Introducing Design With: A Reboot Podcast Series

Last year, we hosted four incredible interviews with folks driving radical collaborations across the globe. Our world has transformed so much in the time since, but the wisdom of these great leaders sustains. Take a listen.

We are actively engaged in the dialogue and debates of our space: on issues of social justice, global development, and democratic innovation, and on the ethics and methodological evolution of design, mediation, and co-creation practice. More of our writing can be found at Medium.

Why “Design For Development” Is Failing On Its Promise

We’re facing ocean-sized problems armed with teaspoons.

A couple of years ago, I had a moment of crisis about the role of design in tackling the challenges of our time.

My firm had been asked to take on a project supporting the democratic transition in Libya. After 42 years of autocratic rule, citizens could finally vote, and our task was to help the transitional government develop a system to register and manage voters. Libya is a geographically vast country, with a diversity of ethnicities and tribes, as well as an estimated 800,000 citizens living abroad, and the project was sure to pose compelling design and development challenges. While development firms working in these kinds of environments have been criticized for “parachuting in” to drop off a generic, pre-designed technology product, that wasn’t an option for us. First of all, no one had ever created a mobile voter registration system before. Second, we wanted to show what a truly human-centered, contextually-grounded approach could accomplish.

Still, the decision to accept the work kept me up at night. I was worried that we might end up doing more harm than good by taking the project.

Can Designers Change the World?

I was trained in the private sector, but for nearly a decade now I’ve been part of a growing community in international development seeking to use design to tackle the world’s most difficult problems. For example, in response to the interest expressed by international organizations and donors, including Melinda Gates, nearly every major commercial design consultancy has launched a “social innovation” arm, including Ideo and Frog, while the strategy consultancy Dalberg has just launched a new design practice. This community is taking the tools that corporations have used for decades to create products and services that people want and applying those to the public space to create the products and services, like medical care or access to education, that people desperately need.

Yet I’ve noticed in this community a growing nervousness about how much design can create positive change. At conferences, online, and in private conversations, my colleagues are wrestling with the ways that “design for development” is falling short of its promises.

Even when well-spent, aid money can be a way of sweeping real solutions under the rug.

This is not surprising, given how fundamentally different the dynamics of the development space are compared to those of the commercial world. For one thing, in functioning markets, the user (aka, the customer) is powerful because she has money to spend. The users of a development program are often marginalized and powerless, with no money or voice to compel governments to listen to them.

And where commercial projects have a clear idea of the user and clear measures of success (e.g., widgets sold, conversation rate, or plain old revenue—a great organizing principle), public sector design projects have no set “bottom line.” How do you define “improved governance”? Is it stronger rule of law? Reduced violence and crime? Better public services? It depends on who you ask, and there are often complex politics and different interests at stake.

What’s more, the world’s most intractable problems are deeply rooted in massive systems, while design is a discipline focused on the edges. Traditional design focuses on creating and improving society’s outputs and interactions, such as a sleeker mobile phone or a more efficient way to buy coffee. When these skills are translated over to the public sphere, design still tends to focus on outputs instead of the real systemic problems. We create apps to help students study for their SATs, but deep down we know the education system isn’t investing enough in schools in poor neighborhoods. We design websites to help citizens surface ideas to their governments, but we know the heavy hand of corporations in politics prevents these ideas from actually getting used. These projects pursue admirable goals, but because they’re focused on the edges, they’re only making incremental improvements in a time when we need fundamental change.

We’re facing ocean-sized problems armed with teaspoons.

I’ve struggled with these questions for much of my career. In our work at Reboot, we know that design practices are only one tool in our toolkit. Our work has also drawn heavily from other fields, complementing the strengths of design with those of ethnography, economics, political science, and the development field. Our designers are humble and recognize how much we have to learn from these disciplines, which have wrestled with the world’s thorniest problems for decades.

When Aid Does More Harm Than Good

But there’s another deeper concern, one that caused many a sleepless night around the elections project in Libya: With our good intentions, our human-centered ethos, and our appropriate tech solutions, would we create a veneer of good will that distracts attention from, and maybe even perpetuates, the global systems of injustice?

Because let’s face it: Even when well-spent, aid money can be a way of sweeping real solutions under the rug. It’s fairly cheap and easy for rich countries to disburse aid, compared to the effort and expense of arriving at the difficult political bargains on migration, climate change, trade, and other issues that would change lives in more meaningful ways.

Worse: In conflict situations, aid can be a part of the cycle of violence. When Libya collapsed, there were 20 million arms in non-state hands—in a country of just 6.2 million people. Those arms were sold to Gaddafi’s forces by Western countries, including the UK and Italy. We were complicit in the country’s destruction, a complicity that tends to be overlooked at United Nations convenings and expert panels on countering weapons proliferation.

Design for Systemic Change

Despite these concerns, I believe that international development is still one important path to progress. I believe we have a responsibility to take action however we can to alleviate injustice and poverty around the world. And I believe that designers have much to offer in the larger collective effort to push forward social and economic progress.

Reboot took the project in Libya. We spent seven months there, through periods of conflict, to keep us responsive to Libya’s dynamic political situation as we worked to meet tight deadlines. Objectively, the project was a success: We created the world’s first mobile-based voter registration system, which millions of Libyans used to register at home and from abroad. Our system also helped the Libyan government increase the sophistication with which it managed its elections across the country. It continues to be used in Libya today.

But in this work, we also had to recognize that creating a voter registration system was just us tinkering at the edges of the large, complex, decades-long process of developing a legitimate democracy. We had to be conscious of our role in this larger system, so that even when we disagreed with our Libyan counterparts, we were there to advise, not impose. This, after all, was about change on their terms and timelines, not ours.

