Viewpoint: Why “Design for Development” Is Failing on Its Promise

Thursday, May 14, 2015

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

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


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

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

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

Source: Fast Company (link opens in a new window)

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