Design Thinking

Using Design Thinking to Eradicate Poverty Creation

We need to ratchet up from targeted innovation and apply design-thinking principles to one of the biggest social issues of our time: global poverty itself.

There’s been a lot of hype in recent years about the power of design to solve social problems. Companies like IDEO, frog, and Smart Design—as well as numerous foundations, design schools, and nonprofits—have set out to tackle tough issues with innovations that make use of social and cognitive science, focus on systemic analysis, and pay attention to emergent patterns. They are advocates of design thinking for social impact, and they’re making serious progress in areas such as improving voter registration and education programs for people stranded in refugee camps.

But what if we were to ratchet up from this level of targeted innovation and apply design principles to one of the biggest social issues of our time: global poverty itself?

The world’s most powerful governments and international institutions are working hard right now to convince us that global poverty has been cut in half since the 90’s. More and more analysts, though, are pointing out that this claim is little more than an accounting trick: UN officials have massaged the numbers to make it seem as though poverty has been reduced, when in fact it has increased.

When the more reasonable poverty level of $5 per day is used, we see that global poverty has increased since 1990. (Image courtesy of /TheRules)

What this means is that the bulk of the well-meaning development projects that have been rolled out in the Global South over the past 65 years—costing hundreds of billions of dollars—have had very little positive impact on poverty numbers (with a net negative effect when ecological degradation is added to the equation). How has this happened?

The answer is that the preferred development model suffers from severe, monumental design flaws.

The first of these flaws is in how the development industry defines the problem itself. Einstein captured the challenge crisply when he said, “If I had 60 minutes to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d spend 55 minutes determining the right question to ask.” Right now, the question development organizations ask is, “How can we eradicate poverty?” Good design thinking, on the other hand, would tell you to start with the more fundamental question, “Why does mass poverty exist?”

The first question leads you naturally and logically to things like improving health care and education, and transfers of money in the form of foreign aid and charity. All valid in their own right, perhaps, but are they designed to address symptoms or causes? If you start from the question, “How can we eradicate poverty,” that distinction doesn’t really matter. The interventions that come to mind all address glaring features of the problem as we see it in front of us today, and therefore seem legitimate and sufficient.

If you ask the more fundamental question, you will come up with a more fundamental answer. To start, you won’t focus your initial enquiry on describing every facet of the problem you see in front of you today—poor health care, insufficient aid—but rather on the causes and conditions from which the overall reality emerged. In other words, the question will guide you to understand the processes that have created poverty over the past few centuries and continue to create it today. Now you’re looking at things like the Enclosure Movement, slavery, colonialism, resource plunder, structural adjustment programs, and financial crisis and austerity.

There is a vital current surging beneath this perspective: power. In all of these examples, active, deliberate, human decisions have been at play. Some people have been more powerful than others, and small groups have been powerful for extended periods. There has been a deep and systemic bias in the profile of who makes seminal decisions.

This brings us to the second design flaw in the standard development model: a built-in blindness to power dynamics.

Because the question, “How do we eradicate poverty?” focuses attention on what we see around us today, it doesn’t much care what decisions or what people may have benefitted from bringing it into being. This is a very handy thing politically, because it means we don’t have to examine or treat anyone or anything as culpable, past or present. It means that the wealth that many acquired through processes that produced mass impoverishment is irrelevant. It means we can comfortably usher modern organizations whose very operating logic has long required impoverishment—including political parties and their ideologies, corporations, and indeed whole industries—into high places of political power, and then believe and trust what they do there. All of this creates more than enough room for a deeply flawed assumption to reign supreme: that we are most likely to solve our problems using the very logic that created them in the first place. And we’re back to the now politically inconvenient Einstein and his much-loved truism: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

To understand how such self-defeating logic manifests itself and manages to pass largely unchallenged, we need to look to a third design flaw in the mainstream development model—one that has to do with language. Every designer worth their salt knows that metaphors matter—they activate deep frameworks that guide the way users respond. Get the wrong metaphors, and design won’t work, plain and simple.

