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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.

Ethan Wilkes & Jeremy Canfield at Urban Resilience Lab

Reboot’s Jeremy Canfield and Ethan Wilkes will attend the World Bank‘s Urban Resilience Lab tomorrow evening. They will be meeting a 50-member World Bank delegation from the South Asia Region to exchange ideas on city management.

Six American Cities, Six Weeks: Understanding Elections Offices on our Home Turf

Last week, Reboot kicked off a fantastic new collaboration with our friends at TurboVote.

Three years ago, TurboVote set out to make the voting process as easy as ordering a DVD on Netflix. Their team developed the technology to enable voters to register to vote right from the comfort of their homes – and amassed an impressively detailed knowledge bank about the landscape of United States elections regulations. If you sign up for TurboVote, you also receive free SMS and email reminders about upcoming elections.

The goal was to remove as many barriers to civic engagement as possible, through the strategic use of everyday technology. Leading up to this last election, TurboVote registered just shy of 200,000 voters – mostly through a dazzling array of partnerships with colleges, universities, and get-out-the-vote groups that had an interest in registering large numbers of voters.

A non-profit and non-partisan organization, TurboVote has started 2013 by reflecting on its original ambitions for impact, realizing that in order to truly revolutionize the way voting happens in the United States, it must engage more directly with institutions of governance.

This is where Reboot comes in. Over the next few months, Reboot will be travelling to elections offices in six different locations across the country. We will be meeting with a sample of the 8,000 local agencies that determine how elections are run, seeking to understand the technological and human processes that underpin the US voter experience. We will gather this information by mapping the voter registration and vote-by-mail service journeys, by conducting institutional ethnography with elections clerks, and by identifying system pain points that make the voter experience burdensome. We also expect to surface – and share! – some bright spots in the voter experience, learning from local offices that genuinely embody a strong user-oriented approach to citizen engagement.

Coming out of this investigation, we hope to pinpoint opportunities to match TurboVote‘s existing technology to the needs of elections offices. In the long term, it is our hope that these small-scale process improvements will lead to large-scale changes in the way that everyday voters like us experience democracy.

We will be kicking off in Boone County, Missouri in mid-March and expect to be sharing what we learn along the way.  We hope you’ll join us on the ride!

New Book on Financial Inclusion in China

Reboot was thrilled to see a packed house at Green Spaces for the release of Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized last night. Panthea Lee and Patrick Ainslie joined First Access’ Nicole Stubbs and Global Tech Ethnographer Tricia Wang for a wide ranging discussion on delivering services to marginalized communities the world over.  

Tech in Asia Covers Reboot

In the run-up to the release of the release of Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s MarginalizedReboot’s Patrick Ainslie talks “handshakes over hetongs” in Tech in Asia’s latest on mobile money in China.

Meng Yan at Social Media Week

Reboot’s amazing Design Intern Meng Yan was featured at Social Media Week’s “The Greatest Idea Never Bought” panel on Friday. She delivered a pitch for her idea of “tattooing” NYC metrocards with unique designs that would fade as a rider’s credit decreased.

Panthea Lee in Center for Financial Inclusion Blog

By understanding the lives of China’s most vulnerable, and by designing services that align with existing behaviors and networks,” Reboot’s Panthea Lee writes in the Center for Financial Inclusion’s blog, “millions of Chinese citizens can be lifted into stability.

Ethan Wilkes Speaks at NYU Social Innovation Symposium

Ethan Wilkes joined the 3rd Annual NYU Social Innovation Symposium on Friday. Themed “Rethinking Impact”, Ethan moderated the Technology for Social Good panel, which explored the increasing importance of technology on social impact.

Day Laborers: Going it Alone

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized , we’d like to feature some of their stories.

 

The drivers don’t even need to honk.

As the boxy, well-worn Mitsubishi Delica vans arrive, the workers we’ve been interviewing hightail it to the curb of the sprawling, six-lane highway outside the Guiyang labor market. Doors slide open and brusque bosses pop their heads out, shouting day rates and specific jobs as men jockey to get in their vans.

A minute later, the vans are gone. Most of the workers remain, disappointed. They continue to mill about, but as the clock ticks, they grow increasingly worried about their ability to earn a wage that day.

Nearby, a labor headhunter sits beside a placard of jobs listings, offering to refer any worker to a paying job—for a small fee. One man tells us he’s been burned too many times by shady laobans to trust agents like this. He describes being driven out to a far-off work site, working a full day without food, and then being sent away without pay.

With no official labor agreement, he had no recourse.

Another man tells us the labor agent is just as bad as the laobans, claiming that he charges to provide a phone number that is a lead to a job, but that when the buyer of the number calls, all the jobs are always taken.

Yet another chimes in, saying that he’s been duped by the agents in the past. He’s called the numbers given and been directed to a job site, only to arrive and find no one there and the number he paid for since disconnected.

