Doing development better by thinking like a designer

Social Enterprise

Doing development better by thinking like a designer

Design has much to offer to international development, according to Heather Fleming. “It’s a systems-level perspective of problems and, above all, a process of problem solving,” she said. Photo: Colin Spurway for Mercy Corps.

If international development professionals thought like designers, they would be much more successful in helping communities lift themselves out of poverty.

That’s the argument of Heather Fleming, a PopTech Social Innovation fellow and a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. She recently gave a talk, sponsored by Global Envision, at the Mercy Corps Action Center.

“Many of the decisions made today that affect the poor are made by people who are completely removed from the issues,” said Fleming. “Whereas design decisions are driven by your understanding of the needs of the people, the users.”

Fleming is the co-founder and CEO of Catapult Design, a non-profit company serving low-income communities around the world by developing human-centered products and services, like water-carrying pushcarts used in India and better strategies to dry maize in Kenya.

“The mistakes that we make in development often negatively impact people who already have everything to lose,” Fleming said. “Those are mistakes that potentially could have been avoided if the international development community fostered a culture of prototyping and refining ideas before just throwing massive amounts of money into doing ideas.”

When Catapult Design started in 2008, Fleming often worked with organizations that had already decided on the kind of product they wanted to bring into a community. Now, she encourages organizations to work with the firm earlier in the conception process.

“A lot of [projects] that came our way were suffering from ‘Solution in search of a problem’ syndrome. Or even worse, the, ‘Well, this is better than nothing’ attitude,” Fleming said. “Both of those are really dangerous. We realized that there is a lot more to be done on the front end of the product development process.

“Instead of clients coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, make my widget human-centered and innovative,’ [we want to] work together to build our understanding of what could drive the market in the community,” Fleming continued. “Start with understanding and bring in the widgets later.”

Design is a method of creative problem solving, Fleming explained, that embraces experimentation and real world feedback. Thinking like a designer can increase the likelihood that projects will be successful when scaled up.

“Good designers never create for the sake of creation,” she said. “We first seek to understand and then use that understanding to define constraints within which to create.”

The unpredictability of such open-minded experimentation may turn off data-driven development workers and appear hard to budget into projects. For many, innovation has become a buzzword, "like it’s something that you can just sprinkle in your soup to make it taste better,” Fleming said.

Instead, a design mindset can and should be integral throughout projects, she argued. Taking the time to test fresh ideas is the only way to solve decades-old social challenges.

“There is a great saying: ‘Great design is not department or a division; it’s a behavior, a way of doing,’” Fleming said.

Learn about other events at Mercy Corps: mercycorps.org/events

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