As designers, it’s easy to “know the right solution.” (All the user research we did! All the systems maps! All the A/B testing!) But democracy requires people driving for themselves. And when we were able to set aside our “evidence-based design decisions” and our desire to “drive positive change” as we defined these terms, we noticed a shift in what our work was serving.

This, after all, was about change on their terms and timelines, not ours.

More important than our “solution” to the design problem at hand were the conversations enabled by the co-design process we’d undertaken with our Libyan counterparts. As we explored technical questions about the voter management system—what data security protocol to use, where information should flow, what analytics to track—we were creating the space for dialogue about larger questions of governance. These were questions about a government’s responsibilities to its citizens and the extent to which a state should invest to fulfill these responsibilities; we were, in short, discussing what it means to realize a renegotiated social contract among Libya’s population and governing institutions.

Many of the new government officials had participated in the overthrow of Gaddafi; as we worked together on our small contribution to post-revolution Libya—helping citizens participate in elections—we were facilitating a conversation about what it means not just to revolt against a dictator, but to govern in a just, inclusive way.

A Million Little Nudges

Designers have great power: We can “nudge” people to behave differently. Collectively, if more of us are working toward positive change, the impact of a million little nudges in the right direction has immense potential. The flip side of this is that those actions we don’t take have an impact, too. If we are passive, and fail to actively engage in our work with the larger systems and goals in mind, we’ll be (at best) complicit in the social injustices around us.

But if we’re willing to tackle the thorny problems, to get involved in messy policy and political debates, and to go head-to-head with organizations and interests that would prefer we didn’t ask the tough questions, designers can be part of larger solutions.

Each of us may only have a teaspoon. But if we’re all scooping in the right direction, maybe we can start to make some waves.


This article was originally published on Fast Company’s Co.Exist channel on May 14, 2015.

“Why ‘Design for Development’ is Failing on its Promise” Published in Fast Company

In our latest article, Panthea Lee writes in Fast Company about the tensions and limitations of “design for development.” Real impact is possible through a design approach grounded in teamwork, humility, and willingness to tackle thorny issues.

Nina Kiernan Joins Reboot

We are delighted to welcome Nina Kiernan as our new Operations Manager. For the last seven years, Nina worked as part of UNICEF Staff Well-Being Unit, where she helped to implement well-being policies and interventions to support staff around the world. Prior to UNICEF, Nina taught elementary and preschool children, and continues to volunteer with a local literacy program. At Reboot, Nina will design tools and policies to keep the Reboot team happy, productive, and growing.

Manila Workshop: “Doing Development Differently” In Practice

Zack Brisson and Dave Algoso will facilitate a series of breakout groups exploring the “Doing Development Differently” principles in practice at a workshop hosted by ODI and The Asia Foundation, April 27-28 in Manila. Practitioners from the Philippines, Myanmar, Vietnam, Indonesia and Mongolia will share their efforts to be problem-driven, work iteratively, engage teams and coalitions, and produce solutions that are “fit to context” and politically smart. Suggest “burning questions” for the group via this form, and follow the conversation at #differentdev, with Dave’s updates at @dalgoso.

What Can Design Intelligence Do?

Panthea Lee will be a featured panelist at the Second Annual Design Intelligence Conference at Parsons The New School on April 25, 11:30 AM-12:30 PM in New York City. The panel, bringing together design practitioners from IDEO, Reboot, Public Policy Lab, and elsewhere, will address the question “what can design intelligence do?” from different sectoral perspectives. The event is open to the public; register for tickets here and follow along online with #SDMDesignIntelligence and @PantheaLee.

Exploring Storytelling in Program Design at UCLA

Husna Ali-Khan will discuss how Reboot used user personas, data, and brand identity design in the design and implementation of My Voice, a social accountability project in Nigeria. Her plenary talk will take place on April 24 at the UCLA WORLD Policy Forum, at a conference to explore ways that technology and comparative data can strengthen monitoring, accountability, and civic engagement.

Debating the Role of Data in Development at Cartagena Data Festival

Zack Brisson and Kerry Brennan will travel to Colombia from April 20-22 to participate in the Cartagena Open Data Festival. Zack will present on My Voice as an example of a data-driven feedback and accountability tool, and join a panel on embedding new ideas in institutions. The festival’s aim this year is to bring together data leaders, from civil society to government, to shape the role data will play in supporting the post-2015 UN Development Agenda. You can register to watch a livestream of key portions of the conference, and follow @kerryjbren, @theReboot, and #data2015 for updates.

NDCBP's Ken Henshaw conducts research at a school in Nigeria

Creating High-Value Data in a Low-Bandwidth Environment

How civil society can nudge government to deliver on Nigeria’s open data promise.

Inspiring commentary about the potential economic and civic benefits of open data is everywhere these days. I’ve seen the momentum building here in Nigeria, especially spurred by the government’s first Open Data Development Initiative, launched in early 2014 and facilitated by The World Bank. Additional investments by international donors have continued supporting the country’s growing community of open data enthusiasts, and the frequency of data-related workshops and hackathons has jumped from virtually zero to periodic events in Lagos, Abuja, Benin, and more.

But there’s a major roadblock to the realization of many open data initiatives in Nigeria: A dearth of high-value data.

There is no single definition of “high-value data,” but roughly, it’s information that makes government spending, enforcement, policy, or other practices transparent and responsive.  Since responsiveness is one of the most important goals of open data, citizens largely define the “value” of any given data. As a good rule of thumb: If citizens aren’t convinced, the data isn’t high value.

Through open data events, often targeting civil society and other “demand-side” players, funders hope to catalyze the development of profitable, data-driven civic apps. But we, the practitioners on the ground, often cannot find the up-to-date, trustworthy data needed to create useful applications for journalism, advocacy, or development.

