Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Book Review: Operation Elop, the final years of Nokia by Merina Salminen and Pekka Nykänen

Design auditing the new Life Tools for Nokia, Sept 2009, India

Operation Elop, uploaded by Harri Kiljander has just been made available in English and I’m already on Chapter 8. I saw the editor’s tweet 23 minutes after he said “It’s done and available on Medium under a Creative Commons license” and I haven’t stopped diving in and out since.

It starts with a memorable day in Finland – 10th September 2010 – so memorable that one asks “Where were you that day?” and people remember. I remember it well, and I have photographs to prove it. My life changed rather dramatically in the year that followed, and the period that the book covers is the same period I was away from Finland, having already decided to make my home here for the remaining years of my life.

Its complicated, this history of Nokia’s demise. The impact on Finland was palpable, the responses ranging across the spectrum of human emotions. You have to know that I was in love with Nokia and the changes they had wrought across the developing world. In 2007, there’s a photograph of me sitting in their lobby stunned from the impact of coming face to face with a corporation that conveyed the values of their brand. And its because of Nokia’s design and innovation researchers blogging their exploratory user research across Africa that inspired me to do what I have been doing for the past 10 years. Every chapter in this book has been adding new layers to my own personal journey.

I’ll highlight the one paragraph that’s important to me. When all the news was breaking over the years, I thought that Nokia was splitting their product development energies too broadly. In fact, in May 2011, I was invited to a feature phone workshop to present on the future and on Africa. What I said we wanted to put on t-shirts, “Don’t get stuck in the missionary position.” They were taking a Mother Teresa route in Africa instead of focusing on what they were good at – robust engineering and products that stood up to harsh climes and rough usage. At a value for money price point. I didn’t know it was already too late, but here’s the key snippet from the book that helped me make sense of things from long ago as I read it today.

From Chapter 19:

In 2010, the foundation of Nokia’s business consisted of devices priced at a few tens of euros ($30–50), with which one could make calls, send text messages, and use simple web services. Thanks to efficient production, feature phones yielded larger profit margins to Nokia than smartphones. The amazing efficiency was based on the S40 operating system, which had been introduced in 1999. Nokia conquered the world with S40. It was made possible because the system could be tailored at a low cost to mobile network providers operating in different regions. By 2012, Nokia sold 1.5 billion S40 devices across the world.

This was squandered in the race to the top, the glamour of being world famous, complicated by so many factors – all simply and accessibly laid out in the book – that it still makes one weep to think of what might have been. All I know is that the Nokia I own today doesn’t even have predictive text.

I want to thank the translators for their hard work and effort. The book has been a joy to read and it’s kept its Finnishness in choice of words, and sentence structure. You can read it online or download it for free.

Book Review- Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden

After a gap of 6 years and many more journeys looking at Africa through the lens of design ethnography, I sat down to re-read Richard Dowden‘s Africa this past weekend. It moved me to want to write so many times during the read, it’s a wonder I made it through the book before starting this review. It offered me a foundation for understanding context and background, which, perhaps, I wouldn’t have appreciated, back when I first read it more than 5 years ago. I’d only just begun my own explorations of the African consumer market then, seeking to understand the patterns and rhythm of the informal and rural economy. Prepaid Africa was still an exploratory user research project, not the daily deep dive into news and views on the emerging economies of the continent that it is today.

Richard Dowden brings something unique to his writing that I rarely come across in global media, a deep respect for the African continent and its peoples. Many will write with love and affection but there’s a nuanced difference when respect, and a touch of unspoken humility, bring to one’s understanding of the other. There was a moment of shock in the beginning, when Dowden writes of dealing with his recognition of the fact that as a mzungu he was always to remain on the outside looking in, kept apart from the “inner mysteries” of the local networks and hidden relationships by virtue of his visible foreignness. It is not until the epilogue, almost 40 years later, that he feels he might finally have passed through that invisible barrier.

Shock because I realized that some of those things he called mysteries were obvious to me – the relationships, the networks, the give and take of close knit communities and societies – these are a given part of many non “Western” cultures, learnt and understood at a level below conscious understanding. They are also a tangible part of what makes the informal economy tick, the relationships of trusted referrals and social networks that underlie the formal words of transactions, negotiations, commerce and trade. That was when I settled down the read the book, to learn and understand a world which I might never be able to perceive, from my own perspective.

And that is what Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden offers you – a clear eyed, lucidly written, easy to grasp understanding of the context for many of the present day issues and challenges we see and hear in the daily news. Governments, geopolitics, socioeconomics, and the Global North’s perspective looking down. He doesn’t hesitate to gently poke at ideology and idealism; everyone’s greed is laid bare, if you can learn to read between the lines.

