Revolutionising Development Solutions In India: Unleashing The Power Of Design

Design approaches are more experiential and tangible than traditional management processes, writes Andre Nogueira


Mass production, mass markets, and mass media were the underlying forces guiding organisations in the 20th Century. Modern management methods (e.g., marketing, strategic planning) ways for measuring value creation (e.g., market share, quarterly reports), and the use of the environment (e.g., extract resources, deposit waste) all evolved into economic models that have created many short-term benefits. But we now realise it has led to an unacceptable growling gap in prosperity and a natural environment that is being damaged faster than it can be replenished.

Our current economy is structured on value-extractive models or models that reinforce the benefits and interests of certain stakeholders at the expense of others, including our planet. Contemporary challenges faced have never been faced at the speed, scale, and scope of impact as it is in the current state. Deteriorating environmental conditions (e.g., climate change, the high contamination of oceans and other water reservoirs), and greater social disparity (e.g., growing inequality between the rich and the poor, the social isolation of women, etc.) are two of many challenges forcing organisations across sectors to increase their capacity to adapt to complex emerging realities.

Yet, most organisational leaders have realised that the knowledge available to fight these and other complex issues derived from isolated efforts that seemed to be limited in defining them and solving them in a holistic manner. In most cases, leaders are dealing with immense challenges that are extremely complex because they involve multiple agencies and stakeholders with independent agendas, organisational norms, politics, implementation strategies, and instruments. If only that wasn’t enough, they must be prepared for disruptive forces coming from different industries and organisational levels that happen at different rates and at different stages of their innovation processes. And, on top of that, there is an ever-increasing set of computational capacities that emerge at the end of the day as soon as they learn those presented in the morning. The growing application of sensors, new digital communication platforms, data collection systems, and other mechanisms are providing instant feedback on aspects of human daily life, global market dynamics, and the natural environment, that existing organisations were not designed to integrate in their innovation processes.

But this is not all about organisational leaders. In this blurred and ubiquitous landscape, ordinary people not only have greater access to different aspects of an organisation’s strategies, operations, and offerings but also new mechanisms they can use to challenge a leader’s purpose and reposition themselves within the context they live in. A few decades in with corporate social responsibility programs and philanthropy efforts have shown how modern approaches to lead social change have not been robust enough to overcome today’s complex problems alone; nor have logical arguments and anxious forecasts been able to cause organisations to act outside of the traditional conventions of managing companies, assessing value, and using the environment.

It is unreasonable to expect the people and organisation that funded yesterday’s programs will increase their giving to the necessary level to overcome complex issues of today’s world. While leaders know the current set of solutions does not work in the long term, they do not know exactly what to do. They do know that changing is extremely difficult for large, risk-averse organisations, especially those that have historically demonstrated success. Because these organisations were designed to thrive in the economy of scale, transitioning their culture, strategy, and operations to a more sustainable and equitable economic model often poses complex and ambiguous challenges.

The good news is that most leaders in these organisations know that better solutions will not emerge from current practices, be discovered in a university think tank, or be invented by a single company. They also recognise they cannot wait for best practices to be proven efficient, and must move forward, even in the face of significant unknowns. But how?

While significant efforts have been made to challenge the divisive paradigms of what is required for change, leaders still lack proper mechanisms to integrate considerations of the adaptive nature and diversity of human behaviour and the environment in which action is taken. Without the capacity to make sense of such complexity, and the ability to create interventions that consider the multi-level, cross-sectorial nature of contemporary challenges, leaders are merely adapting existing practices to create less harmful ones. It is in this context that leaders across sectors are increasingly using design to promote change.

Why Design Now? 

As a field driven by the logic of the possible, design can contribute to unlocking current practices and enabling paradigm shifts. Design expertise has historically been leveraged as a vehicle to embed alternative value systems into the economy. For example, in the early 1990s, when 80% of new products failed immediately after introduction to the market, designers created human-centered approaches to incorporate user concerns into product design. As a result of a cross-market adoption of human-centered practices, aspects of feasibility, usability, and desirability have started to shape new production and consumption systems.

