Measuring the Water Crisis – Blog Action Day

We tend to tell the story of developing world crisis in numbers:

  •  Almost 1 billion people on the planet don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • That’s one in eight of us.
  • Every day more than 4,000 children around the world die from diseases caused by poor water sanitation
  • In Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year just walking for water.

These statistics are abominable, shocking. But do they motivate us to act, or make the right decisions about what we can do about the water crisis?

Ned Breslin, CEO of the nonprofit Water For People, argues that this metrics-focused way we tell the water crisis story tends to result in inefficient and ineffective philanthropy. Western world foundations, NGOs, and government groups, and even private citizens get excited about raising money for a well or a number of handpumps. But Breslin points out a growing catastrophe of failed water implementation efforts. In his January 2010 essay “Rethinking Hydro-Philanthropy,” Breslin cites statistics of the long term failure of these efforts, and the key steps that donors, NGOs, local governments and communities should take to create long term change.

A typical story about the water crisis may also use the story one child that misses school to collect water for his family, or one mother who risks disease because her only available supply is a muddy ditch. Yet the truth is that this child and this mother are often walking by broken failed water infrastructure project attempts by government and aid agencies, poorly engineered solutions that solved an immediate need, but did not succeed in the long term. These numbers are what Breslin considers as more relevant: 50,000 rural water points broken in Africa, $215 – $360 MM of investment wasted because of poor programming and careless implementation.

Breslin proposes a shift in defining the metrics of success:

“Success will require less single-minded focus on the absolute number of people without access to water and sanitation facilities and more focus on the serious questions around long term impact and sustainability. So that years after the cameras have left, the donor reports have been filed, and the press release circulated, the community is not forgotten. A new partnership between philanthropists and development agencies would focus less on how much money the sector supposedly needs to solve the global water challenges and more on how creative philanthropic giving can be used as leverage to install financial responsibilities for improved water supply and sanitation on communities and governments in developing countries.”


So how to shift? Smart philanthropy means defining a long term, financially sustainable business model, looking at donations through the lens of long term outcomes. If you’ve ever been asked to give money to a water crisis project, it is often to cover the costs of an installation project, with money then transferred to an NGO the group themselves travels to the field to implement the project themselves. Ceremonies are launched, ribbons are cut, and the funders go home gratified. But the installation project may not last beyond six months without the proper long term model of maintenance and care.

Instead of approaching the water problem as welfare, and instead thinking of the crisis as an economic development issue, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs are likely to have a greater impact. “Paying 100% of the costs of project implementation establishes dependency from the start.” The underlying message of “free water systems” – communities are unable to organize to implement these projects themselves.

A more creative and financially sustainable approach is to co-invest with local communities and local government, focused on investment over time to match the true cost of maintaining water infrastructure systems. Funding works when used the way it is in the developed world – as leverlage for matching local investments, rather than patronizing and absolving local governments of their financial responsibilities. Projects are then owned by the local community, not branded by the NGO or philanthropist, and look to a wider range of long term transformative results.

So when sending a check to a water charity on Blog Action Day, check to see how your preferred fundraising group or NGO measures their success. What to look for:

  • How many people are helped in the years that follow the first implementation project (rather than “saved” on that first exciting day).
  • Does the quality and quality of water meet host country government standards over time (3 years, 6 years, 10 years out?
  • Is the system inoperable for no more than one day per month?
  • Does the number of users meet host country standards?
  • Most importantly: does the community have the ability to maintain and replace their water system without seeking significant additional charitable support?

The final metric is the “real measure of whether the water and sanitation poverty cycle is truly broken.”

Tools of Engagement

“If we want to impact these ecosystems on a large scale we must increasingly design for social systems, not individual needs.” – Robert Fabricant has been thinking about how the User Centered Design practice evolves out of the user needs trap and moves on to thinking about groups, communities, and neighborhoods. The New Practice of User Centered Design (thanks again Core77 for serving as a sustainable design think space).

Project_H.jpgLearning Landscape from Project H

This is a time to ask questions. Not small questions but big, fundamental questions. What role did Design play in contributing to our current global crisis? And what role should/will Designers play in leading us out of this mess? The gloves have come off over the last few months with a raft of posts by influential design thinkers questioning the impact of Innovation and Design Thinking, two of the most fashionable elements of contemporary design practice, on business practices.

We have been operating under the assumption that the primary challenge is to convince businesses to focus on fulfilling user needs with higher quality products, with more meaningful experiences? But what if the ‘users’ themselves are the problem?

