Posts Tagged ‘policy’

What happens when the informal economy is not criminalized? : Case of Hargeisa, Somaliland

In Hargeisa, the role of the informal economy during and after conflict has been vital to conflict prevention and peace-building.

A recently released report by Cardiff University and Somaliland research partners on their work related to the role of urban informal economies in conflict zones offers us perspective from another angle.

A little thin on insights and interpretation of their carefully gathered data, it nonetheless provides ample evidence of the value creation and economic contribution by informal sector actors in developing country contexts. In fact, I would say, it strengthens the argument for considering the informal economy as a commercial operating environment, to be taken seriously by policy makers and programme designers.

The report finds that “the IE (informal economy) became vital in replacing services and utilities destroyed by the war within Hargeisa city which both provided livelihood opportunities for the conflict-affected urban population and replaced key goods and services which had been disrupted by the conflict.”

And discovers that it was the informal economy’s acceptance by the local populace and government, characterized by extremely low levels of harassment or criminalization that was key to its ability to contribute as a trusted resource and asset during the rebuilding of society after the civil war.

In most cities in sub-Saharan Africa, urban policy marginalises the urban informal economy (IE) and IE workers are often victimised and harassed (Lyons et al., 2012). This is not the case in Hargeisa, where informal economy workers interviewed reported very low levels of police harassment, with less than 7% of the 168 current informal economy workers interviewed stating they had experienced problems with local authority. Furthermore, there are high levels of trust  and reciprocation amongst informal economy workers and in society generally, and a lack of effective municipal regulation which enables and encourages the growth of the informal economy.

The report goes on to conclude with the recommendation that recognition of the informal economy (IE) had the potential to transform the developmental trajectory of both Hargeisa, as well as greater Somaliland:

Recommendation 1: Increase national legitimacy and recognition
Recognition: It is essential that Hargeisa’s IE workers are recognised as legitimate economic actors making significant contributions to the national and city economy.
National Informal Economy Policy: A cross-government National Informal Economy Policy should be developed, so that the key social and economic contribution of the IE is reflected in the five-year national economic development planning and other relevant government strategies.
National Informal Economy Standing Committee: A high-level National Informal Economy Standing Committee should be set up, with a membership of about 10 people to include high-level representatives from: the Ministries Planning and Development (chair); Commerce and Trade; Labour, Employment and
Social Affairs, Hargeisa Municipality, and SONSAF, including 3-4 representatives of umbrella IE workers’ organisations. The Standing Committee should:
o Advise on development of the National Informal Economy Policy;
o Advise on inclusion of the IE in the Five Year National Economic Development Plan;
o Recommend inclusion of the IE in other relevant government strategies;
o Undertake sector-specific analyses of different IE sectors (needs and support);
o Identify ways to extend social protection to IE workers;
o Address negative impacts of the IE (e.g. from the qat or charcoal trade);
o Assess data needs for improving understanding of the IE (e.g. through labour force surveys).
o Address lack of IE access to credit and finance

According to the Somaliland Sun, these recommendations are being wholeheartedly adopted by the local government. One not only looks forward to the developments of this groundbreaking initiative but hopes that this shift in perspective and recognition of value creation diffuses outwards with impacts on informal economies everywhere.


NB: Here’s my brief TEDTalk video on this theme from TEDGlobal 2017

Design policies for a sustainable future

This is an old piece I wrote for the Torino World Design Capital site. It may feel a tad outdated and/or may need refinement, but the gist of it still holds true, imho, we still need to collectively address the challenges of our emerging future and no single country, company or organization can address it alone. Perhaps its now a global responsibility for all of us …

Sustainable design, climate change, the environment and renewable energy sources are all top of the mind issues in our lives today. By virtue of their profession and their sensibilities, designers and their colleagues are often at the forefront of the movement to address these issues, trying to effect change, create awareness and make a difference through their work and actions.

But all of these initiatives – whether its a regional group like Dott07, a particular conference like TED in Africa, or a specific discipline within the industry such as the AIGA – are each and of themselves independent activities or calls for action. With time running short with respect to the scope, scale and magnitude of the changes required, not to mention side effects of the rapid economic growth of Asian economies like India’s and China’s, is this enough?

