Reflecting on Toolkits

We at Quicksand have seen a rising number of requests for researching and designing toolkits over the last few years. We’ve worked on several projects (e.g., Potty Project, DIY Toolkit, Project Sammaan) that either mandated the creation of a toolkit or to develop tools within their context, and see this as a new trend in the development space that has really taken hold. Given our work and the increased interest, we decided to take stock of the work already done on toolkits, and reflect on this trend through conversations within Quicksand and with practitioners.

Why reflect?

It is essential to do this as we see an inflexion in the development sector’s interest in general, and knowledge-sharing in particular. We feel that, while the work done so far has happened quite organically, we are poised at a moment where each sector (eg. WASH/nutrition/education) is going to see a glut of toolkits. Beginning with this post, we’re kicking off critical reflections (online and offline) on how we share knowledge and think about replication and scale, while bringing in additional voices to bear on this.

Why do it?

What is certainly clear to us is that this is a rising trend, with a variety of organisations jumping into the fray: everybody from consulting firms and grassroots NGOs to government organisations, foundations, and aid organisations. The interest stems from the organisations wanting to scale the impact they’re having, with the firm thesis that sharing knowledge in an open manner will help replication of successful programs and interventions, or in the very least to help direct the efforts of others for a more efficient and timely deployment of products, services, and policies seeking to address an issue or challenge.

Since Bretton Woods in the 1940s and the Marshall Plan in the 1950s (Moyo, 2009), we have seen the rise of nation states working on development of ‘third world’ countries in issues ranging from poverty, health, education, hunger, and many more which were finally codified in the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ (MDG) in the 1990s by the United Nations, and most recently revised into the ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDG) in 2015.

Given the sheer scale and range of problems that the sector is looking to address, there is a felt need to try and scale solutions that are deemed to work in pilot settings. Scaling of these projects is done through a variety of modes: Traditionally this was a single organisation designing, testing, iterating, and scaling interventions that were deemed to work; over time, through assessment efforts, it has become clearer that ‘silver bullets’ (i.e. unilateral approaches and solutions) are unlikely to get the desired results (Easterly, 2006). This has led to a steady shift towards a more textured landscape, with more innovation on the ground through a variety of pilot programs, testing new ideas across geographies, leading to a more evidence-based policymaking process.

With these shifts in how organisations think about scale and assessment, it is now becoming clearer that there needs to be openness about sharing of methods, technologies, outcomes and lessons with others attempting to address the same or similar issues.

How are we sharing knowledge? What are toolkits?

In the development sector, we have traditionally shared knowledge through reports, conferences, journals, and increasingly through blogs and social and new media. At their core, though, most of these methods of sharing knowledge were ‘one to many’ (as opposed to one to one), and given the need to be more collaborative with the information being doled out, so as to better build knowledge together, people have turned to the idea of toolkits.

Even as we started talking about toolkits internally, we realised very quickly that perhaps there was some clarity required in what we actually meant by ‘toolkit’, as this term has become a catch-all for a variety of different methods of storing, sharing, and building knowledge. We thought of a few major typologies/approaches for this that we have observed in the wild. Needless to say this is not an exhaustive list, and suggestions are welcome:

1// Method sharing

The most direct translation of the word ‘toolkit’ is where a number of tools, their use, and examples, are recorded and shared with a wider audience. Through our conversation with Gill Wildman, Plot London, we learned that perhaps one of the earliest occurrences of this in the way we now use it was ‘The Presence Project’ which sought to record and share participatory design methods to be used by non-designers in their own contexts. Since then, we have seen a number of these kinds of toolkits, like IDEO’s now famous HCD Method Cards and Nesta’s DIY Social Toolkit amongst others.

2// Dissemination

Given the trend towards openness, we are increasingly seeing a small portion of funding of research and innovation projects dedicated not just to reporting outcomes to the funding organisation but a wider dissemination of lessons, tools, and hypotheses pushing for independent replication or adaptation of solutions. These happen through newsletters, blogs, websites, dedicated seminars, and the like. In our own experience, the work done with ‘The Potty Project’ and ‘Project Sammaan’ are perhaps closest to this approach, where we are sharing a combination of tools, methods, and knowledge generated in the field with the larger Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WaSH) sector mainly through web media, while generating interest through conferences, exhibitions, and dedicated blogs.

