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.

Part 3 of Reboot’s Core77 Series: The Messy Art of Saving the World

Core77 has posted part three of The Messy Art of Saving the World, a series on our efforts in applying the discipline of design into the practice of development. Click over for the post, ‘From Band-Aids to Inclusive Banking’.

Empathy in Design: May Efficient Never Replace Human

Why do humans enjoy architecture? Why do we feel inspired in well executed spaces? Some say good architecture expresses the complexity of humanity. Are we moved that someone took into account our humanity, our complexity, in their work? Is feeling understood itself a source of comfort and inspiration? If so, how can designers bring this same consideration into creating and improving services?

Design’s reliance on empathy has, until recently, been a foreign concept for me. I associated Design with disconnected individuals busy creating the next useless yet beautiful chair or glasses I couldn’t afford. This perspective was rocked by a series of unfortunate (hindsight now says fortunate) recent circumstances.

Two years ago, the combination of a financial crisis, a poor labor market, and dwindling savings found me standing in line at 8am on a weekday in Spanish Harlem waiting to enter a windowless building. The day before, I had found myself researching the different options for someone in my situation: someone struggling to make ends meet yet too proud to tap into his ‘private’ social safety net of willing family and friends. To my surprise, the service best suited for my situation was called ‘public assistance’. In other words, welfare. Read more

Part 2 of Reboot’s Core77 Series: The Messy Art of Saving the World

Core77 has posted part two of The Messy Art of Saving the World, a series on our efforts in applying the discipline of design into the practice of development. Click over for the post, ‘After the Egyptian Revolution’.

Reboot Presents at IMTFI Conference

On December 7, Reboot will present its project on second-generation banking in China at the 2011 IMTFI Annual Conference. Click here to find out more about our work in China.

The Messy Art of Saving the World: Three Things Every Designer Should Know About International Development

This is the first post in a 7-post series published at Core77 by Reboot principal Panthea Lee, exploring the role of design in international development.

International development and governance projects have a notorious track record. Every day, it seems, we hear another report of foreign aid siphoned off by corrupt officials and projects losing money to bureaucracy and inefficiency.

Take this story, published last year in The New York Times: The Egyptian government, hoping to increase internet access, had established over 2,000 telecenters across the country. But an independent researcher found that almost none of the centers were functioning; in one city, just four out of 23 were active. The telecenters weren’t being used in large part because they weren’t even necessary—the rise of internet cafes in Egypt had made them redundant.

“The failure, in other words, was in not understanding the ecosystem in which the telecenters would be operating,” said the Times.

Too often, projects like these are born and developed by corporations, foundations, governments, and other institutions without a day-to-day understanding of the lives of the people they’re meant to help. There’s no shortage of good intentions, hard work, and committed individuals. Where the field of development falls short, however, is in process.

This is where the discipline of design can help; its tools and principles can help address the flaws in strategy and process that plague the field, and help develop programs that impact people’s lives in concrete ways.

Right now, many disparate voices—both from development and governance and from the field of design—are working to articulate how design can improve societies all over the world. It’s thrilling to see so many talented designers excited about the possibilities. But this movement is still new, and while a lot of people are talking, too few are putting the practice into action.

One challenge lies in the gap between the discipline of design and the fields of development and governance. The latter two, like any other field, are fraught with history, political complexity, and operational challenges that a newcomer cannot fully grasp. Colleagues in the development sector and from other public institutions have complained that they are being bombarded by enthusiastic designers who have little understanding of the fields they’re so set on revolutionizing.

Just as the Egyptian government needed to look closely at a city before throwing in a telecenter, designers need to build an understanding of these fields before jumping in to innovate.

Over the coming weeks, we at Reboot will use this series to explore the use of design in solving governance and human development challenges, using concrete examples from our own recent experiences. As practitioners with backgrounds in policy, development and advocacy, we understand the histories, philosophies and processes of the institutions responsible for the public good. We’ll share our own success stories, as well as what we’ve learned from failure.

To kick off the series, I wanted to share three patterns of failure that plague development—and that design is well-suited to address:



1. There are empathy gaps between program administrators and beneficiaries.

Many decision-makers in development are located in global capitals, such as Washington, DC, Geneva or Rome. In many projects, program managers’ only local contact comes from a week-long trip to “the field” (read: the country in question), where most of their time is spent in meeting with government or NGOs in the capital city, with a single, obligatory trip to the actual community. Emphasis on community is common in rhetoric but limited in practice. When efforts are made to understand beneficiaries, the approaches used can be laughably misguided and often fail to create an accurate portrait of day-to-day life: I’ve seen poor, rural farmers bussed in to hotels in the major cities for “participatory research” exercises. This fly-over approach creates major gaps in empathy and prevents effective program design.