When Data Breeds Mistrust

Realizing the lofty visions of open data is difficult no matter where you are, but it’s especially hard in a place like Nigeria: home to a nascent open source community, with a highly-politicized election happening tomorrow after a six-week postponement, and where government statistics suggest as few as five percent of the population consistently accesses the Internet. The large, information-rich datasets that traditionally comprise “open data,” often created by governments, are few and far between in Nigeria. Despite the government’s efforts, many datasets that do exist are irrelevant, outdated, incomplete, or mistrusted by citizens.

I witnessed an illustration of this problem after a high-profile model school construction initiative launched in Rivers State. With the school projects nearing completion, the state Ministry of Education set out to share the results through a public website, showing how many model schools had been build to impressive international standards. But many people were suspicious. One local advocacy organization, the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform, questioned how many of the schools had actually been built to specification, and were in use. Rather than increasing transparency as intended, the website threatened to exacerbate mistrust between government and citizens.

From Creating Data to Opening Communication

In partnership with The World Bank, Reboot supported the Niger Delta Citizens and Budget Platform to go into the field and gather a new set of high-value data, and in doing so, open a channel of civic discourse with the Ministry of Education.

Using Formhub, an Android phone-based data collection tool, we investigated a representative sample of the more than 200 public primary school construction projects in five Local Government Areas. Surveyors visited school locations and asked basic questions about each, starting with whether or not the school actually existed. They also collected data also on the quality of construction (such as the condition of the roof) and the local community (such as whether it was rural or urban).

Despite a history of antagonism with the Ministry of Education, the advocacy group was able to use the new, accurate, up-to-date dataset to engage government officials in a constructive way, increasing their voice in decisions about education spending. With support from Reboot (you can read a case study of our year-long engagement here), the organization synthesized their experiences in the field into valuable insights, offering compelling results to state decision-makers. For example, they were able to discuss not only whether the schools were built as planned, but whether trust in the government had shifted as a result.

The Ministry was impressed, and the project was the start of an ongoing conversation about the allocation of public resources. By facilitating productive communication between citizens and their government, this project made open government data matter. Our partners managed to deliver on the promise of open data despite the initial lack of high-value data.

A Free, Open-Source Data Collection Tool

The data collection tool itself was one key to the project’s success. Formhub was a good choice given the constraints of field work in Rivers State. Most critically, Formhub doesn’t require a consistent Internet connection; the data is stored locally and uploaded the next time a connection is made. The app is designed to digitize data at the point of collection, which is when it’s most likely to be accurate. It also means that surveyors feel more responsibility for data quality, as opposed to past approaches, which relied on answers written on sheets of paper and handed off (along with half of the responsibility and most of the ownership) for data entry by someone else. When surveyors have final say over the entered data, they are also better data collectors, able to think critically about the use of the data they collect.

Formhub might be a good fit for other service monitoring or advocacy projects: A project of the Modi Research Group at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, Formhub was developed for use in the field here in Nigeria, in a way that very much reflects Reboot’s own values: It was designed iteratively, for usage specifically in resource-constrained environments. There’s also a strong developer community around the open source tool, including people who are eager to give tips on survey design.

Formhub’s continued development and applications are exciting; just recently, the Nigerian Office for Millenium Development Goals launched a website to capture and display data showing Nigeria’s progress toward achieving development goals at the nation, region, and state-level. Browsing through the site shows the full extent of the tool’s capabilities.

Moving Forward: Build Demand for Better Data

The Millenium Development Goals website is a solid step toward generating high-value data. However, it remains to be seen whether the government has the resources to continue updating and maintaining the dataset.

As Nigeria continues to build its national open data movement, it’s vital to recognize that “open data” will never be a one-size-fits-all solution. And as the international development community plans for “demand-side” workshops for training civil society and journalists on how to use open data, we should start by understanding how they are using data now—or not—and why.

Civil society and journalists play an essential role in raising data standards. The Rivers State model school example shows that service monitoring projects can raise the bar for higher-quality, more relevant data, even where the relationship between government and civil society is characterized by mistrust, and initial data is flawed. If we focus on data as a means to encourage constructive dialogue with government officials, each step we take can bring us closer to a truly open data culture at the national level.


sunlight foundation logo
A version of this article appeared on the Sunlight Foundation’s OpenGov Voices blog on April 13, 2015.

Exploring the Impacts of Civic Technology with mySociety

Kerry Brennan is speaking today at the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference in London, hosted by mySociety. Her talk, “Learning from Mexico: What Works in Public Sector Innovation and Civic Technology,” will draw upon our ongoing work with Mexico’s Office of National Digital Strategy. Follow her at @kerryjbren and the conference conversation at #TICTeC.


economics and the wdr report

The Wonk’s Guide to Economics without Politics

What happens when the World Bank spotlights human irrationality but leaves human agency in the shadow?

The World Bank’s 2015 World Development Report focuses on understanding real human choices (as opposed to the “rational decision-makers” of traditional economics) in a way that’s often critically missing from the development discourse. I was pleased to see that focus, even though the report also had some crucial gaps and showed that our field still has farther to go in blending methods like behavioral economics and design, as I analyzed in a prior blog post.

Consideration of these gaps leads to another, related problem: The continued dominance of economics over politics in development thinking. This bias is not unique to the World Development Report, but rather a shortcoming of the sector at large. However, this particular report shows it glaringly.

Narrowest form of multidisciplinarity

The dominance of economics would almost make sense if we defined “development” in narrowly economic terms. Fortunately, the sector has long recognized the multidimensional nature of development, where non-economic factors like health outcomes, clean air, and human freedoms are just as critical as GDP growth.

