What’s Missing from Your Design Toolkit?

This last month we have been reading about problem solving, the work of designers and design processes. Although all still in the domain of theory, rather than practice, these authors are grappling with the question, “How do we do design?” Authors like Chris Pacione, Nigel Cross and Horst Rittel have defined the designer’s process in contrast with fields of mathematics, engineering, and economics, respectively. The designer’s toolkit is full of tools that enable us to leave behind the rules and traditions of scientific inquiry in exchange for a more humanized, multi-dimensional, and inclusive picture of the world. 

 

Pacione says today’s fundamental educational competencies are not reading, writing and arithmetic, but rather the fundamental skills of design, “creativity and innovation, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration.” Cross highlights intuition as the key differentiator between the problem solving performed by engineers and the problem solving done by designers. He quotes an engineering designer saying, “I believe in intuition. I think that’s the difference between a designer and an engineer.” Cross defines the core competencies of design as “the abilities to: “resolve ill-defined problems, adopt solution-focusing strategies, employ abductive/productive/appositional thinking, use non-verbal, graphic/spatial modeling media.”

 

Rittel discusses the economists’ application of classical physics in the pursuit of efficiency and the elevation of efficiency to moralistic heights within industry and government. Yet, he finds these methods falling short when applied in the social sciences or in government or societal planning. “We shall suggest that the social professions were misled somewhere along the line into assuming they could be applied scientists–that they could solve problems in the way that scientists can solve their sorts of problems.” In many ways the tools of the designer are as much about what they are not, as what they are.

Design has thus been defined in opposition to the empiricism of math and science. In advancing design as a superior method for solving societal problems, design theorists have rejected the tools of the engineer, the scientific method, statistical analysis, algorithms, and the like. The righteous justification for casting aside those problem solving tools that societies have found invaluable for centuries is in defining the types of problems these tools are well-suited to solve. Walter Reitman first categorized problems as ill-defined or well-defined in the 1960s as a means of understanding human cognition and problem solving. A well-defined problem is one with a single, definite solution state and a single, definite starting state, and a finite set of ‘legal moves’ and constraints.

 

Herbert Simon builds on the idea of separating problems into well-specified or ill-specified in the interest of articulating what types of problem solving are best suited to each. But rather than honoring the binary that Reitman constructed, Simon reimagines them in two critical ways. First, he discards the binary in favor of seeing ISPs and WSPs as a continuum. One problem might be more well-structured than another while neither being objectively well-structured. Second, he considers problem spaces that are fundamentally ill-structured, and yet composed of many sub-problems that are actually well-structured. 

 

The particular lens through which Simon is considering ISPs and WSPs is the implications for artificial intelligence to solve problems. He both limits the potential application of AI by positing that many problems commonly conceived as well-structured (such as a chess match) are actually ill-structured. Yet, problems commonly conceived as ill-structured, such as an architect designing a house, are largely composed of well-structured sub-problems. So although other theorists have built a wall between the design and scientific methodology or data, Simon’s construction of problems in which WSPs are embedded in ISPs call for problem solvers with both the empiricists’ and the designers’ toolkits. 

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Richard Buchanan echos this sentiment saying, “The significance of seeking a scientific basis for design does not lie in the likelihood of reducing design to one or another of the sciences-an extension of the neo-positivist project and still presented in these terms by some design theorists. Rather, it lies in a concern to connect and integrate useful knowledge from the arts and sciences alike, but in ways that are suited to the problems and purposes of the present.” Buchanan doesn’t want to turn design into a science, but he argues that we need to thoughtfully consider where science and design intersect. The rise of design hasn’t (and shouldn’t) mean the fall of science, but for these two ways of problem solving to exist perpetually in parallel rather than in conversation with each other is a major missed opportunity. Buchanan synthesizes the work of Simon with John Dewey’s call for “new disciplines of integrative thinking.” Design work that cannot integrate with the sciences is a poorer realization of design.

 

We haven’t done enough to integrate that which is valuable from the empiricist tradition in modern design methodology. Buchanan tell us that interactions between designers and the scientific community are problematic. “Instead of yielding productive integrations, the result is often confusion and a breakdown of communication, with a lack of intelligent practice to carry innovative ideas into objective, concrete embodiment.” This is unsurprising given that design has been a discipline that has historically defined itself as the antithesis of science. Not to mention the continued skepticism that science and industry have of design. 

Jocelyn Wyatt recognizes the reluctance of industry leaders to embrace design methodology, saying, “Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration.” Wyatt’s view is ultimately that design has already arrived at the perfect intersection of integrating the rational and analytical with the creative and intuitive. Yet, she acknowledges that more organizations are structured around “conventional problem solving practices.” She posits that this may be due to fear of experiencing failure inherent to prototyping and experimentation processes.

 

What if instead, the explanation was that designers are still leaving too much on the table? Focusing on the strength of their own process and failing to leverage to advantages of a more quantitative understanding of the problem space?  In reflecting on this idea my classmate, Lauren and I considered the heightened value that qualitative data we had gathered in contextual inquiry had when considered in the context of quantitative data that differed from or directly contradicted the perceptions of our participants.

 

The gaps between what our participants perceive and what we know to be true are reliably interesting to us. How did they develop this different view of reality or “alternative facts”? We may trust that our knowledge exceeds the knowledge of the person we are observing or the disparity between our beliefs and those of our participants may lead us to question our own perceptions. In a data-gathering phase of design research, how do you respond to misrepresentations of reality? Do you accept it as a pertinent and interesting distortion or does it prompt you to interrogate your own beliefs or understanding?

 

There are a few ways that we have seen the perception-reality divide manifest in design research. First, the observed hypocrisy. While doing research on user behavior in public parks a participant emphatically told us that off-leash dogs were not acceptable to him or his neighbors and that the neighborhood had a strong ethos of self-policing around this particular norm. Less than half an hour later, one of his neighbors walked by with two dogs, one of which was off-leash. The two had an amicable discussion that included observing how this elder dog was inoffensively violating the off-leash rules. The strong self-policing ethos described was entirely absent. These are common. The food service worker who mentions always washing his hands before starting work, and then doesn’t wash his hands. A preschooler who describes the universe of Dora the Explorer in detail after his mom has said that he doesn’t watch any television. This inconsistency illustrates the gap between who we are and the idealized version of ourselves.

However, we aren’t always so lucky to always catch a person in these contradictions in a one- to two-hour contextual observation. How important is it to differentiate between the behavior “parents of preschoolers don’t allow screen time” and the belief “parents of preschoolers don’t think their children should be interacting with screens”? The primary resolution to this problem to to prioritize observing behavior, rather than eliciting opinions. We can ask questions about what we observe and given what we know about people’s tendency to present an idealized self, take with a grain of salt if the participant insists that we are observing something anomalous rather than routine. 