2. Program design is often determined by quantitative metrics and best practices which lack context and nuance.

Program design—and resource allocation—is usually based on national data, such as large-scale surveys, and on conventional wisdom (“best practices”) from existing literature or expert consultants. Armed with these checklist items—”Column A lists the indicators that need to be addressed, and Column B lists the approaches that have been known to work for these same challenges”—the setup and development of a program can be very formulaic, a little plug-n-play, if you will. Data and rigour are important, as is learning from what’s already been done; but in emphasizing quantitative tools and past experiences, many programs fail to accurately capture and successfully design for the context in question.



3. Politics is always complicated.

I think people outside of the field forget that development is as political as any other sector. Internal politics between organizations’ staff, funders, and other stakeholders have a complicating effect—and that’s not to mention the influence of national and international pressures. I’ve been on projects where the priorities of the funder and those of the community are widely divergent. Sometimes, an area is over-saturated with organizations working on similar issues; in other areas, money “needs to be spent” for political reasons, even though the chances of success are low. (We generally decline those engagements; life is too short to waste on projects that will have no impact.) Navigating these myriad pressures and guiding a project to success often means keeping all stakeholders focused on the priorities of the program beneficiaries. In these instances, design—with its evidence-backed, outcome-oriented perspective—can help push back against the distortion field of politics.


In future posts, we’ll talk specifically about ways that design can address these challenges, drawing from our own experience from humanitarian relief in Pakistan to governance reform in Egypt and Tunisia. We’d also like to explore further opportunities for designers in this emerging space.

Today, we face serious challenges in the fields of governance and development; but there’s a dynamic community committed to translating and evolving the design discipline to help solve these challenges. Here in New York, educators such as the School of Visual Arts, through its Impact! and Design for Social Innovation programs, are educating a new generation of designers to use their talents towards social progress. At the United Nations, we applaud groups like UNICEF’s Innovation Unit (full disclosure: a past employer) and UN Global Pulse, who are using technology to revolutionize how one of the world’s largest institutions serves marginalized populations globally.

Core 77 Launches a New Series on Reboot

Leading design magazine Core77 has launched a new series, The Messy Art of Saving the World, on our efforts in applying the discipline of design into the practice of development. Click over for the first post, ‘3 things every designer should know about international development’.

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.

Innovations for Maternal and Child Health

Maternal mortality is the second leading cause of death, after HIV/AIDS, among women of reproductive age in low-income countries. One thousand women die every day due to complications of pregnancy and childbirth. In low-income countries, a woman’s lifetime risk of dying of childbirth is 1 in 120; in high-income countries, it’s 1 in 44,300.

Frightening, isn’t it? But there is hope: 70 percent of maternal deaths are preventable.

The alarm bells have been ringing for decades, and the international community has been trying to tackle this issue for decades. The prevention formula has already been deconstructed and may seem straightforward: give pregnant women comprehensive antenatal care and have a skilled birth attendant deliver her child. But the challenge lies not in the what needs to be done to stop maternal mortality, rather, it lies in the how.

How do we recruit health professionals to work in low-resource areas, where pay is traditionally extremely low? How do we communicate with women so they understand the importance of antenatal care and delivering their child in the hands of skilled birth attendant? How do we address deeply embedded cultural and social norms that prevent women from making their own decisions? How does a woman access a health facility when faced with bad roads, no or expensive transportation, and her only option is to walk for 10 miles?

These are the question Reboot is tackling with Concern Worldwide, an international humanitarian organization. Concern’s Innovations project started in 2009 to find bold, new ideas to address gaps in delivery of maternal, newborn and child health services (MNCH), with an initial focus on Sierra Leone, Malawi, and the Orissa State of India. The process began with extensive local consultations and participatory research to reveal what communities perceived as their barriers to accessing health and how they might overcome these barriers.

Click on image to zoom.

The main challenges identified were lack of drugs and effective health equipment; severe shortage of human resources in the health sector; great physical distances to reach health facilities; the gatekeepers to health (husbands, mothers-in-law, etc) having beliefs and adopting practices that often are at odds with modern medicine; and the gaping chasm between the formal and informal health sector.

