Designing a (truly) more connected society

During the past week, our cohort tackled learning about a challenging topic –  poverty. Poverty is, as Horst Rittel would call it, a “wicked problem”. It’s a problem whose boundaries escape definition, and it’s a problem that has no definite solution either. This is a problem so systemic in its nature that it seems to be connected to everything, and everyone, in society. Over the course of the two week assignment, it became clear that as challenging as it is to define poverty, it’s there, we can’t escape it, and there’s something we can do to address it.

To better understand poverty and some ways people in society have attempted to cope with it, our cohort was tasked with reading about the topic and then developing an illustrated narrative that communicated these readings to the public. The readings spanned topics from the sociological and psychological effects of poverty to how products and services can be positioned to better serve the poor.

After reading and discussing the authors’ perspectives, each student then synthesized them into a narrative.

My approach to the narrative was to present the story of Jonah, a Director of a fictional organization called the San Francisco Social Services Alliance. With a character like Jonah, who can personify responsibility for the poor in a powerful way given his position in society, I felt that the story as a whole could represent poverty at large in a society. This was important to me so the systemic problem could both be depicted and also addressed through the character’s intervention.

Jonah’s particular challenges in addressing poverty become apparent in the first page of frames as seen below.

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Jonah’s charge is particularly challenging given he works in San Francisco, a city that has a classic problem with homelessness and which is now facing sky-rocketing costs-of-living that burden the poor more than ever.

In the third frame, Jonah tells a friend about a meaningful point of irony. Though technology industry has in part spurred these rising costs and hardships on the poor of San Francisco, the homeless and poor do in indeed rely on cell phones and apps to stay connected. The fact that many homeless and poor have cell phones is a reference to Christopher Le Dantec’s research into poverty.

In Le Dantec’s findings, cell-phones are the main tool used by the homeless to stay connected. It’s no wonder, given it’s the tool that most people use in society to stay connected, but it is surprising that the homeless have adopted a tool that can be costly and confusing to maintain and manage.

The challenge for the poor to manage their technology and lives is reflected in the next frame. This difficulty in organizing one’s life is a reference to Dean Spears’ work on the psychology of poverty.

According to Spears, though the common belief is that people fall into poverty because of their poor decisions, there is evidence that points to the contrary causal relationship – poverty, in fact, leads to poor decision-making.

Dean’s studies show that when individuals live in poverty, the weight of their economic decisions are more exhausting, and this mental fatigue leaves individuals without the cognitive resources to make sound, rational decisions. The impact of this study is powerful when considered in full. If the so-called “underserving” poor are handicapped by their economic condition, how are they to “pull themselves up by the bootstraps”? Sheer luck? The ramifications of this study underscore the need to alleviate the burden of those in poverty. Luckily, Jonah has an epiphany of just how to do that.Q1 Theory A4-02

As we learn from the above panel, Jonah’s idea is to leverage a social network like Facebook to better integrate and connect the poor and homeless in society. This notion of utilizing technology to integrate the disenfranchised is taken from another of Christopher Le Dantec’s articles on poverty. In this article, Le Dantec reasons that what the poor and homeless most need is social inclusion. They need positive social support moreso than opportunities for consumption, as is often the design intent for technologies like phones where users purchase apps, products, and services through them.

Jonah’s move to meet with Mark Zuckerberg ignites a conversation about the possibilities and obstacles related to developing solutions to address poverty.

Those challenges are for the most part resolved through the back-and-forth dialogue and problem solving between Jonah and Mark.

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Multiple of the authors are represented in this brief but weighty dialogue. Muhammad Yunus, for example, is responsible for many of these ideas. Yunus is the founder of Grameen Bank and was awarded the 2006 Nobel prize for his work in addressing poverty in Bangladesh through micro-loans to the poor. He is a proponent of developing social businesses as an alternative to charities. In the social business model, an organization covers its expenses through the revenue generated instead of relying on grants or donations. If one is to pursue the route of developing a social business, he strongly recommends finding a complimentary business partner and ensuring that businesses partner with stakeholders, including shareholders, who are committed to prioritizing social objectives over fiduciary ones. These ideas are both represented in the dialogue.

In addition, Roger Martin, another of the authors reviewed in class, believes that true “entrepreneurs” are those who are dedicated to systems change. This is reflected in the story when Mark declares his intention to change the world, not just San Francisco, through the possible Facebook intervention.

Lastly, the idea for marketing to the poor is a reference to C. K. Prahalad’s theories. In his article, “Selling to the poor”, Prahalad makes a strong point that the poor of the world have needs just like middle and upper class populations, albeit they are distinct needs with distinct product and service solutions. With over $1.7 trillion dollars in spending power, it’s clear that there would be advertising funding available to support the Facebook product for the poor.

With the logic and business model clear, Mark and Jonah agree to move forward together to develop a new Facebook app that will serve the poor and connect them to supportive social services, networks, and products in the community.

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As the design research process is completed, several of the needs that define the condition for poor and homeless become apparent, and those needs inform the product features of the new Facebook Plus app. This feature set reflects Le Dantec’s theory that it is helpful to define the “poor” as a “public” in society. In one of Le Dantec’s articles, he refers primarily to the homeless, but this concept can also be applied to the poor population. To put it simply, Le Dantec uses the word “public” to refer to a population that has a shared social condition. The importance here is that in defining a population’s social condition it is possible to then address that condition and to promote the agenda of the population. In the case of the Facebook Plus app, the definition developed of the “poor” through the design research process informs a defined feature set and interface that reflects the needs of the poor.

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Two of these needs, namely connection with supportive communities and services, reflect Le Dantec’s studies about the needs of the poor. The need for a clean interface is a reaction to the implications of Spears’ research regarding the diminished cognitive capacity likely to afflict those who are poor. And the advertisements for products aligned with social objectives is a fusion of Prahalad’s and Yunus’ writings. The standard view feature is an addition that reflects my own modest contribution to the great thinkers whose writings we reviewed.

While reflecting on these writings, very often it occurred to me that it is too simple to create a label, a solution, and apply it to the poor as if there were no room for error. Those who register for this product are likely to fit outside the norm of the “poor” population definition, or they may move out of poverty. They may even fit the definition quite nicely but still feel slighted by the imposition of a simplified and “other”ed Facebook app variation. For all these reasons, I included a feature for the user to switch to the standard Facebook view upon command. Though this is a small form of empowerment, it represents to me an important choice – the choice of how to identify. Am I a Facebook Plus user, or more than that.

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At the end of the story, Facebook Plus is a roaring success. This time, it’s Mark Zuckerberg who calls on Jonah, and now it’s Jonah, the nascent social entrepreneur, who calls on the Facebooks of the world to serve the greater world.

Through this assignment, it became clear to me that poverty is bigger and harder to define than I thought. It’s like a cancer – obvious to see but near impossible to pin down. Poverty is intractable, pernicious, and sapping of the human spirit. Despite all this, just as medicine has advanced on treating cancer, design can advance to alleviate poverty.