We studied the language used by development practitioners on Twitter to describe poverty and found that its metaphors are, at best, confused. Some talk about it as a disease that needs eradicating, some describe as an enemy to combat and destroy, and some as a prison that cages people in. We can see very different logics at play in just these three metaphors. Do we “solve” poverty by searching for a cure that inoculates people, as if against a germ or virus? Do impoverished people need an army to fight for them here and now, or a liberator to spring open their prison doors?

Each of these common metaphors evoke the idea that poverty is natural or inevitable. They can even imply moral judgment on those who are poor. Thus, the underlying logic of these metaphors excuses us from caring much about the root causes. In other words, the basic language we use to talk about poverty is a cognitive barrier to understanding the problem in a way that all good design thinking demands: at the cause level.

All of these flaws are on display in the development industry’s latest Big Plan—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—which promises something wonderful, almost irresistible: the total eradication of poverty by no later than 2030.

Unfortunately, the underlying design of the SDGs—like the development industry from which they are emerging—is too unsound to make this ambition a reality.  For one, the goals rely entirely on the same-old, one-dimensional “solution” to poverty that has failed for the past 65 years: GDP growth. The SDGs would have us believe that we can eradicate poverty by 2030 through the sort of undifferentiated, consumption-based growth that GDP measures. This is ridiculous on two counts: basic economics and system design.

Economist David Woodward has shown that even if we assume the fastest rate of growth in the developing world we’ve seen in the last half century, it will take about 207 years for everyone currently living on less that $5 per day to break above that line—the minimum necessary to achieve normal human life expectancy. GDP masks the fact that, in our present system, 93 cents of every dollar created accumulates in the coffers of the top 1 percent. Trickle-down on a slope this skewed takes a really long time! In this case, 14 times as long as they are promising in the claim that all the world’s poverty will be gone by 2030.

Then there’s the system design. GDP growth on the scale required for wealth to trickle down enough to eradicate poverty means multiplying the size of the global economy by 175 times. It’s worth stopping to think about this. To eradicate poverty using a plan designed around GDP growth means extracting, producing, and consuming 175 times more commodities than we presently do. This is guaranteed to cause climate catastrophe sufficient to make our planet uninhabitable.

So what’s the alternative? Design thinking—which, if applied, would completely up-end the priorities of the SDGs.

An approach based on whole system design would demand that we focus our greatest attention on our economic system and the root causes, rather than individual issues (such as health care and education) and immediately apparent symptoms. Practically speaking, it would place the question of how we understand (and therefore measure) progress at the very top of the priority list, rather than burying it away and leaving it as a problem for the next generation—the tired old concept of GDP growth would be laid to rest in the political graveyard, alongside apartheid and formal empire. It would demand that we examine and address the historical patterns of both sides of the economic coin—wealth and poverty—so that we can challenge the forces that create poverty.

These are not easy things to achieve, which is one reason why we seldom attempt them. They require that we challenge entrenched power and the systems that sustain it. But we must challenge them on the grand stages of global development if we are to honor not just humanity and the earth system within which we have evolved, but also our very best knowledge.

A place to start—and one that we can all build on from today onward—is to use our voices and words, creativity, skills, and compassion to demand that the international development industry change its central premise (and promise), from eradicating poverty to eradicating poverty creation.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON September 28, 2015 01:41 PM

    Poverty is a complex problem and root causes are equally complex. Have any of you used concept mapping and/or visualization to map the root causes of poverty, e.g. the right question, then show possible paths to remove or reduce those root causes? Here’s a Root Cause analysis from OpenIDEO at https://challenges.openideo.com/challenge/how-might-we-improve-health-care-through-social-business-in-low-income-communities/inspiration/root-cause-analysis/  Would be great to find someone who is building a library with links to maps/article like this, and perhaps a concept map to tie them all together.

    At the same time, I encourage you to view the graphic on this “war on poverty” blog article. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2012/02/battle-plan-for-war-on-poverty.html  What I want you to look at is step 7, which focuses on building and sustaining public will.  As we build libraries of information showing root cause and possible solutions we also need to be looking at innovative ways to get thousands, or millions, of people to read the information, then become personally involved in sharing the information with others, and in implementing some of the solutions.

  • Hello Daniel,

    Thanks for bringing up root cause analysis as a valuable tool (I might even argue it’s a vital one!) for addressing systemic problems like global poverty. One of the great visual mapping tools for the kinds of work you have shared is Kumu.io.

