Stop Blaming the Stars: The Role of Design in Disaster

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the 2011 Better World by Design Conference (BWxD), where the theme was building for the future in the wake of disasters. A copy of the (very large) presentation can be found here. Thanks to the BWxD team for inviting me — it was an honour to address such a talented, diverse group.

Disaster. The word comes from the Italian word disastro; “dis” expresses negation, and “astro” means “star.” The word literally means “ill-starred event”.

But to call it that would be letting ourselves off too easily. “Ill-starred event” implies that disasters are the outputs of fate — tragic, chance occurrences caused by inescapable forces.

Over the years, I’ve worked in the context of several disasters, both natural disasters and ones relating to governance, human rights, and health care. These experiences have led me to see that most disasters are not random acts of fate. They are man made. Terrible events (such as earthquakes and floods) and ineffective systems (such as those crippled by corruption) devolve into disasters because of bad decisions we make.

Disastrous Decisions


For an example, let’s look at Somalia, where faulty foreign interventions — specifically three bad decisions made by the international community — have led to a destabilized country and an extremely fragile economy that did not stand a chance in the face of this yearʼs drought.

Somalia has been in a state of civil war since 1991, when the US-backed dictator Siad Barre fell, and a three-year UN intervention failed. In 2001, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control shut down al-Barakat, a Somali Islamic bank; it was also a charity and remittance network that sent up to $140 million a year from the Somali diaspora. (This was bad decision number one.) The shut-down was justified by suspicions that financing for 9/11 had been routed through the network; these suspicions turned out to be false. As a result of the ban, the teetering Somali economy fell further into disarray.

Bad decision number two was revealed by a leaked diplomatic cable from 2006; the United States pressed Ethiopia to invade Somalia to suppress the rising Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which was consolidating power in the country. The immediate objective succeeded, but a massive resistance sprung up. The war lasted over two years and left a million Somalis homeless, and the ICU was soon replaced by the radical group al-Shabaab. Following the Ethiopian withdrawal in 2008, radical Islamists seized the southern half of the country, and in May 2009, rebels captured Mogadishu and threw the country into another civil war. Today, conflicts over resources still rage and al-Shabaab continues to hinder aid efforts to southern Somalia.

These two decisions resulted in an extremely fragile country. When the worst drought in half a century hit East Africa in 2011, Somalia didn’t stand a chance.

On July 20, the UN declared famine in two parts of Somalia, the first such declaration in 30 years. It estimated $2.5 billion would be needed to stave off the famine, but only 63 percent of that has been financed to date. The international community chose not to respond to the crisis in a timely, effective manner — bad decision number three — and as result, the famine is spreading through the entire Horn of Africa.

I paint the story of the crisis in the Horn to show that yes, terrible events beyond our control do happen — droughts, earthquakes, floods — but it’s the poor decisions we make that lead to systemic shortcomings and structural flaws which turn unfortunate events into epic disasters.

Having seen this happen in my own experience, I’ve learned that our mechanisms for disaster response and recovery, however innovative, donʼt address the root causes of modern-day tragedies. They donʼt address the poor decisions and the structural flaws that led to their occurrence, meaning that tragedies are bound to repeat themselves.

But if there is any positive outcome to a disaster, it’s the opportunities they reveal. Because we are enraged, because we seek to make sense of tragedies, we start peeling behind the surface and asking the questions that we generally do not ask of ourselves and of our world. As a result, these potent and seismic occurrences force us to see things as they truly are.

This reckoning can create opportunities. In my own experience, I’ve seen how the field of design is uniquely suited to seize these opportunities and address the systemic flaws that underlie disasters.

Floods in Pakistan: From Disaster to Opportunity

For the past year, Reboot has been working on a project that illustrates the potential of design solutions in disaster contexts.

In August 2010, massive floods swept through the Indus Valley, inundating one-fifth of Pakistan. Seventeen-hundred people were killed, 1.89 million homes were destroyed, 20 million people were displaced, and the damages to the Pakistani economy were estimated at $43 billion. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called it the worst disaster he had ever seen.

But these floods weren’t a natural disaster. Pakistan lies in the Indus River basin, one of the most complex and difficult water management situations in the world. The British colonialists had erected several major irrigation projects, which the Pakistanis tried to build on. It was well-known that this was a precarious system that required close monitoring, preventative care, and good planning.

And funds had been allocated to do just that. In its 30 years of existence, Pakistanʼs Federal Flood Commission (FFC) has received approximately US $900 million for preventative measures against floods. But corruption, bad governance, and misappropriation of funds has resulted in only a minority of proposed projects actually being realized. Transparency International estimates that up to 70 percent of the FFCʼs lifetime budget had been embezzled.

Thereʼs no doubt about it: Mankind created the disaster in Pakistan. As a result of corruption and mismanagement, record rainfalls went from a predictable but containable event into a disaster that spiraled out of control.

Now, itʼs not all doom and gloom. In looking at how we responded to the disaster last year, there is some positive news. A group of public and private organizations collaborated to disburse emergency funds in the wake of the floods.

They did so through preloaded debit cards, a revolutionary way to disburse aid. Using the cards, families could collect their money through an ATM machine, at a bank, or (as was far more likely) they could use their own mobile phones to access relief funds and pay for emergency items.