Using these community-identified barriers, Concern now seeks to redefine existing solutions by adapting well-known best practices in MNCH to reflect localized interpretations of how things might be changed. We have been traveling with Concern for the past two weeks in Sierra Leone and Malawi, and we are working closely with their team to further develop new interventions rooted in community ideas; solicit expert advice on innovative solutions; conduct field analysis and feasibility assessments of proposed concepts; and illustrate how each intervention can be tailored to each context.

We are excited to be expanding boundaries of current public health approaches and supporting Concern Worldwide in their drive to bring cutting-edge solutions to reducing maternal mortality and improving child health. In being one-of-its-kind to truly engage in a community process, to actively seek and hear local experiences, and to validate their voices through co-designed solutions, the Innovations project has already proven to be a powerful catalyst for social change.

Panthea Lee Featured in Core77

Reboot principal and co-founder Panthea Lee spoke at this past weekend’s A Better World By Design conference. Core 77 was nice enough to cover her talk and her broader work with Reboot.

Interested in Joining Our Team?

Our ace team of cross-disciplinary practitioners is growing rapidly. We’re currently recruiting for several positions. Please visit our Careers page for more information.

Understanding Technology and Stability in Tunisia

As my airport taxi rolled into central Tunis, I was struck by the sheer volume of satellites straining towards the sky. Saucer-shaped dishes sprung every which way from buildings, roofs, and balconies like a sea of invading alien ships. Make no mistake: Tunisians are very well connected.

Granted, my attention was biased. I’m here in Tunisia with a team from Reboot to understand how information and communication technologies are impacting the nation during this unique post-revolutionary period.

With this framing, it was hard not to also notice the countless advertisements for voice, broadband, and mobile services. These began cropping up from the moment I first stepped into the country. I couldn’t help but smile on reaching passport control, where a massive screen blasted promotions of Tunisie Telecom’s latest 3G mobile apps.

These simple yet pervasive consumer items made clear the Tunisian’s commitment to the knowledge economy. The numerous signs promoting classes in web development, software engineering, and social media marketing only served to reinforce this sense.


A sign advertises technology training classes in downtown Tunis.


But many of the steps undertaken to ‘digitize’ Tunisia’s economy were pushed by the now reviled former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. With Tunisians now free to shape their own vision for the future, how might the emphasis on technology-enabled growth change? Perhaps more importantly for a stable society, how will previous investments in technology, and new ones to follow, impact job creation and the capacity of critical service providers?

These are but a few of the questions our team will work to answer over the weeks and months ahead. If you have an interest in these or similar questions, we encourage you to get in touch. Our approach recognizes and respects the vast amount of work being done in support of Tunisia’s future, by dedicated, experienced people here and abroad. We welcome research leads, discussion of methods, and other interesting queries. Just drop a note to insights AT thereboot DOT org with Tunisia in the subject line, and our team will get back with you.

Recruiting: Tunisia Based Research Team

Recruiting two Tunisia-based researchers for a project examining questions around technology, innovation, economic development, and social cohesion. The position begins immediately. Please contact zack AT theReboot DOT org for more details.

Citizen Media in the Age of Algorithms

[Note: This post was commissioned by Ashoka Changemakers’ Citizen Media Global Innovation Competition.]

What is citizen media? This may seem like a silly question, given the context of the Citizen Media Global Innovation competition. But the concept is worth defining because it’s rapidly expanding.

Our media have been the fluid that connects our ideas since our earliest days as an articulate species. “Media” are any tools, mediums, or channels through which an individual or group creates and shares ideas. This is the process through which we form our conceptions of culture, power, justice, and community.

Our media were predominantly “citizen,” or individual, during the vast arc of human culture, extending over tens of thousands of years. Constrained by existing technology, almost all media — cave paintings, storytelling, song, and dance — were local and community-driven.

It is only recently that mass-produced ideas and broadcast-only media have emerged and grown into the dominant form. In some ways, the emerging, networked commons of citizen media is a hyper-connected version of the participatory media from which we began.

It’s certainly an exciting time to be an engaged citizen of the world. New technologies are creating media and platforms faster than bloggers and pundits can comment, annotate, and analyze them. There are countless new opportunities to manifest ideas and change our collective understanding of civilization.

Yet, for all the promise, we must be cautious and mindful as we move forward in creating the next innovations in citizen media. Great media theorists have long understood that media can be used todistractdisrupt, and manipulate.