I have already written about the drive for more direct social engagement among designers, particularly young designers, as reflected in programs like TU/e and design firms like Project H. By embracing a more active form of engagement and influence, these designers are asking perhaps the most fundamental question of all: do we need to shift the conventional notion of User-Centered Design (UCD) and rethink the very foundation of contemporary design practice?

This may sound like blasphemy, particularly at times like these. With people struggling in so many areas of society it would seem to be more important than ever to focus our efforts as designers on addressing specific, observed human needs. And I am not advocating that we abandon the methods of UCD wholesale. But is UCD sufficient? Is it the right compass to guide us toward the larger scale social changes that we need?

Over and over, I have seen how a UCD process will tend to emphasize certain benefits of an experience like ‘convenience’ over other, more meaningful sources of social value. In the hypercompetitive global marketplace, our clients often encourage us to identify unmet needs and desires that can help them differentiate their products and accelerate the familiar cycle of consumption and disposal. Yet, these desires are not purely manufactured. They often connect with deeply-felt needs for self-expression and personal fulfillment on the parts of our ‘users’. This is particularly true as more and more devices become connected.

cellphones2.jpgSearching for mobile companionship in a typical store in Japan (care of Aldas Kirvaitis)

We have been operating under the assumption that the primary challenge is to convince businesses to focus on fulfilling user needs with higher quality products, with more meaningful experiences. But what if the ‘users’ themselves are the problem? What if users represent not a coherent set of needs but a messy mix of desires and influences? What, ultimately, is the role of the designer in sorting through these desires to determine which should drive our design decisions? And what frameworks, other than intuition, should we use to make these judgments?

Our design decisions are just one influence among many, not categorically different, and often not the most effective in motivating the user to achieve their desired aims.

Forces of Change

There are no easy answers to these questions. They call our attention to the increasingly difficult task of maintaining the myth of the neutral designer whose role can be purely defined as one of ‘supporting’ existing needs. This shift in perspective is being driven, in part, by the popularization of Behavioral Economics through books like Nudge and Predictably Irrational]. These books are troubling to read. They remind us that often the most influential aspects of an experience are overlooked in a traditional UCD process, such as the order of the options in a web form, or whether a cup of coffee is warm or cold. They highlight a set of principles that do not jibe with our design education, with the ‘Universal Principles of Design’. For example, there are principles from the social sciences, like Social Proof, exemplified by the smiley face on a utility bill which has been shown in studies to motivate people to reduce energy consumption by 20%. This does not come out of the traditional design playbook.

utility_bill.jpgNew style of utility bill that incorporates social comparison as a form of influence.

What we are beginning to appreciate is the degree to which user behavior is ALWAYS subject to influence. We should not assume that our role is to somehow remove those influences so that the user can act in a free and unconstrained manner to achieve their own needs, as that is impossible. The user is not a self-contained actor in the system, but one who is largely and continually open to influences, the most important of which he/she is generally not conscious of. Our design decisions are just one influence among many, not categorically different, and often not the most effective in motivating the user to achieve their desired aims.
From the Individual to the Cooperative

As the notion of the ‘end user’ becomes more and more fuzzy, the center shifts. We are faced with tough decisions regarding the different forms of influence that we choose to embrace in our work. As we look for a compass relative to these decisions, perhaps the focus will shift from the individual to the community, from personal needs to social exchanges. As Jess McMullin correctly observes: “Groups and individuals are the yin and yang of influence. To convince a group often means convincing individuals. And convincing individuals often means convincing a group. Knowing who to focus on, and in what setting is the key question we have to answer when we want to affect a decision.”

If we want to impact these ecosystems on a large scale we must increasingly design for social systems, not individual needs.

This is particularly true in areas like energy and healthcare that are of increasing interest to the design community (particularly to designers who want to have a meaningful social impact). If we want to impact these ecosystems on a large scale we must increasingly design for social systems, not individual needs, for it is within cooperative systems that personal fulfillment has the best chance of intersecting with broader social values. And personal decision-making can achieve larger ‘scale effects.’ Folks like John Thackara have been calling our attention to this for some time: “It’s about groups, communities, neighborhoods in which you have the capacity for a community to investigate and invest in solutions rather than individuals.”

landshare.jpgCommunity landsharing services in the U.K.

But engaging with communities is fundamentally different. We are not merely substituting one center (the user) for another (the group). With communities, the means of engagement and influence exist across the participants not within a single person. Value is created and shared dynamically through cooperative activities that are not often apparent from the outside. They emerge from within.