It introduced me to Africa in a way that I’ll never be able to see, yet made me realize that there’s value in the work that I do. For that, I recommend this book as a must read, especially if you’re an African.

Book Review: Adventures in Stationery by James Ward


I read this book in one sitting yesterday. Now I’m here writing on it.

Any adult who’s furtively indulged in scented erasers, colourful gel pens or handmade paper, to be shoved secretly down the lowermost drawer in the desk will love this book.

Pens and pencils, paperclips and pushpins. James Ward lovingly describes them all, interspersing a well researched narrative with joke bombs dropped in with the straightest face.

My only issue with his writing is that it made me feel old. He writes as though he’s middle aged yet refers to the era when I sat for my O Levels as the dim mists of history. Other than that, go find this eminently readable book. Especially if you’re a designer. Ward knows what he’s writing about and does it engagingly well.

“This book is the Salt of office supplies”


Book Review – Stealth of Nations: The global rise of the informal economy

The first best thing that I can say, on Robert Neuwirth’s Stealth of Nations, is that I’m grateful to the author for writing the book. I’ve just finished reading it, after purchasing it at a premium from Kinokuniya in downtown Singapore. At least twice while reading I found myself wanting to bake cookies for the author, even as I realized at other points of his sweeping overview of the entrepreneurial spirit – the economy of ingenuity, as he so aptly terms it – that his perspective was a bit naive, or rather, that of an outsider, the natural outcome from a detached observer traveling through all the locales and situations.

His extremely easy to read and engrossing writing style rapidly took me through the stories of the enterprising individuals he met in Paraguay, China and Nigeria as well as covering the reflections of experts such as John Keith Hart, Roberto Unger and Martha Alter Chen. The urge to bake cookies emerged from the way he intertwined snippets from John Adams’ classic Wealth of Nations in and out of his narrative in order to give context to the economic thinking and theory of current day policy and systems.

What he has done with the publication and the subsequent publicity of this book is to shine a bright light on the economic engine that employs billions of people around the world, who aspire to make their dreams come true and create a better life for themselves and their children, in the most challenging circumstances and uncertain environments.

The topic has been covered extensively in such eminent locations as Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal and – no small feat for a subject matter traditionally overlooked or considered a blight on the development economics landscape.  Neuwirth covers this aspect in the early chapters of the book and quotes Hart viz.,

Even Keith Hart has come to recognize the shortcomings of the phrase he coined. “The label ‘informal’ may be popular because it is negative,” he wrote in the paper delivered at a conference in 2004. “It says what people are not doing – not wearing conventional dress, not being regulated by the state – but it does not point to any active principles they may have for doing it. It is a passive and conservative concept that acknowledges a world outside the bureaucracy, but endows it with no positive identity.”

He goes on to propose a rebranding – system D – but acknowledges that is a cosmetic change. Words as labels tend to be constricting for this amorphous yet creative liminal space that is such a gray area between structure and chaos –  my own use of the label the prepaid economy has only captured the most popular business model of pay as you within this space but not the inherent potential and value that this activity provides among those conventionally known as the Base or Bottom of the Pyramid.

It is the fact that his book exists – firmly positioned in the context of economics, that too global economics, in this time of transition and upheaval when so called structured systems are themselves suspect of being the perpetrators of the problems facing the financial industry – that offers the greatest value to that which he calls System D. This, to me is the greatest value that his book will bring, if it is able to retain its prominence in the public sphere once the flurry of reviews and coverage is over.

It provides the layman – even economists are laymen, when it comes to the details of the daily grind for the lower income demographic across the developing world – with a glimpse of the why a System D must needs exist – particularly where there is systemic mistrust due to inadequate infrastructure, lack of a safety net and where systems don’t work at all, much less as imagined or  planned.

Neuwirth highlights a key point – this economy provides employment for anyone, with the lowest barriers to entry. Any market woman with enough shillings or rupees to buy one day’s inventory is automatically in business – compare this to a highly structured formal economy like Finland’s, where a recent culinary school graduate manning a coffee and cake kiosk at Katajanokkapuisto tells me that she is unable to offer more than a quesadilla, though there was demand for a wider variety of foodstuffs, simply because of the extensive barriers of rules, regulations and requirements by the city’s authorities.

If it makes the powers-that-be that set policy or make pronouncements on what is the one right way to economic development stop and consider whether a little loosening up might not benefit their own tightly corseted economies a little, then this book, with all its naivete and idealism would have done the job I want for it to do.

So, where do I feel Neuwirth is lacking? An example would be the throwaway line saying that something like a Maker Faire Africa could be done at regional and even global levels, making a difference for the inventors and makers emerging from their environments of scarcity. Oh yes, Mr Neuwirth, we want that to happen so badly, but as those of us who have tried to make this happen elsewhere have found, few organizations want to fund it or see the value in such activities.

