Archive for the ‘Systems’ Category

Can the structure for innovation planning be used to disrupt itself?

This diagram is from Vijay Kumar’s 101 Design Methods. It is the basis for his structured approach for innovation planning, and the essence of what is taught at the methods driven human centered design program at the Institute of Design, IIT Chicago. Today I want to question some of the fundamental assumptions that underlie it – and from the very beginning of the process, not simply at Phase 5 (Explore Concepts) as given in the book. Some notes on this phase are shared below:

Explore Concepts: In this mode, we do structured brainstorming to explore new concepts. The insights and principles framed earlier provide the starting points for ideation, as well as guides to ensure we’re on track with matching concepts to needs. This helps make our concepts defensible and grounded in reality. In addition to the product and service, ideas for branding, communication, and even business models, are explored. This is the first stage we begin to construct rough (low-fidelity) prototypes – they help focus the team discussions, and provide probes for early user feedback or help the client clarify and refine their product development strategy whilst giving us feedback on the technical aspects.

And the mindsets recommended for this mode include:

  1. Challenging assumptions
  2. Standing in the future
  3. Exploring concepts at the fringes
  4. Seeking clearly added value
  5. Narrating stories about the future

Yet, what I question today is whether these mindsets that encourage experimentation and exploration should come up so late in the process, at the concept development stage, long after research and analysis have been completed? It is true that Vijay says the process is non linear and that a conceptual brainstorm (mode 5) may lead the way into research designed to validate its viability, feasibility and desirability, but this is at the tactical level of business innovation rather than at the strategic level. I question whether its possible to use this powerful and methodical approach to begin with a structured and rigorous questioning of our initial assumptions at the very inception itself in order to over turn the often implicit and tacit drivers of consumption driven growth seeking only to maximize profitability.

Let me share an earlier variation of this diagram first, where the real and the abstract are also mapped on to the process.

It is here, at the real stage, where we seek to understand what is what – through research, before we can analyse it and synthesize our narratives and concepts, where we have the opportunity to question our assumptions regarding the ‘system’. The lower left quadrant where we seek to “understand the real” is where we have the power to make the change that can genuinely disrupt business as usual. Not in the sense of a business model that disrupts but still holds the premise that all profits should flow to the shareholders, or a shift in the corporate’s focus to services from manufacturing but without the explicit articulation of environmental impact or resource conservation. To disrupt business as usual in today’s world would mean starting to question Whom are we serving? Why? For whose benefit? from scratch rather than leaving them unasked, resulting in default assumptions that a business only seeks to innovate to increase its own profits rather than seeking to serve a greater good such as the planet and the wildlife.

The triple bottomline approach captures the end results for those corporations who are already oriented in this way but is there a structured and rigorous planning approach to ensure their near future innovation and strategies align with these corporate goals and visions? And, is there such a flexible tool that the smallest startup can use it to think of how they will choose to do business – after all, it is a choice, and framing it up front in the product and service development process means that it now becomes an explicit choice, a considered decision to be taken, rather than one after the fact or halfway down the process when some inadvertent outcome leads to challenges that were not foreseen.

Sustainable product development already has numerous robust and validated systems and processes, from green buildings to recyclable packaging, what is missing however is the holistic integration of design and manufacturing (which hold the maximum power for good for the planet and the people) with the business thinking and the sustainable revenue generation strategies that can ensure that probability of the innovation’s success is maximized.

And, if we can design the fuzzy front end to be customized to the priority needs of any particular operating environment then following through with this adapted approach to innovation planning for the informal economy or for sub Saharan Africa’s consumer markets will be a cakewalk. Half the current challenge of business planning and corporate strategy in disparate operating environments with very distinctly different conditions is that the methods, tools, and frameworks available to us are all the same, and primarily developed in the context of highly industrialized and information rich consumer markets. They leave assumptions on the conditions and constraints of the operating environment untouched and implicit*.

Thus, going back to the first diagram, where the first mode is Sense Intent:

Sense Intent: Before jumping straight into a project, we pause to consider the world in which our intended users reside. We scan the horizon, looking at technological & socio-economic trends, precursors, competing products, and a variety of other factors that can affect our topic area. All of these offer us a way to reframe our initial problem and help us think of our initial intent and the direction in which we should be moving. This is where our research questions are mapped out, and the problem space described.