However, this progress still isn’t fully reflected in benchmark documents like the World Development Report, which approaches every topic from an economics perspective. For example, field experiments by economists are used to justify cultural insights or the existence of altruism. Meanwhile, the psychological impact of poverty must be explained as a “cognitive tax”—as if the idea of cognitive overload needs a public finances framing.

In contrast, ethnography is mentioned only about six times in the entire 200-page report. The two-page “spotlight” on ethnography does little more than assert the simple importance of cultural and social norms, without discussing ethnographic methods that practitioners should consider or the ways findings from ethnographies should inform decisions. This is more than a mere dispute on types of evidence or approaches to analysis. A narrow disciplinary focus restricts our thinking on which problems are important.

This World Development Report is multidisciplinary, in its own way. By adding “behavioral” in front of “economics,” it somewhat expands the methodological toolkit. But the economics are still dominant. This is the narrowest form of multidisciplinarity, which takes a single discipline as a starting point and judges the others on its terms.

Politics without the politics

The sector is increasingly recognizing the importance of politics to development, yet political thinking is missing from the World Development Report. The few instances where political issues are discussed serve to highlight the extent of this blind spot, as ostensibly political topics get a conspicuously apolitical treatment.

For example, the World Development Report describes how electronic voting in Brazil enfranchised poorly educated citizens who had struggled to deal with the previous paper ballots. This had the effect of increasing the power of the political Left, resulting in more funding for health services over time. The system’s designers themselves were surprised by this outcome. The report’s analysis fails to acknowledge that a similar effort in most contexts would meet with opposition, especially if it were explicitly intended to make voting easier for a particular set of voters. This fact is particularly close to home, as voter identification criteria in the United States fall into exactly this political trap.

In another section, the report explains how corruption is a social norm in some contexts, and uses this fact as the basis for a discussion about changing the norm. Yet the political nature of corruption and its relationship to power structures is unaddressed. In many contexts, corruption—defined as the use of public office for private gain—is a key pillar in the political system that protects incumbent powers. Corruption can even have positive effects, as it may build political stability in a regime and distribute the rents of the state throughout the middle- and lower-ranks of public officials. We saw many of these effects in our research in Nigeria. Something similar can occur with forms of clientelism. The report is unable to challenge its own normative framing, drawn from economics, that corruption is inherently negative, and so misses the political nature of the phenomenon

These kinds of omissions appear again and again. A chapter on climate change reads more like a guide to behavioral economics for advocacy groups, with insights on how to use framing to account for biases and build support. There is sound advice here, but these insights are trivial compared to the political and economic interests aligned against meaningful climate action. The report makes no mention of oil companies wielding concentrated wealth to shape public policy, or of the conflict between developed and emerging countries over who will shoulder the burden of reducing future emissions.

Development sector professionals have an amazing ability to wish politics away in our analysis and action. Despite the importance of interest groups and contested space to historical outcomes, we are reluctant to include these political factors when thinking about our own work in the present. We have to work harder to see these blind spots. Any analysis of promoting change or sector learning that ignores these factors impoverishes itself.

Recognizing everyone’s agency

The report’s lack of political nuance is intertwined with a thread of paternalism that runs through any policy application of behavioral economics: the aim is to shape the choices of people, especially poor people. This paternalism is less of a concern in contexts where those being “nudged” have a way to hold the “nudgers” accountable. For example, the British government’s “Behavioural Insights Team” is indirectly accountable to the voters themselves, via their political representatives. In contrast, an international development organization seeking to influence citizens in poor countries faces no such accountability.

The result is a flawed framework that recognizes human irrationality but not human agency. It conceptualizes development as something done to individuals and communities, rather than with or by them. Their role is to be nudged into better development outcomes, in spite of their own imperfect decision-making. This paternalism is ethically flawed; the fact that it often fails to achieve development outcomes only adds to the case against it.

As we expand our analytical toolkit beyond economics and deepen our understanding of the nuances of human choice, we also need to expand our thinking on the role that individuals play in development outcomes. Analytically recognizing the role of politics is just one step. The corollary to understanding politics is recognizing power. We have much further to go, to programmatically allow for the agency and power of individuals to drive their own development.

the wdr report merges behavioral economics and design

The Wonk’s Guide to Irrational Humans

The World Bank explores behavioral economics, but what’s design got to do with it?

Every year, the World Bank’s World Development Report offers a detailed look at the state of knowledge around a single development topic. While recent reports focused on topics like jobs, risk, or gender equity, this year’s edition, titled Mind, Society, and Behavior, reflects the growing attention being given to human decision-making in development. Among wonks, it has been called the “behavioral economics World Development Report.” In reality, it is broader than that, yet narrower than it could be.

The report is framed in three dimensions: Thinking automatically, Thinking socially, and Thinking with mental models. Thinking automatically articulates how heuristics and decision-making shortcuts can lead us to suboptimal choices, drawing on the research of Daniel Kahneman and others. Thinking socially discusses the impact of social norms, expectations, and cooperation in our decision-making. Finally, thinking with mental models refers to the framing and categories we bring to our decisions.

Through this framework, the report establishes and explores the idea that humans are not always coldly rational decision-makers. Economists often present this idea as if it were surprising and slightly disappointing, but anyone who works with real humans knows that we are nuanced creatures. Our individual choices, in all their complexity, involve shortcuts and social dimensions that we’re only starting to understand.

This is critical to our sector because the outcomes of individual choices have social ramifications. This fact often gets lost or glossed over, subordinated to the policies, markets, or historical forces that are considered more consequential to development outcomes. With Mind, Society, and Behavior, the World Bank presents the case for elevating individuals’ decisions to the same level of importance.

