Five Skills Designers Have That Global Development Needs

By Heather Flemming of Catapult Design, originally published on GOOD, April 1, 2013


“Development is being disrupted,” says Raj Kumar, President of DevEx, a site devoted to helping the international development community deliver foreign aid more efficiently and effectively. Beyond the buzz generated by the “social entrepreneurship” and “impact investing” communities, I’ve seen a significant shift coming from traditional aid agencies in the past two years.

In 2010, USAID, the agency responsible for administering US foreign aid, launched the first-of-its-kind Development Innovation Ventures quarterly grant program. Its funding model is inspired by traditional venture capital and the focus is on scalable and entrepreneurial solutions to poverty alleviation. Similarly, in 2012 the World Bank hired a former Silicon Valley director to lead their new “Innovation Labs.” UNICEF and the Inter-American Development Bank have also launched their own “Innovation Labs” with similar goals of promoting open-dialogue, new methods, and cross-pollination of models that enable innovative activity.

So with all this talk about “innovation,” where are the designers, the technologists, and the entrepreneurs? The folks behind these initiatives are still folks with international and economic development backgrounds, economics and finance. If they’re serious about innovative approaches, it’s time creative problem solvers are added to the equation. Specifically, here are five strengths designers have that the development industry direly needs:

1. We are systems thinkers.
The problems that plague our world are complex, interwoven, and multifaceted. As designers, we solve problems through a combination of analytic and creative thinking. Many of the best designers I know are themselves multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary. In addition to a design degree, they’re also engineers or MBAs or economists. It takes both sides of the brain to generate solutions to social challenges.

2. Fresh eyes.
Einstein’s “We can’t solve the world’s problems by using the same type of thinking we used when we created them,” couldn’t ring more true. Many of the social issues we’re fighting today have existed for decades and consistently been addressing using old mechanisms—policy, aid, and philanthropy. We are long overdue for fresh thinking to old problems.

3. We have a prototyping culture.
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 the development sector fostered a culture of iteration and refining ideas before rushing to scale. Instead, I see a lot of money going towards untested ideas or worse yet, “solutions in search of a problem.”

4. We focus on people.
Many decisions made today that affect the poor are made by people completely removed from their issues. A designer’s viewpoint, driven by an understanding of the needs of people or end-users, is completely unique and lacking within the development sector. The key to better policy, better products, and better public services is rooted in understanding of the key players and what motivates them.

5. We create capacity.
We build things. We build products, services, websites—and by doing so we are intrinsically building the capacity of those who make, distribute, sell, or use what we create. On a fundamental level, giving people access to tools that enhance their capacity is what drives economic development. We play a central role in creating those tools that are useful, relevant, and meaningful.

$22.8 billion of our projected fiscal budget is earmarked for poverty-reduction activity in 2013. Traditionally, international development agencies use the amount of the money put towards poverty alleviation as a metric for efficacy. I’m hoping the next few years shift that metric towards understanding underlying problems and funding new solutions that address those problems. In order to do that, we need a new breed of development thinkers. The next generation of designers is inspired by careers that provide meaning and impact. Now is the perfect time for the development sector to start connecting the dots.

Image courtesy of Catapult Design

7 Worst International Aid Ideas

The following is a post by Richard Stupart, originally published on Matador Network, and reposted here with permission.   You can view the original post here >>

I think it’s a great discussion of the importance of thinking through consequences, even remote ones, when working toward improving lives and conditions around the world.  We should all keep trying, keep thinking, keep learning and keep striving to do better.

Like my energy drink or the kids starve. Image via Africa is a country

Maybe their hearts were in the right place. Maybe not. Either way, these are solid contenders for the title of “worst attempts at helping others since colonialism.”

1. One million t-shirts for Africa

Aid circles employ the cynical acronym SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) to describe initiatives like Jason Sadler’s 1 Million T-Shirts project. Sadler had admittedly never been to Africa, and had never worked in an aid or development environment before. But he cared a great deal, and came up with the idea to send a million free shirts to Africa in order to help the people there.

