provides evidence that the challenge faced by international development practitioners when considering a ‘best fit’ approach to programme design is the lack of a robust methodology proven to take one from A to B. Here, we can think of point A as their original ‘best practice’ paradigm, and the attendant methods learnt through study and experience. Point B would be a validated process, with an accompanying toolkit, for applying the ‘best fit’ approach. One can confidently say a How To Handbook is missing, and the siloed thinking creates the barrier to developing one within the field.

What is the challenge?

While Ramalingam et al (2014) recognize the need for tools and processes from other disciplines more familiar with complex systems, one can gather a sense that they don’t know where to start. One cannot simply throw various methods and tools at problems, like spaghetti on the wall, to see which sticks. Even in mathematics, formulae are carefully selected based on the variables available, and the answer to be calculated. One doesn’t blindly throw data at all the available equations hoping to discover the one that fits the problem statement.

This challenge is better articulated in Matt Andrew’s blogpost which posits that the ‘best fit’ approach to policy and programme design is akin to choosing a new suit of clothes. The implication is one must try many different suits in order to discover the ‘best fit’. This is wasteful and time consuming.

What can people centred innovation planning offer?

First, the fundamental premise of human centered design firmly focuses the outcome of the processes on the context and needs of the end users. This orientation offers design a headstart in considering Robert Chambers’ emphasis on putting people first. The entire discipline is eminently suited to take on this challenge for international development, in an empathetic and holistic manner.

Second, addressing complex systems designed for human interaction is another key facet of the field of design, particularly the specializations that deal with computer human interaction of all types. This means there is a vast body of work created over decades meant to consider exactly this point.

Third, rather than wasting time and money on “trying on different suits” for ‘best fit’, there are proven approaches developed to minimize the failure rate of innovations introduced in the consumer market, and maximize the adoption rate by the end users. In particular, the areas of design thinking, design planning and design innovation have years of expertise in considering exactly this.

Finally, for development policies, and programmes to provide value for money, and sustainable, beneficial outcomes for their target audience, they must be designed such that they are viable, feasible, and desirable. This requires a holistic approach to solution development integrating elements from more than just one discipline, whether its design or development.

The philosophy of the methodology required to leap from “We must pivot to ‘best fit'” to bridging the gap of knowledge of “How to map the wicked problem and assess the context for programming” will be covered in the next article.



Strategy as a Wicked Problem by John Camillus (HBR 2008)
Living with Complexity by Don Norman (MIT Press 2010) Chapter 1 PDF
A Short Grandiose Theory of Design by Jay Doblin (STA Design Journal 1987)
Wicked Problems in Design Thinking by Richard Buchanan (Design Issues, 1992)

The 5C’s of Cashless

The Reserve Bank of India has unveiled their Vision 2018, an ambitious plan to shove the juggernaut into a cashless future. Here are their pithy yet to the point 5C’s, which focus the framework on a set of objectives.

  • Coverage – by enabling wider access to a variety of electronic payment services
  • Convenience – by enhancing user experience through ease of use and of products and processes
  • Confidence – by promoting integrity of systems, security of operations and customer protection
  • Convergence – by ensuring interoperability across service providers
  • Cost – by making services cost effective for users as well as service providers

The full Vision 2018 report can be found here. Smells like Rajan’s legacy as he wanders back to academia in the Fall. I’m very impressed by the framework’s conciseness, and the fact it embeds periodic customer feedback surveys (continuous user research) as part of the design.