“Human-centered” analysis: behavioral economics and design

Here at Reboot, we often use the term “human-centered” to describe our approach, especially to design. The World Development Report focuses on the discipline of behavioral economics, another “human-centered” practice. Both design and behavioral economics are increasingly popular approaches for recognizing the role of human choices at the crux of many development problems. The relationship between these two methods is still developing, and there are still unresolved differences.

There are important connections between these disciplines. The insights of behavioral economics can inform design choices. The World Development Report offers a few of these insights, noting the accumulating evidence in favor of specific practices, such as regular text message reminders to promote savings. There is also evidence for a few broader principles, such as behavior change through “social proof” approaches—i.e. emphasizing that other people are engaging in a desirable behavior such as voting, or paying taxes. Program or service designers can use these insights as heuristics of their own.

However, the two methods are not in complete alignment. Behavioral economics has a tendency to universalize, drawing insights from a particular context and applying them broadly. This is powerful but dangerous. It risks encouraging “cookie-cutter” development thinking, where solutions are applied without adaptation to context. In contrast, human-centered design has an incredible sensitivity to specific needs in a given use-case. The risk here is zooming in too close, focusing on a design’s minutiae at the expense of the needs it’s meant to serve. How many times have we seen impractical, expensive, or over-engineered solutions from designers whose focus on the design itself (and on good reviews on social enterprise blogs) sets up blinders that obscure the real people who are meant to benefit?

This tension doesn’t mean the methods are in opposition. In fact, the combination of the two could be formidable. To see how that could happen, let’s turn back to the World Development Report.

Adaptation to context

The final chapters of Mind, Society, and Behavior pivot to a topic close to my heart: adaptation in design and programs. It proposes an iterative program cycle, incorporating redefinition and rediagnosis throughout implementation (see diagram). This is a welcome emphasis on continual learning. The report further ties this process to an analysis of bias among development professionals, who struggle to understand the individuals they are meant to serve.

wdr design process

Source: 2015 WDR Team

Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations on this front fall short. These include simplistic solutions: For navigating the complexity of human motivations, the report suggests applying more social and political analysis upfront. To combat confirmation bias by development practitioners, use red teams or double-blind peer review. To understand the importance of context, implementers should engage in service trials. While these proposed solutions move us in the right direction, they feel shallow.

At their core, these proposals revolve around improving the knowledge of the interveners. That’s a worthy goal. But it starts from the perspective that development interventions are done by development organizations to beneficiaries and communities. It focuses on extracting knowledge from the end-users of development products and services so that knowledge can improve decisions made by others. Why not bring those end-users into the decision-making process? We need a deeper reexamination of the role of development practitioners.

Participatory methods and co-creation alongside users are not new to the development sector, yet they’re absent from this World Development Report. More meaningful solutions to the challenges raised would include hiring diverse teams with national staff who understand the context; giving autonomy to “development entrepreneurs” to work adaptively; increasing the range of stakeholders involved in program design and giving them feedback channels throughout implementation; or even reducing the power of experts at large institutions in the sector. These approaches can provide a useful counterbalance to the purely technical knowledge of experts, yet none of these are discussed in the report.

This is where behavioral economics and design can come together. Participatory design methods bring the end-users into the decisions about services and products that will serve them. Working with locally led teams of development practitioners, those end-users can interpret the insights from behavioral economics and adapt them to the context. In fact, in light of the biases among international development experts, those end-users are the best positioned to do this.

A further iteration on this confluence of methods involves using the field experiments popularized in behavioral economics as part of the iterative design process. For simple messaging initiatives at a large scale, such as behavior change communications, this is not so different from the A/B testing long used by marketers. For more complicated products and services, general insights from behavioral economics can influence designs, which are then subjected to in-context experimentation to ensure they are appropriate and meaningful to the users. The findings from these experiments should again be available to those same end-users who helped with design, continuing their role in iterative interpretation and design.

Promising steps forward

The World Development Report’s discussion of adaptation is why I say that this report is broader than just behavioral economics. However, the missing components of design and participation mean that the analysis is narrower than it could be.

Even still, the report moves the discussion forward. These ideas align well with the Doing Development Differently conversations and recent work like the Overseas Development Institute’s “Adapting development” report. Smart people at the World Bank and other organizations are carving out ways to do adaptive implementation in spite of institutional constraints, such as procurement or funding rules. Others are finding ways to shift those constraints altogether.

These efforts are pushing the sector toward better thinking and practice. Recognizing the importance of human biases and choices means bringing in a variety of human-centered analytical methods, such as behavioral economics and design, as well as changing our management, funding, and organizational practices to be more adaptive. This will manifest itself in many different ways across the sector. It’s up to all development practitioners to accept the challenge of turning a critical lens on our own work.


Further resources: For other perspectives on this year’s World Development Report, check out posts from Duncan Green, Ben Ramalingam, and Timothy Taylor.

Reboot and The World Bank Co-Host Panel on Designing Technology for Citizen Engagement

On Friday, February 27, Reboot and The World Bank welcomed a diverse group of design and development practitioners to our office for a discussion of “My Voice,” a tool to collect citizen feedback and improve public services, piloted last year in rural Nigeria. The World Bank’s Matthew McNaughton and Paula Rossiasco, along with our own Zack Brisson and Nonso Jideofor, reflected on lessons from the launch and discussed with audience members the constraints of working within large development organizations, the practical challenges of creating durable citizen feedback loops using new technologies, and future opportunities for more learning, evaluation, and scaling up. 

Welcome Hani Kfouri and Jenna Steckel!

