January 30, 2013

The Truth About Disruptive Development in the Digital Village

After a quick Twitter interaction, I find myself having agreed to write this caveat to Ken Banks' recently published article The Truth About Disruptive Development published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

So I'll start by taking a step back to ask myself what aspects of his proposed points make me hesitate with a second thought before whole heartedly supporting the whole concept, unargued?

My immersion in the so called "prepaid economy" or the prevalent purchasing patterns in the informal economy's lower income demographic, over the past 5 years, helps me to see some holes in Banks' theory.

What international ICT4D mega million bucks type of initiatives do is in fact a very expensive and elaborate song and dance show around your little developer community, screaming to be heard over the babelfish noise of the global internetworked web of humanity.

That offers a kick start that is not only much needed but about all that is really needed. The problem becomes when increased competition from more experienced entrepreneurs start arriving as expats funded by these socially patient backers.

The other aspect that bothers me is that Banks' title should be rewritten as The Truth About Disruptive Development in the Digital Village, thus taking into consideration the key constraint and differentiator that this situation may only apply to ICT and not, say for example, agriculture.

So what is the compromise outcome that well meaning global development funding and independent, indigenous innovators can arrive at?

Open lavish offices locally and share a taste of the global mainstream professional culture with up and comers across selected developing nations. It went a long way in changing corporate India's attitude towards women professionals. I saw it in 1990 at OMC Computers Ltd and then the dramatic difference at Hewlett Packard India in 1996.

This conversation really needs to be taken up further by more people sharing their personal experiences with the table.

January 29, 2013

Reframing Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) as a human centered design challenge

The tangible manifestation of the concept of turning government's calls to action for public private partnerships in development was crafted by Jeroen Meijer of JAM Visualdenken and expertise on sustainable agricultural value chains provided by Bart Doorneweert of LEI, Wageningen.

The design challenges, as we called them, reframed the problem statement in the form a visualization of the particular commodity, the particularities of its geography, the intent of the intervention, the point of view to be taken by the multi stakeholder teams and the good agricultural practices to be sustainably transferred to enable adoption even after donor funding was ended.

Here is the sample:

January 28, 2013

The pros and cons of Kenya's role as technology pioneer and East African frontier market

Rural Kenyan schoolhouse, somewhere near Kisii, March 2012
Only two years have passed since the publication of the Emerging Africa series of articles for Dirk Knemeyer's GoInvo blog starting in February 2011. Since then I've had a much closer look at Kenya's current state of the art when it comes to internet diffusion, renewable energy and of course, the mobile platform technology. I spent most of the time from September 2011 to August 2012 in Kenya, immersing myself at the cutting edge of what tomorrow would bring for some of us.

The emerging global middle classes, that the OECD described as being very different from the middle class as understood in Europe, can however be said to be exemplified by the aspiring, ambitious Kenyan. Where everyone seeks to be the next president, and why not, they dream, after all, it was within one of Kenya's grandsons.

Just a quick *ahem* Google search on technology and Kenya brings to light such delicacies as Eric Schmidt, Google's own CEO, proclaiming Nairobi to be the next global tech hub (though I do wonder what it means that the visit is to Kenya after North Korea or are the trips alphabetically planned? ;p) and the groundbreaking ceremony for Konza high tech city on the outskirts of Nairobi. The scent of rain in the air that Will Mutua once sensed as he wrote A Quiet Storm is brewing on Afrinnovator's About pages only 3 or so years ago has become the sounds of a torrential thundershower.

Very quickly, Kenya has become the bellweather of tech innovation for Sub Saharan Africa. Though now I'd like to discuss the challenges acting as market forces upon the East African region.  If we take Kenya as the path where technology will trend towards in 1-2 years time for East Africa, followed by 3 or more for the rest of Sub Sahara, what is the downside of this framework?

The only danger that I can see would be that the other countries in the region do not ape Kenya's model without assessing which aspects and factors fit within their own cultures and which need adaptation for local needs and relevance.

Airtel Africa has already faced this problem after Bharti bought out Zain in 16 or 17 Sub Saharan countries. Not only does the Indian model not port over directly but each country really needs its own market creation strategy.