 

Yet, what about when the observed behavior isn’t rational for a given context? We’ll call this, the irrational behavior. This is the person who travels out of their way to visit a particular farmers’ market because they double SNAP (food stamp) benefits, when actually every farmer’s market in town offers the same deal. If we know the rules about SNAP and farmers’ markets we can identify this as an irrational behavior, and glean some interesting insights from this misconception. Otherwise, this behavior might pass as rational and we would miss the additional understanding the comes from identifying a gap between perception and reality. 

As designers, we are seldom subject are experts in the fields we are designing for. There are ways that this is an asset, rather than a liability. Familiarity with the subject area means familiarity with a set of beliefs and judgments that may limit innovation and creativity. “This is how it’s always been done.” “This is the right way; this is the wrong way.” Additionally, it’s not realistic or an effective use of time to become a subject matter expert in each industry in which a designer works. Absent subject area expertise, how can designers increase their knowledge base to further develop their ability to spot pertinent and interesting gaps between perception and reality?

 

In the field of remote sensing and GIS, practitioners talk about “ground data.” When I did research using satellite imagery and GIS to identify areas of reforested and old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, I couldn’t just rely on the images, I needed ground data. Real-world points of reference where I knew that the areas that I was seeing in my satellite data were known to be either reforested or old-growth. Using these known areas as a baseline, I could analyze the properties of those areas of the imagery and use correlation to identify which other areas on the map likely shared a common history of being logged or pristine.

How can designers employ ground data in their work? In the example of the farmers’ market, ground data might come in the form of existing knowledge, or from additional research. How can we cultivate data pertinent to our areas of research and integrate them into our qualitative research processes? I’m not suggesting that designers become statisticians or scientists, but advocating for the integrative approach advanced by Simon and Buchanan. If we understand the problems we are solving to be complex enough to contain both well-structured problems and ill-structured problems, then surely some of the data or tools of the sciences can advance our understanding of problems in meaningful and actionable ways, particularly the well-structured components of complex problems. 

 

My recent parks research provides a potential example of the intersection of design research and quantitative data. While talking to a participant who works in parks she emphatically described the ways that her organization seeks to approach their work with an equity mindset. She was thoughtfully aware of the history of racial inequality in Austin and the ways that had manifested in parks. Yet, this seemed like a possible example of an observed hypocrisy, as the methods that the organization employs to direct resources are subjective and thus may reflect misconceptions or blindspots despite the best of intentions. Further, the process seems highly vulnerable to “squeaky wheel” bias that might favor those with the means and agency to advocate for themselves.

 

As a design researcher I wanted ground data to validate or invalidate the claim that the organization was achieving the equity outcomes that are part of their mission. If their impact and their intentions were not aligned, this would be a fruitful problem space to explore, or it would not be a problem at all if the organization was effectively achieving their equity goals. I could ask more park users about their perceptions of equity (which I did). This gave me important and valid data about users’ perceptions of equity (they didn’t think funding was equitable). But I still wanted to know if we made a perception problem to solve or a systems problem to solve or both.

 

Serendipitously we ended up talking to another person who works in parks who had a shared passion for equity and concern about resource allocation in parks. She shared with us a tool that she uses to map potential investments in Austin parks. She told us, “It has all these different layers. You can turn on a master layer that puts together an aggregate layer of things like low income, low food access, high obesity, high chronic disease–all these like high need things–children under eighteen, low socioeconomic status, all of that coming together.” I could map the recent investments made by the organization using subjective methodology to allocate funding and see how those correlated with the empirically identified areas of high need in Austin. That would be great ground data to validate the organizations claims.

Where does this fit into my current framework for design research? The way our research process is organized looks like this:

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The first two (contextual research, themes) are focused on the processes of collecting and organizing perceptions. The latter two incorporate the designers intuition and knowledge to make meaning of the first two. I would argue the space between theming and insight formation is the place to apply quantitative data. Adding different types of data at this stage fortifies the designer to approach the formation of insights and design ideas from a stronger vantage point.

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The highly regarded philosopher of design and creativity, Edward de Bono, advocates literally putting on different hats when participating in creative work. A hat for criticism and skepticism, a hat for optimism and “blue sky” thinking, one for intuition and emotion, one for provocation and deviant thinking, and so on. Yet, none of the hats on his hat rack is a statistics, data and science hat. Perhaps because this lens is commonly seen as a creativity killer. 

 

People may believe quantitative data is reductive, dry, lacks personality or nuance. But when I hear those critiques, I think, ‘You’re just looking at the wrong data!” The right quantitative data for your problem will spark curiosity, will express nuance, will prompt expansive thinking. With practice interpreting or visualizing data, quantitative data can tell a lively and highly specific story, or at least point you in the direction of one. If my overlay of the high-need GIS data with the non-profit’s recent project sites shows neglected areas of high need, I can explore why. I can visit those parks and talk to neighbors their to get a fuller picture of what is happening across the city outside of my convenience sample.

 

First, to fully exploit the value of a data-informed design practice first thing we need to do as designers is to let go of the idea that design is defined in opposition to science. While it is true that design methodology is distinct from scientific methodology, positioning these two disciplines at odds unduly influences designers to abandon both the tools and the products of scientific inquiry. While your design toolkit is powerful without any scientific resources, it is only more powerful when you are able to thoughtfully incorporate scientifically derived data or methods.

 

Second, we need to examine the design tools and methodologies that we rely on and consider how, when and where we might integrate empirical data. A choice to incorporate it at the beginning of the process might limit building empathy and understanding the problem through your users eyes. At the end might be too late to make use of the data. Wyatt describes three phases of design, “inspiration, ideation, and implementation.” Within this model, the most effective place to employ empirical data is somewhere within the ideation phase. Critically examine your design research process and consider where quantitative data best fits.

 

Finally, just as Pacione makes a case for basic design literacy for everyone, designers need to embrace basic data literacy. A data-informed designer is knowledgeable about what types of quantitative data sources are publicly available and what types of quantitative data your clients likely have access to. She also has at least basic competency in techniques for quantitative data gathering and processing. Data literacy requires being able to interpret and visualize quantitative data sets and identify bad or unreliable data sources. With practice, thinking with your statistics, data and science hat will become second nature, and the results of your design research will be even more persuasive and powerful.

 

Personal reflection: Tarot as a sensemaking tool

Preface

During a class discussion of reading by design researcher Nigel Cross, our instructor Scott encouraged us to consider an important foundational question.

What does it mean to build methodology around my core design tenets?

It’s something I realize I’ve been doing, presentation by presentation, through the course of IDSE102.

The rigor of AC4D asks of us to be constantly presenting, to make a visual medium to show our work. For me personally, one part of the challenge of delivering so many presentations—and my presence here at AC4D at all—is believing that I deserve to be here. That I am smart enough, equipped, and capable of facing these challenges.

To that end, Nigel provides a definition of designers that has been one of the most validating things I’ve read for my career, and for my personal identity.