European nations have taken the lead on being ecologically sensitive, focusing on the problems of climate change and the need to minimise humanity’s footprint on this Earth which we all share. Yet not once has there been a mention from any design industry association to incorporate sound green product design principles or sustainable business processes and practices at the national policy level. No attempts to lay down the law, to establish rules and regulations or to set out the methods and principles for designers at every level and from every discipline to create a systemic, large-scale change in the way design is practiced in order to save the environment and conserve our scarce resources.

But how can laws and regulations change the fact that even if the UK were to stop ALL CO2 emissions, China is opening two new coal power stations every week that would negate any benefits within two years? What is the point of making changes in design policy at the EU level, when India and China combined are ten times larger in size and population? What we don’t realise is the effect that market size, economic strength and consumer choices can have on the way products are designed and manufactured or the way business processes and practices can be made more sustainable.

The EU’s stringent regulations on electronic components that went into effect just over a year ago have already made a difference in the way that consumer products are designed and manufactured. The Directives on the Restriction on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and the Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) are such that even if the products are invented or designed in the USA or manufactured in China or Taiwan, if the manufacturers are at all interested in selling to the European Market, they must comply by these regulations. And once you’ve invested in cleaner, greener products and their respective assembly lines, it makes more economic sense to manufacture and distribute such products throughout the world than to have two lines of products for differing environmental requirements.

Similarly, consumer choices can directly affect how brands are labelled, marketed and distributed. When Emma Ginger of MakesAChange, UK, an ethical consumer information guide, recommends a fair trade, eco-friendly product to her customers, it is after she has carefully evaluated the company’s practices, it’s packaging and labelling choices, the materials and processes involved in the product’s manufacture, in fact, every aspect of the entire system down to how well the farmers or daily wages labourers in far away Ethiopia or Bangladesh are treated. Sustainable design practices today are not just about choosing organic, fair trade carrots that are packaged in biodegradable, compostable plastic, she says, if the supplier such as Tesco or Carrefour then puts a metal, non recyclable, non degradable sticker on it. The extra amount that they paid for “eco friendly” packaging, in order to serve the desires of the discerning eco-conscious customer, is wasted entirely by that one single, final act of thoughtlessness.

Sustainability in design practice thus means that sensitivity to the environment must become an essential aspect of the design criteria at EVERY single step of the entire business model or process. If your packaging is recyclable but your labels are not; or if your printer is energy efficient and recyclable but the packaging consists of superfluous, wasteful polystyrene and plastic, what is the ultimate experience for the end user? Frustration at the stupidity and wastefulness of the contradictory messages being sent by your brand.

Designers know they hold the key to more sustainable, responsible future. What is needed now is not just a variety of government regulated environmental or carbon emissions policies, but the willingness to address all the issues at the root level, by the entire design industry. As policy. As belief. As a mark of faith for future.

Originally published World Design Capital Torino 2008, written in late 2007

India recognizes the economic contribution of street vendors

Photo credit: Meena Kadri

Photo credit: Meena Kadri

What Indian economic phenomenon is at once marginal, even illegal, and enormously independent and entrepreneurial? That would be the street vendor, the small capitalist of the poor, and reservoir of off-the-books penalties that grease the machine of every municipal authority and police station in urban India.

There are an estimated 10 million street vendors (another term is the more pejorative “hawkers”) in the cities of India, functioning mostly in breach of a host of urban laws governing licensing, selling and zoning — and challenging bourgeois ideas of what a metropolis should look like. Street vendors have long battled to be recognized as a professional guild, not a shadowy underclass. Earlier this month, after more than a decade of agitation, the National Association of Street Vendors won a significant victory when the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, recognized the rights of street vendors by passing the Street Vendors Bill, 2012.

