Francisco Noguera

Thanks, IDEO. Thanks, J-PAL. Happy Thanksgiving to You All.

NextBillion is housed by US-based organizations, which means we’ll be taking a short break for the next few days. We’ll be back on track with lots of interesting content on Monday. But wait! Don’t press your space bar just yet. Keep reading if you’re interested in taking with you a couple of noteworthy pieces to read over this long weekend. They will come handy during your long airport/ highway waits in the US or just while relaxing in your neck of the woods wherever that is.

The first one comes by way of one of my favorite publications: the Stanford Social Innovation Review, whose latest issue was released just a couple of days ago. IDEO’s Tim Brown and NextBillion ally Jocelyn Wyatt co-author a fantastic article on design thinking and how it plays a role in social innovation. The article goes beyond social impact projects of IDEO like The Ripple Effect, which have been commented by NextBillion in the past. It describes the foundations and methodologies that support this approach, which has captured the imagination of many and has also been made available in the form of a methodology through IDEO’s Human Centered Design Toolkit. Definitely worth reading and highlighting over and over.

The second one comes from Fast Company, another publication dear to my heart whose December/January issue landed in my mailbox just hours ago. Esther Duflo and her colleagues at J-PAL (cool acronym for Jameel Poverty Action Lab) are the main characters in a short but thought-provoking piece on their approach to assess the impacts of poverty reduction policies and initiatives. Why is this relevant to NextBillion readers? Well, NextBillion discusses market-based approaches to poverty alleviation, and I would argue that the question of approaches (technologies, business models and the like) take more space in our conversation than does that of actual poverty alleviation (the question of whether this is working or not).

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this piece and its relevance to the topic that this site usually addresses. After reading it, I passed it on to my colleague Saurabh, who sits next door and is our in-residence PhD candidate focusing on impact evaluation. He quickly read it and told me that he found such approaches useful to test many of the assumptions on which market-based approaches are usually conceived, like willingness to pay for certain products or the benefit of subsidies in the marketplace. Interesting points. If you have ideas to share about this or similar issues, we’d love to hear from you.

Now, do Design Thinking and J-PAL’s approach have anything in common? I would say definitely yes, even though the nature and purpose of their work are very different (though complimentary). One is an inherent appeal for experimentation, for trying new things and embracing failure as desirable, something to learn from and improve upon. The other is their humbleness. The foundation of design thinking is listening, incorporating local context and culture and building on them, rather than dictating to them.

J-PAL, on the other hand, is fully aware of the complexities of poverty. They know that there will be no one-off solution to the “impossible” problem of poverty. But they also know that “it is possible to break a big impossible into many different smaller possibles“, like Duflo said in her recent talk at Pop!Tech (we’ll let you know as soon as that is available!). Do that, apply some design thinking and the impact of our sector will be, to say the least, a lot more interesting to report on.

For me, Thanksgiving is a borrowed holiday (not one we celebrate back home in Colombia) but one that I fully appreciate. There’s no thing such as saying thank you too much and there’s always need to reflect on what it is we have around us to be grateful for.

So thank you for reading. And thanks to the folks at IDEO and MIT for the food for thought!