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Design Entrepreneurship for Social Impact

Excerpted from a Twitter #innochat session in February 2015, moderated by John W Lewis.

In early 2014, while the world was being taken over by the smartphone, a unique phenomenon was unfolding in India. Erstwhile marginalised segments of society that could never imagine access to technology were suddenly beginning to afford smartphones. Not just that, they were being connected via Internet to a space hitherto reserved for the affluent and educated. Close to 3 years on, there’s still no real focus by the business community to address the contexts of the underserved: we are blindsided to the value of culture-context driven apps for economically weaker sections.

While the outputs and effects of technological progress are visible, much of its potential is wasted.
Technology businesses seem to suffer from a blind spot. To them it isn’t apparent that many of the existing pieces of technology — hardware and software — are easily reconfigurable to create basic utilities for underserved sections of society, at extraordinarily low risk to reward ratios.

Or perhaps they simply can’t see the massive opportunity on the other side. This becomes even more significant when even the consumer segment is largely ignorant of the state of technology and how it can make their lives better. Is this relevant only to emerging markets aka the third world economies? Short answer, no. The long answer is what the DESi initiative seeks to uncover — collaboratively, cooperatively and co-creatively. It is an attempt to disrupt traditional ways of measuring value by unveiling the bigger picture. It is putting a larger share of the social responsibility equation on Design Entrepreneurship.

These points of diminishing returns, inappropriate capabilities and counter-productive outcomes may be reached earlier in the developing world where contexts are less constrained, performance requirements are possibly lower, access to support and maintenance is more difficult, alternative solutions are less readily available, the risks of mistakes are higher, and the scale of deployment is potentially much greater.

In these ways, advances based on technology for its own sake eventually overreach themselves, often sooner rather than later, and a different basis is required for evaluation of solutions and realisations: one that is based on an appreciation of the whole context in which value is being provided.

This different perspective on the realisation of opportunities for innovation, based on an opposite view of the features and benefits of a product, is similar to “reverse innovation” as described by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble. Of course, whether it is “reverse” or not depends on one’s starting point; perhaps we had put the cart before the horse in the first place!

But how are these opportunities identified and products developed? This is the area in which this initiative has a role in providing an approach, a discipline, a development culture, some priorities and perhaps some techniques and processes by which this can be put into practice.

Areas for discussion

The Design Entrepreneurship for Social Impact (DESi) initiative by Ideafarms, addresses a major issue in the field of innovation and may appear to be an inversion or re-evaluation of the relationship between a product and its context. As with all innovation, the purpose is to solve problems and realise opportunities through the design of novel approaches, solutions and products. However, both at a specific and at a generic level, this approach considers functionality and its usage more holistically.

One aspect of Design Entrepreneurship for Social Impact is its focus on opportunities in the users’ context, rather than problems in the provider’s context. While there are glib sayings that every problem is an opportunity, the reality is usually different. While both seek valuable outcomes, problems and opportunities are also opposites of one another, in the following sense. Presumably we usually do things because we can see the value of doing them. A problem exists when we can see the value of doing something, but we do not know how to do it. An opportunity is the opposite: there are many things that we know how to do, but we have not yet seen the value of doing them in a particular combination. Hence, in many cases, the realisation of an opportunity can be achieved much more rapidly than the solution of a problem. However, the opportunity itself is founded on long term exploration and development of our capabilities.

The combination of Design and Entrepreneurship

Design Entrepreneurship for Social Impact is setting out the case for solutions to problems and realisations of opportunities based on holistic, “end to end” understanding of the value for everyone involved, with the effectiveness evaluated in the social context in which outcomes are generated. While the subjects of Design and Entrepreneurship are frequently discussed separately, it is their combination which forms the core of this initiative.

The “Design” label

There are holistic aspects of “design” vs. piecemeal approaches to implementation. Whether “design” is the most meaningful label depends, of course, on one’s understanding of the “design”! Perhaps there are other labels which might capture the essence of this initiative differently.

Entrepreneurial endeavour

While much of this framing of the discussions is about issues of design, the fundamental element of Design Entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship. Putting entrepreneurship at the heart of this discussion will also enable us to consider different types of entrepreneurial endeavour. It will perhaps turn the spotlight on those aspects of entrepreneurship that distinguish it from other forms of gainful employment. Does design qualification or practice of design automatically confer entrepreneurial status or is there something more to being a design entrepreneur?

Please join the discussion.


Further reading:

  1. Healthwatch from Ideafarms — Epidemic monitoring and management
  2. Role of Mobile Technology in Disease Surveillance — Slideshare presentation
  3. HealthMap — Global Health, Local Information
  4. Becoming Rich by Designing for the Poor — Designing products for Bottom of the Pyramid
  5. To Strip Down or Not! How to Make a Mass Market Product — Janani Gopalakrishnan Vikram explores opportunities for companies to address in underserved sections of India’s growing market.

Follow me on Twitter @sunilMalhotra

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