The measure acknowledges that street vending is an economic reality that works to the advantage of both sellers and consumers, providing productive employment for many and cheap goods and services for the urban poor. The law contains several significant provisions designed to bring street vendors into far less ambiguous legal and economic terrain, and attempts to break down the high wall that currently divides them from city municipal corporations and resident associations.
When the big picture on India’s economy is taken into account, it is pragmatic, as well as just, to not expose street vendors to the levels of harassment they currently face, and to bring them into the tax system and the ranks of the urban citizenry. After all, they are the stars of India’s vast “informal economy” — those without contracts, social security or employer benefits — inhabited by more than 80 percent of the country’s 450 million workforce.

It is beyond the capacity of any government, or of Indian business, to integrate into the formal sector such a large pool of what classical economics would call “reserve labor” — a group that is growing at a rate of 1 million people a month. Street vendors, by contrast, can claim to be a class of 10 million workers who generate employment for themselves and value for the poor around them. An essential, if underacknowledged, part of the story of Indian capitalism, street vendors have long deserved a new deal from the Indian state, and at long last they’ve got one.

Source: Bloomberg

Reflections on design thinking for government: empowering policy makers and stakeholders

Yesterday I came across a post on The World Bank’s blog, “Design Thinking for Government Services: What happens when the past limits our vision of the future?” Given that I’m in the process of writing a report on the role that human centered design can play in government, that too for a developed nation, I’d like to take this timely opportunity to deconstruct the concept and reflect upon it further.

There have been numerous ways that design thinking has been explained to the general public in the past decade or so since the phrase gained notoriety. The most common understanding is that as introduced by the author of the blogpost linked to above:

We can either: (a) use statistics, trends, quantitative surveys, and historical data to produce reliable results; or (b) develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs. The author makes a very good case for validity, which is usually forgotten by companies that prefer reliable results that keep most companies’ top executives and stock analysts at ease.

This call for a change on how to tackle innovation has originally been directed to businesses, and takes the concept of design thinking (that is, borrowing the thinking process of designers) to services and companies in general. However, I believe it should also be applied to governments, more specifically on how governments should take advantage of ICTs to improve service provision internally (within government entities) and to citizens.
So what is design thinking for governments anyway? It is not that much different than its private sector equivalent. It is about going back to the basics. And I mean the basics, trying to understand what citizens need from their governments (yes, that far back) and then answering the question: how could governments (hopefully, leveraging the new set of technologies and devices that exist today – and their spread among the general population) be able to satisfy these needs? Then, it is all about building prototypes, testing, trial and error, and of course a good set of evaluation and feedback mechanisms

While the author has indeed noted in the footnotes that the design process has been simplified, imho the situation as framed is not as simple as that. I’d like to take a step even further back into the basics and look upon the system holistically in order to frame my own thinking on this topic.

Jay Doblin first introduced the concept of separating the act of design (giving tangible form) from the planning of design (what, how, when, why) in his seminal paper “A short, grandiose theory of design“. In seven pages, Doblin presents a straightforward and persuasive argument for design as a systematic process. He described the emerging landscape of systematic design so:

  •  For large complex projects, it “would be irresponsible to attempt them without analytical methods” and rallied against an “adolescent reliance on overly intuitive practices.” 
  • He separated “direct design” in which a craftsperson works on the artifact to “indirect design” in which a design first creates a representation of the artifact, separating design from production in more complex situations.

Doblin and others were responding to the increased specialization of design and the complexity of managing large design programs for corporations. It was a natural process to begin to discuss how design should move upstream to be involved with the specifications of problems, not only in the traditional mode of production which design had been practiced. 

Government is by virtue of its nature a large and complex system. To leap forward into the intuitive, empathetic mind state of a human centered designer without a rigorous methodology for analysis, synthesis and subsequent planning would be far riskier indeed than to offer stakeholders the tools to empower their decision making for more impactful outcomes.

Going back to Roger Martin’s words quoted by The World Bank author, develop a deep understanding of the basic needs of end users for the specific problem that needs to be tackled and propose a valid solution that would satisfy these needs, the critical part missing in this proposed embedding of design thinking is the answer to the question How to tackle and propose a valid solution? 

And it is this How? that the steps undertaken prior to the design and development of a solution can offer the tools to answer, for they begin first by attempting to understand the complexity of the situation in order to identify and frame the problem to be solved by the design processes and methods.