Resources for these men are scant. Some say the time they spend looking for work and hounding managers for the pay that they are owed, outweigh that which they spend actually working and earning wages.

Even legitimate companies can be risky.

“We don’t like working for construction companies because it is very difficult to receive your wages from them. Either the accountant is not available or the manager is nowhere to be found. And you can’t put up too much of a fight—you never know what kind of black society [gangs] they have backing them up.”

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Bayarmaa: Facing a Changing Culture

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized, we’d like to feature some of their stories.

 

Bayarmaa, a former herder from Inner Mongolia, fears she is losing her culture.

She recalls the Nadamu Festival, an annual Mongol tradition of community celebration. The festival was like Christmas in the West, with a large banquet for the community along with Mongolian traditional activities: dancing, horse-racing, and wrestling.

The festival was also an important part of the community identity. It served as a valuable opportunity to share practices and tips on farming or raising cattle with Mongols from nearby communities who would come to partake in the celebrations.

In recent years, Bayarmaa feels much of that has been lost. The government has taken over throwing these festivals, giving cash prizes for the winners of various games and competitions. First prize is worth as much as RMB 100,000 (USD 16,000).

Bayarmaa has mixed feelings about the “updated” festival.

She likes the idea of winning money, but longs for her traditional way of life. Beijing has made raising livestock difficult, claiming a desire to protect the grasslands to encourage tourism. The tourism has barely materialized though.

Bayarmaa’s husband takes tourists on horseback riding trips and can make as much as RMB 300 (USD 48) during the high season. Most of the year, business is slow. The government gives them RMB 6,600 (USD 1,055) a year as compensation for taking away their livelihoods. The sum is barely enough to make ends meet.

Food is expensive in Inner Mongolia, since the harsh climate means that food can’t be grown close by. Bayarmaa also spends RMB 400 (USD 64) per year on mobile credit, which she uses to call her daughters on a basic Nokia phone. With no jobs in the area, most of the young people have moved away, which has deepened Bayarmaa’s sense that her culture is slipping away.

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Kate Krontiris at Centre for Social Innovation

Reboot’s Kate Krontiris was among the featured speakers tonight for Social Media Week at the Centre for Social Innovation. The event, co-organized by SPCLT Lab brought a diverse group of participants to discuss how business, design, and technology is transforming the world.

Design Diary: Mischief Managed

Design comes in many shapes and sizes, and spans many mediums. Yet in visual/graphic design, there is a tendency for much of the creative process to be bound to sketchbooks or computer screens. When there is literally another dimension available for creative exploration, why not use it when you can?

As part of a fun exercise, last week, a few of our team members snuck out of the office and into an East Village apartment to do some top secret, offline design work in the form of one-foot cardboard letters.

We documented the whole process by setting up a camera to take a photograph every 30 seconds, and after seven hours, 954 photos, eight Mod Podge covered hands, and one pizza, we had ourselves a three-dimensional cardboard logo and a stop motion video.

The video and letters were revealed to the rest of the Reboot team as an extra special Valentine’s Day surprise. As you can see, these letters are opening up a LOT of opportunity for some nontraditional team photo sessions.

Ethan Wilkes & Mollie Ruskin Present at ICL

Mollie Ruskin and Ethan Wilkes of Reboot gave a talk today at the Institute for Community Living to explore the processes of designing and delivering better services.

China’s $132 Billion Missed Opportunity

In the jostle for tickets at the Beijing Railway Station, Zhang Qi never felt the knife that slit his jacket open. In a flash, a thick wad of cash had been lifted from his pocket. It was more than RMB 5,000 ($800)—his entire years’ savings.

Zhang Qi is a migrant worker. He is among a floating population of 250 million strong with no legal status that has been the backbone of China’s incredible growth story. Migrants like him have flooded booming Chinese metropolises in a search of economic opportunity, transforming a country of isolated cities into one of tethered, transient networks.

But access to financial services has not kept pace with this increasingly transient population. Many migrant workers lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Theirs is an almost entirely cash-based economy, with savings kept, quite literally, under the mattress.

The domestic remittances migrants carry home, typically once per annum during the Lunar New Year, are the lifeblood of their families’ economic security. When the cash is stolen, so too are their livelihoods.

Zhang Qi had been working to save RMB 150,000 ($24,000), so that his two sons, who are still in primary school, could build homes one day. On his current earnings, he will need approximately 30 years to save enough. Now, he is one year behind.

The issue of financial exclusion has come to the fore only recently in China. Over the last five years, China’s “Big Four” banks have closed a combined 30,000 branches in poor and rural regions, as a result of market pressures and an increasing focus on high-margin, low-risk populations. On average, rural residents have 0.36 banking outlets per 10,000 people, far below the national average of 1.34.