To summarize the major aspects of what designers do. Designers: 

  • Produce novel, unexpected solutions
  • Tolerate uncertainty, working with incomplete information
  • Apply imagination and constructive forethought to practical problems
  • Use drawing and other modeling media as means of problem solving.

I’m letting this serve as a foundation as I leap into what may be considered a novel, unexpected approach to our problem-solving process.

Using tarot as a tool for design thinking

But before I jump in, I should quickly establish what kind of problems we might use this method for. As defined by Jon Kolko, “A wicked problem is a social or cultural problem that is difficult or impossible to solve for as many as four reasons: 

  • incomplete or contradictory knowledge,
  • the number of people and opinions involved, 
  • the large economic burden, and 
  • the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems.”

His summary is based on the theory work of Horst Rittel. In Rittel’s work on the subject, he investigates whether social sciences are equipped to take on wicked problems. In approaching them, they often rely on outdated, positivist-based frameworks (see Dourish) that have an inherent limited scope of the problem space (see Simon). What might a different way of approaching these problems look like?

Enter designers: ready to confront wicked problems, literally embracing the wild unknown. Armed with sketchbooks, laptops, theories, and ample Post-Its, we instead rely on creativity, subjectivity, and intuition to make sense of the wild. 

But where to begin in the sensemaking? 

For me, I start with people. I believe serving people is what the design industry and practice is meant for. I’m interested in seeing what practices already work for people, and looking at other fields for frameworks (see Buchanan) that can inform my approach. In some ways I like to consider myself an idea detective, scoping out unsuspecting places or devices for clues in how to best problem-solve. 

So where does tarot come in? For those unfamiliar, here’s a quick definition from Brigit Esselmont, author of Everyday Tarot and founder of Biddy Tarot.

The Tarot is a deck of 78 cards, each with its own imagery, symbolism and story. The 22 Major Arcana cards represent life’s karmic and spiritual lessons, and the 56 Minor Arcana cards reflect the trials and tribulations that we experience on a daily basis.

As Esselmont goes on in her description, consulting tarot “is like holding up a mirror to yourself so that you can access your subconscious mind.”

I believe it’s with this notion in mind that designers have begun to embrace tarot as a reflection and sensemaking tool. Design researchers and strategists have created their own card decks inspired by tarot to envision future user journeys, predict the impact of tech innovations, and help spark conversations to solve workplace problems.

I rely on tarot because it asks the inquirer to consider possibilities you may not otherwise have considered at all. The best personal readings I’ve done for friends prompted a strong sense of what I like to call “vulnerable self-inquiry.” 

What this means in practice for the future of my design trajectory, I do not yet have a specific answer. But I know that whatever I do, my practice will be grounded in this fundamental notion.


Still not keen on or convinced of the tarot approach? No worries. This form of using tarot is essentially one of virtually any methods you could choose. And ultimately, any method you choose is arbitrary. (See DeBono’s colored hats or random word association methods.) What matters most is you have a starting place to frame ideas, with which to springboard.

(I would also say self-awareness of personal bias going into the ideation process, or for when a certain tool is no longer helpful, is also crucial. But those are essays/presentations for another time.)

Even if tarot or any other idea generation prompts you use don’t work for you, I say don’t give up the practice. In my mind, the way we go about life itself is all a matter of design, and embracing / facilitating experimentation is at the heart of it.

Failure is an opportunity for growth. Fail fast, envision success, and keep pushing forward.

Theming Through a Farmers Market

Lauren, Leah, and I have found ourselves enclosed in a small black box here at Austin Center for Design. The black walls are covered in text, these pieces of text are on small white pieces of paper we’ve cut out called utterances. These utterances were pulled from massive word documents that we transcribed from hours of interviews we’ve conducted with people who are involved with HOPE Farmers Market (HOPE FM). It’s been a learning process for us, and we’re learning that the people we’re talking with are learning too. The farmer’s market contains an eclectic mix of self-starters, rebels, and passionate hobbyists. There’s such a diverse group of humans and businesses that attend the market. Everyone is having their own experience while others aim to provide an experience.

Through hours of interviews (30 plus) we are now at a point in the process where we are considering what our deliverables to our client could be. Amongst the walls of text exist “red trucks” obvious and pointed commonalities that have come across in our conversations with our interviewee’s. The Texas heat being one of them. Our goal at this point in the process is to develop themes. We walked into the market as outsiders, and although difficult, will remain outsiders in order to be able to provide more valuable insight. It’s been difficult to tip toe around without shouting out obvious problems, or easy solutions to some of the things we’ve seen. It’s bigger than that. This project is more important than that and design research carries more value than that. It’s finding out the things that lie beneath the surface. That is where our themes have begun to form.

Our first theme we’ve come across is this market provides a raw and experimental environment for people looking to try new things. People can bring their ideas to life, with few hurdles to jump over at HOPE. We’ve heard from those who had their product in mind long before they created it. Passion projects that started at HOPE have turned into profit for some, they’ve been able to leave jobs they didn’t like, and some walk past their products at local grocers in Austin. A vendor we spoke with has been coming to HOPE FM since its inception. Walter found a way to escape his desk job, via kombucha, and used the market to further propel his product. While others aspire to arrive there, renting kitchen space and walking the path to market from their local culture through food. A vendor named Jessie shared her story of working part time at a local taco joint while getting a grant from an incubator to help grow her business. She sell’s traditional Mexican candies and is now featured in Mexic-Arte Museum here in Austin. It’s been inspiring to hear from them, and it’s more inspiring to see their thoughts on paper clustered next to each other, in a way that only we’ve been able to see.

We continue to hear about a sacrifice of profit over people. Janet is a vendor who sells juice, she has such an intense passion for her product that she’s refused to scale up even though she was presented the opportunity. She said “In order for me to grow the business it’s going to need a longer shelf life. But I didn’t want to sacrifice the quality. In hot pasteurization you basically heat it up to a temperature to kill the bacteria, but also the flavor isn’t there.” This aversion to sacrifice of quality is present among other vendors at HOPE. Janet also emphasized that her recipes are from her grandmother, they’ve been passed down for generations and quality is the key. Janet is providing a piece of herself through her product and she’ll stop at nothing to leave a lasting impression.

This market has leveled the playing field for people to embrace their most raw experiments. A mother daughter rock duo plays their version of Little Miss Muffet, across Plaza Saltillo where the market takes place. Whether the customers of the market were stopping through for a cool beverage during their day or coming for a Sunday afternoon activity they’re going to hear some tunes, whether they like it or not. On the other side of the market, a renaissance storyteller has taken up a spot near the yoga mats where she recites folk lore and fairy tales from memory for tips. The market even has free yoga! A previous volunteer kicked off the program each Sunday and still returns to give instruction…. when they can. That being said these people are giving things a try, in a place of no judgement. HOPE Farmer’s Market seems to be much more than a market, it’s a platform, a playground, to try something different in pursuit of passion.