    Here is a concept map on the Story of Poverty Creation that was created by Gene Bellinger of SystemWiki based on our previous writings: https://stw.kumu.io/ways-humans-create-poverty

    Thanks for all the work you do with system mapping. It is very helpful for our work and we’ll look forward to learning more about it as we progress.

    Very best,

    Joe

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON September 28, 2015 01:57 PM

    Hi Joe,  I’m a big fan of Gene Bellinger and the work he and others are doing with Kumu.io. Here’s a blog article I wrote that includes one of Gene’s videos. http://tutormentor.blogspot.com/2014/07/problem-solving-systems-thinking.html  I think my example is one that many others need to follow in writing their own blogs and creating their own presentations. Point to work done by Gene and others that followers might not know about, but who may want to know about. Without advertising dollars, most people in the world don’t know of the good work and good information that is available to them.  I’ve done my mapping using c-Maps and Debategraph. I’d love to find a team wanting to map the information I’ve shared on C-maps using the Kumu.io platform. It would not be a benefit for me to try to make that conversion by myself.

  • Stephanie Heckman's avatar

    BY Stephanie Heckman

    ON September 28, 2015 04:05 PM

    Thank you Joe, Jason, and Martin.  This is a very timely and critical discussion. There is a growing network and movement of people around the world who are fed up with the “business as usual” approach to humanitarian / development / philanthropic work.  I am very interested in how we move beyond rhetoric. Would love to talk with you about this and how we can build a new ecosystem that defines the root causes of poverty, acknowledges the role the current power dynamics & decision makers play, and gets money into the hands of community leaders who can bring real change. Are you involved with http://actlocalfirst.org/concept/ 

    One World Children’s Fund.

  • Hey Stephanie,

    Thanks for your lovely comment. We feel it to be very timely and important too… that’s why we organized an “open collaboration” dialogue as a kind of social media campaign in the weeks building up to adoption of the SDGs by asking three fundamental questions:

    1. How is poverty created?

    2. Why is growth the only answer?

    3. Who’s development whom?

    We made our strategy public so others could participate (or critique it): http://therules.org/hacking-the-sdg-discourse/

    Responding to your question, we aren’t working directly with that organization but we are following the same principles in our collaborations with grassroots struggles around the world. Are you familiar with the Berkana Institute (http://berkana.org/)? They take a similar “community-asset” and leadership cultivation approach to development that is strikingly effective. I have friends who work there and occasionally get the opportunity to collaborate with them.

  • BY Christopher Moore

    ON September 28, 2015 10:39 PM

    Completely agree, and we’re seeing some innovative ideas at some of our Berlin accelerators and incubators which are being developed with design thinking. Still in the early stages, but certainly a fruitful path to be on.

    If we want to give the poor more agency in solving their problems, however, design thinking needs some help. It relies on empathy and rapid prototyping but it’s a lot harder to provide feedback on a systemic solution than a consumer product. A community of researchers have been using game design to prototype systemic solutions for about 10 years in development contexts in SE Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If you’re interested, you can read my post on game design thinking here (http://bit.ly/1OWWErA/) or check out the research community’s website (http://www.commod.org/). I’m starting a company to bring this practice to communities in North America and Europe, and am happy to answer any questions you may have.

    -Chris

  • Consider that according to the World Bank: “Over 1.2 billion people - 20% of the world’s population are still without access to electricity worldwide, almost all of whom live in developing countries. About 2.9 billion people use solid fuels—wood, charcoal, coal and dung—for cooking and heating. Every year fumes and smoke from open cooking fires kill approximately 4.3 million people mostly women and children, from emphysema and other respiratory diseases.

    Energy is fundamental to economic growth and environmental sustainability in both developed as well as undeveloped regions. Access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is vital to ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity.”

    Some reasons the world’s poor have been denied access to electricity are 1.) The high cost of building the complicated grid infrastructure in remote regions, 2.) Fossil fuel power plants will contribute even more to global warming and 3.) Current solar or small wind turbines only produce a low quantity of intermittent energy. Since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the world’s energy weakest link is its polluting, fossil fuel and nuclear power grid network.