As Dan Arielly explains Predictably Irrational, market exchanges are fundamentally different than social exchanges: “So we live in two worlds: one characterized by social exchanges and the other characterized by market exchanges. And we apply different norms to these two kinds of relationships”. And applying the rules of one to the other usually backfires. As much as we can look at the external symbols of communities (such as status and reputation) we cannot appreciate the nuance of social behavior without participating. Certainly not to the degree that is needed to support effective design solutions. We need to prototype from within. To participate. What forms of design practice are emerging in this new context?
Catalyst Design

Assuming the role of the designer is not neutral, how do you engage a community, open up new possibilities and influence behavior without imposing an external point of view? Participatory Design has been an accepted practice for some time now. When applied to communities, it implies a change in roles between the designer and the user, as Ezio Manzini observes: “Social innovation in the age of networks is a process of change where new ideas are generated by actors directly involved in the problem to be solved.” While participatory design can be used as a technique within a standard UCD process, social media technologies are allowing it to play a more transformative role.

This has come to light through conversations with sustainable design expert and former frog Jen Van Der Meer as well as the working practices of Jan Chipchase, the well-known design researcher for Nokia, and Melanie Edwards, the founder of Mobile Metrix. All three play active roles (albeit different ones) in engaging communities to motivate and change their own behavior using participatory design methods. They have become catalysts for greater change.

nokia_openstudios.jpgActive community participation in Nokia’s Open Studios Project
With kind permission Jan ChipchaseYounghee Jung & Nokia

Jan and his team conduct ethnographic research throughout the world focusing on emerging behavior related to mobile technologies, and they’ve pioneered several research techniques. In an ongoing project called the Open Studios initiative, Jan and his team flip this traditional ethnographic research model on its head. Instead of recruiting users anonymously in a given community, the team working on Open Studios takes participatory design out into the open–to the commons–as an active form of community engagement. Jan uses posters, events, and prizes to attract as large a cross section of the community as he can. In the process he creates a network of influence, and the result is a type of social cohesion that builds community consensus around the idea of exploring new possibilities and embracing new futures. Yes, one of the objectives of these activities is to inform the design of Nokia’s products and services. But that may take years to be realized. In the meantime, Jan achieves a more immediate and direct impact in the community through a change in mindset. He’s creating fertile ground for new social practices to emerge–in this case around mobile technologies.

Melanie Edwards has taken this idea a step further by recruiting a team of change “agents” that stay embedded within a community over time to identify needs, raise awareness, and measure the positive impacts on behavior. The temporary, guerrilla-design events that Jan creates for Nokia become internalized as an ongoing activity in the community. In turn, the community sees new possibilities to affect change and influence personal behavior and social practice on an ongoing basis. Most recently, she has applied her approach to fighting Dengue Fever in the Flavellas of Brazil with measurable results in the increased use of bug repellant.

Project_M.jpgEngaging young men in designing their own HIV testing solution in South Africa for Project Masiluleke

At frog, we saw first-hand how design can catalyze local change with Project Masiluleke, an effort to combat the high rate of HIV infections in South Africa through the use of mobile technologies. During the design process we recruited young men in different communities in South Africa to help shape a new solution to HIV self-testing, and by doing that we did more than “choreograph” a better testing experience. We were designing a system of participation. And as we’ve seen in past design research activities, participation breeds enthusiasm and influence–in this case an increased willingness to even consider the possibility of testing (particularly for men who have never tested despite infection rates approaching 40% in some regions). Also, in South Africa, where there is 90% mobile device penetration, ideas spread quickly when a small community of individuals are actively engaged. You can easily imagine this influence magnified through services like tweetlucktweetsgiving, and foursquare–or Mixit in the case of rural South Africa. In this model, influence emerges directly from the design process itself and quickly spreads through social channels. New possibilities propagate within the community long before any new products and services can be brought to market.
Performance Design

The influence of design extends beyond the notion of the catalyst. As new possibilities emerge within a community, they are given form by the designer. We now have so many tools for producing rapid, meaningful and remarkably believable proxies for commercial products and experiences, whether in hardware or software. These artifacts provide a different kind of social ‘proof’, something that many fine artists have taken note of as well.

Designers can exert tremendous influence by what we choose to (and choose not to) make tangible.

The influence these objects exert is not just a function of the discrete decisions that went into their design but, more importantly, their very tangibility–their physical undeniability. They assume a new reality by their physical presence. By making new sources of value tangible we transform alternative possibilities for social action into something credible, believable, sensible (in the sense-making sense) within the community.

mouna.jpgCommunity intervention with Mouna Andraos’ cell phone charing station.