Something we also continue to hear is this polarizing magnetism for HOPE FM. There are people who have grown and are growing with the market, it’s their place, they have found a home for their product and in turn, themselves. People have been returning to HOPE weekend after weekend whether they’re profiting or not. The ambiance of the market plays into this polarization effect, and the people who are attracted may be unaware of the aversion people are experiencing as well. We heard from a local chef who used to visit the market finds it to be a market of treats, he doesn’t attend as frequently as he once did.. A neighborhood resident mentioned to us that the market seemed sad, and he doesn’t think he would go back.

Overall we’re looking forward to feedback so we can better develop our themes into insights.

Part Two: Finding Themes for Austin Parks Foundation

This is Part Two in a Service Design Project for Austin Parks Foundation. For Part One: Stories from the Field, go here

Since August, our team (Kyle, Michelle, Laura) has been working with Austin Parks Foundation to help them better understand the feelings of ownership over green spaces; specifically how those feelings of ownership can develop and drive behavior. 

OUR DESIGN PROCESS

As students, we are segmenting the design process into small, digestible pieces. In most practical applications, these processes can happen concurrently and are less isolated, but for the sake of learning, we’ve broken the design process down into five clear steps:

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THEME-FINDING

After 16 interviews with 19 participants, we developed 3,031 utterances. To help us make sense of this data, we make it physical. The act of hanging our utterances up on a wall helps in many ways: 

  1. We start to develop a mental map of where things are physically hung in the space. This type of spatial connection cannot happen in a spreadsheet with 3,000 rows. 
  2. The focus is on the idea, not the person. Many of our utterances were hung randomly, rather than organized by participant. As we read through the wall, we start to develop new connections with these utterances that abstract them from the person and allow us to focus on the behavior. 
  3. As we find connections, we physically move an utterance from one side of the room to another, next to other like-minded utterances. We then use this pool of utterances to develop themes. 

The goal is to find emergent patterns among this mass of data that we can ultimately use to derive insights, problem statements, and design ideas. Here’s a sampling of five themes we uncovered as related to us by our interview participants (names and identifying information have been changed):

A SENSE OF OWNERSHIP DRIVES IRRATIONAL BEHAVIORS.

Park space is public. Austin Parks Foundation doesn’t own it. Park Adopters don’t own it. No one person owns it, yet we observed many actions that may have been appropriate for private spaces, such as someone’s own backyard, but were downright irrational in the context of a public park. 

Madeline told us how ownership can manifest irrationally in Austin community gardens. A large tree that shaded part of the garden was growing even larger. Planning ahead, they realized they would either need to cut limbs off the tree or shift the location of garden plots that soon wouldn’t get enough sunlight. The response from an impacted gardener couldn’t have been more emphatic: “Limb up the tree! I cannot move” (Line 126). She described the attachment of people to their plots saying, “People have a huge sense of ownership because they’ve been cultivating it. I think that’s almost biblical in a way. You’ve been working the soil, there is a lot of energy and ownership that comes out of that” (Line 127).

Another participant, Jim, has spent the last 10 years helping maintain a preserve that is 25 minutes from his house. “For a while, I was coming here every day” (Line 2). He told us he “never goes anywhere without a weeder and a handsaw” (Line 152) — just in case he spots the #1 thing on his “shit list” — an invasive tree, Ligustrum. Although he admits that this battle against the invasive tree is never going to be won, he tirelessly persists in working to restore a more natural balance of native species to this space.

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The back of Jim’s car, permanently converted to a mobile toolbox.

Robert lives adjacent to a neighborhood park that has recurring issues with waste left by park users including biohazards like hypodermic needles or condoms. Rather than choosing other places for himself and his family to recreate, he visits his park regularly, often twice a day, and frequently with his son. While we were visiting the park with him, he picked up a needle abandoned in the grass. He’s acutely aware of the risks, telling us, “You don’t know what’s on the other end. One wrong prick and you’re dead…Don’t laugh but I went out and bought welding gloves” (Line 135). Yet he continues to help maintain the park, even getting his son and other neighbors involved. Showing off the results of a recent park clean-up he had organized he told us, “The children are remarkably good [at helping with park clean-ups]. We told them, just don’t touch a needle or a condom. You’ll be fine. Look at this work – it’s great” (Line 80).

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Robert heads to the trash with a hypodermic needle.

PEOPLE DON’T BELIEVE THEY RECEIVE THE SUPPORT THEY DESERVE.

Despite the city and Austin Park Foundation’s efforts to engage with the community, park-goers regularly expressed a feeling of being forgotten, ignored, and lacking support. Daniel, a lawyer, is concerned about the growth of Austin and the reallocation of funds away from his central neighborhood. “You know, a lot of money it’s been going to this sort of donut around the outskirts of town and trying to get them to spend money in existing parks when there’s new needs and new constituents. It’s always been a competition” (Line 72). He was one of several people who conveyed concern or curiosity about the way that resources were being allocated to parks by the city.

THERE ARE BATTLES BETWEEN ‘OLD AUSTIN’ AND ‘NEW AUSTIN.’

Most of the people we talked to had an awareness of Austin experiencing unprecedented growth. Different people were grappling with the changes in their own ways. Anders, a GIS analyst and East Austin resident, felt growth was positively impacting the parks, but honed in on sustainability and transportation as a problem that Austin was ill-equipped to address as it grows. He blamed newcomers in the suburbs for blocking the spending that needs to happen to improve transportation infrastructure in the city center. “Because the suburbs are only growing…the suburbs are growing faster than everything else and the suburbs are always going to vote against spending on the inner city” (Line 129).

Robert, a long-time Austin resident told us aggressive conflicts between developers and current residents. He explained, “Because we’re sort of in the thick of new development in Austin. Just trying to make sure developers don’t run rampant over the neighbors” (Line 54). He told us about the transition of his neighborhood park from a privately owned parcel to public land. In the process, a developer owned the land, but was stymied by the presence of protected heritage oaks that kept him from being able to convert the lot to a dense residential development. “He tried to poison these trees. Rumor is [company redacted] did it. But that I can’t stand up in court with that. Sprayed it with pesticides to try and kill the trees, then it rained hard, that washed the rain down the hill, and there’s a pond behind you. So it killed off the pond, but saved the trees” (Lines 8-9). While good luck and the right weather kept the developer from getting his way, Robert sees it as the responsibility of Austinites to be proactive in protecting their communities from developers.

Pond
The pond that Robert says was poisoned from a developer’s attempt to kill heritage oak trees on this property.

An APF employee admitted that these concerns are commonly expressed to them when they are working on east side park improvements:  “[Eastside residents said] ‘if you do something then it will be nice, and then everybody will want to move here. And then we’ll be priced out.’ I mean, it’s not an irrational fear” (Line 132). Many people we spoke to were acutely aware of decades of unfair treatment of and disregard for existing communities, especially in redlined neighborhoods. These residents are justifiably skeptical about “improvements” happening in their parks.

