Posts Tagged ‘design’

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.

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.

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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.

 

Mirror-Mirror, Who am I? The rise of African doll brands that empower Black girls

During the past few years, people of color all over the world have started challenging their absence in a positive light in the media, entertainment, books and toys. Black people, and Africans more specifically, feel invisible or highly under represented. The lack of visibility has severe effects on image, self esteem and success.

Experts say that self confidence starts at an early age. The images, words and overall culture we expose young minds to have a long term influence on the trajectory of their lives.  Who best than people of color themselves to produce and create articles that celebrate them and put them in the best light?

Several Africans, men and women, are active in the business of creating dolls or barbies that African girls can identify with through different skin tones, body shapes, hair texture or different outfits representative of various cultures. These dolls are mostly assembled in China, produced in low quantities and generally sold locally.

So far, five brands are emerging in both francophone and anglophone Africa:

Queens of Africa Dolls (Nigeria): The dolls and materials are designed, through fun and engaging materials, to subconsciously promote African heritage. Queens of Africa celebrates being an African girl in the 21st century by drawing on the strengths and achievements of ancestors and bring them up to date to empower and inspire today’s generation of African girls.

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Momppy Mpoppy Dolls (South Africa): Fashion forward with an afro, the doll seeks to be a trendy and attractive alternative to Barbie for girls of African descent.

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Sarama Dolls (Côte d’Ivoire): Dolls dressed in traditional Ivorian gear, they celebrate various cultures in Côte d’Ivoire.

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Naima Dolls (Côte d’Ivoire): A mix of dolls and barbies, with different shades of brown, hairstyles and outfits (modern and traditional) that exist in baby, male and female versions.
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Nubia Kemiat (Cameroun): The doll with natural hair is a cultural story teller that narrates tales in Africa and throughout the world.
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Local entrepreneurs are partnering with (department) stores or e-commerce sites to ensure greater distribution across the country and increasingly all through the world. Although, the middle class is  enthusiastic about such empowering cultural products, prices and availability remain barriers that brands need to address to develop mainstream products.

Does the human-centered design industry believe in it’s own process?

Generic diagram found online

Generic diagram found online

Listening to users, and incorporating their feedback is considered the key differentiator for the practice of human-centered design. Yet, one wonders, if the design industry has understood that this philosophy must necessarily include the feedback from their clients as well. That is, while we are all aware of the navel gazing tendencies displayed by design thinkers and writers, we very rarely come across any pragmatic criticism of the industry itself, and it’s approach and processes, by those purchasing their services.

Yesterday, during my reading on ‘Doing Development Differently’,  I came across an incisive critique of what can only be called Big Design, by Geoff Mulgan, the Chief Executive of Nesta – the UK’s innovation foundation. His insights are worth pondering.

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Source: Ben Ramalingam http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/development-innovation-taking-high-road

One could almost interpret this as saying that human centered designers are unable to incorporate user feedback.

As Mulgan himself says on page 5:

I’ve several times sat in meetings with designers and design promoters, alongside policymakers, where the same pattern has repeated. The policymakers grudgingly accepted that they might have quite a bit to learn from the designers; but the designers appeared baffled when it was suggested that they might have something to learn from the policymakers, or from the many other organisations and fields with claims to insight into service design: social entrepreneurs, professions, consultancies, IT, policymakers. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule: but overblown claims that design methods are uniquely placed to tackle complex, holistic problems has not always helped to inspire a culture of collaboration and mutual learning.

When an overweening sense of one’s place on the team overrides ‘deep craft’, what are the future implications for the designer’s role in shaping their own environment?

And, what are the ramifications for the entire design industry, when Big Design’s Big PR hampers progress more than it helps?

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…

5 examples of the breadth of African led human-centered design and thinking and planning

The other day I was searching for news on design from the African continent and noted on Twitter that it seemed as though only the South Africans were consistently talking about their various creative outputs. Having long been part of the crowd that believed in the indigenous creativity and innovation in the less visible parts of the world, I went digging to see if maybe it wasn’t the words that were important but the intent of the action.

