Written by Josh Harvey, Lab Lead, UNICEF Innovations Lab Kosovo 

(c) Petras Gagilas via Flickr

Panthea Lee’s excellent Co.Exist article (“Why ‘Design For Development’ is Failing to Live Up to its Promise” [http://www.fastcoexist.com/3045768/why-design-for-development-is-failing-on-its-promise]) said an enormous number of things with which I agree, so I was surprised by how ill at ease it left me.

Why? Not because of anything Ms. Lee said, but because the piece highlighted a philosophical disconnect between the design for development community and the traditional development approach that practitioners like Lee are in the unfortunate position of having to overcome: that it is valid in the first place to promise a Solution to a Systemic Challenge.

The critique commonly levelled against design for development initiatives that they “….only make incremental improvements at a time when we need fundamental change” betrays a mindset that pervades and damns our work—that is the belief amongst development practitioners that “fundamental change” is anything other than the aggregate of incremental improvements. Design for development is only failing to live up to its promise insofar as it has been subsumed by a development community that, despite decades of evidence to the contrary, refuses to be disabused of its belief in a panacea—the absurd, hubristic notion that one can build the project that accounts for everything; the one intervention that drives “fundamental change”.

If design for development is to be faulted for its failure to yield “fundamental change”, the fault lies not in the practice, but in our woeful, wilful misunderstanding of the makeup of systemic problems and of how fundamental change is achieved.

The piece laments that “…we’re facing ocean-sized problems armed with teaspoons,” the implication being that, unless it can generate solutions equal in mass and volume to the world’s titanic challenges, the practice of design for development is underperforming. In my small experience, I’ve seen little to suggest that there exists such a thing as a systemic solution equal to a systemic challenge, because systemic challenges aren’t monolithic—they’re the aggregate of thousands of little problems.

Lately, I’ve been reading Si Kahn’s seminal “Creative Community Organizing” which recounts, among many other things, the experience of community organizers working in Forrest City, Arkansas at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I was struck by the similarities between the work of Kahn and peers and the objectives of the design for development community—connect the powerless; amplify marginalized voices; build responsive, accountable systems. I was further struck by how okay it was with Kahn and colleagues that their wins were practical, individual, one at a time. A development practitioner would be roundly tossed from his or her agency if she invested time and energy in understanding and intervening in the hiring habits of four department stores in a lone, small city (Kahn and company did) or provide access to polling places for one woman with reduced mobility (ditto.) And yet these small interventions, rolled together, are the Civil Rights Movement. How preposterously foolish and solipsistic would it be to believe that one could architect anything so vital, so impactful as the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, here we are, wondering why the development community can’t design fundamental change.

The promise of design for development is that it can and does bring the development community closer to people—to the authentic, nuanced, individual experience of rights holders. The use of ethnography and the openness to the type of fuzzy, qualitative information the like of which development practitioners typically abhor enables designers to engage far more intimately with the human experience at the core of a systemic challenge, to understand the complexities of a problem’s ecology, and to see the multitude of ways in which a systems-level solution is impractical or impossible. It lets us see systemic challenges for what they are: not an ocean, vast and indivisible, but a million little teacups, admittedly still vast and interwoven, but addressable through small, targeted interventions that reflect and respond to the ecology of each teacup-sized challenge.

And a teaspoon is absolutely the right tool to tackle a teacup.

In Kosovo, where more than 50% of the population of 1.8 million is under the age of 25, the challenge of youth empowerment and participation is pressing. Kosovo’s youth are set to inherit a host of wicked problems—from corruption to poverty to interethnic conflict to religious radicalization—so it’s vital that young people are prepared to meet the challenges. At the Innovations Lab Kosovo, with its comparatively few resources, our theory of change posits that the most impactful thing we as designers can do is share with rights holders the same methods and techniques, grounded in the same principles, that we use to build solutions, and to support them to apply those skills to address the individual challenges in which they have the expertise of experience.

Each project is small; 1,600 Euro to design and lead an initiative to connect Roma girls to one another to be peer educators on sexual and reproductive health; 1,800 Euro to build a recycling model that encourages environmentally unconscious parents to recycle by using profits of the sale of recyclable goods to expand the library at their children’s schools. These projects benefit maybe 100, maybe 1,000 rights holders at a time. The projects don’t solve big-H Health, big-I Inclusion, big-E Environment; they address one component of those systemic challenges as they are experienced by the people impacted by the issue.

They are, somewhat intentionally, the development equivalent of Solutions-Focused Therapy: recognizing the impracticality-verging on-impossibility of building the systems-level solution, they instead ask the “miracle question”—if you woke up tomorrow and the systemic challenge was solved, what’s the first thing you would notice is different?—and concentrate on effecting that small change.

In the end, I agree with Ms. Lee when she closes by noting that Design For Development promises a million nudges, aligning us in the right direction. This isn’t, however, a consolation; it’s the practice’s most powerful achievement. At UNICEF’s Innovations Lab Kosovo, we realize we may be facing an ocean of teacup sized challenges; perhaps the most systemic change we can effect is to see the tea cup for the ocean, and equip the world with teaspoons.

*Kosovo under UNSCR 1244

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