We risk losing the ability to differentiate between benevolent and harmful applications as our media grow exponentially in number and complexity. Citizen media, despite the noble moniker, are not immune to these perils.

Much of the conversation around citizen media has centered on optimistic new tools for civic engagement. In pointing to the best examples of citizen media, many cite innovative platforms likeUshahidi and FrontlineSMS, or citizen-driven outlets like Twitter and Global Voices. But these represent only a marginal portion of the media being used by citizens throughout the world.

For a far larger percentage of the population — including those well-resourced and powerful members of our global community — platforms like Facebook and Google are the indispensable on-ramps to the human network. Their users number, not in the thousands or millions, but in the billions. They are the primary gateways to information about our governments, our culture, our politics, and our scientific achievements.

Yet, unlike technologies defined as “citizen media,” we barely understand how Facebook and Google control and manage the presentation of civic information. We need much more public discussion around the complex design decisions that drive the algorithms of these organizations.

Their elaborate calculations are arguably the most widely-used form of citizen media. Until we better comprehend how Facebook and Google control our flow of information, we’re unlikely to realize the potential of citizen media to bring communities together.

In Part Two of “Citizen Media in the Age of Algorithms,” I’ll discuss what is known about Facebook’s and Google’s algorithms, and examine their potentially negative consequences for citizen media.

We're hiring – Visual Designer

We are looking for a Visual Designer who can help us craft sharp, savvy, project-related design solutions. The ideal candidate will embrace our unique vision and be driven by a desire to leverage their design skills for social impact, locally and globally. Read more about the position.

Mobile Justice: An Argument for ‘Boring’ Solutions

In the past few months, I have been doing some considerable thinking about the most useful role for connection technologies in getting better justice outcomes.  I like the word “moju,” referring to “mobile justice,” mostly because I have this sense that we are on the verge of a judicial revolution the likes of mobile banking or mobile health, and “moju” gives it that kick in the pants that could really take it places.

When I think (more seriously) about how technologies can be useful, I see two main avenues: promoting access to justice and improving the functioning of public judicial administration.  In other words, technology can help regular citizens get connected to courts or it can help courts work more efficiently and effectively.

Both avenues are incredibly important, and many good organizations are working to solve the access-to-justice problem.  It is worth noting, however, the great value of the second, and perhaps more boring, leverage point: judicial administration.  By this, I mean digitizing court processes, using basic technology tools (group bulk SMS, mobile calendar functions, etc) to share judicial information between court personnel, and posting court information online.  In many places, it is not yet standard practice to read the law online or to file forms electronically — often because internet penetration is low or the national technological infrastructure is not yet present to make those activities relevant or even possible.

Some people might think that an approach that supports a justice system, instead of supporting indigent court users, is misguided. They might think it puts resources toward entities that already have some judicial savvy, in lieu of empowering the disenfranchised.

But if I were a large global institution with a lot of money to spend in mobile justice projects, I think I would choose to partner with public justice systems.

Here are three reasons why:

1. There are many, many disenfranchised people, with all sorts of different legal matters.  They are not organized as a group, so it can be hard to partner with some useful representative of their concerns; addressing the resource challenges of public justice systems requires a single and usually unified point of contact.  Partnering with justice systems that would want my organization’s help, ideally at the highest levels, makes this relationship almost golden — not only would I have a single contact point, but I would have a contact who can enact change holistically and at scale.

2. Disenfranchised court users ultimately rely on some public justice system (or customary/traditional dispute resolution process) to address their concerns — these institutions are in place precisely to enact sanctions that punish the guilty and restore justice to the situation. Focusing my organization’s resources on court users instead of justice systems is like treating the symptom and not the disease.  Enhancing the functioning of the system itself gets to the root of the problem, and gives the court system an opportunity to create better accountability mechanisms nationally.

3. There are many civil society organizations (CSOs) working the access-to-justice route, supporting legal resources for the poor.  A large grant-funding institution would not necessarily do this any better than these organizations do.  Remember: legal issues are local in nature and these CSOs have local knowledge to make their interventions meaningful.  Challenging 100 of them to submit mobile justice ideas for grant funding might be an interesting way of supporting their work, but the impact here is still indirect, relative to a direct partnership with a judicial system.