Was there, in fact, evidence of people centred thinking and planning, and solution crafting, that was innovative or transformative? This is what I’ve found with just a couple of days of desk research, I expect there’s much more out there and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

South Africa: What was designed to exclude can be redesigned to include

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Papwa Sewgolum Golf Course © Johnny Miller / Millefoto

During apartheid, barriers were both constructed and modified to segregate urban spaces—roads, rivers, and large stretches of open land separating rich neighborhoods from the poor. Twenty-two years later these barriers still exist, large homes with lush lawns just a few yards away from tightly-packed communities organized with dirt roads rather than tree-lined streets. Photographer Johnny Miller wanted to capture the dramatic divide from a new perspective, and decided to shoot many areas in South Africa from several hundred feet in the air for a series titled “Unequal Scenes.”

Miller’s photographs went viral as evidence of the inequality inherently embedded in the design of the landscape. Now, the City of Johannesburg is talking about redesigning apartheid’s spatial design:

The city is trying to achieve this through its spatial development strategy dubbed the ‘Corridors of Freedom’ to eliminate sprawling low-density areas without practical public transport networks.

The City of Johannesburg’s executive director for development and planning, Yondela Silimela, says suburban living is not efficient, as leisure amenities are shared by few people. The proposal by the city is urban mixed-use areas that promote shared public spaces such as swimming pools and tennis courts between the rich and poor, to close the widening inequality gap.

 

Government of Rwanda’s political will to enhance citizen-centered governance

In Rwanda, however, the people centric policy design has entered the realm of the intangible – pushing the envelope of design thinking as far as any Nordic city. Taxation policy is to be reconsidered after a User Perception Survey, and an ambitious plan for leadership commitment has been launched by the president for people-centered development. We have hopes of a design policy lab being pioneered in Kigali.

 

Namibian invention disrupts mobile technology

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Petrus Simon with his invention

More pragmatically, a young Namibian figured out how to make mobile phone calls without the need for a SIM card. Luckily, this achievement of his captured the media’s imagination, catapulting him into the limelight and garnering him a scholarship in technology at any university of his choice from the local telco. If every young African inventor received the same, the landscape of STEM would change across the continent.

Ekandjo revealed that the company does not usually fund learners from grade 12, but MTC  is proud to make an exception.

Last year Petrus won a gold medal at the NamPower national schools’ competition, after he invented a machine that serves as a seed drier and cooler.

 

Kenyan Andrew Kio saw the unmet need for African sizes in clothing

 “There are no standard sizes for Africans like the way people walk into shops abroad and you are asked whether you are a size 12 or 14 and such like things.”

Kio did basic market research to help him carve out a niche for himself in the market given that most people then still had a preference for imported jeans, despite the fact that they did not fit properly. He learnt that women have the most problems. He had found his entry point. Kio then went and bought some pairs of women’s jeans, ripped them apart and studied their designs carefully.

Blacjack now has six full-time employees and Kio has recently bought new machines to keep up with demand. Blacjack dresses KFC and Kengeles staff and recently signed a deal with French retailer Carrefour, which has debuted in Kenya. He also imports Woodin designer African prints from Ghana for uniquely African jeans. Source

 

Which segues nicely into the recently launched initiative by the AfDB called Fashionomics – complete with a B2B platform for pan African SMEs. We keep our fingers crossed that creative entrepreneurs like Andrew see the fruits of all this hard work.

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What will it take for African-made clothing to become available for mass market?

When we talk about fabric in West Africa, there is no doubt that wax (also called ankara) is one of the first thing that comes to mind. Vlisco, the Dutch fashion textile brand, has been for long THE fabric par excellence bringing prestige and elegance to those who wear it. As 2016 marks the 170th anniversary of the brand, a celebratory campaign has been launched in several West African countries to share the history of the brand, re-print classic fabrics with a modern touch and weigh on the stakes for the future.

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Vlisco’s campaign with 8 brand ambassadors

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Cocktail for the launch of the celebratory events around Vlisco’s anniversary in Cotonou

Speaking of stakes, competition from China has been the most damaging to Vlisco’s sales and image. Cheaper Chinese fabrics that happen to be look-alikes of Vlisco patterns have created two shifts in society:

  1. wax has become widely available to working class who can now frequently purchase fabric; and
  2. a rise of fashion labels creatively using wax for accessories, clothing, and shoe apparel.

