Heather Fleming

The Future of Design: A U.S. Cell Phone Designed by Kenyans?

These days you hear about design thinking being applied to just about everything. It is reforming healthcare, addressing the global economy, and also getting bashed on its general over-hype and misuse. It was only a matter of time that design thinking find its way to the development and aid sector. Case in point, Frog Design teams up with Pop!Tech on Project Masiluleke in South Africa, Acumen Fund and IDEO team up to address water transport and storage, and the Rockefeller Foundation initiated the Winterhouse Institute to facilitate and develop the social impact design space.

Some of the largest and most prominent design firms in the US gathered in Colorado last November to attend the Aspen Design Summit, a workshop to design human-centered solutions to problems that challenge the quality of life around the world. Last week, European design firms held a similar event in Bellagio. Meanwhile, countless student design initiatives, such as the Better World by Design conference, are sprouting up to feed the student design movement.

In most cases, the common theme is collaboration. Which, to be frank, is not the rallying cry of the consulting world. I remember the day when a visit from another design firm was viewed with suspicion, paranoia, and a mad dash to cover up prototypes. While the big design firms scramble to find models and opportunities in BOP markets that work with their overhead, new design firms employing the non-profit model have popped up to focus on supporting social innovation. Design that Matters, Catapult Design, and D-Rev are examples of non-profit design firms straddling the fuzzy line between nonprofit and for-profit. By doing so, they promote the following:

Mission/Impact driven companies: Everything you touch was designed by someone. A designer’s daily decisions trickle down into manufacturing, materials, retail costs, labor wages, etc. If I select a typical virgin plastic for a cell phone housing, my unconscious decision results in tons of crude oil extraction while I go home and flip on the TV. Non-profits, however, are evaluated on their measured social impact. Imagine if all design firms, all designers, were evaluated on their social or environmental impact or could choose project work based on social need.

Accessibility: Some of the most innovative organizations, working on-the-ground in communities of need, cannot afford the $175+ hourly rate of a US-based design firm. Nor can they afford the resources required to manage volunteers. Yet many are in dire need of shepherding through the product development process in order to build their capacity, stimulate local economy, and scale their growth. With the ability to employ alternative funding streams such as donor support or grants, a non-profit design firm is capable of working with a Fortune 500 company as well as a grassroots organization or local entrepreneur.

Leveraged collaboration: Because so few design firms are working in BOP markets, those that do have access to large pool of talent eager to use their skills to tackle social issues. Nonprofits can exploit that talent to the advantage of their client. For example, a Catapult brainstorm session last summer lured in seasoned designers and manufacturers from top firms and international development organizations for one evening of concept generation with an organization in India. An open call brainstorming session is unheard of for a for-profit firm, maybe even contractually illegal, despite the direct benefits of collective knowledge and expertise.

I’m not suggesting the non-profit model is the single option for design activity in developing countries. But I do believe it’s a signal of a greater and growing movement towards firms built on social values and collaborative culture. The breakdown of walls between large design firms is one transformative shift; the sprouting of a new type of design firm based on the non-profit model is another. But now we see design and innovation spaces getting off the ground in India, South Africa, Myanmar and Kenya and competitions for developing world countries to innovate solutions for the developed world.

Soon multinational design teams will be commonplace and developed countries will no longer host the lion’s share of design firms. Imagine 90% of the world’s designers finally being tapped into and how that will shape and shift everyday objects we use (a US cell phone designed by Kenyans?) and our understanding of social challenges. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a designer.