This is where the power resides to remake our world. What if we began with the mindset that:

  1. Challenged assumptions
  2. Stood in the future
  3. Explored the fringes
  4. Sought added value and began with articulating for whom (all stakeholders)

And began with the story (5. Narrating stories about the future) about the changes we wished to see, and the impact we wished to have, on our own future, thus inspiring and informing the scope and shape of the research we conducted in order to know people (mode 2) and know context (mode 3) so as to gather the type of forward looking insights we would need in order shape and craft something wholly different from the ground up.

What if we thought about innovation very differently from the current context of a new product or a new service, of looking to disrupt the existing even while seeking to exist within the conventional frameworks of success – profits, scale, reach, impact, fundraising et al

We need new narratives and new goals but ad hoc design fictions and scenarios aren’t going achieve the kind of new we need for the way our planet has changed. Along with the limits of what can be, we have also reached the limits of where our existing methods and tools can take us. And without changing those, at the systemic level, we’ll still be trying to come up with changes within the constraints of what has already been established. We don’t need the existing tools that help us to think outside the box, what we now need are the tools to build new boxes.

 

*This is the tyranny of dominant logic CK Prahalad spoke about.

One (last) word: Plastics

A UN report issued on World Environment day  showed dozens of nations acting to cut plastic, including a ban on plastic bags in Kenya, on styrofoam in Sri Lanka and the use of biodegradable bags in China. via

There’s a backlash against plastics that is ongoing in many not so noticed parts of the world today. So called ‘weak’ signals from three major economies stand out for the impact in the near and emerging future of their policy shifts towards the material use of plastics.

The first is India, where a recent waste audit in Bengaluru showed that over 60% of the waste littering the streets was from non recyclable consumer product packaging by both international and domestic brands. By 2020, India will abolish all single-use plastics, and introduce a campaign against marine litter, among other things.

The EU has also moved to ban the same, and the proposal also requires EU countries to collect 90 percent of single-use plastic drink bottles by 2025 and producers to help cover costs of waste management and clean-up.

China, on the other hand, has caused consternation among nations who relied on shipping their plastics off for recycling. They’ve banned imports of contaminated waste plastic, leaving questions hanging such as “And how do you get manufacturers to design a product that is more easily recyclable.” Though I find this conversation interesting for its consistent and tone deaf externalization of the problem – waste management is certainly a developing country problem, but materials technology and consumer packaging innovation is a developed country design challenge.

With more than 50 countries waking up to the plastics problem, there’s a deeper shift occurring in the air, beyond our critical need to protect wildlife and the oceans. That of dependency on oil – in case you didn’t know, the bulk of plastic is made from oil.

Here’s a quick round up of something of things happening in these major economies with significant chunks of the world’s population.

India has just approved a massive new 5000 megawatt solar farm, and as the map shows, there’s many more out there in the desert wastes. The Chinese and Indian solar farms are 10x the size of those in North America.

The number of electric cars on the road has more than doubled over the last three years, and of the global sales of electric vehicles (EVs) last year, China contributed more than half. And there’s a shift now from blind growth towards more strategic product development, with greater impact. Numerous European marques are opening factories and R&D centers in China. And India’s doing its best to keep up.

What is going to be the impact of these moves, combined, from these three major economies on the planet? The head of Shell’s Scenarios* team has already developed a scenario called Sky “which shows that changing the ways we transport people and goods is one of the crucial steps toward the world meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement — keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2⁰C above pre-industrial levels.”

On a planetary scale, these trends are the future, and products and business models that do not adapt to them are going to be increasingly obsolete, or suitable only for walled gardens. The use of Fahrenheit is but one example. Conserving humanity’s collective home is far more important for all our emerging futures.

 

*Shell originally developed the concept and tools for scenario planning

The comparative global impact of Alibaba vs. Amazon

Alibaba Business School and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) brought 29 young entrepreneurs from 11 countries across Africa to the Alibaba campus in Hangzhou, China for the third eFounders Fellowship cohort.

Chinese corporate soft power influence is production driven, not consumption focused. Alibaba, the e-commerce giant with digital payment tentacles, has been graduating cohorts of young entrepreneurs from Asia and Africa this past year. This initiative is the outcome from Jack Ma’s seminal visit to Nairobi last year, when thousands of young Kenyans waited for him in the sun.