We are happy to have Hani and Jenna join the Reboot team as Programs and Communications Interns. Hani is currently an MPA candidate at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, where he is studying public finance and international development, and working to develop NYU’s global network as Wagner’s student senator. Jenna brings experience in event curation, communications, and the tech world. Beyond Reboot, Jenna works as a Research Assistant at NYU’s SPAM Lab for perception and motivation and organizes Action Design, a speaker series on designing for behavioral change.

Kicking off the NYC Service Jam with the question: What is a service?

Dave Algoso and Kerry Brennan will help kick off the NYC Service Jam on Friday, February 27 with a framing discussion on the question of what a service really is. They will challenge participants to think holistically about the nature of service challenges, including how both technological and human components interact to shape the service experience. More details here.

Twitter chat on “development entrepreneurship” and land reform in the Philippines

On Thursday, February 26, Dave Algoso will join a twitter chat with Filipino land reform activist Toti Chikiamco, the Overseas Development Institute’s Leni Wild, and DfID’s Pete Vowles. They will be discussing how an entrepreneurial approach to development reform helped make it possible for ordinary Filipinos to own their land, and what other development efforts can learn from this. More details here. Follow @dalgoso or the hashtag #AdaptDev to join in.

Nicole Anand and Dave Algoso to Guest Lecture at Parsons

Nicole and Dave will present lessons from Reboot’s vision, strategy, and practice to students in the course “Service City” at Parsons The New School for Design on February 26th. They will discuss Reboot’s approach to the practical side of service work, including achieving and sustaining community engagement, the financial viability of projects, and managing client relationships. “Service City” focuses on the strategic and organizational considerations needed to sustain and scale viable social service enterprises.

Zack Brisson to Discuss Iterating and Testing Ideas at Harvard Business School

Zack will join a panel of social entrepreneurs and impact investors at Harvard Business School on Monday, February 23rd, to discuss how to iterate and test new ideas. The panel, hosted by HBS Social Enterprise Initiative and Harvard i-Lab in conjunction with the New Venture Competition, will address how social entrepreneurs can understand social needs and the demands of the impact economy, as well as how to  adapt their models as their understanding of these needs changes.


ict4d in nigeria

How to Listen so that People Talk—Designing Durable Citizen Feedback Loops

While conducting research in rural Nigeria last year, I met Ester, a young mother who told me about her last visit to the local health clinic. After receiving a malaria treatment the government had advertised as free, she was charged the equivalent of her whole week’s pay. I asked what she did about it. “Nothing,” she said. “What would I do? Who would I tell?”

This was not the first time I heard this reason for not reporting feedback on a negative health care experience. Ester’s voice was part of a larger chorus that our research team heard often when speaking with patients in Wamba, a mountainous region in central Nigeria.

Map of Wamba, Nigeria

To address this communication gap between patients and services providers, Reboot, in partnership with the World Bank, the Nigerian government, and Caktus group, developed an SMS-based program to collect and act on citizen feedback regarding the quality of primary health care services. The pilot design, known as My Voice, would enable patient experience to directly inform improvements to public healthcare, supplementing Nigeria’s performance-based financing initiative for national healthcare reform.

Interviews with Ester and other Wamba citizens highlighted just how uncommon the practice of formal healthcare feedback was. Even the word “feedback” was unfamiliar. This meant that simply developing a technology platform for patients to communicate with healthcare providers wouldn’t be sufficient. We needed to design a program capable of empowering patients to offer feedback and motivating providers to make tangible improvements based on patient comments.

Learning from Past ICT4D Failures

Projects like My Voice, that engage citizens through text messages to improve public services, are now a trending focus for development donors and practitioners. It’s not hard to see why: it’s new, economical, and potentially inclusive of the world’s 3.5 billion+ mobile subscribers, 78 percent of whom are in developing countries. Connecting the people who use public services directly to the people who provide them, via text message, can improve services while establishing powerful new accountability mechanisms.

But sometimes even the best intentioned programs don’t yield the results investors and developers expected. Sometimes citizens aren’t willing to participate, or systems aren’t designed to encourage participation. Sometimes the data collected is not relevant or useful to decision makers. Sometimes these platforms are built as silo operations, failing to integrate across existing real-time data analysis efforts or with national programmatic processes. And all too often, these projects celebrate citizen engagement volume through flashy websites, making scale and replication seem easy.

For these initiatives to work for actors across a service delivery chain for the long haul, citizens need to trust that their inputs will be heard and will make a difference. Decision makers need to trust that feedback has a constructive use and will not threaten their careers or livelihoods. As the program is created, communities and stakeholders need to trust that the design process has listened to them—that the final product will reflect their needs, and will work given all of the contextual realities (like intermittent mobile networks) international consultant teams may overlook.

When User-Centered Design Isn’t Enough

My Voice introduced an entirely new practice for patients and service providers in rural Nigeria—not only in the technology used to send and receive surveys by SMS, but even more fundamentally in the basic act of providing and using feedback. Keeping that in mind, two core principles drove our approach for this project:

Design is Only as Good as Your Research

We knew the design of My Voice would only ever be as good as our understanding of its users and their environment. This led us to conduct an immersive research process, including in-depth, ethnographic interviewing, service trials, site observation, and embeds with service providers.

For the six-month duration of the project, our team established a temporary office in Wamba town and hired a local research team to help guide each stage of the process. We visited all of the participating health clinics multiple times each week by motorbike. We split time between the State and Federal capital cities, where we worked alongside the policy makers and program managers responsible for the primary health care system. We dealt with the same intermittent cell coverage and slow Internet access Wamba residents do. And we relied on the nearest health clinic for malaria treatment, and the occasional food poisoning incident.