THE AVENUES FOR AFFECTING CHANGE IN PARKS ARE CUMBERSOME, SLOW, AND OPAQUE EVEN FOR INSIDERS.

In pursuing threads connected to feelings of ownership, we talked to many people whose sense of ownership sparked them to take action. Consistently we heard that the experience was cumbersome, slow and opaque. Even Daniel, who had considerable experience navigating local government told us:

“We have folks come out to join us for the meeting, or we’ll send a delegation down, a committee that come and meet with our council members. But, it’s also working your reps, saying you’re unhappy, moaning and groaning. It seems to work, but it’s pretty slow” (Line 99). His naivete about which of his many actions actually produced the intended result  was common, as was the approach of trying as many things as possible in hopes that one will actually be effective. Even at the end of navigating the process, people were still not sure what worked, how they arrived at the final outcome, or why the city or APF supported their vision for the park.

When Bryan was trying to plan a free cycling event in a park, he felt the hurdles were too great and opted out. “The person who was directing it told me about the amount of paperwork he had to fill out just for a free event with no money tied to it in any form or fashion…When he told me what he had to go through I thought, ‘No, sorry, no’” (Line 53). This story was one of many missed opportunities of people who tried to improve the experience of park users, either through physical improvements or community programming but were thwarted by the bureaucratic dimensions of the process. Within the organizational structure of PARD and APF we found even more “black boxes,” processes that were so complex and opaque that employees could not explain them to us and that slowed or undermined their ability to do their jobs.

PEOPLE HAVE JUDGEMENTS ABOUT WHO BELONGS IN THEIR PARK SPACES.

There were substantially differing opinions about what is acceptable park behavior — and who are acceptable park users. Park users conveyed complicated hierarchies about who belonged using criteria like class, geography, ethnicity, and age. These were often hard to tease out, as people were generally aware of not wanting to make sweeping generalizations about groups of people in front of a live microphone. People were less shy about telling us about behavioral criteria. Behaviors like bike riding, car driving, dog walking, drug use, and drinking, and unauthorized camping had both vocal supporters and detractors.

Daniel told us that he feels his park is being “usurped” by outsiders. “Because of the size of this park, it’s considered a local neighborhood park. It’s not like Zilker, a citywide park. But the people who really love it don’t live here.They tend to be Hispanic. They have grown-up parties in the ballfield, and kid birthday parties down here. Year after year, the same kids come back and have their pinatas.”  (Line 131

He was certain these visitors were not from the neighborhood because his neighbors mostly drive “European cars”, whereas these other park visitors “drive trucks and minivans”. Changes that he was advocating for in the park would reduce parking, and make his park less accessible to people from outside the neighborhood. He said, “I don’t want to be harsh about it, but we pay our taxes. We chose to live here because of the parks. We should have some sort of first dibs on what happens in those parks.” 

Amongst those considering behavioral criteria, by far the most common concerns were about homeless people living in parks. People generally felt strongly about the issue–either in favor of making parks safe and inclusive for all people, especially vulnerable populations like those experiencing homelessness; or convinced that the use of parks by homeless people is incompatible in most or all circumstances with other park use and can’t be prioritized. 

Camp
An abandoned camp in one of the parks we visited.

Park Adopter Rico is concerned about their impact: “There are homeless people here and they’re chopping down trees. And I’m like, ‘Heck No!’ The one that was hoarding–remember I told you about all that trash–not only was he hoarding, but he was drug dealing. Zero tolerance when it comes to stuff like that.” (Line 128) He and many others made negative assumptions about the actions of those they perceived to be homeless or poor, with or without evidence, and felt that “normal” park use should take precedence.

On the other end of the spectrum, PARD employee Oliver felt that all are welcome in parks – even homeless park users.“Another thing that I think people really don’t accept on a subconscious level in Austin, is that homeless park users are part of the community of users. There is no right way to enjoy a park.” (Line 137

As Austinites grapple with the issue of homelessness in parks and beyond, many have come to understand homelessness as a state that many are at risk of experiencing, not a lifestyle choice or the natural consequence of poor decision-making. This more nuanced understanding leads to a view that park use can be judged primarily by the impact of the use and in the context of the users’ needs. Parks can meet the needs of housed and unhoused users. The stereotyping of users based on appearances leads to behaviors that make the lives of homeless people even more difficult. Oliver explained compassionate approaches to support those who have nowhere else to stay in ways that honor that person’s humanity and also provide them opportunities to lessen their environmental impact in parks.

NEXT STEPS

These five themes are just a sampling of the patterns we uncovered. We’ll continue to use this data to make sense of our problem space.  Over the next three weeks, we’ll reference the same interviews to help us get a “birds-eye view” of the entire park system to develop service slices. Stay tuned!
Want a deeper look at our interview process and stories from the field? Go here.

Themes from Exploring Austin’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

 

Austin's Entrepreneurial Ecosystem

Austin has one of the most vibrant tech industries in the country, but there’s more to the city than start-ups and Big Tech. Austin is invested in diversifying its industry, as outlined in its current five-year strategy plan, Strategic Direction 2023. For our research, we decided to explore how the City of Austin is fostering its non-tech entrepreneurs, who often do not have access to venture capital or angel investors looking to fund the Next Big Thing. We spoke specifically with women and people of color to learn how they are being supported by the city and its network of partner organizations that help people start their own businesses. Diversity and equity is important to us, and it is something that we hope to see reflected in our city’s economic sphere.

We spoke with nine small business counselors who work at three organizations: the City of Austin, SCORE and PeopleFund. PeopleFund is contracted by the city to provide small business loans as well as business assistance and education to people with otherwise limited access to such resources. SCORE is funded by the Small Business Administration and is America’s top resource for free business mentoring and education. The City of Austin partners with these and other organizations to provide guidance, counseling, and financial support to its budding entrepreneurs.

 

Ribbon Cutting

In addition to counselors, we spoke with five entrepreneurs working in various fields, including Jonas, who is starting an IT support franchise; Agnes, who wants to help people cook healthy meals; and Claudia, who is starting a mindfulness training business. Perhaps due to the nature of our research lens, all of our interviewees spoke of the desire to give back to their communities and be able to give more of themselves to their work. Beyond that, their interests were quite different, but key themes emerged in our interviews that illustrate similar emotions and experiences. We delve into some of them below.

Theme 1: People feel stigmatized for making “unsafe” choices, creating feelings of insecurity

We heard this from many of our interviewees who shared stories of shock from family and friends about their entrepreneurial decisions. “People were like, You’re doing what? Why? Claudia recalls. That requires guts, Jonas’s neighbor told him. Starting a business is often seen as an “unsafe” and potentially unwise move, that leads entrepreneurs to feel insecure when talking about it. This exacerbates the difficulties of networking, which is already a difficult thing to do. Agnes explained how nervous she gets talking to large groups. She likes to bring small groups of people together to cook so that she can avoid the discomfort of traditional networking. “The cooking is like a guise, because you’re not focused on networking,” she explained.