Until then, the concept as currently articulated will remain the purview of professional designers applying their approach to problem solving on the behalf of governments and international institutions such as The World Bank. That may fit in within the author’s articulation of “borrowing” the thinking but in real world terms, the steps of the process are not within any government’s ability to execute. They are not Nokia, to quote on of our interviewees, able to field a team of user researchers each time they seek to craft a programme for end-users (citizens).

What government actually needs is a set of tools that empower policy makers, advisors and planners to identify the correct problems where intervention is required and then to craft programmes that meet these needs. This aligns the intent with the actions undertaken and thus improves the impact of the outcomes. 

In the jargon of business and design, that could be said to be improving the success rate of an innovative product or a service in the market by lowering the barriers to adoption by the end users by offering them a clearly realized value or meeting an unmet need.

And, that is the fundamental premise of the human centered design approach to solution development.

National design and innovation policies: a user centered perspective

I’ve been chewing over Tim Brown’s post on Design Nations since I came across it for the first time yesterday morning.  He touches upon Aalto University and Finland in his musings viz.,

Finland is a great example of a country that has done many of the right things. It has an integrated design and innovation policy and has created new institutions like Aalto University to facilitate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration. What is not clear is whether this is actually generating increased numbers of innovative companies or increased economic growth.

Sitting here in Helsinki, on the inside of Aalto’s spearhead project to facilitate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration, the beloved Design Factory, how can I help but be tempted to respond with my 2 euros worth?

My first thought is to observe that since Aalto only came into being in the January of this year, its far too early to tell what its impact will be on the national economy. But some clarification is required,  Aalto University is at once a new institution and a very old and established one, in that it was formed from the merger of three of the most respected local institutions – the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Art and Design and the Helsinki School of Economics, each with decades of history, achievement and alumni.

My second thought is to ponder on the metrics of success by which Tim is assessing Aalto’s impact – increased numbers of innovative companies (was that one of Aalto’s goals?) or increased economic growth (how would we define that?)

On the other hand, he states that Aalto was created to facilitate greater cross-disciplinary collaboration, and this I can certainly attest to, having been immersed here in this environment since the April of 2009.  I’ve also met with those responsible for the publication of the 2010 National Innovation Policy with its emphasis on user driven and demand driven innovation but would like to hold back my thoughts until I’ve framed the situation from Tim’s post with more clarity.

Comparing apples to oranges

My objective is not to defend Finland’s initiatives so much as explore and evaluate comparative approaches to boosting national innovation and design capabilities.  As part of John Heskett’s Design Policy class back in ID-IIT Chicago, I undertook the analysis of Singapore’s National Design (and Innovation) policy. Finland and Singapore are comparative nations, in terms of size and resources, so lets go back to the question Tim is musing upon:

There seems to be a group of small to medium size countries that are committed to building innovation infrastructure to drive economic growth and I wonder what are the key elements for success in this endeavor?

At this point, Brown seems to lose his focus as he compares these apples to the oranges that are cities or regions, that too in countries like India and China, which while comparable to each other (a billion and some creative minds each for arguments sake) are on an astronomically different scale from Singapore’s city state of 4.25 million or Finland’s almost 6 million. Mumbai and Shanghai have neighbourhoods larger than this…

I have been wondering whether top down government policy is what really makes the difference or whether instead there are emergent characteristics that determine a nation or region’s success in the global innovation economy. When I look at places that have generated significant innovation in the past- London, New York, Paris, Silicon Valley, Florence, Rome, they all seem to have been successful ‘fusion cities’ (or regions) that benefited from ideas flowing in from the outside and the interaction of diverse populations. That’s why I think cities like Singapore, Shanghai and Mumbai may one day be seen as equally productive innovation hotspots.

What is being overlooked here is the extensive support systems and infrastructure, not to mention population pool of the hinterlands that each of these cities and regions have and a place like Singapore doesn’t. (Or Finland for that matter, unless you consider pine trees and reindeer and lakes as innovation resources). We should in fact take a comparative look at what has been happening in India, China and the United States perhaps?

