Go Sit In The Corner And Think About What You Said

I came in to our design theory section on designing for poverty with healthy skepticism. Throughout a year of Americorps service in rural Alabama several years ago I witnessed every way in which social entrepreneurship and non-profit aid shouldn’t be done. That’s not to say none of the organizations I interacted with didn’t have their merits. But the fact that Hale County, Alabama still struggled so deeply with unemployment, lack of financial aid, and horrible education meant to me that these non-profits and enterprises with their own individual agendas hadn’t really considered what was good for the community. I have taken the philosophies of the authors we’ve studied over the last two weeks and dropped them into an ironic and fictional experiment. I focus on the shortcomings of their perspectives on design for the wicked poverty problem.

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Jocelyn Wyatt, CEO of IDEO.ORG (not an author from this section, but definitely a player in the social entrepreneurial canon of thought) has kidnapped our thought leaders and brought them to a holding penitentiary outside of her studio in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Over the pandemonium and protest of the authors Jocelyn clarifies that no crime has been committed, but she is here to test everyone’s theories in a live project. They are assigned to come up with a plan of action for the fictional town of Podunk, Louisiana. Until then, they are stuck here.

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Dean Spears jumps into action right away. He frantically puts together the most objective scientific experiment he can muster, “Let me help us show that these poor people need us to guide them by the hand. They are exhausted and their cognitive energy is scarce.”

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By the way, part of this experiment is a series of one-on-one therapy chats with Jocelyn Wyatt. She wants to dig deeper into the psyche of the wicked problems of designing for poverty. Above are her notes from her session with Spears.

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Emily Pilloton, made notorious through her successes with Project H in small town North Carolina stops Spears in the middle of his isolated ruminating. “Dean, don’t you think we ought to get to know the people of Podunk a little bit more? How can we really be designing with if we are treating them as subjects of an experiment? I know Jocelyn has brought us to Nairobi, but maybe she will let us do three whole years of site work in Podunk. Like house arrest, let’s call it “community arrest.” Spears heard her words, but his mind was listening to his thoughts that he wanted to get out of prison and back to the city he came from.

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Jocelyn had a good chat with Emily and had a lot of appreciation for her enthusiasm and insight. But she’s not sure how Emily’s experience can be universalized in general social entrepreneurship and the design field. She found herself in a very good position to leverage the community and her own resources to make something happen in an isolated town. But not everyone can just flock to these floundering places and become their savior. What if they don’t want your help after all?

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Muhammad Yunus comes from a financial background and he sees community wealth as the way forward. He points out that there still exists the frameworks of an old catfish farming economy in this broken town. These poor people haven’t even considered loans a possibility, what kind of bank would give them a loan? Yunus thinks he can get the fish and dollars swimming again with a little bit of supervision.

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Jocelyn questions him on the complexity of pumping monetary wealth into a community that has never experienced luxury. Is that sustainable, and would there be consequences down the road?

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C.K. Parahalad wants to treat poor people just the same as any other market. “Let’s create some good products for these fish farmers. Let’s get them better trawling nets. Let’s get them trading these fish internationally. I can ensure that catfish is the next big staple everywhere from Beijing to New York City.”

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If you plan on having B-Corps drop into this scenario, who is regulating the ethics at all steps of this healing process? If I come to Podunk in 10 years, will I see an exploited local economy?

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Roger Martin fancies himself as an authority in pointing out good social entrepreneurship. He puts Yunus and Prahalad on a pedestal. “These guys have done amazing things in their communities! They are revolutionaries! If you don’t make such a big paradigm shift as these two, then you haven’t done enough.”

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Jocelyn: Wait, so are you suggesting that Emily Pilloton is not a social entrepreneur? Is the small town in North Carolina that she lifted up not enough to title her an entrepreneur? Has she not challenged conventional wisdom about what a designer can accomplish with the collaboration of a community?

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Michael Hobbes isn’t buying any of it. “Can’t entrepreneurship be incremental? Can’t it be generative without being disruptive?” I call bologna.

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Before Hobbes or Victor Margolin had any time to meet with Jocelyn—The writer of this story also ran out of time—the dinner bell rang and socially conscious Danone yogurt was on the menu.