Photo Credit: Abdishakur Mohammed, July 2017, University of Nairobi grounds, Kenya

He talks about entrepreneurship in a digital world, and personally shows up to meet visiting cohorts to talk about taking the lessons learnt from e-commerce in the most challenging environments in China (rural, mobile, social) back home to their own not dissimilar operating environments.

Contrast this with the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Amazon these days – a desperate workforce unable to take a leak, afraid to lose their low waged jobs as worker bees in a humongous warehouse. It keeps prices down and the consumption that runs the billions flowing, but whom does it benefit beyond the shareholders?

It struck me when I saw the news about “Alibaba Global Leadership Academy” that Chinese soft power was increasingly about driving production and growth aka development along their entire value chain, even among putative new consumer markets, whilst the American model was still stuck in a consumption driven mindset of the 1980s first wave of globalization. Buy more cola, wear our jeans, use our credit card, say the American brands in Jakarta or Accra or Nairobi.

The difference in mindset is stark when you think about the tech giants of Silicon Valley looking to uplift with low cost connectivity and internet basics for free, and compare to the Chinese giants thinking about raising the purchasing power first. The english language media would have you believe its all about neo-colonialism for natural resources, but the recent shifts in tactics and strategy seem to imply a less demoralizing mindset than anything evidenced by charitable good works handing out goodies to the downtrodden. Because whatever the agenda, the bottomline will be that at end of the exercise there will be a group left inspired to build their own markets on their mobiles, versus a group left holding a palliative goodie.

“My experience here has shifted my thinking. Before, we were focused on pleasing the investors, but now I see the importance of putting our customers first, then my employees, then the investors,” said Andreas Koumato, 26, from Chad , the founder of Mossosouk, an e-commerce platform. “Let others [benefit], then later, we will gain.”

Production driven social impact is far more powerful than consumption driven. Human centered productivity even more so.

The Resilience of Innovation under Conditions of Scarcity

Kouassi Bafounga works on a storm lantern, Bangui, Central African Republic, January 16, 2018. Thomson Reuters Foundation / Inna Lazareva

Innovating beyond the traditional tin lantern – a simple wick attached to the can – Kouassi Bafounga cuts shapes from tin cans and fixes them together with glass, string and a little petrol to produce storm-proof lanterns.

Last year, Bafounga was one of 11 winners in a “Fab Lab” innovation competition run by the French embassy and Alliance Française, a French cultural centre in Bangui, with financing from the European Union’s Bêkou Trust Fund. The finalists, chosen from more than 100 applicants, received assistance to develop their products into businesses.

Inna Lazareva writes on this “creativity from crisis” sharing stories of inventors and makers who must single-handedly create solutions for daily needs in highly volatile conditions of material scarcity.

Given the challenges faced by the Central African Republic, I see these stories as evidence of the resilience of innovation, something often overlooked when we ooh and ahh over the creations themselves.

How can we learn from this?

 

For more on Innovation under conditions of scarcity and Scarcity as a driver for innovation

Trading economics: a new theoretical system

From the Financial Times, a snippet from a guest post by Wang Zhenying, director-general of the research and statistics department at the PBoC’s Shanghai head office and vice chairman of the Shanghai Financial Studies Association, summarising the arguments in his new Chinese-language textbook on economics.

“Trading economics” is one new theory emerging against this backdrop. Mainstream economics deduces the macro whole by extrapolating from the behavior of individual “representative agents”. Trading economics replaces this with a systematic and comprehensive analysis approach. It stresses that in an interconnected world, the interaction between trading subjects is the fundamental driving force behind the operation, development, and evolution of economic systems.

Trading economics first analyses the actions of trading subjects, then builds a dynamic trading network among trading subjects through trading relations, and finally reveals the operational rules of the economic system. The rules could be examined from two perspectives: short-term and long-term. The business cycle and price changes are examined in the short-term perspective. The long-term perspective would focus on the rules of economic evolution as well as changes in technology, knowledge, system, and network.

