It’s Not You, It’s The System

Design and Technology for Social Good

by Janani Balasubramanian on June 9th, 2014

Over the past few years, there’s been a huge uptick in conferences, hackathons, associations, enterprises, days, and other ventures deploying design and technology for ‘social good’.

Some of these come with titles like ‘hack poverty’ or ‘design for Africa’ or ‘code justice’. In the political organizing spaces I move through, the idea of ‘designing for Africa’ is ludicrously problematic. The multitude of experiences and histories (colonial and otherwise) that form whole continents can’t be captured in a single-day design fest. What’s more, it’s usually a poor idea to let a group of likely majority white designers dictate what ‘Africa’ needs. I mean, this is what colonialism is, no? Definitionally speaking?

And yet, this sort of programming keeps happening: designers and other techies creating harm by claiming to save the world.

I’m using design here in a specific way to encompass a type of creative problem-solving approach (deployed by design firms like Ideo) that involves developing for a user group’s needs based on rigorous interviews and multiple prototypes before a final product is reached. I dove into design because I was one of those combined engineering/arts people who loved everything but never found a complete intellectual home. I saw (and still see) design as a practice, and play-space: somewhere to apply multiple skillsets at once, and have some fun doing it.

Photo of a white wall covered with sticky notes as part of the design process. Many of the notes are difficult to make out, but say things like 'What I want to know', 'What community?' 'Existing efforts? Who is doing what?'.

CC-BY photologue_np, filtered.

I’ve been racking my brain trying to figure out how to explain, at least partially, in design/innovation language why so many design for social good ventures are misguided at best, and in all likelihood harmful. This isn’t just about identity and privilege discourse. All this work has material consequences. Why? These ventures shift literal millions of dollars in financial capital and millions of media followers to pay attention to majority-privileged people claiming to know how to design resistive technologies and systems better than those who are directly impacted.

What if that million-dollar design or startup prize were going to grassroots organizers and impacted people in developing contexts who are already doing the work of resisting capitalism and racism everyday?

My attempt to talk to other designers about all this harm is motivated by those material consequences.

Where do those thousands of dollars go after you pour them into your design idea? Do you compensate the people you interview during the design process? Did they ask you for your ‘help’? If your idea doesn’t work, are you going to continue to work in solidarity with that community or are you going to move onto the next edgy and innovative fix?

Working As Designed

This type of “social good” work makes the design process ineffective. Poverty and racism, etc. are not poorly designed systems. They are systems working exactly as they were designed.In order for rich people to continue to amass wealth, poverty has to exist. In order for white people to have racial privilege in the US, slavery had to happen, genocide of indigenous people had to happen, and the exploitation of all people of color had to happen (and has to continue).

Poverty and racism exist to serve those in power, and ultimately, as long as we are taking our cues (and capital) from those in power, we aren’t changing a thing. For example: if your vision is to create a social venture that provides a product to ‘the bottom billion’ and not to, say, eradicate slavery, wage slavery, and other worker exploitation that keeps the bottom billion at the bottom, then ultimately you’re not designing to resist poverty. You’re designing very well-thought-out bandaids. The one-laptop-per-child project is a famous example that failed to consider the overall context, cost, and maintenance of computers in the developing nations it was entering (and later radically shifted its approach as a result).

Photo of a computer for the One Laptop Per Child project, a simply designed handheld-device with a photo of smiling children displayed on the monitor.

CC-BY Fuse Project via Wikipedia, filtered.

Perhaps it’s difficult for designers with race and class privilege in particular to see this because if a system is working for you, then the immediate next inference becomes that it’s just not working for other people because of a few simple and fixable design flaws. That is simply not the case. Poverty and racism are working as they were designed. You can’t fix them because they’re not broken.

Here are frequently found assumptions of the social good design and tech world that actually make those efforts materially ineffective.

1. Social movement organizers aren’t already innovating:

Movement organizers and activists are some of the most resourceful and creative people I know, by necessity. They do tremendous world-changing tasks with very little. Revolutionary creativity doesn’t look like having everything handed to you and being able to invent a small innovative product as a result; it looks like building from whatever is available. The idea of using technology and design for social change is not new, nor was it invented by wealthy social entrepreneur types. Most ‘innovation’ does not look the way it does in Silicon Valley startups and design firms, with venture capital gushing all over the place. If movement workers don’t get to fully implement or realize their creative ideas, it’s not because they don’t know how; it’s because resource distribution doesn’t favor on-the-ground movement work. It’s because that e-commerce startup got billions of dollars in VC funding and grassroots organizers are scrapping for a few thousand.

2. Effective social change work is always ‘innovative’ or ‘new’:

Actually, most social movement work is incredibly dull and unsexy. It doesn’t always involve using new methods or one-day hackathons. It requires consistent, daily, and long-term work that is distributed collectively and across people of a variety of skills and backgrounds. It is absolutely creative and incredible labor to build networks and persuade people, but the techniques for doing so are not new; they have been used and well-documented across time and movements.

3. There’s an app for that:

I’ve witnessed hundreds of thousands of dollars handed over in social good design and business competitions to teams that made iPhone apps. Not every technological solution will involve smart phones, computers, tablets, or whatever else we’ve narrowly come to define as ‘technology’. Technological innovation includes everything from better lightbulbs to folding bikes to waxed dental floss to paper clips.

4. Empathy interviews are equivalent to lived experience and/or sustained organizing commitments:

You can’t begin to ‘know’ a community’s needs if you’re not a) a part of it, and/or b) consistently doing hard work in solidarity with that community. It’s a really seductive design perspective that claims that a good empathy interview will get you to the root of someone’s problems. But that type of thinking in the case of interactions between privileged designers and marginalized interview subjects is faulty because of the lack of systemic analysis I mentioned above.

5. Solutions can be designed:

If you think you can fix someone’s issues with economic, racial, and other injustice with a product or design solution, then you’re missing the point. Again, ‘solutions’ to oppression can’t be designed in a moment. Oppression can be resisted through long-term and collective work.

Practicing Responsible, Effective Solidarity

What does all this mean for the designer who’s looking to do social good, though? It should still be totally possible for folks with race, class, and other privilege to practice allyship and solidarity through design work, right?

Yes, but not in the ways I’ve outline above, that presume a relationship between designers and oppressed people based on saviorism. One of the most urgent ways folks with class access in particular can work in solidarity with social movements is by redistributing their social, financial, and other capital (e.g. access to film equipment or an art studio). How can you enable movement workers and/or directly impacted people to do work for themselves? How can you offer resources to enhanced programming that is already happening instead of swooping into or over a community and raining down unnecessary and uncalled for solutions?

It takes work to enact that kind of solidarity responsibly. Do some research; find out what organizations and individuals are already making change in areas you’re interested in working in. Figure out what resources you’re able to offer. Start a conversation that’s grounded in you offering those resources (rather than designing a solution). Give your money, give your time, give your space, whatever you learn is useful and is available to you based on the access you have. Fall back and don’t assume that your next great design idea is going to fix that community’s problems. Focus on redistribution, not finding or designing solutions. Talk to fellow designers who are trying to ‘hack poverty’ or ‘design for Africa’ without any grounding in community and ask them why they think that’s necessary.

And even if you don’t do any of the above, stop for a long moment and think whether whatever you’re designing will ultimately be helpful or harmful. Just think before you create.