This immersion gave us a clearer, closer view of health infrastructure and processes, and a deeper understanding of the needs, habits, and interests of the people who would use and operate the feedback system. This immersion allowed us to participate in key decision-making meetings, surfacing opportunities for how My Voice real-time data could be included in program improvement discussions. Our research and design process required close collaboration with national health experts, local-level management, and the World Bank team, who also joined us in Wamba for co-design missions throughout.

In Design, the Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Users don’t exist in a vacuum; we made sure to research and design for much more than the individual user. We studied the context that My Voice would function in, the institutions that would manage and use it, and a slew of political, cultural, situational, and environmental elements that would play a role in the project’s sustainability. As a result, we were able to design not only a technological platform, but an entire program for My Voice to integrate within health clinic and government assessment and decision-making processes.

The My Voice program design included training for staff on interpreting and using patient feedback; transition of program management to local government staff; strategies for integrating My Voice into national healthcare programs; and a tailored brand identity, promotional materials, user guides, and messaging campaign.

Over time, we developed relationships with the clinic managers, healthcare workers, local religious leaders, and local government staff. During meals or in their offices, we listened to their inputs and used them to tweak the system, gradually iterating and improving. While initially skeptical, the community ultimately understood that My Voice was for them: built for their interests using their own ideas. For example, they determined what information it would include, when feedback would be received, and what reports would look like. Throughout the process we saw ourselves as idea facilitators rather than generators—weaving together and realizing the ideas of the extended Wamba healthcare community.

In-depth research, living in Wamba, including stakeholders in the shaping of the design, building a program to support the technical design: all of this wasn’t just good design practice. Rather, these intentional investments sent messages to citizens and government alike that we were committed to designing a service that worked for Wamba’s patients, clinic managers, and state-level decision makers. These signals began to establish new lines of trust—a vital step before people would be willing to take part in this new form of communicating and problem-solving. And, while all of that was important for short-term buy-in, we also ensured that My Voice’s open source platform could be used for the long term and could be easily adapted for use in other sectors, a small step towards addressing the fragmented data collection landscape.

Earning Trust for Programs, Earning Trust as Practitioners

All of these micro design decisions began to add up, so that for the first time in Wamba, patients began sharing feedback on their experiences in rural health clinic visits. Patients reported which clinics were closed when they needed emergency care, or when they didn’t understand their diagnosis or cost of treatment. Staff—who at first worried that patient feedback would be harmful—began to welcome and appreciate comments from their patients.

Not only was a new channel for dialogue built through My Voice, but clinics started using the channel to make incremental improvements to health care, based on what patients were saying. And for the first time, service providers responded to patient comments by clarifying their payment processes, checking on staff more frequently, and keeping facilities open during nights and weekends. At Reboot, we believe that this change is pretty significant, and that it is only possible because the design was built with the people using it and in the institutional ecosystem where it would function.

We’re now working with the World Bank and the Nigerian government to see how My Voice can be adapted for more states, applied to other sectors, or further harmonized with existing data platforms. Together, we’re exploring how to scale the trust and sense of ownership we worked so hard with the Wamba community to build.

Panthea Lee to Speak at Interaction Design Conference in San Francisco

At Interaction 15, this year’s Interaction Design Association conference, Panthea will share her thoughts on how designers can shift perspective and build processes to tackle thorny governance issues like corruption and social accountability. In downtown San Francisco, from February 9-11. Follow @PantheaLee, @ixdconf, and #ixd15 for updates.

co creation with civil society

Co-Creating with Civil Society: A Glimpse into the Process

Multi-stakeholder approaches,” “participatory development,” and “design with the user” are increasingly popular concepts in global development. As an organization founded on the belief that citizens should have a greater say in the policies that affect their lives, we at Reboot should be heartened by this momentum towards greater collaboration with “users” and “beneficiaries.”

But too often, we’ve seen co-creation done poorly. Many organizations have recognized the importance of collaborating with the diverse stakeholders who will be touched by the policies or products they develop, but rhetoric rarely matches reality. Co-creation is hard. With more voices in the room, the process is slower and more complex; it can seem impractical. And let’s be honest: co-creation decreases the influence of powerful actors in shaping outcomes. The development industry often lacks both incentives and mechanisms to co-create, and as a result, it isn’t often done well.

These concerns were at the top of our minds when we learned that USAID and Sida—the American and Swedish international development agencies—wanted to convene over 60 people from 50 organizations to “co-create” an ambitious new program to support and strengthen civil society around the world.

Supporting and Strengthening Global Civil Society

Globally, advancing social justice and human development often relies on local civil society organizations. Yet the right to meet, organize, and drive change through civic action is facing backlash. Since 2012, the International Center for Non-Profit Law has documented more than 50 countries seeking to ban or constrain civil society activity.

USAID and Sida are two of the founding partners around a new initiative—launched as part of President Obama’s global call to Stand with Civil Society—that aims to combat this growing repression, expand civic space, and strengthen civil society. They plan to do this by developing a network of regional civil society hubs, each tailored to the goals and needs of civil society communities in that region.

In a laudable demonstration of donor humility, USAID and Sida admitted at the outset of our collaboration that they didn’t know the best way to create these hubs. This honesty created the conditions for a true co-creation process. Rather than designing a program from the top down then validating it through consultation, USAID and Sida aspired to work with civil society actors as true partners.

And so they issued a global call for ideas on ways to support and strengthen civil society. Over 200 organizations shared their ideas, and over 40 were invited to a co-creation workshop in November 2014 in Istanbul to set the ethos and foundation of a new initiative. Reboot and CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations, were asked to join, both as participants and to design and facilitate the workshop.

What Makes Co-Creation So Hard?

Key Challenges in Co-Creation

  • How to get participants to let go of their standard ways of thinking and doing?