3// Intra-sector sharing

While the first two approaches are mostly post-fact, and more static in a way, new tools on the Internet and access to these, are leading to organisations in a sector building ways in which to share knowledge amongst themselves in asynchronous manners across geographies through forums, wikis, and mailing lists. While examples abound, we would like to mention the Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (SuSanA) as an interesting case, as it is working to unite the WaSH sector on a single platform to amplify impact through open sharing.

What’s working? Can it be made better?

As we started reflecting, we came to the conclusion that most toolkits were designed around the information rather than the intended recipient of that information/knowledge. It might not be all that surprising then, that the main issue in our minds is that toolkits are just not designed keeping in mind the end-user, and how they interact with the knowledge being put out there. Following from that, we realised that there were five core areas which were oft neglected while designing toolkits.

1// One size doesn’t fit all

One of the issues that we’ve touched upon briefly through this post, but not substantially in any one place, is the intended end-user. In too many cases, we end up packaging the information in a single format assuming that all our different target groups will be able to make sense of it. However there’s a whole gamut of people who we’d like to impact with a toolkit. These would include donors, researchers, sector practitioners, government officials, and policy-makers, while always keeping in mind the the beneficiaries we are working for and with who will ideally benefit the most from any toolkit. Do all of these groups have the same needs from the information? Or even have the same ways to understand what we’ve put out? We suggest that prioritising the audience and designing different ways to access the same information is critical for higher impact and reach.

2// Adaptability

Too many tools or technologies are communicated in a way that are extremely instructive, and go into so much detail about their particular usage as to feel that they can’t be contextually adaptable. A better approach might be to suggest a method, citing its use in the project as an example, but painting scenarios of how it might be used in a very different context.

Additionally, it would be good to build a roadmap on how an individual or an organisation might learn over time to use the toolkit (or specific tools) in question. Many tools are not one-offs but need to be such that they become part of the potential users’ repertoire, either being a model of thinking to be brought to bear on their work or to be pulled out in the midst of a situation where referring to a heavy tome is not an option.

3// Engaging

The one thing that many ‘toolkits’ lack is the ability to really engage their user consistently over a period of time. We think that people already recognise this, hence the interest in bringing on designers to work on the communication aspect of these, besides, in some cases, the knowledge building. What is oft-forgotten though is that the act of making it engaging is not just about better packaging of the information, but really thinking about your intended recipient and whether they need the information you’ve generated: what’s the simplest version of this that one can communicate?

Another way to make toolkits more engaging is to think of these less as static repositories but more as a dynamic trove of knowledge to build or gather a community around. Thus the initial exercise is to seed discussion and work using existing knowledge, over time building up engagement through the various actors involved.

4// Formats

Perhaps the biggest non-debate happening in this space is whether one should go digital or physical. The team here at Quicksand is unequivocal about our assessment on this. There absolutely must be physical aspects of the toolkits, depending on what the content is, with digital counterparts for relevant bits. The reason for it is that for many stakeholders, especially what we’ve seen with those in the government, civil society, and on-ground partners, there is a lack of access and comfort with digital tools.

5// Facilitation

The other thing that we’ve found most lacking in toolkits, is the availability of facilitators for that information. In our experience with ‘The Potty Project’ specifically, we found that very often we would be requested to get on calls or meet with other practitioners so that they could elicit our help in diving into the research we presented, despite it being what we thought was a very well-designed interface. What has become clearer for us as we interact with other toolkits as well is that when there is an individual, organisation, or community mediating a database of knowledge or information it becomes that much more engaging, irrespective of format. This also enables a very crucial aspect of toolkit usage, that of adapting it to a context. Tools rarely make sense as is, but need active facilitation in order to be sensible and usable within varied contexts. In the absence of facilitation, beneficiaries are often unable to make this crucial step of critically looking through and adapting it to their own context, with the end result that toolkits often remain unused, or incapable of actually influencing people & practice in a sustainable manner.

In conclusion, we don’t think for a second that we’ve been exhaustive in our attempt to try and make sense of ‘toolkits’. To reiterate, our attempt with this post is to provoke reflection and discussion, as we collectively kick off another few decades of work trying to meet the SDGs, to have a considered approach in how we share knowledge with each other.

We invite you to write to us at hello@quicksand.co.in and let us know what you think, and do watch this space for more as we dive in deeper into this subject with other practitioners and stakeholders.