Empowering the poor

What if business could offer an honorable way out of poverty? This week’s readings in Design, Society and Public Sector offer compelling arguments in favor of this notion.  Through the research of Le Dantec and Spears on poverty and homelessness and unexpected perspectives on business from Yunus, Martin, and Prahalad, I can imagine a way for this to work.

A social entrepreneur is at the heart of the argument. According to Martin, social entrepreneurs are, just like a typical entrepreneur, courageous and persistent. What distinguishes them is that they search for business opportunity through analysis in what is unjust. They spend time trying to gain empathy for the downtrodden by understanding the day-to-day needs of the poor and homeless. These entrepreneurial humanitarians recognize that the poor have distinct problems and perspectives on products and services and that it is possible to capitalize on this. Prahalad argues that there are 4 billion poor in this world and collectively they have a vast amount of buying power. Yunus provides a framework for designing a business whose primary objective is social profit. Martin, Prahalad, and Yunus all agree that there are shareholders willing to invest in businesses that seek to build a more equitable world.

Le Dantec’s research is a case study in designing for the homeless in Atlanta. He develops insights on how the homeless perceive technology and then, using these insights, co-creates an application that facilitates collective learning and access to city services. As I read his research, I saw a reflection of my own values – as a designer I must find ways to make society more inclusive and to empower all citizens to participate in the larger political world. Le Dantec provides a concrete example of how he did this for the homeless of Atlanta.

Though change can happen through the steadfast actions of a social entrepreneur, Spears’ research lays a foundation to help support an argument that the poor can be empowered to take charge and in turn, become agents of change. His research refutes the folklore theory that poverty is the result of “bad behavior” and instead, through rigorous methods, proves that poverty leads to limited cognitive capacity.

My comic tells the stories of Mary, her son Johnny, and an activity named Dan. Mary feels stuck living in a shelter. She lives day-to-day and is unable to have a long term plan. This has a negative impact on her son’s performance in school. Dan steps in to help unlock their potential to act and change their lives through a social business. In the story, you will see how Dan does this as he co-designs a co-working space whose mission to enable access to higher education for all residents in a shelter.

I am not naïve. I don’t think that starting a business that sells to the poor (or whose purpose is to better our environment or any other social cause) will ensure a more just world. What I am interested in is how co-designing services can embolden citizens of the world to be agents of change. This collection of articles provides me with a basis for thinking about my quarter 2 project.

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