“Development is being disrupted,” says Raj Kumar, President of DevEx, a site devoted to helping the international development community deliver foreign aid more efficiently and effectively. Beyond the buzz generated by the “social entrepreneurship” and “impact investing” communities, I’ve seen a significant shift coming from traditional aid agencies in the past two years.
In 2010, USAID, the agency responsible for administering US foreign aid, launched the first-of-its-kind Development Innovation Ventures quarterly grant program. Its funding model is inspired by traditional venture capital and the focus is on scalable and entrepreneurial solutions to poverty alleviation. Similarly, in 2012 the World Bank hired a former Silicon Valley Google.org director to lead their new “Innovation Labs.” UNICEF and the Inter-American Development Bank have also launched their own “Innovation Labs” with similar goals of promoting open-dialogue, new methods, and cross-pollination of models that enable innovative activity.
So with all this talk about “innovation,” where are the designers, the technologists, and the entrepreneurs? The folks behind these initiatives are still folks with international and economic development backgrounds, economics and finance. If they’re serious about innovative approaches, it’s time creative problem solvers are added to the equation. Specifically, here are five strengths designers have that the development industry direly needs:
1. We are systems thinkers.
The problems that plague our world are complex, interwoven, and multifaceted. As designers, we solve problems through a combination of analytic and creative thinking. Many of the best designers I know are themselves multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary. In addition to a design degree, they’re also engineers or MBAs or economists. It takes both sides of the brain to generate solutions to social challenges.
2. Fresh eyes.
Einstein’s “We can’t solve the world’s problems by using the same type of thinking we used when we created them,” couldn’t ring more true. Many of the social issues we’re fighting today have existed for decades and consistently been addressing using old mechanisms—policy, aid, and philanthropy. We are long overdue for fresh thinking to old problems.
3. We have a prototyping culture.
We make a lot of mistakes in development—mistakes that sometimes negatively impact people with everything to lose; mistakes that could potentially be avoided if the development sector fostered a culture of iteration and refining ideas before rushing to scale. Instead, I see a lot of money going towards untested ideas or worse yet, “solutions in search of a problem.”
4. We focus on people.
Many decisions made today that affect the poor are made by people completely removed from their issues. A designer’s viewpoint, driven by an understanding of the needs of people or end-users, is completely unique and lacking within the development sector. The key to better policy, better products, and better public services is rooted in understanding of the key players and what motivates them.
5. We create capacity.
We build things. We build products, services, websites—and by doing so we are intrinsically building the capacity of those who make, distribute, sell, or use what we create. On a fundamental level, giving people access to tools that enhance their capacity is what drives economic development. We play a central role in creating those tools that are useful, relevant, and meaningful.
$22.8 billion of our projected fiscal budget is earmarked for poverty-reduction activity in 2013. Traditionally, international development agencies use the amount of the money put towards poverty alleviation as a metric for efficacy. I’m hoping the next few years shift that metric towards understanding underlying problems and funding new solutions that address those problems. In order to do that, we need a new breed of development thinkers. The next generation of designers is inspired by careers that provide meaning and impact. Now is the perfect time for the development sector to start connecting the dots.