Can Design Thinking Generate the Breakthroughs We Need to End Poverty and Domestic Violence?

Woman cooking next to the port and market in Cotonou, Benin [Image © Jeffrey Allen]

For the past seven years, I’ve designed and managed projects to improve lives in developing countries, focusing on education, health, good governance, human rights, agriculture, employment, the environment… everything that impacts people’s quality of life. It’s a wildly complex field, where managers have to understand business, sociology, communications, technology, innovation, politics, psychology, and probably lots more if they’re going to be successful.

I spent the first several years just getting my head around the basics, learning on the job, by trial and error, and by soaking up what I could from those around me. Before starting the job, I had observed international development work — mostly from the outside — for more than six years as a journalist remixing stories published by organizations working in the field. Looking on through my outsider’s lens, I was consistently impressed by the work development practitioners did every day to make lives better and create opportunities for billions of people in difficult circumstances across the globe.

But after seven years on the inside, I now have a much deeper understanding of the incredibly complex web of actors and activities involved in international development projects. And the longer I stick around, the more certain I become that, while lifespans are indeed getting longer and incomes slowly rising, our sector could still be accomplishing much more.

We need to innovate new solutions to age-old problems like entrenched poverty and violence against women. And to do that, we need to fundamentally rethink how we’re designing and delivering the services our “consumers” use to increase their incomes, improve their health, get informed, and engage in their communities.

Interviewing women about their lives, at an agricultural cooperative in Sikasso, Mali [Image © Jeffrey Allen, OneWorld]

Development, Meet Design

The international development sector has matured a lot in the seven decades since U.S. President Harry S. Truman launched the era in 1949, declaring that “we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas.” When I first went to Africa, exactly 50 years later, the aid narrative had largely moved on, from the simplistic “give a man a fish” to the only slightly more aspirational “teach a man to fish.”

But the events of the last 15 years have shifted the paradigm once again — a series of global recessions and renewed focus on military endeavors have increased pressure on the international development sector to justify the value of taxpayers’ money spent overseas.

In the United States, the early years of this century were filled with political skepticism about international development spending, and so to respond to critics, think tanks and groups like InterAction, the Center for Global Development, and its associated Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) began to focus on ensuring the international development sector was providing the greatest possible social return on investment, working with government, development organizations, and practitioners to promote transparency and accountability in overseas work.

As early as 2010, MFAN took what was then a somewhat radical step of calling for development projects to be designed and controlled by the people receiving support, rather than those providing it. They believed donors should act as partners — not patrons — with those receiving support, and that innovation can be “game changing.” It was quite a risk to say that many of the decisions about how U.S. money is spent abroad — including what work was done and how that work would be managed — should be made by local people rather than American citizens. But they believed the payoff in better results would prove the risk worth taking.

Rather than just “teaching a man to fish,” they were saying “let’s work together to figure out how to fish better.” Designers call this co-creation.

USAID’s Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting Framework

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) learning lab launched its Bureau for Policy, Planning, and Learning in 2010, which in turn spawned a “Learning Lab” that is training the Agency’s staff all over the world to “collaborate with colleagues and stakeholders, learn from new evidence or changes in their context, and adapt implementation accordingly.” The notoriously bureaucratic Agency has a long way to go before its work will be considered agile and iterative, but it is encouraging its managers to ensure they recruit the skills needed to facilitate learning, reflecting, and adapting and make implementing partners aware that not only will mid-stream project adaptation be allowed, it will be expected. Sounds a lot like the cycles of rapid prototyping, learning, and adapting that are at the heart of design thinking.

In the UK, the Department for International Development has increasingly emphasized that the projects it funds must be able to show rigorous evidence of the “value for money” they provide. And many of the most influential and impactful international development and human rights groups, like Oxfam International, ActionAid International, and AmnestyInternational, have been decentralizing their structures, to move operations and decision makers closer to the people they aim to serve.

These new approaches to international development are essentially the fundamental principles of human-centered design that Tim Brown, CEO of the design firm IDEO, set out in his 2009 book, Change by Design.

The publication of Brown’s book marked a key moment in the evolution of the design field, says design-thinking strategist and historian Katja Tschimmel. Brown showed the world, in accessible language, how design thinking could be used not just as a way to design things, but as a method for innovation. What followed was a wave of thinking and writing about how design methodologies could be used to improve outcomes in all sorts of fields and a trend to incorporate design thinking — and design students — throughout all aspects of businesses. Those same methodologies finally seem to be seeping into the international development field.

Indeed, these past few years has seen design “get ‘big’ again,” says Brown. For decades before that, design had primarily focused on aesthetics, image, and fashion — what Brown calls “small-d design.”

Tim Brown encourages designers to think about the big problems society faces

But today we find ourselves in a period of massive societal change, says Brown, and as the world’s problems become more complex and threatening than ever before, we need “an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective, and broadly accessible, that can be integrated into all aspects of business and society, and that individuals and teams can use to generate breakthrough ideas that are implemented and that therefore have an impact.”