Throughout the history of economics, trading economics is the first and foremost theory to incorporate all economic phenomena into an all-encompassing logical system. It changes the long-standing scenario in the economics field, that is, the macro was separated from the micro, and the short-term from the long-term. Trading economics is a revolution of mainstream economic theories and is bound to exert a great and profound impact on all areas, including economic theoretical research and practical application.

 

NB: I thoroughly enjoyed reading this summary and expect to contextualize future research with some of the theoretical frameworks as presented here.

 

 

Leveraging Disability as Competitive Advantage: The Wheelchair Cargo Movers of Uganda

Only in Busia do wheelchair owners from all over Uganda congregate as it is to their economic advantage to do so. Documented, and observed were the handicapped professionals who crossed the border numerous times a day ferrying goods.

In the past 25 years, the Busia tricyclists have created a strong community with initiative and resourcefulness in exploiting economic and political opportunities. Dialogue and negotiations have allowed them to conduct business without having to pay customs duties under the watchful eye of the authorities.

They point out with satisfaction that there are no disabled people begging on the streets of Busia, not even on Fridays when Muslims give out alms to the poor. On the other hand, each new officer must be sensitized.

These children from destitute families earn shillings helping with moving the freight. Neither participant is dependent on handouts.

 

Photographs: Michael Kimani, for Emerging Futures Lab, in Busia, Uganda, December 2015.

Mobiles at the Border Post: Anti-Atlas of Borders Exhibition Slides (Jan 2016)

In January 2016, our submission for the Anti-Atlas of Borders Art Exhibition in Brussels was accepted for a commission of 500e. We were thrilled and surprised since we’d never imagined our work on mobile platforms, technology, and the borderland biashara could be considered from the arts and culture point of view.

Here is our story in the form of slideshow – each of these was printed in full size and hung on the walls.

A Unique Path to Development Seen for the Informal Economy

Just recently I stumbled over this slim book < 60 pages that analyzed existing data sources in order to frame an answer to the research question they posed:

How did the informal economy―markets and the private sector―develop in the absence of legal and administrative frameworks to support it?

Some of the most intriguing insights extracted here:

And they echo my own statements regarding the East African Community that its the informal sector that’s growing faster and responsible for employing the majority of the population. This makes integration and bridging efforts between the formal and global together with the local and informal even more critical.

The path to integration as described in the book may not apply to the African economies but holds some unusual insights for those in eastern Europe which may struggle with some of the same issues of top down planning and grassroots income generation.

All in all, the step by step approach over the past decade to recognize, and thus integrate the informal sector was much appreciated and if you’re interested, you can download the book here.

Household energy consumption behavioural study in East Africa: Cooking (Part 2 of 3)

Scrap wood fueled three stone fire in sheltered corner

The following is extracted from a six month study during 2012 on household energy consumption behaviour in rural Kenya and Rwanda among the lower income demographic, that led to an understanding of some of barriers hampering the sales of client’s solar products in this market. This 2nd part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for cooking. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel catering for more than 12 hours a day.

Fuel Usage Behaviour is Influenced Greatly by Location

Choice of fuel and decisions on quantity kept in stock for cooking is dependent on the location of the primary residence rather than income. Rural homesteads in Kenya have a separate outhouse for cooking and firewood is the preferred choice of fuel even in those regions where shambas are too small to support their own grove of trees.

Kilonzi’s wife dreams of upgrading to an LPG cookstove some day in the future

That is, while Kilonzi’s wife on a large shamba in Makueni might stack enough firewood for just two or three days, collected for free from her own backyard, Mama Grace the tea farmer with land constraints in Kisii will purchase an entire tree to last her for a month. Meanwhile, the more economically challenged on small shambas devote a week foraging far and wide for enough brushwood to last for two or three months before needing to take time away again from more pressing household duties.

Charcoal is also used on the homestead but only for certain tasks like making chapatis or for quickly brewing tea for visitors or in the morning rush before school or work. Even if the charcoal is made right on the shamba from a tree that needed felling, most of it is kept aside for sale and considered a source of cash money rather than consumed as fuel.

Residents who live away from their shambas, taking up rooms in town due to their work where cooking must be done in the same space as living and other activities, cannot use firewood. In fact, if renting, landlords clearly state that the use of firewood is banned, as a safety precaution. Thus, urban residents are forced to choose fuels that can be used in small, portable cooking stoves and charcoal ends up being the most common due to its relative cost as compared to kerosene. Those who do own a kerosene stove are in the minority and again, its use is only for very specific tasks that require speed such as making tea for visitors or in the morning.