Here are two readings that highlight the great need for enhancing public justice systems, much more eloquently than I have narrated — both are well worth the read:

The Enforcer: A Christian Lawyer’s Global Crusade
Samantha Power, New Yorker, January 29, 2009

And Justice for All: Enforcing Human Rights for the World’s Poor
Gary Haugen and Victor Boutros, Foreign Affairs May/June 2010

So, in sum, +1 for the boring avenue.  It may be more important than we think.

Beyond the Headlines: Mobile Money Afghanistan

“So then I gave up my daughter to pay off my debt.” My pen stopped.

We were in Mazar-e Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan. The woman in front of me, a poor mother of six, was describing how debilitating debt — to the tune of AFN 140,000, or USD 3,100 — had driven her to give her eldest daughter to the family’s creditor.

Her voice did not quiver, her eyes did not water. It was a thing of the past, a fact of life, something that had to be done. And this mother’s story, while unique in particulars, was common in thrust. Indeed, over the course of three weeks in Afghanistan, time and time again I was told: in times of great hardship, sacrifice is inevitable and exceptional circumstances are the norm.

Such tales of ‘life, going on’ are documented in the recently released Mobile Money Afghanistan. This report was born of a study conducted in August 2010, when Jan Chipchase and I traveled through Afghanistan to study the use of mobile money. Local mobile operator Roshan had launched a mobile banking service, M-Paisa, in 2008. Though the young service had been put to creative uses, including fighting corruption within the the Afghan National Police, mass market success was still unsettled. Thus, Jan and I were there, with the generous support of the Institute of Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion, to explore the opportunities and challenges that lay ahead. And, as services are inextricably tied to the people and environments in which they exist, naturally, we spent as much time getting to know people as we did the products meant to serve them.

Mobile Banking in Afghanistan

The ordinary Afghans featured in the publication are the people many international groups are working for but — due to constraints security-related or otherwise — are unable to access. Those we met revealed their strategies for managing life in times of chaos and their techniques for navigating systems permeated by graft. They described how they bend systems to their will in order to survive, and even flourish. They shared their hopes for themselves, their children, and their nation. And they showed us how, against the odds, in ways small and large, they are working to realize their ambitions.

As for the role of mobile money? Unsurprisingly, mobile technology has the potential to support Afghan aspirations, but significant challenges must be overcome before that potential is realized. Key hurdles common to mobile banking deployments globally include a lack of market awareness, motivating and managing agent performance, and limited customer motivation to adopt the services. Indeed, on the consumer side, a general wariness of institutions coupled with popular preference for the long-established hawala system — “they’ve served me, my father, and my grandfather” — point to the hurdles mobile banking faces in winning over converts.


Other challenges unique to Afghanistan include the absence of a fixed address system. A shopkeeper in Mazar described how he once walked for two hours to find an agent willing to cash out his mobile money transfer. The experience left him wary of mobile banking, and he swore to never place the same burden on a friend. The solution? “Now, I only use Kabul Bank—no matter where you are, everyone knows how to get to the closest one.” Addressing challenges around maintaining agent liquidity, he adds, “And there is never a problem withdrawing cash from the bank—they always have it when I ask for it.” (Granted, this was before the run on Kabul Bank last September.) Textual, financial, and technological illiteracy—mistrust of ‘electronifying cash’ is not uncommon—only add to the barriers.

Despite these challenges, great opportunities remain. To the extent that banking penetration in Afghanistan remains low while mobile penetration is rapidly growing, mobile money represents paths to access, stability, liberation, and power.

Afghanistan’s youth already recognize, and have seized upon, technology’s potential. Mobile in particular factors heavily not just in their daily lives, but in their broader understanding of social empowerment. Female university students in Kabul described how they participated in mass SMS debates on politics and governance. A young man in Jalalabad told us how he and his friends spend much of their day ‘hanging out’ in group conference calls lasting hours on end — gender dynamics in these chat rooms, suffice to say, were fascinating. A young woman in Mazar declared that by facilitating direct, private male-female communication, mobile phones are the biggest driver of love marriages (versus traditional arranged marriages) in Afghanistan.

These signs suggest that mobile platforms are increasingly a part of everyday social transactions. To what extent mobile money will emerge as a force within these transactions ultimately remains to be seen.

The Afghanistan of the news is not the Afghanistan its people live—no place is. Hopefully, Mobile Money Afghanistan, and the accompanying public materials, provide greater insight into a country many only know from tragic, frustrating headlines.

You can find the publication here or from the site of my colleague Jan, where you can also download 170 Creative Commons licensed photos [40MB download].