Like some sort of lightning rod for the combined venom of the humanitarian aid world, Jason found himself pilloried across the web in a matter of weeks. Everyone from armchair bloggers to senior economists spat fire on his dream until it eventually ground to a halt. In July 2010, Jason threw in the towel and abandoned his scheme. And somewhere in Africa, an economy sighed in relief.

Why was the idea so bad? Continue reading

“Go to the people…”

Go to the people,
Live among them,
Learn from them,
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
But of the best leaders,
When their task is accomplished,
Their work is done,
The people all remark,
“We have done it ourselves”.

—Chinese Proverb

Found on the home page of Chirag—the Central Himalayan Rural Action Group.  Chirag describes itself as “a rural development organisation based in the Kumaun region of Uttarakhand in India. Since 1987, we have worked closely with communities on issues relating to forestry, soil and water conservation, agriculture, animal husbandry, drinking water, health care, education and skill and knowledge development of young people. We work in nearly 200 villages in Nainital, Bageshwar and Almora districts.”

The Beauty of Bio-Gas Digesters

In November, 2011, I took a trip to Nepal to visit an international development NGO called CHOICE Humanitarian.  I met the organization’s former CEO earlier in the year and was struck by the statistics he presented—contrary to many NGOs’ M.O.s, the rural villages that CHOICE works with have an abnormally high success rate after CHOICE’s involvement is over.  Their model of teaching leadership over the course of their development projects trains villagers to take control of their own further development, so when CHOICE leaves, they’re self-motivated and empowered to keep their own improvements going.

After five days volunteering in the office, getting to know CHOICE and how they operate, and exploring Kathmandu, I joined CHOICE’s Kiran Neupane on a trip to visit a few of the villages CHOICE works with.  We were accompanied by a few members of Kathmandu’s Rotary Club which was supporting some of their work and we stayed two nights in villagers’ homes. CHOICE and the villages we visited were preparing to launch a new home-stay-based trekking route the following month and we were a friendly group to give them a trial run.

The people were friendly, open and wonderful as Kiran checked on and showed us the progress in different villages.  CHOICE works on a variety of projects, letting the villagers decide their own priorities, and we saw a few schools and a health outpost tucked into the steeply sloping hills and cascading rice paddies.  But one recurring item really struck me as I saw them installed in many villagers’ households—the bio-gas digester.

What is a bio-gas digester and how does it work?

* Time to check your squeamishness at the door.  We’re about to talk about poop and pee.  We all make it, we all have to do something with it, and here’s a way to harness some good from it. *

how a bio-gas digester works - illustration

(click image to enlarge)

Continue reading

The Rugged Altruists

In a recent New York TImes article by David Brooks, “The Rugged Altruists“, he describes a few examples of aid workers abroad and the values they share—the willingness to go to new and unfamiliar places, to listen and to serve, and humility.

Many Americans go to the developing world to serve others. A smaller percentage actually end up being useful. Those that do have often climbed a moral ladder. They start out with certain virtues but then develop more tenacious ones.

The examples are inspiring as well as sobering.

Read the full article here >

Interestingly, his article relates to another one I read yesterday—Dan Pallotta’s new post on the Harvard Business Review, entitled “Sacrifice is Overrated“.  Pallotta is the author of Uncharitable, in which he argues that the non-profit industry is crippled by the rules that govern it, preventing organizations from doing the scale of good they could if they were as free as businesses to do so. I heard him speak earlier this year and am a big fan of his arguments.  I think they’re right on target in a reassessment of the “non-profit” sector which is eternally starving for support and hindered by law and public opinion from making the kinds of strides and impact that bring success and praise to businesses.

In this blog post, he talks—as he does in his book—about the dangers of a whole society believing that it is right for those who do good to sacrifice financially to do so.  Specifically, he reacts to a colleague’s enthusiastic embrace of Warren Buffet and others who have publicly embraced financial sacrifice for the greater good.  While he doesn’t take issue with their merits, he argues for the need for us as a society to give up our deeply entrenched and harmful views that mixing social impact and profit is immoral, and that financial sacrifice is the only meaningful sacrifice we recognize.

To deny the masses of suffering human beings the talents of people who could greatly help them — and to deny it because of a blanket opposition to paying valuable people the significant money they might be worth to do it — is to put our fantasies of the selfless society we wish we lived in ahead of the life and death situations of those who suffer. Do we really think it is of some comfort to the mother whose child just died of starvation to know that at least no one made much money in the failed effort to save her son?