Lets take a moment to step back to 4 to 5 years ago, when the first stirrings of India’s National Design policy were heard and our hopes were high. Whatever has happened since then has been moving at a glacial pace, elephants and juggernauts do not tend to be nimble and responsive, but yes, they do indeed reach their destination eventually. It was around this same time that China focused on design education and thousands of new schools opened up around the country – I remember this well as we were observing the impact from far away with awe. Its been 5 years and we’re seeing the economic end results even now.

Top down, bottom up or user centered?

Coming back to our small and medium sized countries and the question of impact of national innovation policies, from this perspective, it seems to me that the issue isn’t about whether a top down approach is better than an organic bottom up approach. Its about assessing how can the two work together. And whether its a mandate from on high, with metrics and goals that must be met, or whether its taking a user centered approach by assessing the needs and opportunities of the end users of the innovation policy?

Look at this recent article in BusinessWeek decrying the failure of Okinawa’s innovation policy attempts even before they’ve been implemented (Rule number one in creative brainstorming is don’t kill the idea before its even been allowed to bloom). I found this snippet intriguing and one that gives me hope that there’s more here that could be possible.

[… ] into a “prosperous island full of hope and dynamism.”

It plans to do this by creating info tech, biotech, and environmental science clusters controlled by the government. It has already built a magnificent university campus and recruited world-renowned faculty and researchers to OIST. In addition, the government will create a sizable venture capital fund and assign its specialists to be intermediaries between OIST and local companies. The government specialists will decide what R&D to fund and help small and midsize companies decide on what markets to enter; negotiate financing; form partnerships with other companies; do business development; and modernize their facilities.

Even as the author goes on to categorically state that this is all wrong, I’m stopped in my tracks by the resemblance to Singapore’s National Policy for a Creative Economy. Eh? What gives? If indeed government mandated innovation “is all wrong” then by what metric is Singapore’s current success being evaluated as successful? The recent spate of investment in major global design events, big brand name speakers and splashy conferences or a genuine opportunity to feel safe enough to experiment and dare failure that’s being upheld as the hallmark of genuine innovation enabling? Are they focusing on the needs of the users or on external criteria? My parents live there and so I feel the responsibility to stop my assessment right here.

On the other hand, when I look at what the article states as the key problem identified by the Japanese government,

Kiyoyuki Shimizu, head of the cluster initiative in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture, explained that the government believed its previous investments didn’t lead to innovative products because the ties between academia, which was performing the research it funded, and industry, which needed to build businesses around this, were weak. So it needs to fill this void.

and then look at what the author states is the “right way to do this”,

Clusters happen where like-minded entrepreneurs congregate, start risky ventures, and learn from one another other by networking. Innovation is a by-product of this synergy and experimentation. What is needed is less government control, not more.

and reflect upon my observations here in the midst of Finland’s Aalto and user driven approach, it highlights something interesting. The issue is “control” not “government” or “policy”. Look at the words Vanderbeeken has chosen to share in his post,

The aim of user-driven innovation policy is to raise market actors’ awareness of new innovation tools. It also seeks to create a social infrastructure supporting user-driven innovation while removing obstacles to and boosting incentives for innovation activity.

I’m not hearing mandates or directives here, I’m hearing support and infrastructure that informs and enables, thus supporting the economic boost that becoming more user oriented can give to an organization. Who here can argue against the government becoming more user centered in their approach to the delivery of services and products?

Reframing the issues

Lets do a thought experiment for a moment, given all of these myriad bits of opinion and information and the current operating environment as well as a timid look at the emerging future.

  • What if its not entrepreneurship = startups but entrepreneurial = mindset?
  • What if the policy mandates becoming more observant of customer needs and thus more responsive rather than meeting arbitrary goals of number of new companies or industries or patents as a metric of success?
  • What if opportunity means identifying new strategies for revenue generation rather than driving economic growth?

What if we said, listen the system itself needs to be redesigned so lets start over?

Lets reframe the metrics of success and the criteria for boosting the creativity and knowledge of society, lets become more user centered and responsive, lets see what happens then.

Lets experiment.