Cooking Class

Theme 2: Entrepreneurs rationalize uncertainty by clinging to “silver bullet” ideas

We saw this repeatedly in the way that people talked about their businesses. “Client acquisition is the biggest thing…just getting new customers, getting your first couple of customers,” Jonas told us, as if getting just one or two customers was all he needed. Claudia felt that it was just a matter of “getting in front of the right people.” This idea that others would come in and ensure their success—a silver bullet—was a common trend. 

Theme 3: Entrepreneurs worry they will fail by not making the most of their time and opportunities

Claudia shared her fears with us when relaying a story about trying to keep up with her networking goals. She’s working with an incubator here in town that recommends she talk to 100 people per week about her business. “So up to this point, I think I’ve only talked to 15…but when you are in that moment, it may be that one person that you need to say it to,” she says, lamenting her shortcomings. Entrepreneurs often feel like they are coming up short of where they need to be.

Claudia

This can be compounded by advice that stresses the importance of action: as Gary at the City of Austin explained, “A lot of people get trapped in the analysis paralysis. They’re overthinking things when they could have already started something already.” This urgency can exacerbate entrepreneurs’ existing stress.

Theme 4: Counselors feel that they need tangible metrics to measure success

We found that counselors use all sorts of metrics to monitor Austin’s entrepreneurial activity: workshop attendance, businesses started, jobs created, loans made. But some crucial components of success—such as confidence—can be difficult to track. Gary told us about the Women’s Entrepreneur Lunch, an event that the city hosts specifically for female entrepreneurs. Although he admitted there was value in bringing women together, he found that it was difficult to gauge its impact. “There’s probably, certainly a lot of intangibles,” he said. “Was I inspired? Did I gain confidence? Did I increase my network? We don’t have the measuring stick in place to capture all of that.” And yet, so many entrepreneurs looked to networking as the most important factor in their success!

Theme 5: Resources are viewed as an acceptable substitute for learning

If there’s one thing that every counselor has, it’s resources. Resources can be good, but not when every organization you speak to gives you giant stacks of them. The resources were overwhelming just to look at.

“There have been some organizations trying to pursue the ‘holy grail’ of the start-up list,” Gary explained in our one-on-one session. “And I get asked the question, Well, where’s my checklist? And I haven’t been able to figure it out, because I don’t think it’s a linear process. Maybe somebody can, but this is my attempt at some sort of process.” He then shared the following document with us:

CoA Resources

Entrepreneurs see these resources as substitutes for actually learning the skills they need to succeed. At one workshop, a woman asked if she could just pay someone $400 to write her business plan, and Jonas spoke of purchasing networking lists from another organization.

Too many resources can lead to overwhelm, and they don’t always say the same thing. As Claudia put it: “I’m hearing a lot of contradicting information. I guess it’s whatever resonates with you.” In the end, some entrepreneurs fall back on their instincts because there are so many tools and methods, but no clear way to succeed.

As we continue to work with entrepreneurs and the service organizations that support them, we hope to use these themes to identify ways that we can make the entrepreneurial process smoother. In this way, we hope to ultimately help people find their footing when navigating the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

 

The Problem with Problem Solving.

I once went to a writers conference where Salman Rushdie talked about “the danger of the metaphor” and it’s the only thing I took from that experience. The danger, he was saying, is that a metaphor creates permanence in the association of things to ideas. 

I was vaguely thinking about this when I was trying to develop the narrative for a story on poverty. What would a person experiencing poverty say? How would they think about the relationship of themself with their circumstance? 

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The first phrase that came to mind was “climbing out of poverty.” It’s an oft used phrase that reinforces poverty, and by extension, the poor, as existing on a lower rung. It implies the upward mobility we all aspire to, the economic freedom that must be *just* within reach. No? 

In the attached story I use the ladder as both a metaphor and a material object to demonstrate how the authors we’ve read might consider the problem of poverty and how best to address it. 

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Beyond that… I’ve been thinking about the Problem of Pilloton. While I appreciate the long-term for local approach, it also strikes me as myopic. I want to ask, when that approach works, can it be scaled? How can it be scaled? Which is, really, the problem with problem solving. I do think there is an answer to this but I want to acknowledge that instinct also comes from a cultural and social history of colonialism and, frankly, a personal history with white saviorism. That what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. 

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I’m not sure how to reconcile the space in between but I’m continuing to reflect on and consider that the primary role of a designer is that of integration. Integrating language with the activity of it (Dewey), integrating context with content (Dourish), turning inward to self-evaluate best practices – measuring impact against intention (Hobbes, Fulton-Suri) – and, more recently, the responsibility of finding equilibrium, locally, before considering the bit about expansion so that can happen more deliberately, more purposefully (Papanek, Margolin, Pilloton). 

Lastly, poverty isn’t the problem of poor people, it’s a problem of power. We have a responsibility, as designers focused on the social impact of our work, to become aware of our power as gatekeepers.*

Thank you for reading. If you’d like to connect, I can be reached at allison.kissell@ac4d.com. 

 

*this was introduced to me by the People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond, in the context of their work in undoing racism. Racial oppression is one of the root causes of poverty in this country and becoming aware of our power as gatekeepers is one of their ten proven steps for undoing racism.

Saving The Hometown

For this assignment we were asked to come up with the story about poverty and find a smart way to incorporate the main ideas of the readings in to a comic strip presentation.

Here is my story in slides.

  1. Meet Zina
  2. She is from Siberia. Her hometown Myski, it’s okay if you’ve never heard of it, is known for its beautiful mountains. Locals call this place “Second Switzerland” for its immense taiga forests and fast rivers. This area in Russia is also known for its high-quality coal deposits. Myski’s coal mining industry has flourished these last 45 years but not anymore.
  3. In recent years China, a major coal consumer, announced its move towards renewable energy resources. The future does not look good for monotowns in Russia like Myski that rely on the trade of raw fossil fuels.
  4. For young people opportunities have dwindled which has led many to move elsewhere. As a result, the population is highly skewed towards grannies, old coal miners, and their cats. In spite of these facts, the town dwellers continue working hard.
  5. Reading such news online, Zina did not like the prospects of her hometown. She thought hard about how she could improve the situation.
  6. And then, suddenly, an idea came to mind. Zina went to the US Bank and got a micro-loan. She didn’t know yet how this money would be invested in her community. Around the same time, she received news that she inherited her grandparent’s house and land.
  7. When Zina came to her hometown she found only “babushkas” (grannies in Russian) on the streets. Talking to them she found out that these grannies are gold, they knew amazingly delicious jam and black current wine recipes that stayed in their families for generations.
  8. That summer was busy for Zina. She turned her grandparents property into mini-farm and planted various berry bushes in it.
  9. The house also went through an upgrade, it became a production-ready facility for making & packaging delicious jams. The grannies who lived nearby came to help and Zina hired them. In addition to all these changes, Zina’s dad built a wine press and they decided to open a new line of delicious black currant wines.
  10. Finally, Zina made a website for a new berry business and announced the sales on Internet.
  11. These wines and jams were so delicious that news spread quickly and went far beyond that they expected. Other towns approached Zina and ask for guidance in setting up similar farms.  Zina was very busy. She established a franchise initiative and spent all summer training and teaching at the other 48 locations.
  12. While she was gone, grannies in her hometown missed her a lot. They were so overwhelmed with orders that couldn’t keep up and quality suffered.
  13. Winter came around. Due to climate change, the temperatures were extremely cold and all berry bushes died.
  14. When Zina came back to her hometown the next summer she had to start over. This time she re-planted only a fraction of best-performing berries.
  15. The rest of her time she spent teaching local kids everything she learned so far about running a business and sustainability.
  16. She hopes that one day these kids will grow up and find their way to sustain equilibrium; that they create new products and services that will do good to the local economy and to our planet.