    Independent Energy LLC’s new P6G Centrifugal Force Generator is the only technology that is a better and practical substitute that will benefit everyone, including the world’s poor, while it provides a timely and economically advantageous solution to eliminating climate change emissions.

  • BY steve wright

    ON September 29, 2015 10:51 AM

    For me, the most important thing you wrote is this:

    “[The standard development model] means we can comfortably usher modern organizations whose very operating logic has long required impoverishment—including political parties and their ideologies, corporations, and indeed whole industries—into high places of political power, and then believe and trust what they do there. All of this creates more than enough room for a deeply flawed assumption to reign supreme: that we are most likely to solve our problems using the very logic that created them in the first place.”

    But then you turn away from this to a conversation about metaphor and the SDG’s and design thinking. I guess it seems to me that Design Thinking as solution presents exactly the same problem that you described at the beginning of the paragraph I quoted

    “Because the question, ‘How do we eradicate poverty?’ focuses attention on what we see around us today, it doesn’t much care what decisions or what people may have benefitted from bringing it into being. This is a very handy thing politically, because it means we don’t have to examine or treat anyone or anything as culpable, past or present.”

    I understand the logic that Design Thinking has a greater likelihood of exposing the source of the problems but you already have a clearly stated thesis about the source and I agree with that thesis.  I am grateful that you say this out loud: “a built-in blindness to power dynamics” and you beseech us to “challenge entrenched power and the systems that sustain it.”

    Design Thinking is indeed a powerful methodology as is lean methodology and the emerging field of lean or agile performance management but none of these have any necessary connection to opposing and defeating entrenched power. As a matter of fact, these methodologies are not new development work and for the most part they have not been used to oppose and defeat entrenched power. Many times the excellent solutions proposed by design thinking are defeated by entrenched power who see the solutions as as encroaching on their profits and/or power which is usually defined as rent-seeking.

    It seems that to challenge entrenched power and the systems that sustain it we have two roads.  The first is activism (while rejecting its violent cousins). I think there is great potential to bring design thinking to new forms of activism. The second is disruption through innovation which has worked great for Uber but can it be used to dislodge the privileged from their power? My guess is it’s a combination of the two but I do think we MUST explicitly aim to disrupt power.  We must build solutions that are designed for this disruption and we must prepare for the reaction that these solutions will illicit which means we must act not as individual entrepreneurs but as a broad network of people actively participating in a new way.

    Have you seen design thinking used effectively when focused on the more specific question of challenging entrenched power and the systems that sustain it?

  • Remko Berkhut's avatar

    BY Remko Berkhut

    ON September 30, 2015 12:06 AM

    The eradication of reductionisms

    For me, the real if probably unintended message is not to overestimate design thinking.  If we’re serious about systemic change, we need to eradicate reductionism.

    A few examples:

    To reduce ‘the development industry’ to a single monolythic entity on mission to eradicate poverty without addressing underlying causes is short-sighted. It obscures the diversity of actors and approaches ranging from women’s empowerment and support for the arts to governance reform and the promotion of sexual diversity. It is a little naïve to assume that development practitioners, often at the frontlines of human tragedy, wouldn’t be reflecting on its origins. It’s too easy to ignore the respectable body of critical knowledge on social change that development researchers have produced in the process.

    To reduce international development responses to a set of power-blind approaches, is to go back to the 50s of the previous century. The mainstream of the development sector has long since moved on to civic driven change, rights based approaches, global public goods and support for movement building. Tried and tested approaches to analyse and navigate power dynamics, such as Participatory Rural Appraisal and the Powercube would have much contribute to design thinking toolkits.

    To reduce the sustainable development goals to a set of growth driven measures to tackle income poverty is factually incorrect.  For example, the goals also include goals on transparency, gender and biodiversity. These are a lot more political than the few dollars in a poor woman’s pocket by 2030. A simple google search will quickly drum up many flaws. But the inconvenient truth is that we need to create a new world from the shell of the old.  As goes for similar international frameworks (eg. climate change), this far from perfect mix is probably the best the global community has on offer at the moment.