Even in urban areas where bank branches are numerous, service offerings are designed for middle- and upper-middle class markets, providing limited utility to migrant workers at best and stigmatizing them at worst.

Zhang Qi actually had a bank account and had heard bank transfers were possible. When he went to the branch near his worksite to inquire about how the fees worked, he was brushed off by the staff. His out-of-province accent and ragged clothes made him an unwanted customer. He decided to carry his money by hand—at great risk—rather than face further humiliation at the bank.

More commonly, migrant workers leverage existing community connections to store and move money. The near absence of formal financial institutions in the economic life of this population has led to a proliferation of informal service providers. These may include family and friends, rotating savings and credit associations (hehui), money houses (qian zhuang), loan sharks (gao li dai), and, perhaps most significantly, laobans.

Laobans are managers and middlemen. They arrange contracts with employers and then take responsibility for recruiting and overseeing hundreds of temporary workers. Laobans are often connected to their workers by only a few degrees of separation, even hailing from the same village. The foundation of most migrant workers’ sustenance is their relationship to a laoban. 

It’s no surprise then that many migrant workers rely on their laobans to keep their wages safe and send money to their families. This reduces the risk of theft for migrants, especially for those living in communal dormitories, and adds collateral to the working relationship for the laoban. The arrangement is mutually beneficial, but also lopsided. The worker is perpetually indebted to his laoban and risks exploitation. When issues arise, the worker has no reliable channel for redress.

On a macro level, these informal service relationships present another challenge. China’s 250 million migrant workers send an estimated $132 billion across the country each year. While total remittances were last measured in 2005 when they stood at $65.4, the migrant worker population has more than doubled since that time. This is a lot of money to move outside the formal economy.

Financial services are a key leverage point for individual economic mobility the world over. Safe, secure and inexpensive financial services allow individuals to plan for the future and lead more productive lives.  At a time when even the Chinese government is calling the wealth gap “relatively large” and stressing the urgency of resolving income inequality, financial exclusion has meant 132 billion missed opportunities for migrant workers like Zhang Qi to improve their livelihoods.

The status quo benefits no one. Everyone has something to gain from inclusive financial services. They would deliver trusted alternatives to migrant workers, balanced economic development to the government, and new market opportunities to a forward-thinking service provider.

Globally, new technology has created promising second-generation banking services like oft-cited mobile payment platforms in KenyaParaguay, and the Philippines. High mobile penetration rates, extensive agent networks, and an intensive reliance on remittance payments in rural areas suggests China is similarly primed for the deployment of a national, mobile-based remittance system.

But to be effective in China, this type of financial service must embrace informality. Too often service providers create new offerings with a narrow focus on feature set, cost, or market opportunity, without consideration of how to adequately address the needs of the populations they seek to serve. Current practices and the motivations behind them should also be given careful consideration.

Here, the lessons of China’s informal service relationships, like those between workers and their laobans, are instructive. These services are foremost rooted in trust, born of mutual reliance, and built on powerful and long standing social connections. New services should complement—not compete with—these informal alternatives.

Laobans can be incentivized to promote initial adoption and new customer acquisition. Small “mom and pop” stores in rural areas, which garner the confidence of local communities, could serve as agents and key links to services beyond the village. The goal should be to provide the same trust, convenience, and ease of use that make informal services so useful to migrant workers.

After the incident, Zhang Qi was devastated and blamed himself. He realized that he had been touching his pocket repeatedly and nervously, which must have alerted the thieves. With no help from the police and his money gone, Zhang Qi traveled back to his village in Anhui Province to face the shame of arriving penniless for the Lunar New Year.

He vows to find a new solution next year.

Ethan Wilkes Featured in World Policy Journal

China’s migrant workers are carrying their life savings around in their coat pockets. Reboot’s Ethan Wilkes argues it’s time to strengthen China’s informal economy through better access to financial services.

The Elderly: Searching for Stability

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized, we’d like to feature some of their stories.

 

In Xuanwei, Yunnan, an elderly couple invites us into their living room. Wistfully, they show us the shrine in their home, dedicated to Chairman Mao. Those were better times, they say. Even though life was difficult, it was stable.

“At least we knew we were poor and that we would continue to be poor,” the woman said. They got by, and the state helped them with the bare necessities.

Now, every day brings new challenges. The couple worries about their ailing health, about what to do in case of an emergency, about the little they have to leave for their children and grandchildren when they pass away. They fear that their grandchildren will be even less well-off than they themselves are today. What’s worse, they feel ashamed that there is nothing they can do to help.

The couple has considered taking out an insurance policy and recently visited the office of an insurance agent in a town an hour away. They had heard that insurance companies were like banks but with better interest rates.