Designers can exert tremendous influence by what we choose to (and choose not to) make tangible. Our tools are so sophisticated that the reality of these objects becomes quite persuasive, exerting an influence on the both perception and behavior. A great example of this can be seen in the work of Mouna Andraos, an interactive designer and artist who specializes in electronics. For one project, she designed and manufactured a portable cellphone recharging station that she pushes along city sidewalks like a 19th century street vendor. People gather around her cart to take turns charging their phones. In the meantime, they share cords and adapters while also exchanging stories. Through a direct design intervention Andraos encourages cooperation and discussion in a public setting and by doing so, she changes the social dynamics and introduces new possibilities in a particular location. Her design artifacts make new forms of cooperative behavior possible.

John Thackara explains, we are “moving away from the idea that we have to make all of these decisions in advance, as designers or engineers. We need to enroll the creativity of our fellow citizens who used to be call consumers.”

Sustained Effects

In each of these examples the designer is stripping away some of our traditional detachment to engage as an active participant in shaping solutions within a social context. In one way our contributions are on equal level, joined with the ideas and activities of the community. We are contributors and not conductors. In the pit (in the orchestral sense) and not up on the podium, as John Thackara explains, we are “moving away from the idea that we have to make all of these decisions in advance, as designers or engineers. We need to enroll the creativity of our fellow citizens who used to be call consumers.” This raises an equally important question: how do we sustain the effects of these new practices if our contributions are more personal and our role is less privileged? Can we do both: participate and elevate?

One of the great strengths of the recent evolution of design practice has been the increased sophistication in our understanding of systems and platforms. My hope is that we can both embrace greater engagement and also broaden the impact of the ideas that emerge from these collaborations. As Ezio explains: “there is a difference between the transformation that happens normally and a designed system. Designed systems are stronger and more replicable. Designers transform an idea into practice.”

Livework.jpgConcept cards for Live|Work’s service innovation for people with Multiple Sclerosis for the UK’s National Health Service.

What does this mean for your practice? I often cringe these days when I hear designers gravitate towards ‘platform’ as solutions. All too often, this as an excuse to avoid direct engagement IMHO–and the tough choices that we are hired to make as designers. Platform strategies only become meaningful in practice, when combined with a participatory approach and long term engagement, often within a single industry or community. A great example of this is the health practice at Live|Work in the UK, another firm that has committed a portion of their efforts to the public good. They see platforms not as an excuse to remain at a distance, but a call to engage. A call that I hope more designers will answer–to great effect.

Lessons from Ezio Manzini: Social Innovator is Your Next Job

Posted over at Core77 – a Wrap Up of Ezio Manzini’s talk to the NYC Eco Design Community;

Bottega Altromercato, an example of social innovation from Sustainable Everday

“The main activity of designers will be as social innovators,” said Ezio Manzini during an intimate conversation with o2NYC on May 6. Ezio’s talk outlined an exit strategy for conscious designers, a shift from making things to designing tools for a better society. For those of us who have signed on to the green revolution, who commit to having the conversation with clients, sourcing better materials, reducing life cycle impacts, doing the hard work of greener design, we need an exit strategy. How do we stop making things less bad and start actually solving for climate change?

Ezio Manzini has been thinking about the sustainable design problem for 20+ years. A professor of Industrial Design at Milan Polytechnic, he is Director of CIRIS (the Interdepartmental Centre for Research on Innovation for Sustainability), and is the author of several books on sustainable design: The Material of Invention, Artifacts: Towards a New Ecology of the Artificial Environment (download here) and Sustainable Everyday. Ezio feels he has “been telling the same story for 20 years. Always change it by the end it is the same.” What has changed lately, though, is his rhetoric, from the soon to be possible to the here and now. That is the opportunity that crisis brings – a chance to rethink how we’ve been operating as a society, and offer new visions for how we can live.

Ezio first pointed out the problem with the green design movement, and its focus on “fixing the past,” which is “doomed because it requires asking people to ‘reduce,’ asking them to have ‘the same, but less.’ Instead we need to offer them ‘different, but better.'” So what’s better?

Ezio points to a movement started in Europe that’s recently gained ground here in the US: Slow Food.

Findhorn Ecovillage, an example of social innovation from Sustainable Everyday.

A response to the negative effects of an industrial food system, Slow Food provides access to local, diverse food sources, connects them to actual farmers, and celebrates quality. Slow Food is not a product innovation like organic packaged noodles or natural chocolate cookies, it is a product service system that enables end-user consumer to become co-producers of the food that they eat. The end result creates a better tasting product (the food), a more authentic connection to the food (transparent production chain, relationship with farmer), and enjoyable experience (participation in community supported agriculture, communal meals in natural settings).