  • How to get participants to invest in addressing the challenge without being biased by their own incentives and potential individual returns?

  • How to challenge traditional power dynamics so that solutions can benefit from the wisdom and experiences of all assembled?

  • How to quickly establish a collaboration model that respects all voices and inputs, while empowering the group to take practical and timely decisions?

At its heart, co-creation is about bringing people together to develop solutions to a common challenge. While this sounds straightforward, what makes it tough is that actors almost always have different perspectives on the challenge, different levels of experience addressing it, and different interests and motivations for engaging in the work.

Power imbalances within the group make working through these differences towards constructive solutions all the more difficult. While power and politics naturally plays into any group’s dynamic, facilitators must carefully navigate these imbalances to bring forward each individual’s perspective and expertise.

Too often, exercises billed as co-creation fail to live up to their stated values of inclusivity, leaving repeat participants wary of such “consultation as insultation” processes. Understanding this, it was no surprise to hear participants at the start of the Istanbul workshop wondering aloud whether the donors had brought a plan to be rubber-stamped, and if the workshop was simply a political box to be checked.

Key Principles in Enabling Co-Creation

Crafting effective co-creation is much like designing any program, service, or product. “Just do a workshop” is a short-sighted mistake. A thorough process and strong user experience design are critical. Our team worked closely with USAID, Sida, and CIVICUS before and after the three-day Istanbul event to optimize participant experience and, in doing so, harness their expertise into productive outcomes. Recognizing the unique dynamics of this design exercise, we relied on a set of core principles to guide our work.1

  1. Break out of established roles and mindsets. As with most such gatherings, there were power imbalances within our group, which included both donors and grantees, as well as representatives from the global North and South. To break with traditional hierarchies, we had to force participants out of familiar roles and mindsets.

To do so, we first worked to understand the interests, experiences, and expectations of each co-creator. (This was especially critical given that many civil society actors, while they may be ideological allies, are commercial rivals, competing for a pool of limited resources to do their work.) What does a human trafficking activist in the Philippines and a freedom of information lawyer in Georgia have in common? On the surface, not a lot. But throughout the process, we asked participants to bring their individual experience to the fore, rather than calling on them as representatives of their organizations. By asking participants to recognize the respect for human rights that unified us all, they were able to shed their “organizational hat” (and the associated pressures) and collaborate towards a common vision.

We framed conversations to draw on the experiences of less-privileged voices, and asked the more-powerful actors to be transparent around their interests and resources. Donors, for example, had to answer sometimes uncomfortable questions about organizational politics and funding that may impact the initiative. They were also asked to be highly sensitive of their influence in group settings, and to participate by asking clarifying questions rather than offering opinions that might overly sway the conversation.

  1. Define the “what” and allow creativity around the “how.” Facilitating a co-creation process is about articulating a vision, establishing the parameters, and guiding participants to a shared definition of what success looks like. It’s never about the specifics of execution—that’s up to the co-creators. And while we designed a detailed implementation plan with multiple possible paths, these were used as flexible scaffolding rather than fixed itinerary.

Around the “what,” we recognized that USAID and Sida had given us an intentionally broad mandate. And so, to focus our thinking and encourage rigor in both thought and action, we unpacked development buzzwords and fuzzwords to understand what each of us meant by terms like “increased impact” and “inclusive participation.” This primed us to be clear about what it was that we sought to achieve.

We asked participants to draw on their own experiences to develop success criteria that were familiar and tangible, rather than based on abstract principles or case studies. The group jointly aligned on a set of key “nuts and bolts” (e.g. service offerings, business model) that designs of the hubs should include. This gave participants categories and boundaries within which to design, while also providing leeway to create locally tailored content.

And we stayed flexible and adapted schedules and exercises as we went along. Because when you give 50-odd very opinionated people a big, hairy task, you need to be ready to seize the opportunities (and address the challenges) that come out of it.

  1. Build an invested community of collaborators. Successful co-creation efforts are the work of a cohesive community, not a collection of individuals. Collaborators must build trust before tackling the technical challenge at hand.

We designed the co-creation process around anticipated human dynamics—such as past relationships or histories that may have caused reservations—seeking to first build unity, then “do the work.” Thoughtfully designed icebreakers, high-energy exercises, and social activities were critical for building community bonds. An open spaces session allowed participants to talk about whatever they wanted, even if it was outside the meeting’s scope. We monitored the human factor throughout and adjusted activities accordingly.

Some of this, understandably, worried the convenors—would the work get done in time? But by late the second day, when we had given the final co-creation assignment, participants were rearranging their evening plans and setting 7am breakfast meetings. Most of us wouldn’t do that with our colleagues or fellow workshop participants—we only invest in such a deep, personal way when we’re working alongside comrades.

Successes and Next Steps

Participants left Istanbul buzzing with levels of energy rarely seen after being crammed in a conference space with too many strangers and too little elbow room.2 Rich conversations continued online in the following months and have now led to the foundation of a truly innovative global initiative to support civil society.

At Reboot, we are proud to see our design and facilitation methods help mitigate conventional power structures, putting authority and ownership in the hands of users—in this case, activists, civil society actors, and their supporters advancing social justice around the world.

USAID, Sida, and several co-conspirators are now planning regional design processes, where this initiative will make more concrete decisions on how to support civil society innovation in each region. We look forward to updating you as it moves forward.


1:  To dive further into the process we used to create the Istanbul workshop, see our briefing note Co-Creating the Civil Society Innovation Initiative: Process Journey from Idea to Design (PDF, 518KB)

2: For more on both this workshop and the broader initiative, see blog posts from the US Institute for Peace and USAID, and the Civil Society Innovation Tumblr.