    To reduce then, the response the new framework to its blind implementation is to ignore the myriad of strategies ranging from focussed compliance with elements that work (why should we not eradicate Malaria, if we can?) to relentless critical engagement. It’s the latter part of the continuum that is ignored in the article. Organizations like Oxfam for example have spearheaded broad global coalitions that have been asking the right questions about on wealth, poverty and equality for decades, largely without designers as far as I am aware.

    To reduce the radical potential of design thinking to a silly reframing of poverty questions, overlooks its potential for more meaningful contributions to development challenges. At Hivos for example, our practice has benefited greatly from paying more attention to prototyping techniques. There are strong connections between design thinking and pre-figurative politics, a strategy that is regaining prominence among new social movements.

    Finally, to place our toughest problems in a conceptual arena where one approach to change can brush aside others, is to betray their urgency and complexity. In the face of daunting social and environmental challenges, nobody is smart enough. We can ill afford to waste time on false dichotomies or self-proclaimed holy grails. More than ever, our task is to up the game by learning how to combine a variety of approaches, including design thinking, in the service of systemic change.

  • BY Thomas Kigoo

    ON September 30, 2015 06:33 PM

    here is a great article on the aid industry to provide some context http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/11890227/The-bloated-arrogant-aid-industry-needs-to-let-Africa-go.html  i think the aid industry should focus on entrepreneurship development, technology startup competitions and small business development. if this was the empetus of aid from the start tere would be a generation of entrepreneurs who would have created new wealth in africa

  • Martin Kirk's avatar

    BY Martin Kirk

    ON September 30, 2015 07:59 PM

    Hi Remko.

    Thanks for the comment. I think there is a lot we probably agree on, including that design thinking, on its own, isn’t a holy grail. Perhaps we could have made it clearer that we don’t believe that, only that design thinking helps expose essential fundamentals that the SDGs have ignored. Or, rather, successfully sidestepped. So, a useful tool in the box that was self-evidently underused here, rather than a silver bullet. 

    I’d also completely agree that we need to create a new world from the shell of the old. Nicely put. Our point is that the SDGs in no way help with that. In fact, they perpetuate the old by endorsing the fundamentals of the economic paradigm that currently exists.

    I’d also question a couple of your statements. Firstly, we’re not suggesting for a minute that we know what all “frontline development workers” think. Having been one, I know full well that they reflect constantly. But if they are, as a group, reflecting much on the fully counter-productive implications of, e.g. a GDP-growth based model, this reflection hasn’t made it through to the final agreement. Why that may be is a very interesting and pertinent question.  We analysed and are commenting on the SDG agreement, which the large corporate bodies that represent the professional development world have all, without exception, publicly endorsed.

    Which leads neatly to your assertion that the development industry can’t be described as acting monolithically. They have, self-evidently, just done it, by all publicly endorsing the SDGs. They each have their critiques WITHIN the framework, of course (we’re development lefties, we can’t all agree on anything!) but none has come out and said publicly, the fundamentals are so awry that we cannot endorse this plan. Once can only read this as the fact that they don’t believe the fundamentals to be that wrong, which is where we disagree with them. Instead, they have all made a political decision to support the goals. You may well agree with that decision, but you cannot pretend it away by pointing to in-paradigm dynamics and critiques. This simply repeats the pattern we are trying to highlight by confusing fundamental design features - those deeply enshrined within the SDG model - with things like wonderful and important principles on e.g. gender equality and rights based approaches.

    If you want to discuss what counts as a fundamental and why, then that’s a great discussion to have. The right one, I’d say. I think Charles Eisenstein said it well when he said, “If development equals growth, then “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. Poverty and ecocide are baked into the cake.”

    We need a different cake.

  • BY Jeremy Agnew

    ON October 1, 2015 03:05 PM

    This is a fantastic article and the comments exceptional. It has really helped frame a great deal of what we’ve been working on. I will be in touch directly. But in the mean time, on the subject of addressing the imbalance of power dynamics that you propose (rightly in my opinion) as the true source of poverty (and inequality/injustice?); we are focusing our energies on giving back ownership of systemic change to the citizens. Of course many people will say, well that’s what democracy does, and they would be right. But it isn’t true ownership the citizen has when someone in power is telling us what change needs to be made. After all, we’re all children and we don’t like being told what to do. But give the ownership of the idea to the person and you create belief in enacting the idea. A shift in power will then become apparent. The new paradigm is using design thinking on a very large scale and giving people the tools to solve social issues themselves. On a local and global level.
    I am looking forward to reading through The Rules tomorrow, and very excited to have come a cross this. smile

  • Lanre Rotimi's avatar

    BY Lanre Rotimi

    ON October 1, 2015 07:54 PM

    Great Article. Great Comments.