Here is the link to my presentation

In my story, I see some points that can be applied to the readings we discussed. From the readings I’ve selected a few perspectives that also help formulate my own view as a designer when thinking about the situation around poor communities of the world.

Emily Pilloton is a proponent of immersing yourself into a community and its problem. As a designer I find it useful to think on a local scale first and to find an opportunity to “commit to a place, live and work there and apply my professional skills to that community benefit”. The heroine in my story did exactly this. Serving the community in this way has three important goals. First, a designer stays engaged and builds long-lasting emotional relationships to the people and place. Second, the designer builds trust within the community and all ideas and actions become “inherently collective”, helping this community build their own future and continue to function when the designer removes himself/herself from the picture. The third, poverty is a symptom of a more systemic problem and to find a possible solution a designer should look at the ecosystem as a whole and evaluate all actors and agencies involved in this problem. Every system needs to have support of its smaller parts to be able to function long term.

Another perspective that echoed in my story is Michael Hobbes’ vision that going big and scale quickly sometimes is not the right approach to solve a “wicked problem” such as poverty. What works in one place (example of scaling my mini-farm in the story) would not work in 48 other locations. The geography is different in each place, social-economic development and many other factors are different. That is why the rule of thumb is to test small and only then scale if appropriate. If the solution looks lucrative and easy to implement then most times it is not the best idea/solution.  In order to solve complex problems, a designer needs to develop a much more nuanced and holistic lens to look at the problem. There is no simple pill that solves it all.

Other two authors, M. Yunus, and V. Margolin, ideas I found inspirational. I admire Mr. Yunus as an entrepreneur. He invented a new term micro-loan and was be able to implement a new financial product idea very successfully to the poorest populations of India. Even though I admire his entrepreneurial skills, I believe his success depends on certain time and place in history. Not every day someone could step in and open the markets within millions of customers. However, his approach to run a business using traditional consumption paradigm and at the same time to create a space within the ecosystem that supports the lowest bracket of populations is extremely beneficial.  In today’s reality full of firce competition it is nearly impossible to sustain a social business without breaking capitalism as a system.

V. Margolin, on the other hand, thinks philosophically about the world’s problems. His ideas about four domains of design problems I would continue to apply as the methodology to my own design research. This lens helps to move from the smallest to a bigger scale and evaluate how components fit the system.  In his model, he moves from “symbolic, visual communications of design practice to material objects, and then on to activities and organized services and finally to complex systems or environments”. The idea of the role of a designer today is to sustain, develop and integrate human beings, their consumption behavior into broader ecological and cultural environments I find extremely valuable in today’s world. In my story, I made a point that bigger scale issues like climate change have an effect to its smaller parts. The ecological balance in a small town in the middle of Siberia depends on how we all as dwellers of Earth will find a way to sustain life on our planet. Personally I feel humble and find extremely challenging to work at this scale. At the same as a designer I feel the urgency to solve the coming world’s problems in our generation’s time because it might be no a second chance.

 

 

 

 

Meditations on Capitalism, Poverty and Global Markets

In the past few weeks of reading about the codification of social entrepreneurship as a practice, we’ve considered the benefits and challenges of structuring an organization in that way. And we’ve contrasted the social entrepreneur’s approach with other models, such as large NGOs, small non-profits, public-private partnerships or for-profit businesses that target people in poverty (or euphemistically, ‘the bottom of the pyramid’).

 

As anyone who has been in class with me the last few weeks knows, I form decisive opinions easily. And while these opinions are both heartfelt and subject to change from day to day, the speed at which we arrive at opinions has me questioning the value of these snap judgements.

 

It felt easy to criticize firms strategizing about ways to take one more dollar, taka or naira from the poorest people on Earth by selling them products of dubious value. It felt easy to reject the hubris of saviors from wealthy countries flooding into poorer communities with their fancy degrees, rich donors and profoundly unsophisticated understanding of the problems they were trying to solve. It felt easy to identify the short-comings of social business models that maintain the agency of the entrepreneur and disregard the agency of the marginalized people their companies are meant to benefit.

 

But are those productive outcomes?

 

There’s something satisfying about arriving at a judgment. This thing is right, that thing is wrong, case closed. Having an opinion usually feels pretty empowering. An opinion can’t really be wrong, and having one grants you entry into the discussion. But, what do we bypass when we leap to judgment rather than sit with the ideas for longer periods of time? 

 

These readings are meant to give us grounding and context for the design work we do. They aren’t defining a problem space and giving us marching orders for us to take our six weeks of design training and go solve global poverty and inequality. Solving these problems is definitely beyond the scope of our class. In fact, even formulating a definite answer about best practices or frameworks would be going too far given a fairly cursory literature review.

 

What exists between an answer and an opinion? It’s understanding. This week instead of creating an artifact that had definitive content, answers, recommendations and opinions, I wanted to create space for reflection that might lead to understanding. For existing in the liminal space of knowing that you don’t know. For giving up the unearned confidence that having an opinion bestows and instead hold on to not knowing, wondering, and pondering.

 

Opinions form quickly. 

 

Understanding takes time.

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Impact Fighter: Who Will be World Savior?

“Humans have an instinctive, natural desire to make life better for their fellows if they can.”

– Muhammad Yunus, Bertrand Moingeon, and Laurence Lehmann-Ortega

I really want to believe this is true — and most days, I do.

As we’ve been diving deep into globalism, poverty, and social business, I’ve been asking myself: what’s the right way to “make like better for our fellows?”

After reading essays like Michael Hobbes’ “Stop Trying to Save The World” and Prahalad’s “Selling to the Poor”, I don’t have one clear answer, but I do have a more informed opinion on effective ways to solve wicked problems. 