But they found the agent pushy, and sensed he was trying to sell them policies they didn’t need. He chided them for wanting the most basic plan, citing their old age and the large family that they had. They were responsible, he insisted, for ensuring the health and wealth of future generations.

This may have been true, the couple thought, but they just didn’t see how the more expensive policy would benefit them more. Confused, they went home empty-handed. They continue to worry about their health and their family’s future.

The television news often crows about China’s progress, the couple says, saying it is developing faster than any other country. “But the China we live in is a far cry from what we see on TV.”

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Ni Lar: Alone on the Grasslands

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized, we’d like to feature some of their stories.

 

Ni Lar, 56, like her mother and grandmother, used to breed and sell cows and sheep in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. An ethnic Mongol, she is among the 55 ethnic groups clustered in autonomous regions that comprise 64 percent of China’s landmass but account for little of the country’s economic activity.

In the past decade, the Chinese government has put pressure on Mongols to cease raising livestock, ostensibly to preserve the grasslands for tourism. Failure to comply can result in steep fines. Ni Lar remembers grand promises to ease the transition by helping Mongols like her seize the new tourism opportunities while supplementing their income in the process.

Now, however, Ni Lar lives on government payments of about RMB 7,000 (USD 1,124) each year. Called dibao, these transfers were introduced in the early 1990s and designed to address poverty by increasing individuals’ income to a Minimum Livelihood Guarantee, set by the government.

There is tourism in Inner Mongolia, but Ni Lar and her neighbors don’t see it. Tourists are directed to government-designated tourist parks, far from the villages, where they pay hefty fees. Ni Lar receives none of these benefits.

Support for the Mongols has been variable, despite official policy. Ni Lar’s husband passed away five years ago, and her children, who are not eligible for support payments, have left to find work in Hohhot. Her dibao payments have been fluctuating for the past few years, but she has no idea why. She worries they will disappear completely. She has just enough to feed herself. Any extra expense, whether it’s a sudden illness or the marriage of a village youth (which requires a gift of money), leaves her at a loss of what to do.

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.

Kate Krontiris at MIT & Harvard

From February 8 – 10, our own Kate Krontiris will be mentoring student teams at MIT’s Scaling Development Ventures conference, and speaking on a panel about technology and social entrepreneurship at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference.  If you happen to be at either, please say hello!

Panthea Lee Profiled in Fast Company

Fast Company profiles Reboot’s Panthea Lee among its 11 Most Generous Designers. “For millions of people in [troubled parts of the world]…” Panthea explains, “these challenges are not simply the results of ‘intractable issues.’ Bad decisions created these problems and better decisions can help resolve them.

Old Peng: Trying to Make Ends Meeter

Millions of China’s most vulnerable lack even the most basic means to save for their children’s education, make purchases on credit, protect their homes through insurance, and send and receive money. Financial exclusion prevents many of them from realizing their potential and improving their livelihoods.

In the run-up to the February 11 launch of our latest publication, Embracing Informality: Designing Financial Services for China’s Marginalized (event details and RSVP here), we’d like to feature some of their stories.

*     *     *

Old Peng, 67, has lived in the same 90-person section in the small village of Changjiao his entire life. With government investment focused on urban areas to support export-driven growth, this corner of Guizhou Province, like many rural areas of China, has been left in the dust.

Old Peng shares his small, mud-brick home with his wife, his 34-year-old son and daughter-in-law, and their 8-year-old son. The nearest town with a bank is an hour away by motorbike and four hours by foot.

Every morning, the entire family hikes up to the fields above their village to tend their small vegetable plot. This plot is their entire livelihood. They sell the vegetables the plot produces. They eat the weeds and what they can’t sell. Once a week, Old Peng’s wife hitches a ride on a flatbed truck to the weekly market, where she hopes to earn enough to buy pork so her grandson can eat some meat.

Old Peng keeps a passbook for his bank account in his pocket at all times. He still keeps careful track of his balance and has anxiety about being so far from his bank. The pressure to stay on top of his finances, however, is slightly relieved by his son’s mobile phone. Now he can call the bank and check his balance, instead of making the four-hour trek on foot.

The country government sends dibao payments directly to Old Peng’s account. However, his primary point of contact for accessing services is his village leader. For example, the family can buy cookstoves at a discounted rate through a government subsidy. The village leader brings it to their home in exchange for RMB 120 (USD 19).

But the Pengs can’t be sure if that amount is correct. They’ve heard the charge is only RMB 90 (USD 14) in another village. Unfortunately, there’s no way for them to verify. Old Peng is afraid to challenge the village leader, or to ask the government officials what the rate should be—asking he fears would indubitably get back to the village leader, who could cut them off from future services entirely.

Editor’s Note: This profile is a composite of real people who shared their stories with us. Though the profile takes pieces from different individuals’ lives, the goal was to develop individual stories that are representative of a broader group.