Fashion labels using wax have flourished, at low scales, remaining more custom made than ready-to-wear. Yet whether they are designed with Vlisco or cheaper wax fabric, prices remain high. Let’s have a closer look:

Case 1: Woodin, part of the Vlisco group, boasts to be the “first African brand offering a contemporary and wholly African fashion range”. Vlisco owns two textile factories in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire yet ready-to-wear designs remain expensive, according to consumers. Prices range between $50 and $120. Interestingly enough, Woodin aspires to produce ready-to-wear collections accessible to all.

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Case 2: newly launched clothing lines that produce small scale collections with (cheaper) wax prints. Designers work with tailors and seamstresses to produce their clothing/accessories items. Volumes produced depend on demand from customers, personal funds (access to funding) or requirements for expo/private sale designers are attending. Prices are also deemed expensive and closely mirror those of Woodin.

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Left: Nanawax from Benin who aspires to be the Zara of Africa; Right: Dakrol creation from Togo

Admittedly, despite the current trend in wearing wax, African consumers still have a hard time purchasing ready-to-wear wax prints because of alternative options such as buying fabric and sewing preferred design directly with a tailor or seamstress or second hand clothes. However, mindsets are changing and demand is rising, especially from the middle class.

So, despite the democratization of fabric, both cases highlight important points:

  • Cheaper fabric, even when produced locally, does not significantly reduce cost of clothing
  • Labor costs remain expensive
  • Economies of scale could be reached if demand rose significantly so mass market clothing in wax (or other locally made fabric) could be readily available

This begs the question: will manufacturing enable reducing the cost of ready to wear Ankara clothes and accessories in Africa?

Democratization of value in emerging markets

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Original Woodin designer African prints

There’s something interesting happening in West Africa. Known for its fashion sense and style, exuberantly patterned textiles dominate men’s and women’s apparel. Until now, the impact of cheaper Chinese imports had been felt by the traditional manufacturers, in Ghana particularly.

But this is not where the story ends. Today, the majority of Dutch designs available on African markets are low-cost reproductions made in China. The entry of these Chinese textiles has upset Dutch and local producers of “authentic” wax prints.

What has happened is that these imitation African prints from China are themselves gaining ground among discerning customers:

These [Bigname waxprint] producers are trying to protect their hold on the market by appealing to ideas of “originality” and legal notions of “authenticity”. But consumers are more interested in the quality and look of the cloth, and the way it reflects the wearer’s taste and status.

And this is the interesting twist in the tale that caught my attention. Bypassing discussions on what exactly is authentic about a Dutch company mass producing imitation Indonesian batik and creating a whole new market in “African prints” (ankara)  – I want to talk about consumer’s choice. By the by, it was consumer choice that created the market for the “authentic” in the first place, allegedly as West Africans took to that batik inspired fabric after teh Indonesians rejected it.

Be that as it may, what is happening now, is then no more than a repeat of what happened back then. Just as mass produced English and Dutch textiles overshadowed and shrank the indigenous handmade fabric culture in West Africa’s diverse nations, the Chinese manufacturers are now doing the same. Mass production commodified batik, and made it affordable for the mass market to enjoy the styles and trends of their wealthier brethren, if not the look and feel. I can pick up a beautiful batik sarong from Indonesia – “authentic” – for around $15 Singapore dollars. I know it must be mass produced. Here’s the insight from the original article:

Instead of relying on labels and techno-signs of authenticity as per the Vlisco style guide, Togolese turn to the cloth’s material properties to establish its worth. Value is ascribed through the senses, by touching, smelling or even tasting the cloth.

Value is being ascribed by the customers themselves. If this isn’t the democratization of design, then I don’t know what is. In India, something similar seems to have happened in the recent past. Banarasi silk saris are family heirlooms, their worth and value goes beyond the difference in use of pure gold wire, or simply gold coloured thread.

Yet, the Chinese managed to not only disrupt that entire market, but just as in the case of Ghana’s textile industry, affected the weavers of the sarees. From available articles, it seems the earlier hubbub has died down and instead the tone of the articles turn to debates over whether you are wearing the cheap Chinese fakes or the original handloomed ones.