To help illustrate the many differing opinions, I created Impact Fighter: the game that seeks to find the World Savior. In this comic about the game, I am the main character trying to “Choose My Fighter” and hopefully be crowned World Savior. Keep in mind: this is a game — so the stakes are high and the rewards are unrealistic. I don’t believe any one person can be the world’s savior, but we can try. 

Choose Your Fighter

Before I can battle it out, I have to choose my fighter. What writer’s powers and methods will I adopt?

 

7 Go Local Gang 3

 

Will it be Emily Pilloton and Michael Hobbes: the Go Local Gang? They suggest dreaming smaller and focusing on one community to make an impact, rather than scaling untested ideas to maximize results. I do agree that all too often businesses and celebrities try and help broadly (likely to maximize PR coverage). Ultimately, my character doesn’t choose them as my fighter because after all, I’m trying to gain the title of World Savior.

 

10 Definition Duo 2

 

Next, I evaluate Sally Osberg and Victor Margolin: the Definition Duo. Osberg and Margolin fight for a clear definition of entrepreneurship and world models, respectively. While I agree it’s important we have a unified vocabulary when discussing design and globalism, I don’t feel their perspective was actionable enough. 

 

13 Depleter 2

 

Then I come across Dean Spears aka the Depleter. Spears is an economist who determined through handgrip squeeze tests that “poverty, by making economic decision-making more difficult for the poor, appears to have depleted cognitive control.” While I think this is interesting distinction to make: people are not poor because they are bad decision-makers; again, it lacked a call-to-action that I am looking for. 

 

16 The Redefiner 2

 

Finally, my character comes across Muhammad Yunus aka the Redefiner. Using the Grameen Bank as a primary example, Yunus argues that a social business model could empower capitalism to address global concerns. This resonated with me because he provided clear examples and a sustainable business model that features not only financial but social profit. 

 

Profiteer 2

 

With this combination of skills, I choose him as my fighter. To win, I have to fight C.K. Prahalad aka the Profiteer. Prahalad argues that the poor are the largest untapped market in the world and you can empower them by including them in the market. While I think it’s important we empower marginalized populations, I don’t think that the sole reason should be to profit. 

The Redefiner vs The Profiteer

In this fight, the Profiteer throws the first punch by tossing his money bags at The Redefiner in hopes of knocking him down. The Redefiner, however, has the power to funnel money for good and instead absorbs all of the cash into his social business that provides water to undeveloped countries. 

 

18 Redefiner Counterattack BIG

He continues to reinvest his profits into his business and grows even BIGGER — allowing him to knock out the Profiteer with his high-pressure water supply and be crowned World Savior. 

Crowned World Savior

His model has prevailed, he’s provided water to undeveloped communities, and now he’s mastered the game of Impact Fighter. But before the crown can fall on his head, Jeff Bezos sweeps in and steals it. 

 

21 Water Bottle Attack

Bezos undercuts the Redefiner’s business model with ultra-cheap water bottles and buries the Redefiner in plastic. The bottles keep coming and coming until Bezos can sit on (or in) his throne of plastic bottles. Bezos wins.

While dramatic for the sake of storytelling, I am concerned that even if we redefine business models, the giants of the world can control the market — knocking any well-intentioned businesses right out. 

What do you think? What fighter would you choose?

See the full comic here.

Designing for Good: The Path to Saving Our Future

Design is a powerful tool that can be used to reshape society for the better. But how do we do it? We may share a common ideal, but designers have very different strategies on effecting societal change.

Some theorists, like Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg, believe that social entrepreneurship is the way to improve society. They believe that social entrepreneurs have the inspiration, creativity, courage, and fortitude to pursue paradigm-shifting innovations in pursuit of correcting what they term suboptimal equilibria. What distinguishes the social entrepreneur from a run-of-the-mill entrepreneur? A focus, they claim, on social benefit.

“The social entrepreneur’s value proposition,” they write, “targets an underserved, neglected, or highly disadvantaged population that lacks the financial means or political clout to achieve the transformative benefit on its own.” This is a dubious distinction, most importantly because Martin and Osberg claim that neither entrepreneurs nor social entrepreneurs pursue their activities with profit in mind. “For the entrepreneur, the value proposition anticipates and is organized to serve markets that can comfortably afford the new product or service, and is thus designed to create financial profit,” they write. But the distinction “does not mean that social entrepreneurs as a hard-and-fast rule shun profitmaking value propositions.”

Comic Sketch 1

Ethically speaking, this gets at the crux of the problem of designing for the poor. When you are designing in a market-oriented framework, somebody inevitably profits from the disadvantaged. Social businesses, as outlined by Muhammad Yunus, may improve the lives of the poor with the introduction of lower-priced products or specifically tailored services. But the tension between capitalist market expectations (i.e., shareholder value) and the desire to perform social good will always inevitably tip toward the former unless it is explicitly proscribed otherwise. Thus, new forms of business models, such as the one Grameen Bank attempted to forge with Norwegian telecommunications provider Telenor, are necessary. It is telling that this attempt, wherein business ownership would have been turned over to community members who use the serviceultimately failed. The profit-breaking model proved a bridge too far for Telenor’s shareholders.

Two further issues to consider when designing for social good are the scope of the project and your connection to the community that benefits. Thomas Hobbes demonstrates the harm that helicopter philanthropy can cause with his example of the PlayPump—an invention that seemed like such a good idea at the time. Kids would play on the pumps like they would any piece of playground equipment, and in the process, they would extract water from the ground for the community to use. But a lack of proper understanding of community dynamics and a lack of follow-through ensured that the pumps went mostly unused. In some cases, women were found to be working them stooped over in pairs; in others, children were paid to operate them. Nobody even asked the communities if they wanted the PlayPumps. This was, without a doubt, a design failure.

Emily Pilloton’s solution to this problem is to design locally, with the community that you belong to. This ensures that you can earn the trust of your partners and learn the complexities of the ecosystem. If you want to improve education, for example, you must consider how health care, wealth disparities, and other issues factor into the equation. “The power of working locally, for the long haul,” she writes, “comes down to this: In doing so, we cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.”

Comic Sketch 4

Victor Margolin talks about the difference between expansion and equilibrium economic models. Capitalist society, he notes, pursues the latter: a never-ending quest for more profits, more customers, more markets, more stuff. This leads to the exploitation of earth’s resources beyond what what the planet can tolerate. The beast cannot be slowed down, no matter the consequences, as is evident by the exponential accumulation of carbon in earth’s atmosphere. The world’s poorest communities, which do not have the resources to adapt to dangerous new weather extremes, will bear the significant brunt of this burden.

This comic strip demonstrates my attempt to synthesize these and other authors’ views on designing for the poor. These are issues that are important to the field of design, and they are issues that I treat very seriously. I hope to use design to move beyond market-oriented frameworks and truly develop with, not for, my community.

Comic Sketch 6