    What is he difference between Design Thinking and Geodesign?

    The questions “How can we eradicate Poverty” and “Why does mass Poverty exist” are not silos but two sides of the same coin. This is because if we do not know WHY Poverty is fighting a specific Society - Village to Global, we will not know HOW to to fight Poverty in that Society.

    The article as well as all that happened up to UNSDS (UN Sustainable Development Summit) September 2015 is evidence that much has been done to seek answers to What and Why questions but too little has been done to seek answers to How questions.

    As long as relevant Village to Global Stakeholders in each specific Society do not jointly move away from talking and thinking and move towards action and accomplishments; jointly develop architecture to effectively and efficiently measure progress towards each Action Agenda Item in each Goal as applicable to the specific society and in ways that pinpoint gaps and fill all identified gaps on time, achieving increasing convergence between SDG (Sustainable development Goals) and AAAA (Addis Ababa Action Agenda) Vision Intention and Reality is likely to be mirage or uphill task.

    Please find link to articles suggesting way forward
    http://developmentchangechampions.blogspot.com.ng/2015/09/global-push-to-achieve-sdgs-vision-and_28.html

    http://developmentchangechampions.blogspot.com.ng/2015/09/global-push-to-achieve-sdgs-vision-and.html

    http://developmentchangechampions.blogspot.com.ng/2015/09/final-push-to-achieve-mdgs-and-create_24.html

    We are concerned that despite World Leaders promise to achieve SDG by 2030, World Leaders continue language and commitment to flawed and failed Sustainable Development Solutions.

    COP 21 is first real test of Change from Business as Usual to Business Unusual. If this Transformational Change is not demonstrated and seen to be demonstrated in Paris in December 20155 then the SDG will most likely be a FLUKE. Should this occur in reality, the ultimate consequences is likely to be catastrophic for both Developed and Developing Countries in our World today. This underlines urgent need for Roadmap to Paris that translates into ACTION all fundamental issues raised in the Article and Comments.

  • Mike Blakeley's avatar

    BY Mike Blakeley

    ON October 8, 2015 04:35 PM

    I appreciate the article and the comments and for the sake of making it interesting, here is a view:

    We know why poverty exists; weak and ineffective leaders that do not have enough incentive or urgency to implement change or who face opposition that advocates for themselves, their tribe, their religion, etc. Those leaders are either elites themselves or beholden to them and their desire to stay elite. Do you think the success stories of South Korea, Singapore, Chile, Mauritius were achieved because some strategy guru’s and tech leaders told everyone they are asking the wrong question? Its good that you have an anthropologist involved because the issue is not who has the best idea or the smartest approach or clearly the most money to throw at the problem. We are talking about deep seeded socio-cultural problems exacerbated by scarce resources and constant threats to livelihoods.

    I could equally argue that the problem with the development industry (which I am a part of) is the surplus of smart people with ego’s who think they have the best solutions and convince developing country leaders that their pedigree better enables them to proscribe policy solutions (are you reading this Jeff Sachs?)

    The new architecture of development is going to have to come from the inside out, localized solutions that are first, politically and socially palatable and have buy in from those that promote them. The outside in approach is done. These people know why poverty exists but too often are unable to influence any change.

    As a development professional who is in front of policy makers everyday, I would be hard pressed to convince a minister or local World Bank Director that their solutions to the poverty problem lie within asking “why does poverty exist?” Remember, the development industry basically can provide resource that does not exist to enable poverty reduction, disease eradication, increased amounts of children vaccinated and educated even provide the best policy recommendations so countries can flourish. But its the “last mile” that depends on the actions of the people we are serving for change to occur.