While distinguishing a “good fake” from an original needs experience with handlooms, the best way to know the difference is to first assess the textile. A pure Banarasi is woven on tissue or raw silk, not synthetic materials like polyester, hybrid fabrics, artificial or Chinese silk. Machine-made saris also do not have floats between the weft and the warp which can be spotted on the reverse. The price is a big giveaway too. In Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market, for instance, Banarasi brocade is available for as little as Rs.120 a metre. It is clearly fake. The original ones start upwards of Rs.600 a metre.

While the African report has this to say,

In Togo, societal norms of ascribing value to fakes and copies are at odds with global regulatory regimes that are based on a specific proprietary relationship between authorship and ownership.

the Indians seem to be taking a pragmatic approach now, as the changes occurring have had more time to settle in:

It is an ironical prosperity. “Even in the last 10 years, Varanasi is a bigger textile centre than ever before, perhaps a logical corollary to the gradual democratization of a traditionally exclusive product, and the lowering of production values and standards over a broader production base. We must celebrate it as a contemporary industry that allows a lot of people to participate and survive in a certain economic environment, while affording a lot more people the pleasure of indulging in the Banarasi. But we must separate it from our appreciation and understanding of the historical art of Banaras silk,” says Jain.

Will this be the same acceptance that will take place in West Africa? That the retail trade will benefit, that aspiring new consumers will enjoy what was hitherto out of reach? That the “original” fabrics will retain their place at the top of the value chain?

“In a crafts pyramid, the peak should be kept alive instead of just sustaining the base by making it market- and volume-oriented,”

Or, as the Indian story asks, can the African fashion industry leverage this democratization to spur economic and social development in underserved and lesser known segments? Could this trend actually benefit the original indigenous textile handicrafts of the Sahel and the west African nations? Will they re-emerge in prominence, and value, once again?

We’re starting a new series on the blog to explore these questions and more, led by our West African partner Yacine Bio-Tchane, of Cotonou, Benin. You will find them filed under the AfDB inspired category of Fashionomics and the tag fashionomics.

Going back to design’s first principles in problem solving with some words from the Eameses

Wikipedia does no justice to the legends that are Charles and Ray Eames, especially for those who navigated the obstacle race of the multi-stage admissions process at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India. For those of us who studied design more than 25 years ago, before our markets liberalized and a thousand design schools bloomed, the Eameses were akin to the gods of creativity themselves. To explain, I’ll have to take a detour through a bit of history.

In the 1950s, in the early days of independent India, our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had the foresight to think about the design needs of a newborn nation seeking to develop industrial and production capacity, as well as solve the myriads of problems facing her underserved population. He invited Charles and Ray Eames to visit the country, travel around for months, and then write the design plan for meeting India’s creative and problem solving needs.

We have been asked by the Government of India to recommend a program of training in the area of design which would serve as an aid to the small industries. We have been asked to state what India can do to resist the rapid deterioration of consumer goods within the country today.

A pioneering act of knowledge and creative economy policymaking. It was called The India Report and delivered in April 1958.

In the light of the dramatic acceleration with which change is taking place in India and the seriousness of the basic problems involved, we recommend that without delay there be a sober investigation into those values and those qualities that Indians hold important to a good life, that there be a close scrutiny of those elements that go to make up a “Standard of Living”.

Before I proceed to add two more paragraphs from their introduction, I’d like to pause at this point where they recommend understanding the end users (the citizens of India); their hopes, dreams and aspirations; their needs, and the gaps in the system as observed in their operating environment. That is, the Eamses were recommending a human centered approach to problem identification through user research; the precursor to much of what we call design planning or human centered design today.

FastCo has an interesting snippet on their forward looking thought-leadership from 60 years ago:

Charles and Ray’s biggest contribution was conceptual: They showed that “design” could be an art of manipulating ideas, not just materials. They were master communicators, not fabricators. “We don’t make art; we solve problems” was a favorite maxim of Charles […] “Design thinking” and research strategies […] owe a debt to the Eameses philosophy of what one interviewee in the film calls “selling ignorance.” […] They hired the Eameses for their process of discovery, of admitting that they knew little, and taking that “beginner’s mind” approach to finding design solutions.