Segmentation of the vast and undifferentiated "next billion" is critical if we are to refine and improve our business models and market entry strategies. Unlike India and China where their "next billion" markets are in their own backyards, thus not entirely unfamiliar, Sub Saharan Africa's vast emerging middle classes are unique creatures in their own right, but for some similarities in household financial management. After all, its not fluke that 96% of all the mobile subscriptions across the entire continent is pay as you go or prepaid. And where better than Kenya, home of critical mass MPesa, that allows for testing innovation at enterprise and social levels, but with the caveat that results are not really generalizable.

That's the unpredictable aspect for multi-country plans based on just a local sampling here and there, unless they are in a unique situation like mobile phone manufacturers. Even for something as basic to the household as a solar lantern, business models themselves had to adapt to the local operating environment.

Kenya is easily the most competitive market in the region with a legion of savvy, informed and heavily networked afripolitans ready to voice their opinion on the world stage. Erik Hersman once wrote that if it works in Africa, it will work anywhere. The mobile operators of the EU are yet to figure this out but the one that does will create a whole new market.

Intel has taken the decision to launch their first smartphone called Yolo through an alliance with Safaricom while HCL Infosystems has brought in a range of Android tablets in the 10,000 Ksh price band. Will the Yolo do better than the IDEOS? Only time (duration of the battery ;p) will tell.

January 20, 2013

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.

January 17, 2013

On the science of niti

Therefore, with an eye to the public good, I shall speak that which, when understood, will lead to an understanding of things in their proper perspective. ~ Chanakya, Niti Shastra, Chapter 1, Verse 2

Although many great savants of the science of niti, such as Brihaspati, Shukracharya, Bhartrhari and Vishnusharma, have echoed many of these instructions in their own celebrated works, it is perhaps the way that Chanakya applied his teachings of Niti-shastra that has made him stand out as a significant historical figure. The great Pandit teaches us that lofty ideals can become a certain reality if we intelligently work towards achieving our goal in a determined, progressive and practical manner. ~ Niti Shastra, as translated by Miles Davis & V. Badarayana Murthy

January 14, 2013

Consuming the future: a wide angled perspective

This was written at the end of August 2007; how far have we progressed?

Even as I have just written about sustainable design and ecodesign, I find myself pondering the larger issues at stake. I didn’t set out to go green and I’m not wholly sure what my outlook is on this topic as yet. There’s a sense of something much bigger than just design or a product or material or whatever here. Its almost as though we – the global we of humanity – are poised at an inflexion point. Is it a precipice sloping down towards utter disaster as some might argue and there is no point doing anything about it? Or are we instead reaching some a point on a natural trend curve that signals the end of an era – one based on massive growth, consumption and the pinnacle of the industrial revolution? Either way, it leaves me feeling like an ant contemplating the proverbial brickwall.

The first inklings of a greater shift in outlook and perspective came during a visit earlier this year to the north of England. For a little more than two weeks, I was a houseguest in an English home in a small village, with a family whose lifestyle choices and purchasing decisions were as diametrically different from any I’d ever seen, in all my continent hopping life. My hostess chose locally produced organic milk sold in containers made from recyclable plastic though it was not as easy to find in the local supermarket which also sold organic milk that was cheaper. Her reasons were logical and manifold – from helping local producers who received a fair price to the fact that supermarket milk came in packaging that wasn’t as easy to recycle. She used cotton nappies on principle, washing them each night in eco-friendly detergent and then choosing to air dry them over the convenience of the clothes dryer or the simplicity of disposable diapers. Every scrap of organic kitchen waste was composted – even her choice of location to purchase vegetables was based on the fact that they provided compostable plastic packaging.  Fair trade and sustainability over convenience and cost, each decision could be rationally justified and defended. My eyes were opened.

While intellectually aware of the problems facing the environment, the issues of poverty and quality of life at the bottom of the pyramid and the link between design and a sustainable future – all topics I’d written extensively about – I’d never been exposed to an entire way of life based on these principles – in a developed country.