Thomas Merton’s abbey at Gethsemane sells cheese, and in the 160 years since it was founded it has grown from 44 monks to precisely 65. We have an inadequate supply of saints. If it is saints that the suffering masses of the world have to wait on, we are sentencing them to death.

Read the full post >

In a third coincidence related to another piece of content in yesterday’s news-browsing, as I was looking back for the tweet that sent me to Brooks’ article yesterday, I came across a few negative reactions to the piece.  One of which came from Dayo Olopade, whom I had just seen in a CNN article and video, and which I was just about to post here.  Her tweet said this:

Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist and author of forthcoming book The Bright Continent, about how “advanced economies can learn a thing or two from Africa’s innovative spirit.”  Her tweet speaks to the intense dynamics that exist in the field of development—those we all need to understand and work with so that we’re genuinely helping, bridging gaps, enabling people and serving the purpose, not just treating it superficially.

I can see how Olopade could be frustrated, and I don’t know about Brooks, but he may have only had time or access to talk with aid workers.  In any case, reading those two opposing views brings up a lesson we learn time and time again: there’s always another side.  As designers, development workers or in any other field, and whether or not we can satisfy it in the end, we’re better off considering that other side, listening to it and doing whatever we can to address it from the start.

(tipped to this article by @acumenfund)

Africa can teach the world to innovate, says author


Article Link:  “Africa can teach the world to innovate, says author”, August 2, 2011

CNN’s Robyn Curnow sat down with Dayo Olopade to talk about what global businesses can learn from African innovation.  Says Olopade, “There are ways of doing more with less that are very organic to the African ecosystem, and I think in general in the 21st century there’s a very important recognition that we need to all do more with less, and where better to look that the place that has been doing this for centuries?”

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Dayo Olopade is a Nigerian-American journalist and author of forthcoming book The Bright Continent, about how “advanced economies can learn a thing or two from Africa’s innovative spirit.”

Read the full article and selected transcription from the interview on >>

(tipped to this article by @tieskroezen)

Teaching Design in the Face of Disaster


Logo - Core77Article Link:  “Teaching Design in the Face of Disaster”

by Kara Pecknold
Core77, April 18, 2011

Teaching design to students in Karachi


“Tobias Ottahal and Hamza Vora, two graduates of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, went to Karachi to expand their horizons, put their degrees to the test and teach third year design students in the Visual Studies department at Karachi University about human-centered design. What they did not expect, however was that this opportunity would take place during the Pakistan floods of 2010.”

Tobias and Hamza then went on to teach design skills to local residents so that they could address the new problems they faced and make life in relief camps more bearable.

I’m reading a book right now by Victor Papanek called Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change.  Originally published in 1971 and updated in a new edition in 1984, its philosophy is timeless and many people call it a bible of modern design for social impact.

At the end of chapter 4, he lays out four ways that “working for the needs of under-developed and emergent countries” goes:

  1. Designers design for others from their offices in countries far away — results may be beneficial for a short time but have no real roots and positive effect disappears shortly
  2. Designers spends some time in the country, designing for the real needs of the people there – results are only slightly better, but lack enough time for meaningful engagement
  3. Designers move to the country and train local designers – Papanek’s assertion here is that effects are again slightly better, but that training designers according to one design ideology makes them dependent on that one design ideology
  4. In an ideal case, designers move to the country in order to train designers to train designers (not a typo, it’s a third link in the chain) – the purpose would be to seed local, authentic, home-grown design that is one more step removed from dependence on the designer and his or her ties, background or motivations

Interesting stuff.  As I’ve suspected and have begun to hear from more sources, the concept of designers coming to the rescue from far-off places can be a little naïve, but it all depends on the approach and how things are done.

It sounds like Tobias and Hamza are working on Papanek’s #3 and maybe toward #4, and that sounds like a good direction to be heading.  Design thinking, perspectives, tools and approaches can be powerful and valuable assets for any application.  I’m glad to hear they’re being passed on in a situation like this.

Read the full article on >>