Compared to transporting cash around the country and using purely paper-based mechanisms, it was a faster, more reliable, and more secure way to disburse emergency relief. These cards were a critical lifeline; the program was an incredible achievement.

But they were also temporary. Though innovative, the program did not address the structural flaws that gave rise to the disaster in the first place. Weʼve certainly come a long way with our impressive technology tools and rapid response systems. But at the end of the day, interventions are still incredibly short-sighted.

Letʼs examine how the disaster grew. Why were families so vulnerable in the first place? Why were they so exposed to risk and shock? It was partly because they lacked the basic services and protection mechanisms that you and I enjoy.

I assume most of us at this conference keep our money in a bank account. When Hurricane Irene hit last month, I didnʼt worry about whether my life savings would wash away. This is a luxury that 9 out of 10 Pakistanis don’t have — banks rejected them for accounts. It’s the same with insurance products; because institutions do not see the poor as attractive, viable customers, the poor are not able to protect themselves against disasters.

These have long been recognized as challenges, but in the wake of the floods, we realized the vital importance of access to financial protections, and the impacts of inequitable distribution of services.

As I mentioned, disasters often create and reveal new opportunities. Because of the relief cards in Pakistan, nearly 2 million people had bank accounts for the first time in their lives. It was an important change — and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring formal, permanent protection to millions of rural poor.

But, although everyone realized the massive gains to be had in banking the poor, the service providers and various stakeholders (including a philanthropic foundation in the United States, an NGO in Canada, and the implementing bank in Pakistan) didnʼt have a good sense of what the poor were like.

One Pakistani bank executive admitted: “I was lucky enough to be born into a privileged class; now, though I want to serve the poor, I have no idea what they need and how to get it to them.” To the bankers in Karachi, the poor were just one homogenous whole.

We started with design research to help bridge the distance between the service providers and their end-users, to examine how both their needs could be met.

We started with users. We needed to deeply and intimately understand their needs, desires, constraints, and environment. We did several weeks of intensive interviews and observations, and we used and mapped all sorts of services: health care, insurance, social and employment services, and even a day monitoring the comings and goings at a rural post office, a source of critical services for rural populations.To imagine valid solutions, we needed to understand what it was like to be one of our users in day-to-day situations.

Through this process, we were able to create detailed user personas that were both highly narrative — to give life to the people and contexts we sought to serve — and highly analytical. We recorded indicators such as income, literacy, technology usage, and social habits, so that the implementing bank would be able to do as sophisticated market segmentation and product development as they did for their wealthy customers.

Simultaneously, we also embedded with the service provider (the bank). It was critical to understand their priorities and operations in great detail. We spoke to staff from the corner office to the call center, to ensure we had an accurate picture of what was going on at all rungs and could design a system that met the needs of the organizationʼs internal users and interests.

Armed with a combined understanding of the rural poor and the bank that sought to serve them, we mapped user needs to organizational goals and capacities, and against opportunities both social and commercial.

We delivered a series of new design strategies that made the service more inclusive and relevant to rural Pakistanis. These strategies would allow service providers to better understand, communicate with, and serve the rural poor, both in flood relief programs and as part of longer term, mainstream business operations. They did so without fancy, new, “gee-whiz” technology, but through the basic mobile phones and human networks people already knew and trusted.

We integrated these strategies with the bankʼs operations in all functional areas and helped staff at all levels take ownership of this new knowledge. We made sure that the bank saw not just the social value of serving poor customers but the business value. This would ensure that the program was sustainable long after the aid money has dried up.

In the end, our strategies changed the way the bank thought about serving the rural poor. This reorientation meant that flood victims were no longer helpless causalities seeking aid, but empowered customers with agency in their own futures. From the starting point of what was essentially a band-aid solution, we started a process to protect poor, rural Pakistanis from the next disaster.

Looking Beyond Short-Term Solutions

The events in Pakistan became a disaster because people had not been considered when making decisions. Citizens had not been considered when institutions decided what to do with public money. Citizens had not been considered when government officials decided to pocket flood prevention funds. Citizens had not been considered when when basic risk mitigation plans were left collecting dust. The first challenge was simply to remember those that had been excluded and forgotten.

This, as you all know, is something design is very good at. Design holds its responsibility to users dear, and it is why I believe design is uniquely suited to address the systemic challenges — challenges of citizen neglect — behind disasters. Though the design process is skilled at creating new services and systems, I think its true value is in its philosophy. By putting first those that had been left behind, and are thus most vulnerable in times of crises, design can enable structural change.

And the glass-half-full perspective? Most disasters are man-made problems, which means there is usually a man-made solution. In fact, because disasters are our creations, it means that we can — and we must — have the courage and the persistence to correct our mistakes, so that those that are already most vulnerable arenʼt further punished by our errors.

As Junot Diaz, the Dominican author, has said: “We must refuse the old stories that tell us to interpret social disasters as natural disasters. We must refuse the familiar scripts of victims and rescuers that focus our energies solely on charity instead of systemic change.” We must take responsibility for the Frankensteins weʼve created and pledge to never let them repeat again. Letʼs take advantage of the opportunities provided by disasters to think beyond short-term solutions. Because a disaster, and its accompanying clarity, is a terrible thing to waste.

Futher reading.