Can we design a society without the Taliban?

As Scott mentioned in his post, part of the focus of class today was consumerism, and design’s role in shaping it.  The discussion reminded me of a fascinating and controversial statement I heard recently regarding the role of consumerism and Western culture in creating an environment that encourages radicals and fundamentalism.

I was listening to a Philosophy Bites podcast interview of American moral Philosopher Susan Neiman, who said

“The [clash between fundamentalist religion and more secular values] is as big a problem in Arkansas as it is in Afganistan […] and we in the West who are not fundamentalist need to look at what we’ve done wrong such that fundamentalists are on the rise.  This is not to excuse the Taliban or Sarah Palin or any of those people whatsoever, but it is to say that we of progressive, Western values need to look at what we’ve done wrong so as to provoke this kind of reaction, and I think we’ve done a lot wrong.

“The rampant consumerist culture that suggests ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ is understandably going to provide a kind of backlash.  I think a lot of the move towards fundamentalism in different cultures is an attempt to say “No, actually I want my life to mean something more than that, I want to be guided by certain ideals of the way the world should be.” […]  If we continue to see fundamentalists as irrational idiots or if we look at them as cowardly, weak-kneed people who can’t understand how to live in the modern world… then we are lost, because the criticism of consumerist, contemporary culture is in many ways a valid one.” (Transcribed from the podcast)

Though controversial, I find her claim that the pendulum swing of fundamentalism is due, at least in part, to consumerism to hold a ring of credibility. Certainly the search for meaning is a powerful human motivator, and viewing fundamentalists as rational agents searching for meaning is a more mature and hopeful viewpoint.  I can think of no immediate way to validate her hypothesis, but I would welcome suggestions.

Assuming her hypothesis to be true, though, the big question for us is whether designing meaningful interactions (instead mindless consumer experiences) could create a more moderate and peaceful society.  Further, is it enough to simply design more meaningful interactions, or do we need to aim for a more fundamental shift in our culture?  How would we approach that?

Influencing Consumption, For Good

After the first evening of class (umm, hooray!) I left feeling a little beside myself. We discussed high level design theory and touched on the drivers of consumption from various influences. I’ve cyclically entertained a degree of self-loathing of my marketing background/application as being seedy and disingenuous. Driving consumer behavior to buy more widgets can feel empty over time.

Does “compelling” store signage truly equate to increased sales at the register?Does a known manufactured obsolescence equal regular intervals of repeat customers or a recurring revenue stream?

These thoughts (and many others) are precisely the reason why I applied to AC4D. I for one welcome my design theory overloards.

Going Public

AC4D’s pedagogical foundation revolves around 3 core tenets:

  1. Rapid Prototyping – Don’t just talk about it. Make it / do it.
  2. Empathy – Inhabit others’ shoes.
  3. Abductive Reasoning – Make inferencing leaps to move the process forward. Follow your gut instead of hedging for success.

These are the ideas that will guide our work.

And our work will be thoughtfully considered because there are problems in the world more worthy of our time and efforts than others. We will design for impact. We will design for profit. If a solution is not sustainable in all its aspects, it will not be successful.

As we met for the inaugural class’s orientation Aug. 28, the energy and potential in the room were readily apparent. (And Jon Kolko was exuding the apparently rare state of excitement.) 11 students + 4 faculty from diverse professional backgrounds and geographic locations:

Via Toronto, Ambato, and Chicago.

Via New York, Paris, and Chennai.

Via Detroit, Corpus, Savannah, San Fran.

Via Philly and D.C. and Houston.

Via Austin, back in Austin, starting anew in Austin.

Not only are we well-traveled and setting off into uncharted territories (and thus more inclined to think outside the box), I realized that we have communities and connections in all those corners of the world. While we have converged in Austin and will be working with a local client on a real project with actual stakeholders and actual consequences (rare in design education), our voices and ideas about the design industry, design education, social innovation, and design processes will have a reach far beyond Austin.

The faculty have set a tone and vision of designing and learning this next year as publically as possible. AC4D will be posting curricula, position papers, videos, tweets, and blog posts throughout the year. You can see what we’re reading when. You can watch “Personal Growth Videos” each week where each of us will document “what I learned” and “how I feel” about that week’s classes. You can follow us on Twitter or join our discussions about readings and projects on this blog. I hope we inspire discussions and debates and new projects.

First up: foundations + choosing a client.

Potential clients:

A preference

I am really excited to discover, after Saturday, the diversity of People, the Quality of Projects and the great Formulation of Design Ideas & Commitment from the Faculty.

Here are my very first thoughts on the Johnson’s Backyard Garden Project in which I have a BIG preference. I am interested in working on nutrition plans and health care problems. Obesity is growing more common in Europe and touches especially poor communities and young people. There is a lot to do.

For example, Jamie Oliver, an English Chef, won a TED Prize wish last year for his work : ” Teach every child about food”.

” I profoundly believe that the power of Food has a primal place in our homes that binds us to the best bits of life… We have an awful reality right not. Fat is the biggest killer in the US today, this is a global problem.”

The JBG project seems to me very complete and very close to AC4D’s goals.

  • explore who are the existing and the future CSA members (a rich Research Project);
  • solve organizational and logistical problems;
  • understand and design solutions that help to promote JBG’s far-reaching goal: build a business model that can grow to reach self-sufficiency and self-profit but also that can train others farmers to grow … Some kind of a networked business. Check out this article on Edible Austin Magazine.

just the beginning

We had orientation this weekend and met everyone. I am very excited to spend the year working with such a talented group of people. The image is a small collection of some common ideas, thoughts and themes that were part of the weekend and show a small piece of what lies ahead. The work begins with the first class tonight.

