5 myths of “Design for the BoP” – Catapult Design

This post is by Heather Fleming of Catapult Design.  It was originally published on October 17, 2011 here on Catapult’s blog.  Thanks to Heather and the Catapult team for sharing their great insights.

Raise your hand if you’ve heard the term “social innovation”, “BoP Design” or “social impact design” being thrown around on the web, at a conference, or in an article this past year.   Over the last 3-4 years there’s been an increasing amount of buzz on how we use design to address social issues.  As a design firm working within the design and poverty alleviation space, Catapult receives countless emails from aspiring designers, designers in transition, jaded designers, recent graduates – all who want to learn what it means to design for the BoP, the bottom of the pyramid.

I read every question, many of which are pretty similar.  They resonate with the most popular discussion topics and inquiries in our Open Studio hours.  Based on this, I feel there are a few myths that need to be debunked in order for this industry to continue to grow and prosper.  Here are five of them:

MYTH #1:  “’Design for the BoP’ (is a specific sector).” 

The vast majority of the emails we receive simply state:  “How do I ‘design for the BoP’?”  It seems that by simply labeling our work with “social impact” or “BoP”, we are communicating that the processes and methods we use to design for people who are poor are different.  They’re not.  Before Catapult, I worked in the corporate design world for close to six years. One of my clients was a power tool company and I spent time “in the field” with construction workers, specifically drywall installers, on a re-design effort of drywalling tools.  I observed the installers’ technique, training of new crew members, the language they use for tools and processes, and even had a go at installing drywall myself (with the tool to the left).  After weeks of immersing myself within their world, I achieved some clarity in how the drywall installers sub-culture fit within the larger culture of construction workers, both of which I knew little to nothing about. Approaching different cultures and sub-cultures around the globe is not much different – as outsiders they are worlds we know little to nothing about.

As a general rule, a good designer never assumes and always employs good methodology, whether your customer is a drywall installer from Mexico or a mother of five in Rwanda.  So to address myth #1:  there are no secret design methods you need to learn in order to work in social innovation.

MYTH #2.  “Designing for needs warrants success.”

One of the core product design courses taught at Stanford is “needfinding”, a description of the process used to identify design opportunities.  As designers, we’re trained to base our work on a defined need statement and user group.  There’s a good chance you’ve seen at least one headline this year about a solar cookstove or a group of students’ installation of a water purifier in a community.  I read most of these articles with a healthy dose of skepticism because this industry is inundated with hero stories. What’s rarely reported on are the follow-up stories on these projects.  Most of them fail, even those based on a compelling need statement.  They fail because many of them have not thought about the ‘walk away’ test, meaning that after implementing a program and leaving a community, the program continues to grow and thrive.  The misconception is that handing off a well-designed solution is enough.  It’s not.  User-adoption, distribution, and maintenance (or continued use) of these solutions require a long-term sustainability strategy.

Good design or a strong need statement is not a guarantee of success; it’s also about how well you’ve anticipated what happens once the project is out of your hands.

MYTH#3:  “We impart Western knowledge to communities to better their lives.”

There is a tendency to view this work as humanitarian and philanthropic because we can’t help but think that any work in developing countries is anything but.  The assumption is that we’re there to implement systems based on Western schemas and knowledge.  Not true. In fact, many countries are completely leapfrogging the West in spaces like green innovation. With cell phones and mobile banking, they’re bypassing telephone pole infrastructure and paper-based monetary systems.  While we struggle to get our fellow Americans to separate paper and plastic, the concepts of “re-use” and “recycling” have been ingrained in most non-American cultures for decades. India and Nicaragua are pioneering innovative pay-as-you-go finance models for home-scale renewable energies.  Guatemala and Tanzania have Netflix-like services for household items like batteries.  We’re using our iPhones to tweet about our amazing ham sandwich and the rest of the world uses their dumb phones to make money transfers, purchase goods at the store, check market prices in a neighboring country, and also, apparently, to topple regimes.

So to debunk this misconception, there is equal opportunity in all cultures to cross-pollinate the best ideas that create a more sustainable world.

MYTH#4:  “The objective is clean water/better healthcare/etc.”

We love stories about how a community in India living in darkness now has access to LED lights. We love stories of how a simple clean water device made a sickly community healthy.  It’s easy to assume that our objective is that immediate change. But it’s the tip of a bigger objective, the ultimate objective of development:  to build capacity.  There’s a good quote about creating social change by Ezio Manzini that says: “You don’t ask what you can do to make people behave differently.  You ask what you do to recognize people’s capabilities and help use those to solve the problems they face.”  He goes on to say that the term for designers who are ultimately looking to create change should be “design for capabilities” or “design for empowerment.”  This really does change your outlook of a problem statement.  Enabling people to meet their potential, whether they are rich or poor, is what creates social change.

MYTH#5:  “As a designer, I’m not as valuable as _________________.”

I meet a lot of people who know they have something to contribute, but they are just not sure how their skills translate to development.  As a designer, here are five strengths you bring to this industry:

1. You’re a systems thinker.  The problems that plague our world are complex systems problems.  As a designer, you’re expertise is problem solving through a combination of analytical and creative thinking.  It takes both sides of the brain to generate solutions to social challenges.

2. You’re a creative thinker armed with design process and principles.  Einstein said, “We can’t solve the world’s problems by using the same type of thinking when we created them.”  Many of the social issues we’re fighting today have existed for decades.  We are long overdue for fresh thinking.

3. You have an iterative process. We make a lot of mistakes in development – mistakes that sometimes negatively impact people with everything to lose, mistakes that could potentially be avoided if our industry fostered a culture of prototyping and refining ideas instead of throwing millions of dollars into doomed ideas.

4. You’re user driven.  Many decisions made today that affect the poor are made by people completely removed from their issues.  Your viewpoint, driven by your understanding of the needs of people/end-users, is completely unique and lacking within the industry.

5. You create capacity.  By building things – products, services, a website – you are intrinsically building the capacity of those who make, distribute, sell, or use what you created.  That’s what economic development is all about and we need more people doing that in a sustainable way.

Why it’s important to debunk myths

If “Design for Social Innovation” or “Design for the BoP” is going to move beyond a trend into a standard, then we need to quash this idea that only a few “specialized” designers engage in this kind of work.  Because in reality, as a society every day we create the social challenges of tomorrow with the buildings and objects we design, with the systems we put in place.  Poverty, homelessness, unemployment – they’re all a testament to those failed systems.  Now more than ever we need creative thinkers, people like designers working within the social sector, to unravel the complexities and re-think how we approach these challenges.

Catapult Design “is a non-profit design firm providing engineering and implementation support to the thousands of organizations in need of technologies or products capable of igniting social change.  We are engineers, designers, implementers, and educators – we design products, introduce technologies, and foster trends that are appropriate, self-sustaining, environmentally friendly, socially responsible and culturally sensitive.”

You can view this and many more great posts about design for social impact on Catapult’s blog >>

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