Unless the world tackles global inequity today, UNICEF reports that by 2030 167 million children will live in extreme poverty, and 69 million children under age five will die between 2016 and 2030. In the United States, 43.1 million Americans live in poverty (2015, University of California, Davis).
As students at Austin Center for Design, we are studying interaction design with an emphasis on addressing humanitarian problems. Jon Kolko, who encourages us to work on problems that matter, recently facilitated discussions about poverty and social business models. Authors included: Christopher Le Dantec, Allen Hammon and C.K. Prahalad, Dean Spears, Muhammad Yunus, and Roger Martin and Sally Osberg.
In Christopher Le Dantec’s paper, A Tale of Two Publics: Democratizing Design at the Margins, he made the case that homeless people are at the margins of society and largely ignored. He wrote about the need to democratize technology—to bring interactive experiences and technology to the wider public, to expand inclusion, and to impact both social and political realms. He described a project in which he co-created a communication platform built with homeless persons and their care providers. Le Dantec pressed that not only should we focus on the marginalized; we should design with (not for) them.
In the second paper by Le Dantec, Designs on Dignity: Perceptions of Technology Among the Homeless, he presented various factors that contribute to a person being homeless. While it’s true that addiction and health issues are factors, a chief challenge for homeless individuals is poverty and available low-income housing. He goes on to discuss the problem of information poverty due to technology access and compounded by lower levels of education and literacy.
I think a common theme throughout the two papers by Le Dantec is the challenge to use technology and design to empower the homeless. These are not silver bullets, yet they can be a rung on a ladder that enables many a homeless person to find permanent housing and rejoin family, friends, and society. If we are going to empower homeless people to improve their lives, it will be a combination of efforts so we should not discount those that do not immediately appear relevant.
Dean Spears, author of Economic Decision-making in Poverty Depletes Cognitive Control, is an economist and his life’s work is around compassionate economics and child health and human development. His report challenged the folk theory about the undeserving poor and their decisions, which may make poor people appear less worthy of help. The results indicate that because the poor make difficult economic decisions every day, such as to eat or to pay rent, it extracts a toll on them. The decision-making process and the choices that the poor have to make are weighty, and the result is that poverty appears to have made economic-decision making more consuming of cognitive control for poor people vs. rich people. Spears reasons that even everyday food decisions are costly and arduous for the very poor.
What can we take away from the Spears research? He reasoned that if we understand how poverty influences decision-making and behavior, it might change policy and how the public views the poor. For me, it challenges my understanding of what it means to be poor and to pull out of it. It also makes the cycle of poverty all the more intractable. To imagine myself, as poor and reasoning if should skip lunch so that I can pay the water bill sounds soul-sucking. Which makes me think that Spears is onto something. Indeed.
Yes, this is depressing. Hang with me.
Poverty. Homeless. Hunger. To pep things up, we read an article by Allen Hammond and C.K. Prahalad titled, Selling to the Poor. There are so many poor people in the world that it’s “the largest untapped consumer market on Earth.” Irony.
The writers make the case that many companies are doing well by doing good. The authors stress that if poor people are not able to participate in the global market, they cannot benefit from it either. Examples include sunscreen that individuals in the developing world can afford, increasing access to digital information, and so on. Similar to Le Dantec, the writers stress the need to understand local circumstances, unique constraints, and that poor consumers challenge practically every preconception.
When I think about AC4D’s mission, it seems like developing products for the overlooked can indeed be a new frontier for work that matters.
In Building Social Business Models: Lessons From the Grameen Experience, Muhammad Yunus, the father of microcredit, provides a case study about three programs offered by Grameen Group. Yunus writes that capitalism may be able “to address overwhelming global concerns” by “formulating a social business model, which require new value propositions, value constellations, and profit equations.” The writers encourage the best of for-profit and non-profit organizations to develop a new type of social business that is self-sustaining and empowering. Yunus found success by challenging preconceived notions and process (such as a bank can’t loan money without collateral) and myths (like poor people won’t repay a loan or can’t be entrepreneurs).
Writers Roger Martin and Sally Osberg, Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition, see the need for a rigorous definition of social entrepreneurship. They begin by dissecting the term and defining the word entrepreneurship as a mix of creativity, drive, and determination to solve specific problems (equilibrium) and they make it more rigorous by saying that to be called an entrepreneur, one must also be a success. If you look at their dictionary for the word entrepreneur, you’ll find an example of Steve Jobs, not the local hardworking, self-employed immigrant running a small shop. It is reminiscent of Jon Kolko’s definition of innovation that I wrote about in an earlier blog post (his qualifier was a market success).
Martin and Osberg see many similarities between the entrepreneur and social entrepreneur, with the key difference being the unsatisfactory equilibrium. For the entrepreneur perhaps it’s a broken process or a disjointed industry. For the social entrepreneur, the focus is an unjust equilibrium that causes exclusion, marginalization, or suffering. Similar to their qualifier for an entrepreneur, the writers believe that to be a social entrepreneur one must have large-scale impact.
Our assignment was to identify the author’s way of thinking about poverty. From there, we created a storyline that explains those positions and our perspective.
I chose to use the construct of a fable for my storyline. Fables are an enduring form of storytelling and often use animals or inanimate objects with human qualities, such as the ability to speak (or in my case, dinosaurs with the capacity to run complex financial deals over 65 million years ago). Fables include a moral or a lesson to be learned.
Enjoy the story: Don’t Be a Dinosaur.