Thank you to all those who helped us along the way. Our team in Afghanistan: Enayat Najafizada, Airokosh Faizi, Mokhtar Hajji, Hamid Tasal, and Farida Rustamkh. Bill Maurer and Jenny Fan at IMTFI for all their support and guidance. Sam Martin and Tom Manning at frog design for all their help with the publication. Shainoor Khoja, Zahir Khoja, and Evan Decorte at Roshan for making time for us, and for their insights. Grateful, as ever, to Jan Chipchase for his vision and direction on another fine study. And, of course, thank you to all those in Afghanistan that let us into their lives.

Images: Jan Chipchase

More Clarity on Service Design, Reboot, Gardner

More Clarity on Service Design

Last week, I discussed the basics of service design, an emerging field dedicated to creating more user-friendly services. Today, I’ll discuss some of the definitions within the service design framework and provide an example of how the service design framework might apply to a practical situation. The list below is by no means exhaustive, but serves as a broad overview of some of the more common terms. Please add terms and examples in the comment section, or send us a tweet @theReboot.


The entities that comprise a service

Stakeholders: Individuals or groups that affect, or are affected by, the creation and/or delivery of a service.
Service Provider: The entity responsible for the design, creation, and delivery of a given service.
Agent: A person or organization that is involved in the delivery of a given service. Usually somewhat autonomous from the service provider.
Users: The individuals and organizations that use and benefit from a given service.


The ways services are delivered and accessed

Service Delivery: The channels, methods, people, and tools through which a service reaches a user.
Engagement: The interaction between two or more of the following entities: service providers, agents, and users.
Touchpoint: Every contact point between a user, a service provider, and/or an agent. These can be any place, interface, or interaction where engagement occurs.

Branchless banking, a field that Reboot has worked in throughout the world, provides an apt application of service design terminology. Branchless banking is a strategy for delivering financial services without relying on physical bank locations. When designed correctly, it has the potential to provide crucial banking services – such as savings accounts, credit, and insurance – to populations far from a major city or a physical bank.

Let’s imagine the case of John, a rural man living in a country in southern Africa. He’s far from the capital city that houses the national bank. However, the bank has astutely realized that remote populations cannot access their financial services. They’ve created third-party bank outposts (often small retail stores) in rural villages and implemented mobile banking platforms. Grace, a local business woman who runs a small convenience store, serves as the third-party retailer. John has a mobile phone, through which he can now make banking transactions. Grace becomes his “human ATM,” allowing John to deposit or withdraw cash through her certified third-party outpost.

In this example, the national bank is the service provider. From the perspective of the bank, then, Grace is both an agent and a user of the bank’s service; and John is a user of both the bank’s consumer service and of Grace’s offerings as well. Both Grace and his mobile phone are touchpoint — one human and one technological — as John uses both to engage with the bank. When John successfully deposits his money with Grace and his cousin in another province receives it at his local third-party outpost, the full service has been provided.

This branchless banking example is just one of many applications of service design thinking and terminology. And while the given example focuses on the developing world, service design is equally as important in the developed world. As we’ve emphasized before, effective services that value users are critical components in the realization of human rights and in social progress.

If you want to learn more about service design, you can visit the Service Design Network, the UK’s Design Council Service Design site, the Service Design Tools website, and Kerry Bodine’s blog from Forrester Research. We also highly recommend the book “This is Service Design Thinking” for an in-depth, user-friendly (of course!) explanation of service design.

Vote for Reboot's SXSW Presentation

We’ve proposed a presentation for SXSW Interactive 2012. If you’d like to see us in Austin next year, vote for our talk here. “Design for Difficult Environments” will examine how to design services and technologies in challenging contexts — those that are extremely rural or poor, conflict zones, or politically sensitive environments. Thanks for the support.

New Media for Your Mission, Not Your Message

Reboot recently had the opportunity to lead a workshop for major national non-profits to share best practices and insights learned from our experiences using new media in advocacy, international development, and governance programs. With the ever expanding role of “new media” in society, non-profits must now make sense of how these communication technologies can support and enhance their mission. The full-day, executive-level workshop combined hands-on training with larger strategic discussions, pushing non-profits to re-think their approach to new media and develop more effective solutions to current organizational challenges.

