Posts Tagged ‘social design’

People, Pesa & Place: A Multidisciplinary lens for innovation in social & economic development

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This original Venn diagram visualizing the sweet spot of innovation success is a familiar one, with as many variations as there are practitioners. One of the most common is the one below, where business, people (or, as often, design) and technology replace the human centered qualities of viable, desirable and feasible.

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I’ve used them both for years, particularly the latter, evolving it incrementally in the project for the Dutch govt where we looked at barriers to adoption of new agricultural techniques (technology) introduced in international development programmes.

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Yet, I still struggled with this framing when actually considering solutions for programme design and development, or rather, any  products and services meant for the poor in the developing world.

Innovation, this Venn Diagram said, happens at the intersection of the attributes of viable, desirable and feasible. A solution that met these criteria would have greater chances of success. This made sense and it still does.

However, when it came to solutions meant for the lower income demographic, particularly where the majority were managing on irregular, often unpredictable, income streams, from such activities as informal trade and subsistence farming, there were additional issues to be considered. These were often critical to the success or failure of the newly introduced innovation.

For instance, inadequate infrastructure is a fact of life. Whether is variability in electricity supply in the urban context or lack of it in the rural. Things we take for granted in the operating environment in which these lenses were first framed – pipes full of running water, stable and reliable power, affordable, clean fuel for cooking, credit cards and bank accounts – are either scarce, inadequate or unreliable for the most part.

Feasibility, thus, takes on an entirely different meaning in this context. Each location or region (place) may have different facilities. Launching a service in Kenya or Tanzania, even for the most rural and economically challenged, means we can think of using mobile money solutions in the business model, while a similar service in India would have to be designed to adapt to the local context. On the other hand, India has an extensive postal system as well home addresses, while this is still a barrier to delivery in many African locations.

Similarly, the viability of a concept, in this context, must look beyond just the conventional definitions of business, business model or marketing. The embedded assumption here is that a marketplace already exists, with all the support services, information flows and distribution networks.

Further, the current version of this framework, does not offer cues to the research and design team to look for, and take into consideration, elements such as cash transactions, cash flow, lack of formal financial instruments, seasonality, and a myriad other underlying reasons that drive preference for payment plans such as pay-as-you-go or credit based on future harvests.

And as we all tend to promote these diagrams as a means to anchor our explorations and discovery process towards identifying the design drivers for innovative solutions, it seemed to me that we needed more obvious cues to signal that these issues not only exist, disparate from what we may be accustomed to, but also need to be clearly and realistically described. There is far too much tacit knowledge and too many critical assumptions embedded in the current process.

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This diagram is my prototype of the next generation of the original Venn Diagram, where the attributes of the lenses have been interpreted in the context of the difference in operating environment. While it has emerged from a focus on the erstwhile Bottom or Base of the Pyramid or the poor – both of these terms are anathema to me when referring to people – I believe that it might very well make sense to use it for a wider range of incomes and consumer segments, particularly in the African marketplace.

People, of course, does not change from the original, and desirability – that is, creating something that will resonate with them – permits us to lower as many barriers to adoption and minimize the dropout rate. This element came to fore in the Dutch project where the question posed was related to the sustainability of donor funded programmes to effect positive change after the funding ends.

Place replaces Technology, as a lens through which to consider the feasibility of a solution. Furthermore, the benefit of this is that it opens up the framing of the solution space, away from technology per se, and lets us consider a broader range of interventions. Technological solutions may be only one factor, and not a given, as the current framing assumes from the outset.

Pesa is the word I’ve chosen to designate viability. It means money in more than one language across the developing world and thus implies more than just the marketplace which may or may not exist in the formal sense assumed in the first generation diagram. In the context of new products and services, it can cover all aspect of the business model including revenue generation, payment plans, pricing and timing of introduction. And in the context of programmes, it brings to the fore the need to look at means for economic impact, and, uncover a way to measure this impact. Irregular income streams tend to make it difficult for people to know what their monthly income may be or whether, this week, they’ll have that mythical $1.25 or $2 or $5 to spend today.

I look forward to your feedback on this and will be writing more on the diagram separately pertaining to both innovative products and services for the emerging African consumer market as well as a framework for social design innovation for the economically challenged.

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.
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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.