Fast forward a few years — to 2014 — and MFAN had now boiled down its recommendations to the international development community to two key pillars: local country “ownership” of programs, and transparency, evaluation, and learning. In emphasizing that solutions should be fully co-developed with the people at the sharp end of every issue, and arguing that projects should evolve over time based on a rigorous attention to evidence, MFAN was essentially calling for more design thinking à la Brown, Tschimmel, and other leaders in the field.


But is development ready to accept design thinking — and all that comes with it?

So I’ll be heading to Benin next week, to face a couple fairly standard design challenges: women endure disturbing levels of domestic violence (and officials who should be helping them often show little concern), and the fledgling efforts to help women earn higher incomes — so they can have more security and decision-making power in relationships — need to be improved.

I face another challenge, too, which is fairly common in this field: I’ll be on the ground for only two days, and I have very little information in advance about the women we’re intending to work with and the social, political, and economic context in which they live. I know almost nothing about the full nature of the problems, what has already been tried, and what resources are available to local people that we can make use of.

In her paper “Design Thinking as on effective Toolkit for Innovation,” Tschimmel notes that “dealing with incomplete information, with the unpredictable, and with ambiguous situations” is the plight of many designers, and is why we must be comfortable with uncertainty and prepared to try, fail, learn, adapt, and try again — all in a matter of days or even hours. It is why we must be what she calls “abductive thinkers”: at the same time analytic and empathetic, rational and emotional, methodical and intuitive, oriented by plans and also spontaneous. We need to check our need for pre-determined agendas and plans at the door, and be comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.

So I’ll be taking with me the skills and theory of the design thinker — perhaps doing some opportunity mind mapping, developing an intent statement, conducting interviews and sketching some journey maps.

Mind mapping, technology mapping, a user profile, brainwriting, idea clustering, and a service blueprint created by youth in Benin and Masters students in Finland.

We’ll gather as much background information as we can by reading up before we arrive and then talking to experts who work with men’s and women’s groups across the country as soon as we can. We’re going to interview a nun who has worked with women victims of violence for years, speak with women who ran a hotline that collected reports of incidents of violence, and visit a boarding house and training center that cares for pregnant young women and teaches marketable skills to vulnerable young women.

If we have time, once we’ve listened to and observed as many people as possible, my colleagues and I will start to ideate — moving from divergent to convergent thinking. I hope we’ll get to spend an afternoon doing brainwriting and insight clustering, and maybe even putting together a service blueprint or a solution storyboard.

Our goal is what Brown describes as the standard goal of the design thinker: “helping people to articulate the latent needs they may not even know they have.” We’re aiming to identify real innovations that can help women break out of entrenched patterns of violence and financial dependency. The best way to do this, according to Brown, is through insight, observation, and empathy:

“Traditional techniques such as focus groups and surveys, which in most cases simply ask people what they want, rarely yield important insights. The tools of conventional market research can be useful in pointing toward incremental improvements but they will never lead to those rule-breaking, game-changing paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that leave us scratching our heads and wondering why nobody ever thought of them before.”

And after about 65 years of incremental improvements, that is precisely what the international development sector needs: paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that leave us scratching our heads and wondering why nobody ever thought of them before.

My goal for this trip is modest: come up with ideas that can help solve women’s problems and fit within the realities they live every day. My goal for the next couple years is much more ambitious: convince a funder to take a risk that what we come up with can work, and that if it doesn’t work, it will at least lead us to new insights that will enable us to adapt our plans and continue innovating until we hit on a solution that really makes Beninese women safer and wealthier.

Because that’s how design thinking works: research, ideate, test, learn, adapt, test, learn, adapt, test, learn, adapt, test, learn… on and on until we find that paradigm-shifting breakthrough. And the project — the process — the activities you end up with three years down the line may be wildly different than what was in your mind at the beginning, but if you trust the process and execute it well, your results should be wildly more impressive than if you had simply continued doing the first thing you tried.

My concern is that, despite all the wonderful rhetoric about wanting to innovate to solve entrenched problems, funders are still reticent to sign a multi-year contract that specifies objectives instead of activities. And even if the individuals we meet with appreciate our approach — and I’ve met many who do — their traditional financial control systems may not let them approve a budget without clear indications of exactly what the money will be spent on.

The longer I work on international development issues and learn about the innovative potential of design thinking, the more I believe that we absolutely can eliminate extreme poverty, save millions more lives, inform and educate better, promote human rights more widely, and protect so much more of the natural world. Design thinking can get us there, and the international development sector is starting to attract the tools and skills it needs to implement true design thinking.

But budget-holders still call most of the shots, and while the international development funding agencies talk a good game about innovation, it may be some time before many of their finance managers and policies allow for the abductive thinking and adaptive management that’s needed to develop the “breakthrough ideas” that can tackle entrenched social, economic, and political problems like gender-biased poverty and domestic violence.

A boarding house and training center in Benin where dozens of young people are living and gaining the skills they will need to develop a career [Image © Jeffrey Allen, OneWorld]