The workshop was hosted by the National Human Services Assembly (NHSA), an association of non-profits committed to delivering accessible health and human services. Many of NHSA’s member organizations – including the American Red Cross, Girl Scouts of America, and the Y – attended the workshop. Held at AARP’s headquarters in Washington D.C., the interactive workshop was a chance for c-level executives from these organizations to voice concerns and hopes for how their organizations can strategically use new technologies to improve their operations and programing.


In addition to highlighting many frequently used new media tools, Reboot also pushed attendees to think about new media from a more strategic perspective. Instead of viewing these new tools as an end unto itself (“we need someone to Tweet!”), we encouraged participants to think about new media as a means to achieving their organizations’ overall mission. How might thinking about these tools less as disparate units and more as an integrated whole change an executive’s priorities? How could organizations better understand the human interactions that these new media tools facilitate?


We introduced concepts from the emerging field of service design (which you can learn about here) to better understand organizational shifts caused by these disruptive technologies. Using the service design framework, attendees could identify problem areas in how their organizations communicated with the public, their staff, and their constituents – and develop new solutions to address them.


The interactive workshop served as a platform for participants — most with decades of rich experiences leading companies and non-profits — to learn from one another. Visual facilitator Jim Nuttle created the illustrations that so beautifully capture the main ideas, concerns, and thoughts expressed by participants. Attendees were guided to discuss media related challenges that each of their organizations was facing, and consider new solutions through the lens of service design.


Through case studies, discussion, and design exercises, executives left the workshop better able to integrate new media technologies into the larger strategy of their respective non-profits. We came away with some new friends and an expanded understanding of the constraints and needs of large, national non-profits. We hope to continue this cross-sector learning in the future.

To learn more about Reboot’s presentations and workshops, contact ethan AT thereboot DOT org.

What is Service Design?

We’ve written previously about why Reboot focuses on services as a practical approach to achieving social progress and human rights. Inevitably, the next question that arises is: how do you create these effective and accessible services? This is where the principles and process of service design come into play. In this post and others to come, we will discuss the value of service design and how it can shift the focus of project design from building ever more tools and technologies to developing solutions that nurture people and relationships.

An emerging field, service design is a multidisciplinary approach to creating more useful, effective, and efficient services. Service design, therefore, isn’t aimed at creating tangible products, but developing better ways for people to access the services they need. These might range from the most mundane (renewing a driver’s license or figuring out which subway to take in the morning) to the life-altering (accessing quality healthcare or crop insurance to protect against a flood). These services are often so everyday that it’s easy to forget their existence. But consider how different your life would be if it took you 15 hours to reach a doctor that could see your sick child, or if you had to spend the equivalent of a half-year’s salary to obtain a passport? These are realities in some parts of the world, and realities service designers address to make services more intuitive for both the user and the service provider.

A key aspect of service design — and one we feel strongly about — is the value of understanding the user experience. This means a focus not on the institution delivering the service — which service providers sometimes forget — but also on the person using the service. As Laura Forlano writes in Urban Omnibus, “services require designers to empathize with users, to understand interactions as a series of ‘touchpoints’ and to develop a holistic understanding of the ways in which our relationships to services govern everyday life.” Service design values users, conversations, relationships, and context, using empathy to make sense of them and their interplay.

At Reboot, we employ this user-centric philosophy. We believe empathy is the foundation of good solutions. We take great time and care to understand the disparate groups who use each service. We immerse ourselves in our target communities for weeks at a time, gleaning intimate knowledge and understandings not otherwise available. Armed with original, research-sourced insights, our experts, business analysts, designers, and technologists work together to develop services and service improvements that better serve people.

We’ve applied this approach to tough problems of development and governance the world over. In Pakistan, where 90 percent of the population lacks access to affordable basic financial services, we worked with private sector and non-profit partners to design branchless banking programs for marginalized citizens. Often, branchless banking solutions center around product and policy. Yet, after extensive service design research, we discovered the optimal solution wasn’t an innovative new product, but instead a reorientation from product strategy, to service strategy.

By approaching the fields of international development and governance from the perspective of service design, we’re articulating a systematic method for documenting, improving, and implementing critical social services. Our over-arching goal is to help our clients create services that are inclusive, efficient, technologically appropriate and, ultimately, empathic. Service design has the potential to shift the focus from tools and technologies to people and relationships — a reorientation that can help create lasting change.

Next week, we’ll dive into the nitty-gritty of service design, from key definitions to a more in-depth exploration of the design process.

Special thanks to Jim Nuttle for his wonderful illustration.