Heavy Duty Charcoal Usage by Hotel

For those whose primary fuel for cooking is charcoal, the quantity purchased is dependant on cash in hand if their income is not from a salaried position and this ranges from a ‘deben’ which lasts for about 5 or 6 days and costs around 100 – 130 Kes to an entire sack which ranges from 500 to 750 Kes and can last as long as a month. Pricing for fuel is closely related to its proximity to the source, since transportation can be expensive and convenience is a service that comes with a premium. Kerosene which sells for 83 Kes a litre at the petrol station in town was found to be selling at a rate of 140Kes/litre at a small duka deep in the interior.

Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Three: Lighting & Concluding Remarks

Introduction to rural household energy consumption behaviour in East Africa (1 of 3 parts)

The following is extracted from a six month study during 2012 on household energy consumption behaviour in rural Kenya and Rwanda among the lower income demographic, that led to an understanding of some of barriers hampering the sales of client’s solar products in this market. This first part is an overview of household financial management in conditions irregular and unpredictable income streams from a variety of sources. The 2nd and 3rd part will focus on fuel usage and consumption behaviours for cooking and for lighting separately. Users sampled for this study were selected based on varying fuel consumption patterns, ranging from a single homestead to a rural hotel catering for more than 12 hours a day.

Aspirational ownership and tangible evidence of savings in prepaid purchase model of solar panel, as seen in Chuka, Kenya (Photo: Niti Bhan, February 2012)

Rural Kenyans are not very different from rural Filipinos or Malawians or Indians when it comes to the way they manage their daily household expenses. Similarities in decision making, in purchasing patterns and in observed consumer behaviour, all stem from the same underlying need to plan and manage on irregular incomes from a variety of multiple sources in harsh environments of scarcity and uncertainty. The underlying driver is always to stretch the limited shilling, rupee or peso to the maximum while keeping one’s head above water.

With the exception of the salaried schoolteacher, who managed on fixed amounts of cash paid predictably on a calender schedule, the rest juggled an irregular cash flow against required expenses, attempting to minimize the differences over calender time and as a planning mechanism across the natural year’s seasons of abundance and scarcity. Even cash croppers like Mama Grace, who received end month payments from the tea factory, coped with the significant difference in the quality and quantity of tea harvested during the wet and the dry seasons with a variance of as much as 300% between high and low payments.

Rural homesteads manage their household finances rather like a “portfolio of investments” that mature over varying times such as cow’s milk which can be sold daily for cash, while a chicken takes less time than a field of maize to be ready for harvest and sale. Thus decisions are made based on timing of the expense and the choice of ‘investment’ to liquidate on what was ‘ready’ as well as the amount of cash required. For example, in Kilala livestock market it is a known fact that livestock prices always drop in January as its time for first term school fees and everybody needs to sell to raise the necessary cash. Similarly, major purchases or cash outlays are planned for known times of abundance such as right after the seasonal harvest.

Unlike those on a fixed salary who are able to plan ahead, those on irregular incomes need greater control and flexibility over the timing – that is the frequency and the periodicity; and well the amount – in cash or kind; of their cash flow, as a planning mechanism for financial management. In fact, the greater the span of control the customer has over their time and money, as articulated above, the greater the success of a business model or payment plan. This is why prepaid airtime is the preferred model for 96% of the African continent’s 700 million mobile phone users and also why kerosene has been so hard to dislodge. It can be purchased by cash amount (say 40 Kes worth) or quantity (half a litre or 5 litres) on demand or in bulk, and then frugally used for as long as possible, allowing consumers control over their “time” and “money” with great flexibility.

Observations on household fuel and energy use reflect these purchasing patterns and consumer behaviour. Cooking and then lighting are the most important needs, and the two elements of time and money as discussed above, show up in the form of duration and location. While duration of use has a direct relationship to the amount of time and money required, location has a critical bearing on behaviour in rural Kenya as will be seen in forthcoming posts.

 

Part One: Introduction to Household Energy Consumption Behaviour Study in East Africa (2012)
Part Two: Cooking
Part Three: Lighting & Concluding Remarks