  • Mike Blakeley's avatar

    BY Mike Blakeley

    ON October 8, 2015 04:36 PM

    I appreciate the article and the comments and for the sake of making it interesting, here is a view:

    We know why poverty exists; weak and ineffective leaders that do not have enough incentive or urgency to implement change or who face opposition that advocates for themselves, their tribe, their religion, etc. Those leaders are either elites themselves or beholden to them and their desire to stay elite. Do you think the success stories of South Korea, Singapore, Chile, Mauritius were achieved because some strategy guru’s and tech leaders told everyone they are asking the wrong question? Its good that you have an anthropologist involved because the issue is not who has the best idea or the smartest approach or clearly the most money to throw at the problem. We are talking about deep seeded socio-cultural problems exacerbated by scarce resources and constant threats to livelihoods.

    I could equally argue that the problem with the development industry (which I am a part of) is the surplus of smart people with ego’s who think they have the best solutions and convince developing country leaders that their pedigree better enables them to proscribe policy solutions (are you reading this Jeff Sachs?)

    The new architecture of development is going to have to come from the inside out, localized solutions that are first, politically and socially palatable and have buy in from those that promote them. The outside in approach is done. These people know why poverty exists but too often are unable to influence any change.

    As a development professional who is in front of policy makers everyday, I would be hard pressed to convince a minister or local World Bank Director that their solutions to the poverty problem lie within asking “why does poverty exist?” Remember, the development industry basically can provide resource that does not exist to enable poverty reduction, disease eradication, increased amounts of children vaccinated and educated even provide the best policy recommendations so countries can flourish. But its the “last mile” that depends on the actions of the people we are serving for change to occur.

  • Luis Manriquez's avatar

    BY Luis Manriquez

    ON October 8, 2015 11:45 PM

    A commenter to this post said it neatly: I think Charles Eisenstein said it well when he said, “If development equals growth, then “sustainable development” is an oxymoron. Poverty and ecocide are baked into the cake.” I have been thinking about this topic recently and have realized several things:
    1-Poverty is not always a bad thing. Monks take vows of poverty to achieve a richer spiritual life, for example. Some things associated with poverty, like malnutrition, child mortality, and analfabetism should be addressed. Other things like access to electricity, TV or Internet are not necessarily improvements. Many societies like the Hopi and the Tarahumara have resisted so-called “assimilation” and “progress” in order to protect traditional values and way of life. Trying to “lift” them from poverty ignores the fact that they live in areas where only a limited standard of living is sustainable due to lack of natural resources.
    2.- This also leads me to another important point: Overpopulation. It is amazing that when discussing Climate change, poverty, war, no mention is made of overpopulation’s part in these problems. For example, a group can go into an area high poverty area and improve the general health of the community with a variety of projects. The rate of infant survival usually rises. One can then claim that this is progress (which it is in a limited definition) but the effect will also be that there are now many more people than the area can sustain, effectively raising the poverty rate.
    This is what has happened with many programs. As long as overpopulation is not addressed, sustainability is an empty goal. Many factors conspire against achieving population control, including religion and nationalistic pride. But there are countries that are making progress towards that, for example Japan, Mexico, and Brazil.

  • Lanre Rotimi's avatar

    BY Lanre Rotimi

    ON October 9, 2015 06:13 PM

    Dear Mike,

    Thanks for your contribution. It was intended to take the discussion to the next level. This has not happened. I hope the authors and other contributors will respond to issues you Luis and I have raised. Let me start the ball rolling:-

    Take a look at this Blog Post http://developmentchangechampions.blogspot.com.ng/2015/10/global-push-to-achieve-sdgs-vision-and.html

    The Big Issue is answer to HOW questions within issues you raise. Can this be found without answer to HOW questions within AAAA endorsed by World Leaders in July 2015; SDG endorsed by World Leaders in September 2015 and COP21 Outcome Document when it is endorsed by World Leaders in December 2015?

    Why is it the case that World Leaders endorsed SDG as Vision and Words without Action while continuing search for answer to SDG How questions at UNSDS 2015 and other ongoing events? Is this not knowingly putting the Cart before the Horse? How do World Leaders convert revised AAAA, revised SDG and COP21 Outcome Document (which avoid errors and failures in Addis and NY) into Vision and Words with ACTION to NOW put Horse before Cart thus ensuring each Action Agenda Item is achieved in each of the 193 Member Countries by 2030 Target Date?