Even while seeing the value and potential of this introduction to size, scale and scope – not to mention the sheer motive power – of this economic activity, it has been in these areas – the suggestions for what can be done, where Mr Neuwirth has revealed his lack of experience with the way the world and its decision makers view those at the BoP. A touch more work on the people themselves, their lives and the role that System D plays – with context of their socioeconomic strata, existing opportunities and the challenges posed by well meaning impact investments and NGO foundations would have given the book a grounding it currently lacks.

For these are all factors that influence each other – economic theory and development practice, BoP marketing and poverty alleviation, microfinance and the so called chaos of the bazaar. Still, if the Stealth of Nations paints this economy of ingenuity in a positive light and gives it credibility, it may perhaps begin to change the way these activities are viewed leading to efforts to bridge the deeper and not so digital divide between the developing and the developed world.

The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly – a user centered approach to aid programmes

Approaching William Easterly’s recent book on foreign aid and economic development challenges in the ‘third’ or ‘developing’ world from the design thinker’s point of view has been an eye opening exercise. Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has written a mixed review evaluating Easterly’s thesis and approach, while other reviews include the London Book Review’s balanced summation.

While written about developmental economics, poverty, foreign aid and the grand plans designed to save the poor from themselves, Easterly proposes an alternate approach based on the principles of the user centered approach to design of systems and solutions.

Do exploratory research, understand the needs of the users, observe them and the systems they already have in place for addressing the issue or existing grassroots solutions [jugaad or bottom up innovation], use these as prototypes for the design of replicable successful programs, cross pollinate ideas that work across different regions or countries, adapt programs and plans to local culture and social customs – basically the user centered approach to the implementation of aid programs.

But Easterly doesn’t actually use any of these terms that we may be familiar with, he classifies the top down, traditional global foreign aid approach as one designed by “Planners” and the bottom up, grassroots, user centered approach which relies on feedback mechanisms and accountability as one developed by “Searchers”. Look at the way he describes the approach of each,

“In foreign aid, Planners announce good intentions but don’t motivate anyone to carry them out; Searchers find things that work and get some reward. Planners raise expectations but take no responsibility for meeting them; Searchers accept responsibility for their actions. Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand. Planners apply global blueprints; Searchers adapt to local conditions. Planners at the top lack knowledge of the bottom; Searchers find out what the reality is at the bottom. Planners never hear whether the planned got what it needed; Searchers find out whether the customer is satisfied.”

Don’t the Searchers – who adapt to local conditions, find out what the reality is at the bottom, obtain user feedback etc – sound just like the ideal user oriented consumer product companies who seek to design and develop products to fill gaps in the market or meet an unmet need, discovered by observation and understanding local culture?

Reading further, the takeaway seems to be three key approaches to successful developmental programs –

  • Design programs for local needs and local culture, adapting them to each locale and environment
  • Observe local solutions developed to address the issue successfully, particularly if they adapt the “official” way to do things to the needs of the local culture or customs
  • Then cross pollinate by taking concepts that have worked at the grassroots level – call it bottom up innovation – and scale them or adapt them for other regions or countries

Therefore, while I may not be in a position to evaluate his entire thesis on the global developmental economics platform the way Shri Amartya Sen might be able to, incisively, in his review of Easterly’s book, I do conclude that there is a powerful message here that the very same methods and tools that profit making global multinationals are beginning to use to successfully enter new markets, such as ethnographic research and understanding local culture and conditions before launching products or services without a clue, would also be extremely powerful ways for the design and development of a variety of aid programmes that actually respond to the actual needs of the local populace.

Sen concludes in his review as well,

In his wholesale praise of “searchers” over “planners,” Easterly says, “Planners determine what to supply; Searchers find out what is in demand.” This may be just so, but there is a radical difference (of which Easterly is surely aware, judging from what he writes elsewhere in the book) between the enterprise of supplying “what is in demand” — which is integrally linked to the buyers’ ability to pay — and that of supplying needed goods and services to people whose income and wealth do not allow a need to be converted into a market demand.

None of this, however, negates the importance of Easterly’s general praise of searchers. There is much merit in ground-level explorations of what is feasible — even when addressing problems that are a thousand times more difficult than selling Harry Potter books to buyers who are willing and able to pay for them. Information and initiatives have to come from many sources, including the deprived themselves (this is why studies such as Voices of the Poor are so important), and without constant searching for what the problems are and how they can be addressed, global aid efforts end up being far less effective than they could be.


NB: This review was first published on Perspective 2.0 on December 13, 2007