That fact was crucial in opening my eyes to the extent that the design of systems play a part in the challenges facing the earth’s future.

For in India, where I lived and worked during my twenties, many of the situations that require extensive municipal systems – recycling of waste, garbage disposal, composting of organic matter and food waste, reuse of containers, conserving energy and water consumption – were either ‘taken care of’ or an ingrained habit developed in an environment of scarcity. Let me explain.

Leftover food was rarely thrown away – there was always someone who needed it more. Ragpickers made a living picking over garbage heaps for scraps of cloth, paper, plastic, metal and anything else that could be resold for some money. Everything was reused, recycled, resold or refurbished. Equipment, appliances and other consumer durables were expected to either last a lifetime or could be repaired or resold – they were never to be thrown away. Scarcity of water and frequent shortages meant rationing, storage and conservation. Throughout my college years in Bangalore – where water in the taps rarely flowed for more than two hours a day from the city’s supply – this meant learning to bathe in one bucket of water, remembering to fill buckets and tubs at 6am, washing clothes by hand and boiling and filtering for potability. Ditto electricity.

On the other hand, growing up as I had abroad, luxury was going home to my parents in Singapore where the comforts of a full shower, uninterrupted power supply and abundant shiny shops were the norm. Who would want to go back to scrimping and saving, if they had a choice?

My friend in England would and did. And we had long talks about her reasons for doing so, especially when – to my eyes – she didn’t have to be as stringent in her lifestyle as she undoubtedly was. It was this new awareness that suddenly opened my eyes to the systems around me. You could call it the global industrial ecosystem, but basically its all that goes into producing, making, creating and doing to support and sustain our lives in the manner to which we are accustomed – those of us who can afford it.  It was a system designed for consumption, and to a certain degree, waste. It is a system based on the principle of abundance. Availability. Choice. It is a system whose future is untenable at most, precarious at best.

Ethical consumption, sharing, conserving what we have, managing it and harvesting it with an eye to the future – systems which echo nature’s systems are not new or untouched subjects.  While I may be the least educated and experienced  on the  subject, its cast a wholly new feel to the way I perceive the future. And the way I’ve analyzed business, design and strategy in the past. Its as though a filter has been changed in my perception of the systems I see. It is this nascent perceptual change of the world around me that I will be exploring further. I don’t know where this journey will take me but it should get interesting, at the very least.

January 13, 2013

Human centered systems design: Navigating complexity through flexibility

Drawing credit: JAM visualdenken

Systems designed for use by communities tend to operate differently from back end or operational processes. Its only natural given the unpredictable nature of crowds. I'm sure there are a lot of people looking into this field, with greater experience and knowledge than I.

However, I bring this up due to a recent event in an online community in which I have been participating actively since early 2007. And this experience made me reflect upon some of the issues that had emerged from the workshop we conducted late in November 2012 on sustainable agriculture value chain development for the lower income demographic in the developing world.

That trust is the key to success for any programme meant for a human population is unarguable.

The challenge is to establish the foundations for gaining, building and maintaining trust, that too with a large community or groups of peoples rather than individuals on a one on one basis. When technology is added to the mix as a mediator for communication flow, then one further layer of abstraction is added to the challenge, that of lack of nuance and meaning that body language and tone of voice, among a myriad other things, add to face to face communication.

Complicating this is also the difference in contextual knowledge - exposure and experience - between segments of the global population. The OECD world and its ilk, aka mainstream consumer culture, have been exposed to and immersed in a far more technological environment full of touch screens, apps, software and the ubiquitious Internet. While mobile phones are increasingly bringing the world to every human's fingertips, one can hazard a reasonably accurate guess that the majority of the world's lower income demographic residing in rural regions of the developing world probably will not possess the same or similar level of experience.

Thus, any human interaction system meant to reach this population must embody flexibility and responsiveness, in a consistent, close to realtime way, in order to build and maintain trust with the community. And one way would be to clearly establish the boundaries of the flexibility of the system, that is, the negotiable and the non negotiable. Feedback mechanisms are without value if the system itself is too rigid in its originating design or the responses too random or reactive.