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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