Society’s Sandbox

Informal economies are the world’s biggest — and most overlooked — design research opportunity

Steve Daniels
Published in
6 min readOct 29, 2014


The most fortunate gift granted to a designer is a hack.

A hack is performed when a user goes out of her way to modify a product into something new. Perhaps it’s how she transforms electronic cable spaghetti into a structured system. It solves a problem for her that the designer hadn’t considered.

Various cable hacks

These are everyday adaptations design ethnographer Jane Fulton Suri calls “thoughtless acts”:

Thoughtless acts are all those ways we adapt, exploit, and react to things in our environment; things we do without really thinking.

Many companies hate when users hack their products, and some have retaliated with lawsuits. But hacks can also lead to brilliant inventions. In 2011, I ran a product design competition at A Better World by Design in partnership with Decor Craft Inc. Among the winners: a cable organizer called Plug Out, inspired by hacks like those pictured above. DCI has sold hundreds of thousands of units.

Communities have emerged around these kinds of hacks—from the frivolous There I Fixed It blog to the empowering DIY hobbyist movement. But as we move out of the Western world we find that this ethos isn’t just for hobbyists—it’s the foundation of entire economies.

At Makeshift, we have reported on countless cases of jugaad, gambiarra, bricolage, and jua kali. These are the names various cultures have given to an informal kind of making—the duct-tape economy. SIM card hackers in Accra fused SIM cards together well before phone manufacturers designed multi-SIM devices. And following the tropical storm Nock-ten, Bangkok’s citizens hacked their way across floods before official disaster relief could come to their aid.

Last year, the World Intellectual Property Organization asked me to investigate how IP might apply to informal manufacturing clusters in Nairobi. I told them up front that IP would never work in an informal economy. There’s no way to enforce it. But what I found surprised us both: Nairobi’s Kamukunji manufacturing cluster has been openly sharing intellectual property for half a century, and their association leadership penalizes those who hide inventions. There was indeed enforcement, but it was in the opposite direction. And no, the makers had never heard of “open source.”

Informal economies are society’s sandbox, where early experimentation can take place freely. In the same way that thoughtless acts inspire us to rethink products and services, the way people conduct everyday business outside traditional legal frameworks forces us to rethink entire societies. Free from political and institutional constraints, informal entrepreneurs can respond to needs on the ground and challenge the status quo. Their patterns of innovation are particularly hard to replicate in formal organizations because they also tend to innovate out of necessity.

This is why informal economies are the world’s biggest opportunity for design research, and yet we walk right by them every day.

Consider the origins of businesses we consider disruptive. AirBnB boasts over 10 million bookings. But before it turned home owners into hoteliers, CouchSurfing built an informal barter exchange based on the same concept.

Mobile money is expected to soon be a trillion-dollar industry, with 52 percent of services based in Sub-Saharan Africa.. But underpinning this phenomenon’s unlikely success was an underreported alternative currency in Ugandasente, or mobile airtime. While a central bank would never want telcos controlling a dominant alternative currency, mobile money offered a hybrid solution.

Predating sente was hawala, an analog wire transfer service that has endured in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia for over a millennium. Despite the reputation for funding terrorists promoted by television shows like Homeland, many still use hawala as a remittance lifeline. For regulators, the benefit of mobile money is that activity can be tracked through analytics technology provided by companies like my former employer, IBM.

Hawala money transfer in Afghanistan. Printed in Makeshift’s Trade Issue. Credit: Jan Chipchase

Ride-sharing services like Lyft and Sidecar have been successful in San Francisco in enabling unlicensed drivers to herd passengers around the city by accepting only “donations.” Illegal minivans have been doing the same in megacities across the world for decades: Nairobi’s matatus, Manila’s jeepneys, and New York’s dollar vans, to name just a few.

Inside a matatu, representative of Nairobi’s semi-formal transit system. Credit: Author

And my favorite example: how Bluetooth took off among illiterate mobile phone users in India. In Hidden in Plain Sight, Jan Chipchase reveals to us the source of adoption—porn street vendors.

Those who study informal economies—or simply read the news—know unregulated markets have a dark side. This is called the “black market.” There’s no hard line though. Unlicensed street vending? Sure, I’ll let that slide. What if the dealer sourced the goods from a violent cartel? Or from a name-brand corporation that bribed officials to evade taxes?

These shadow deals, while lacking in ethics, offer equally interesting design inspiration. A kidney dealership in China can tell us a lot about the demand among millennials for iPhones (teens like Shangkun in the story above sell their kidneys to cover the cost of an iPhone and iPad). The miles-long tunnels funneling drugs from Mexico to the United States reveal gaps in US national security (the more luxurious tunnels have air conditioning).

Earlier this year, a bug in OpenSSL called Heartbleed took the Internet by storm. Its exploiters were promptly—and rightfully—sought out and arrested. But what if this exploit had gone unnoticed? We know the National Security Administration exploits security loopholes regularly—and even bribes security companies to maintain them. Indeed, Bloomberg reported that the NSA knew about and exploited Heartbleed. The security-hacking cat-and-mouse game, as in other black markets brings governance abuses to light while testing us and pushing us to improve our systems.

The security industry relies on hackers to find gaps in their systems. This is called “white-hat” hacking, and it’s used to combat the estimated $113 billion annual cost of cybercrime. Google handed out $1.7 million over three years in white-hat hacking competitions. I’ve coached IT security teams who agreed the only way to “measure” security is by the duration your system can endure a barrage of attacks. Better to get hackers on your side than have them sell information about your vulnerabilities to enemies. Grey markets are rarely black and white.

Informal economies challenge how we think, work, and govern. And we depend on them in more ways than we like to think: just as few in the electronics industry would consider employing street vending or porn in their marketing efforts, few Lyft drivers have ever ridden a dollar van. Yet future business models are being prototyped for us right in front of our eyes. We simply have to look.

Thanks to Makeshift photographers Glenna Gordon (stuffed animals in Monrovia), Younghee Jung (SIM cards in Accra), Jan Chipchase (hawala in Kabul), and Guillermo Arias (US-Mexico tunnel). Thanks to Rachel Katz for editing.



Steve Daniels

I serve a vision for the more-than-human world grounded in interdependence. You can subscribe to my newsletter at