Major companies have been using design for decades to make their products and services more aesthetically appealing, and easier to use, and to support customer loyalty and brand coherence. Now companies are increasingly turning to design to address large, complex challenges with incomplete or rapidly evolving information and multiple potential solutions. The modern conventions about producing and distributing standardised products and services to serve the economy of scale are being replaced by flexible networked production of tailored offerings to an ever-diversifying population living in an economy of choice. Whether they are running a government agency, hospital, auto manufacturer, publisher, investment fund, or a large NGO, leaders of organisations are utilising the greater flexibility, responsiveness, and speed that design provides to explore new ways of regenerating, creating, and delivering value through behaviour and cultural change.

Design approaches are more experiential and tangible than traditional management processes. Observing people as they use an offering, including products, services, environments, and messages, unlocks a completely different level of understanding than looking at spreadsheets. Inviting stakeholders to interact with inexpensive, low-fidelity prototypes very early in the exploration of a challenge helps understand diverse needs and aspirations while expanding a team’s understanding of the ways organisations can create value for its stakeholders, including users. This can also lead to abstraction, which moves up a level from what the offering is to exploring what it is for. The GMR Goa International Airport Limited, for example, asked how the new Manohar International Airport could strengthen Goa as a preferred destination for tourism, commerce, and more in India instead of asking the easier question of how to make sure people traveled efficiently. Observation, prototyping, and abstraction are all activities people have been doing intuitively, but without the right purpose and structure, their usefulness is limited.

When a market landscape is well known, traditional design approaches can work well to create incremental “step change” to existing offerings. When venturing into uncharted territories, like improving healthcare access in rural villagers, exploratory design methods like field observation, prototyping, and abstraction are critical to promoting more “leap changes”. In these ambiguous cases, leadership goals must be extraordinarily ambitious to justify their inherent uncertainty and the increased competency they require. For example, the Capacity Building Commission brought design as a core competency to be built in senior bureaucrats and policy-makers across Ministries; the State Bank of India used design to help define strategies for youth engagement; the Transform Rural India Foundation allocate resources to build the capacity of development practitioners leading change in rural villagers; the 2020 National Education Policy by the Government of India recommended design at relevant states in the school curriculum; the Department of Agriculture from the Government of Karnataka deployed design to lead the Millet movement nationally and internationally; Tata Consultancy Services systematically uses design to discover delightful ways to build new businesses and new sources of differentiation; Google leveraged design to conceptualise, prototype, and scale adoption of digital payment services in India. These and other leap efforts suggest that with the rigorous use of structured design knowledge, leaders can unlock new ways of planning, operating, and using resources. With new ways of working, new prosperous systems with positive social and ecological impact can be envisioned and created.

Its Leap’s Time

Step changes are powerful when an organisation has greater certainty about what to make, who is it for, why will it create value, how to make it, and access to or control over the required resources. But when all these knowledge areas are constantly in flux, leap changes offer a way forward in the face of uncertainty. Although design can be useful across the spectrum ranging from step to leap changes, leaders tend to be more comfortable with the former and become ill-equipped to work with the high volatility that characterises audacious, transformative changes.

India is in a pivotal moment for such expanded capability. Indeed, there is a sense of urgency and loss that prevails over the next generation of leaders. They know the viability of maintaining modern organisations and the lifestyles they sustain will soon be affected at a broader scale, demanding transformational changes in the way organisations they will be leading create value for humans, for themselves, and for the natural environment. But with this set of new challenges come a wealth of new opportunities to enable large-scale transformation that improve the well-being of these three constituencies.

More than reinforcing the need for advancing on existing approaches that can help private sector organisations to stay ahead of the competition in current market dynamics or increase efficiency in siloed public sector agencies for that matter, tomorrow's leaders must be equipped with proper approaches that fit to the world they are entering, not the one they were born to. And to do that, they must find ways to become more comfortable in prototyping new futures, rather than benchmarking the past. It is time we catalyse that change. It is leap’s time. 

(André Nogueira is Deputy Director and Co-founder of the D-Lab, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and will be speaking about ‘Bharat: Accelerating Change with Design’ at the upcoming India Rural Colloquy in Delhi from August 1 - 8, 2023)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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