So what is social innovation exactly and how can designers help?

A definition from EU President Jose Manuel Borosso: “Social innovation means the design and implementation of creative ways of meeting social needs. It covers a wide field ranging from new models of childcare to web-based social networks, form the delivery of healthcare at home to new ways of encouraging people to use sustainable means of transport.” We can begin to see the designer’s role then in this process. The skills and practices that are unique to designers can be applied to find the next social and sustainable innovation, and to amplify its adoption:

Designer Vision
Much of the work and practice in social innovation to date has been lead by social scientists, economists, and NGO workers – long on policy, short on truly creative problem solving. Designers can fill this role by being realistic optimists, by looking for opportunities that require this kind of innovative design thinking, and stimulating the strategic discussion with visions, proposals, and tools to implement change. As Ezio says, “there is a difference between the transformation that happens normally and a designed system. Designed systems are stronger and more replicable. Designers transform an idea into practice.”

Product to Prototype
“Prototypes are appearing. they provide the building blocks of a future society.” What can a designer bring to the equation? “The challenge is to transform the prototypes into products.” To learn from the small and local, and to reinvision how an edge practice can become mainstream. Designers know from experience how to transform prototypes into products, and know the promise and limitations of this work. The very act of creating a prototype has value, as Ezio reminds us. “The purpose of a prototype is to show that something is possible.”

Cafezoide, an example of social innovation from Sustainable Everday

Right now, those prototypes are emergent as grassroots one-off examples in neighborhoods all over the world but are the work of local heroes. Community supported agriculture. Timebanks. Neighborhood gardens. Co-housing. How do we create a model where this kind of social practice becomes the norm, and does not require heroics to succeed?

Designers also know, however, that in the work of moving from prototype to product, something is often lost, “this is not without risk as they lose some of their original qualities.” The role of designer then shifts from making things into mass produced consumer objects, to shepherding local sustainable practices into wider mainstream society.

Enabling Solutions
An evolution of product service systems, enabling solutions go beyond meeting customer needs to allowing individuals or communities to achieve their own results with their own skills and abilities. Slow Food is a solution that works because individual actors participate in a system that creates value for everyone involved. Materials are becoming scarce, but “in a small, densely-populated, highly connected planet, social resources are the most abundant.” The work of the designer then is not to solve the problem with a perfect object or service, but to create a platform for co-designing with individuals in context within their local community.

Networks and technology are not the solution, but the enablers to more effective social innovation. “Social innovation in the age of networks is a process of change where new ideas are generated by actors directly involved in the problem to be solved. …The objective of design is to create more probable conditions to act in a collective and collaborative way. We create the conditions, not the solution.” The aim is a society where people use their capabilities and enjoy doing, playing their role in the solution, rather than passively consuming the end product.

From Volunteer Activity to Day Job
The biggest leap of faith for everyone in the room during Ezio’s talk would be to follow his logic that the designer’s “day job” will be the work of social innovation. “In the social economy this should be our primary work. Not something we do on the side as charity.” Indicators that this shift may be happening sooner than the distant future:

The Obama administration has announced its intentions to launch a Social Innovation Fund. EU political leaders are similarly talking about the role of creative problem solving as the path to sustainable innovation.

Non profit:
Talk of social innovation thinking is on the rise in the non profit sector, as these groups start to see the benefit applying design-led thinking to the way they diagnose, solve, and scale for societal need. Brainstorming, IDEO method cards and sticky notes are of benefit here.

For profit sharing systems:
The rise of co-working, product-sharing solutions is on the rise. In a report Ezio published with François Jegou, Collaborative Services: Social Innovation and Design for Sustainability, documents the rising popularity of sharing-based business models, built on networks of information technology to set up personalized hubs. Zipcar, CityCareShare, I-GO and Citywheels are examples where technology made a sharing model more on-demand, and more scalable.

Products for sharing:
The future of co-housing, or shared community spaces, will demand a redesign of products like washing machines and daily household objects. How else to keep track of your percentage ownership, use, care and maintenance of a community-owned device.

Small, open, local connected:
For those chomping at the bit to start designing for social innovation, now, Ezio reminds us that the best projects start local as experiments, local people solving local problems. To start the work of social innovation, look around the corner, find out what’s happening in your city or neighborhood, and join a grassroots effort today. Just remember to spread the best ideas, and send them to Ezio. The need is great. Now is the time. “We need radical change; increasing consciousness is not enough.”

(credit to Allan Chochinov and Robert Fabricant for supplying Ezio-isms).