Product Design for Social Good

Picture by Wonderlane

I came across this article on the Ashoka Tech page highlighting the 6 common pitfalls in product design for social good. Yep, good intentions don’t always lead to a successful outcome. The one that stuck out to me most?

“Pitfall #3: Failing to understand the user context. According to a study conducted by Duke University, up to 98% of donated medical equipment in developing countries is broken within five years. One major culprit? Power surges. Most donated equipment is designed for developed countries, where constant, reliable electricity supply is the norm. But in developing countries (particularly in rural areas), hospitals frequently face blackouts or brownouts, which end up frying their medical devices. While touring Pathan Hospital in Nepal, Tim’s design team discovered a cheap and simple solution; adding surge protectors to medical devices could prevent breakdowns and allow rural hospitals to save money on equipment. From this experience, Tim learned that context is king. Understanding situational nuances (especially in base-of-pyramid markets) allows entrepreneurs to better tailor their products and solve specific problems.”

Click here for the full list.

No one understands a challenge better than the locals. Seeing ourselves as the all-knowing being coming to “save” the poor and implementing blanket solutions to a situations we have not lived with or fully understood may lead to more harm than good.

Imagine this. You send a team of experts to a developing country to build wells for the locals. The completed wells is successfully bringing them fresh, clean water. Your work is done and you move on. 5 years later, a part of the mechanism in the well breaks. None of the locals have the knowledge or the needed materials to repair it, leaving them no choice but to abandon it. Not quite the solution you imagined, is it?

What might have worked better? Collaborating with the local craftsmen and engineers to fuse your knowledge with theirs, and construct the well with materials available locally. Train the locals on how each well works, so they’ll have the knowledge to keep the wells running long after you’re gone.

They brought up a great example of technology that’s been designed and implemented successfully… the Kinkajou Projector. Though it’ll take me a little more research to understand how they worked with the locals to develop the product, this video gives a great overview of a low-cost, low-powered device that is changing lives.


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Take it from Acumen Fund.

I’ve always believed in the mission and philosophy behind what Acumen Fund does. Am still reading about the road to how the organization started and what fueled their beliefs in The Blue Sweater: a brilliant book by their founder Jacqueline Novogratz. But if you don’t have time to digest a whole book, let them tell you in 1min 35secs.

Jan Schultink from Axiom One puts it well in his post:

“The video manages to explain a completely revolutionary concept to charity. It is not about giving food, it is not about giving the tools to grow food, but it is all about investing in profitable businesses that produce goods/services, create wealth and can grow by themselves.”

Take it from Acumen Fund. They know why impact can be so much greater when investments are made in social enterprise.

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Filming at the Social Venture Network Conference

My trip to La Jolla, CA last week to film at the Social Venture Network Conference was both tiring svnlogoand inspiring. Thanks to Conscious Planet Media, who were visionary sponsors of the event, my fellow filmmaker Karl and I had the chance to fly there to cover the event. I knew, from editing footage of their last conference back in Spring, that it was going to be an extraordinary experience brimming with opportunities to talk to and learn from some of the accomplished people in the world of socially responsible business. I was simply bursting with excitement!

We hopped onto the 5.30am flight from O’Hare and hit the ground running bright and early as soon as we touched down in San Diego. I was blown away by the beauty of the Estancia, La Jolla as our cab pulled up in front of the lobby and we were greeted by their friendly staff. And yes, hello 70-degree weather! ;) But as much as I’d have loved to enjoy the resort, we had a lot of setting up to do. We whipped out our lights, set up both cameras – one on a riser, the other on a spiderpod – and ran a sound check. All set and ready to go!

evan shapiroSpeaking at the opening address that night was Evan Shapiro, president of IFC tv and the Sundance Channel, who spoke of why diversity in the workplace is essential for sustainability. I like how he takes this challenge on by working with students. “When you are hungry you can’t go plant a seed,” said Evan, indicating that we can’t wait till we post job openings to start looking. The key is to start instilling an interest in your future workforce when they’re still young. When we had the opportunity to tell him about how we wanna create positive social change with our media and asked how we might extend our reach, his advice was that we needed to make our stuff entertaining. Entertain your audience first, then feed them the socially conscious message second. Hmm. Shall keep that in mind for future projects.

The breakout session with Amy Goodman, news journalist and host of the award winning news amy goodmanoutlet Democracy Now!, was also very relevant to what we do. She spoke about the importance of having independent media because we are too often denied the truth when we watch media funded by oil companies or other big corporations that play gatekeepers for what gets reported. True that, Amy! Independent media companies like CPM, who’s extremely careful about the message we put out and what kind of companies sponsor our events to make sure we stick to the mission. All in all a great session! Glad her new book, Breaking the Sound Barrier, came free in our goodie bags. Shall look forward to learning from it. Even though i was able to get in close proximity to her because i hadta put a lavalier mic on her, she couldn’t stop to chat as she was whisked away quickly outside to avoid the big crowd jostling to meet her.

arianna huffingtonThe keynote speaker for the event was Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of The Huffington Post, who’s also written 12 books. She was a lady of intelligence and grace, and spoke with a fiery passion against what bothered her most about things going on in the mainstream media. She ridiculed the amount of coverage that was given to balloon boy, saying “create a giant balloon & put all the homeless children in there. Then, the media will care.” She stayed on briefly after the speech to talk to people, but politely turned down my interview request, saying that she had to leave soon because her daughter was sick. I respect that though… with a schedule like hers where she’s speaking in a different state at different events almost everyday, it’s no wonder she had to rush off. When i asked an SVN organizer how early they had to book Arianna to come speak, she said it was more than a year in advance. Woah.

Also pretty awesome was the SVN Innovation Award Ceremony where 5 winners were selected from a pool of emerging enterprise leaders for their great work. Read more about the winners here.

All in all, it was a tremendous learning experience for me. It’s incredibly humbling just being in the same room as 300 of the world’s movers and shakers. I cannot wait to edit a great video from the footage we’ve gathered. And I definitely hope for the opportunity to return to the next SVN Conference! :)