When it comes down to it, there is a problem with our current culture of development. We have the best intentions to create change and drive impact but the culture of scale, numbers and metrics and immediacy get in the way of actually succeeding at this. While I agree that it’s really difficult to continue to get funding for projects that don’t have a concrete method of showing progress, or any guarantee of success, I believe that there needs to be a cultural shift of expectations. Expectations that are built around honoring the personal, local nuances of the individual communities we are trying to help.
Impact through Behavior Change
To help set the stage, I want to talk about how Jon Kolko describes experience in his article, Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience A pursuit of a “total user experience” has derailed the creative pursuits of the Fortune 500.
“An experience cannot be built for someone. Fundamentally, one has an experience, and that is experience is always unique.”
It’s very personal. As designers, we can design the scaffold around the experience but the actual experience is completely out of our control. So essentially, the affect of what we put into the world is fairly unpredictable. Which can be kind of scary.
It’s important to note that even though the outcome is out of our control, this does not relinquish us from responsibility. While Kolko’s article gives a nod to large scale, his emphasis is on the importance of recognizing the role we play in shaping human behavior, from the individual and how that scales to an entire culture, organically. What we put into the world has an impact. Whether the thing is adopted or rejected, people adapt and therefore culture changes.
If we take a moment to think about how personal an experience is for an individual, and that individual is connected to a community of people who have their own personal understandings of the world, we can begin to see the intricacies that make up a culture, and even more importantly the intricacies that any kind of impact will need to consider.
Impact through Iteration
In Michael Hobbes’ article, Stop Trying to Save the World: Big ideas are destroying international development, he begins the discussion of how we handle aid development is broken. He has a couple of different examples of how we have developed this pattern of one-size fits all– Where one type of aid works in one community so let’s scale it and put it in all the communities that need aid. It’s almost like a commoditization of aid.
Nothing is one size fits all– you have to test it, test it again, then test it again. This is not sexy by mainstream standards. This is where our culture of impact is broken. There’s a viral component to sexy which breeds scale. It’s easy for the masses to wrap their head around a solution that is simple and has the story of big impact. It’s much more difficult to be counter culture and to paint the picture of how change really happens– over time, is dependent on so many factors that are complex and interconnected, and we don’t know if it’s going to work, but we sure as hell are going to try. (Which is sexy.) This is where our culture of impact needs to change.
What happens after deployment is just as important as what happens in the design thinking phase. If we connect Kolko’s article to Hobbes’, one thing becomes very clear: We must execute with intention and build in space for reflection and iteration. We should respect the bigger system that is in play here and be humbled by the absolute fact that there is no way we will get it spot on, and that we will have to take our time and work at it.
Impact through Emergence
In Annel Karnani’s paper, Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage completely refutes Prahalad’s stance that by expanding economic reach to the untapped market of the poor, not only can businesses thrive, but including the poor in market strategies might help “end economic isolation”.
Karnani emphasizes that the real fortune at the bottom of the pyramid is allowing growth to come from within, that the place for outside markets is to create producers out of the poor rather than simple consumers. Allowing the space for the emergence of local change and progress. Which could be about helping meet basic, fundamental needs, or working with local governments to make change as a way of empowerment from within rather than impact from without. And yes, this would take some time, this wouldn’t be fast, and it would be local and personal.
All three to some degree or another argue that no solution can be one size fits all, we must understand that experience and therefore impact is personal, and we cannot control outcomes. Because of this, when we put something into the world, the follow up is just as important as the design phase. We must create the feedback loop.
The impact we have may not have a red bow tied around it. We need to take time to understand the real problem and not allow ourselves to get caught up in the story of scale or profit. If we acknowledge that impact is personal, we can begin to create change that scales in a way that is sustainable and truly lasting.