    If indeed AAAA, SDG and COP21 Outcome Document Goals and Targets are IMPOSSIBLE to meet on Paper in 2015 in many of the 193 Member States, HOW can these Goals and Targets be met in reality by 2030 Target Date in each of the 193 Member States. Please note that WBG has at this time a Study Report that Say the SDG will not be met in SSA by 2030. If this is the case Should this DECEPTION Continue? Will it not have ultimate catastrophic consequences for Citizens in both Developed and Developing Countries given the fact that in today’s Global Village what happens or does not happen in the Poorest Countries affect what happens in the Richest Countries and vice versa?

  • BY Spencer Critchley

    ON October 31, 2015 09:37 AM

    What a terrific article and discussion. I agree that design thinking helps to clarify root causes of poverty, and that more attention needs to be paid to power as a root cause. But I don’t think design thinking is the solution, as some of the discussion seems to assume. To assume that is to leap the gap between policy and politics. Policy, of which design is a component, operates in the domain of information. Politics operates in the domain of interest.

    I think workers in the public sector often leap this gap, unconsciously: “If people could only see the right information, things would change.” This may be an example of the way metaphors, as you mention, can frame thinking: If we think of ourselves as “public” or “nonprofit”, it’s easy to assume we’ve escaped the world of interest, and can focus on the right information. But interest refuses to play along: placing it outside the frame doesn’t make it go away. (Maybe it goes deeper than metaphors and framing, and reflects the influence of religion on people who want to do good, whether they’re religious or not: believing that the right information can change things echoes the belief in the word made flesh.)

    But a better design, i.e. better information, won’t in itself lead to change. Change requires the realignment of interests. Even dictators understand, and often profess to admire, enlightened social policies. They’re just not going to apply them, because that wouldn’t be in their interest.

    Change requires politics. And the best political tool we have is not design but democracy. It’s easy, and understandable, to get frustrated at how very slow the progress is, and at how many ways it can be thwarted. But it’s slow not because of a lack of information, but because it’s very hard work to realign interests — people are in effect stupid deliberately.

    And it’s easy to lose sight of how much progress we’ve made — and how much better democracy is than its alternatives. It’s the worst system except for all the others, as Churchill put it. First and foremost, that’s because it enables social change that is non-violent.

    To make a second point, there may be serious flaws in the SDG’s (I’m no expert on them), but I question your assertion that “a plan designed around GDP growth… is guaranteed to cause climate catastrophe sufficient to make our planet uninhabitable.” I don’t think that’s guaranteed. Along with the so-far slow progress we’ve made, it easy to overlook is the curve of that progress. As dirty as the global economy is, it’s far cleaner than it ever has been in the past, and it’s getting cleaner at an accelerating rate.

  • BY Michael Adams, PMP

    ON December 18, 2015 03:13 PM

    Very interesting article! I wonder about your answers to the question you suggested, the cause of poverty.

    To be honest, I think there is a darker answer to that, which is that people don’t really care. We’re concerned with people we can relate to, who live near us.

    I think people have a tendency to look at world poverty and throw up their hands saying, “there is nothing we can do about it in my life time.” This buys them freedom from being responsible.

    I think the question and the metaphor have to be approached as much in terms of leading in the right direction as they do to being palatable. Stakeholder management and buy-in are essential.

  • Irene Egan's avatar

    BY Irene Egan

    ON December 29, 2015 11:56 AM

    Why do we continue to define “poverty” as the problem and study it to death - when actually, the problem is “wealth” - let’s study in great detail how people get wealthy and stay wealthy.  You are so right about power dynamics - I’m reminded of Johnson’s War on Poverty, and the success it had, until mayors of major cities decided “the people” who were getting engaged and smart about community decision-making were getting “too much power.”  Reduction of poverty is a real threat to those who benefit from the current system, and those are the people who have the power and the resources. Nonprofit agencies who know and act on this have a very difficult time getting funding.

  • BY steve wright

    ON December 29, 2015 08:50 PM

    FWIW, I agree with Irene.

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Design Thinking

Smartcuts

By Shane Snow

Smartcuts analyzes the smart shortcuts various successful people take via "lateral thinking" so that all workers and thinkers can be encouraged to work smarter.