Allan Chochinov – Manifesto for Sustainability in Design

blogged about my thoughts on this in my new “design thoughts” blog ( I felt this would be more appropriate here as my friends and professors might add to the discussion. So, here it goes…

This is part of a class reading at AC4D.

I was reading through this and it stuck me that I could break this down into four groups. The numbers in the parenthesis indicate the corresponding points in Chochinov’s manifesto.

1. Responsibility (1 & 2) – This relates to social and personal responsibility of your own design. One must be conscious of the fact that design multiplies and reaches unanticipated corners of the world. It is hence a responsibility not cause damage through design.

2. Attention (3 & 4 & 10) – Paying attention to what you are designing and who you are designing for is critical. Also, it is important to pay attention to what the context. Design is a way to solve problems and that should be the focus. There is very little place for personal ego. Pay attention to what exists around you and what you can leverage to solve a problem. Creation of a new solution should be a natural evolution and not a forced step because of wrong reasons.

3. Empathy (5 & 6 & 9) – Empathize with the users, their environment, your environment, your home, planet and everything that you can empathize with. Understand what you are designing for and if your intended audience resonate with your emotions while they use your design. Design is about making connections, on an emotional level. Observe nature and how the planet works. Your design need not go against the creative flow.

4. Common Sense (7 & 8 ) – Use common sense while designing. Challenge the urge to showcase your design skills with an actual need for that work. Use quantification to your advantage. The results of a design are almost always quantifiable. If you cannot quantify, then maybe it is time to rethink.

The above discussion to me, summarizes the entire Chochinov paper. I think it is common sense and I would be surprised why somebody would not think on the above lines while designing. Again, I am new to design, hence there may be things that I cannot yet see. However, as an exercise, it would be interesting to keep in mind these 4 points while evaluating any design

Why this feels right

You know you are on the right track when you are surrounded by a group of people who are all saying the same thing:

I am super excited. I got bored. I didn’t want to get too comfortable. I want to grow. I want to create. I want a better world. I want to spend my time on things that matter. I believe we can do good and make money at the same time. I believe design shapes culture, which shapes everything else. I love that I am a part of the inaugural class. I love the diversity in the class but our paths are crossing. I just got to Austin. Can we get to work yet? I had doubts, but I’m over them. And, did I already mention I’m super excited?

Well, looks like there is only one way left to go – Forward. Even if it really has to take 10,000 hours of hard work.

And it begins.

In order to begin moving forward, we must first know where we stand.  The orientation on Saturday provided the forum to learn just that.   We were all finally able to meet and share stories, backgrounds, fears, hopes, and intentions.  We now know where we stand, it’s officially time to start putting one foot in front of the other… there is much work to be done!

Innovating for the Poor

A topic that interests me a lot is how to innovate products for the economically challenged. Today, I came across an awesome interview with professor Anil Gupta of IIMA (Indian Inst. of Management, AHD).

The interview is a great read in its entirety. However, if I have to take away one point from this interview, that would be the following –

Some position the poor at the bottom of the economic pyramid, but this does not equate to a lack of knowledge, values and social networks. I prefer to see the poor as a provider than a market — with their limited material resources driving knowledge-intensive, informal innovation. Through providing incubation and development support, patent and intellectual-property-rights assistance, marketing advice and microventure funding, we seek to support the creativity that already exists at the grassroots.

This is on the lines of several free thinkers (including C.K. Prahalad) who view the BoP as a market in its own right. Every technology or service serves two basic purposes IMHO – Offer value to its users by elevating their level of experience and generate a revenue while doing so. If both the things are achieved, it is a successful product/service. Any successful idea in history can be mapped to the above two points. The BoP market is different and unless the dynamics of the market are clearly understood, innovation is not possible. Also, I believe that innovation should be locally targeted. The “locality” of target should be the society for which the innovation is being created. A mobile banking app that is targeted for tech savvy baby boomers may not be acceptable for a BoP population.

Selling to the poor is very similar to any selling (in spirit). The means are certainly different.  The bulk of BoP population is stuck at the bottom of Maslow's pyramid trying to procure basic needs. This is a problem a lot of NGOs are working to solve. I believe that one big problem is point of view of lot of people where financial pyramid is super imposed with Maslow's hierarchy.

IMHO, this is one of the pitfalls several NGOs and Non-profits fall into. I am not saying that helping with basic needs is not the right approach; that is noble and important. However, we need to elevate the society to a level from which they can help themselves. And we should do it by creating opportunities in terms of products and services targeted towards fostering innovation and enterprising spirit from each member of the society.


Change Starts Today

My biggest takeaway today is that social change starts today. Right here. Right now. All too often I’ve heard of people having a want to donate support, but only after a personal comfort zone has been established. One could discuss Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to justify this behavior, but as an old professor told me, “All models are wrong, some are useful.” Change may operate on opportunity and hard work, but will most likely never succeed based on convenience.I feel very empowered after hearing my classmates speak about their respective backgrounds and intentions. I am surrounded by faculty and students that are by “do-ers,” a trait that inherently raises the bar to great heights. The curriculum appears to be strenuous yet rewarding in a timeframe that I’m sure will fly by amazingly fast.Monday may be the first official day of class but my wheels are already turning.