As a cultural anthropologist I’ve always felt design thinking and social design resonated deeply with me. I believe I figured out why, or at least figured it out for me. Social design projects (design think projects focused on social change -- or service design projects focused on consumer change) are culture change projects. To me, not approaching projects with this in mind is like getting a birthday gift with no gift wrap (or perhaps a wrapped birthday gift with no actual gift inside?). Re-designing society (or service), especially for disruption and innovation, means changing norms, behaviors, values and beliefs -- in other words you are changing culture. Whether these projects are about changing behavior for social innovation (such as women’s reproductive health) or for consumer innovation (such as automating grocery delivery) the challenge is bigger than just adding a great new road tested product or service. As a cultural anthropologist working in business, I have 110% confidence my clients can create products and services that can change the world. But success and failure will have much more to do with people’s ability to change their cultural behavior than the quality of the product or service. And there's the rub.
I'm a college professor for 20 year olds. Apparently this "re-cession generation" is hard to figure out. Some might say they're experiencing a cultural "breakdown." Or that our society is experiencing a cultural "breakdown." As a cultural anthropologist, one who studies culture, I find the way the word "cultural" is used as problematic and misunderstood (not just in this case but all the time). I also find the use of the word breakdown as problematic. A student in my class said, "isn't culture kind of always breaking down, not fixed, static and fluid?" Exactly. And I also think that the use of the word breakdown is definitely meant in a negative sense. Why can't breaking down be a good thing -- like a cultural renaissance or resurgence or opportunity? Certainly my students see it that way. But then they don't have much power in determining which "cultural" path is right. People need to know that culture is a verb. Culture is about the way we learn things, and how that knowledge is shared, and the symbols and objects that reflect that shared knowledge. Yes, that stuff is currently breaking down. But something is emerging. And it's like water flowing through stone, it will change things. But better to think and act as if it is an opportunity than a "breakdown" from which we see little hope.
A former research director at Context landed a position at the Gates Foundation and I was lucky enough to get out there and work on a project with them. The experience was transformational for me. The "social innovation" movement is in full swing and it was my chance to see it in action. In short, the same processes for business and tech innovation are at work in places like Gates to create "social innovations." The Foundation is committed to creating technological solutions to improve people's lives around the world. The people you find working at Gates could seamlessly switch to jobs in the world's leading tech companies. It's great to see and be part, if only a small one, in this work. I certainly hope I get a chance to do more work in this "category." A quick note on the picture above. Bill and Melinda gates clearly are managed for best optics on their global trips. But the two of them seem visibly engaged and fully immersed in these experiences. Empathy.
I started my career as a cultural anthropologist by studying fishing communities -- in particular, small-scale family based commercial fishing communities. When we were in Panama last summer we came across a family setting a fishing net off the beach. I was thrilled. That's me in the back of the picture with our good friend Katherine who is helping translate my English to Spanish to ask questions. I could say a lot about that morning, but one little story is about what I am doing in the picture. I asked the older man if I could help him bring in the rope. He motioned that would be fine. What I quickly found out is that the work was much harder than it seemed. Pulling yards and yards of rope on a sandy beach in the Panamanian heat and humidity is a chore. And there I was, learning by doing, embodying the work, feeling what it felt like (at least a little bit) to live and work as a small scale commercial fisher on the beaches of Panama.