And hidden among their vast and visible legacy is their framing of the problem of India:

The change India is undergoing is a change in kind not a change of degree. The medium that is producing this change is communication; not some influence of the West on the East. The phenomenon of communication is something that affects a world not a country.

That, gentle reader, was written in 1958, before the advent of this even more globe shrinking, context collapsing communication technology of ours, the one that lets me speak to you directly, here and now. Imagine how much more critical these words are today. And, I cannot help but wonder, how much more relevant this problem framing would be for the challenges facing the African continent.

I wonder whether professional fulltime futurists ever realize just how much design planners and problem solvers must, out of necessity, ponder the future? And, in some ways, given the nature of the explorations during discovery, they are able to envision the as yet unforeseen with some greater degree of prescience? As the Eamses wrote in 1958:

The nature of a communication-oriented society is different by kind – not by degree.

All decisions must be conscious decisions evaluating changing factors. In order to even approach the quality and values of a traditional society, a conscious effort must be made to relate every factor that might possibly have an effect.

Security here lies in change and conscious selection and correction in relation to evolving needs. India stands to face the change with three great advantages :

First: She has a tradition and a philosophy familiar with the meaning of creative destruction.
Second: She need not make all the mistakes others have made in the transition.
Third: Her immediate problems are well defined : FOOD, SHELTER, DISTRIBUTION, POPULATION.

This last stated advantage is a great one. Such ever-present statements of need should block or counteract any self-conscious urge to be original. They should put consciousness of quality – selection of first things first – (investigation into what are the first things) on the basis of survival not caprice.

And so, when the National Institute of Design was given form, based on the recommendations outlined in this report, the philosophy of the programme was to instil in us the skills of the industrial designer as framed below:

We would hope that those leaving the institute would leave with a start towards a real education. They should be trained not only to solve problems – but what is more important, they should be trained to help others solve their own problems. One of the most valuable functions of a good industrial designer today is to ask the right questions of those concerned so that they become freshly involved and seek a solution themselves.

And that little nuance, is, I believe, what distinguishes the human-centered approach to problem solving from the creation of artefacts and apps. Mind you, the words human-centered had not yet been ‘invented’ but we have gone back, in this article, to first principles. And, by their very nature, first principles very rarely are instantly recognizable as their mainstreamed descendants.

User centered design originated from the increasing introduction of technology into daily life – UCD’s roots are firmly in software and computers. The “user” is othered by the creators and the developers, to be observed, and tested, and taught through friendly interfaces how to intuit the designer’s intent. Empathy is the ongoing struggle, and is also considered at times, a dilemma.

Empathy is a noun that means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Without respect for the other, is this even possible?

And, that is the nuance embedded in the Eames Report, which begins with a prayer from the Gita, and which has somehow gotten lost in the process and methods of design as it sought to apply itself to solve the world’s most wicked problems.

It is respect that frames the industrial designer’s task as one that merely assists others to solve their own problems, rather than assuming that one can solve their problems for them.

And, it is respect, that frames the problem as an opening of the door, to a whole new perspective on a challenge; refining the lenses by which to perceive, and thus, to conceive, of solutions, rather than shoving someone through that doorway into a neatly designed solution.

Is it not so that the most successful products are those where the end users have themselves discovered myriads of different uses than that originally conceived by the designer?

Invention is not innovation, said the late John Heskett, in the classroom, until, and unless it is adopted by the endusers. And, he liked to add, there’s no such thing as “The Designer”, or “The User”.

It seems to me, then, that if I am to be true to my own teaching, and to my own principles (niti in sanskrit) then my task is not to design solutions per se, but the tools that can be used to solve problems. And, it may so happen that the tool could be as simple as a well framed question.

Design, I once wrote, is first and foremost a philosophy, a system of values. And this pondering today helped me see how design can empower the end user by letting go rather than “empowering” them through prefab solutions or predefined problems.

I will end this here now as this insight is one which I’d prefer to explore in teh context of where design planning meets international development.

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?

 

Previously.