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Designing for UNICEF: Class Notes

New York City: view of

Popped into the Design for UNICEF class hosted by Clay Shirky, Christopher Fabian, Erica Kochi et al – the students project brief? To design useful services with for sub-sahara Africa assuming a technology base of a ~Nokia 1100 and FM radio, and ‘any degree of complexity in the cloud’. Imagining useful services for people half way around the world is a tough gig, even with such knowledgeable task masters so the students have their work cut out for them.

Whether/how/why design schools should indeed try resonated through a number of conversations at A Better World By Design conference, for a well reasoned critique read this by David Stairs.

My rough notes from the day: whilst the assumption of many and indeed the link up with UNICEF suggests a default story of poverty, lack of resources – there are many different stories in sub-sahara Africa; it’s worth remembering why mobile phones are universally appreciated across culture, age, gender; whilst a Nokia 1100 and FM radio may be the technological baseline – it is useful, from the perspective of someone living in NYC and thinking about design solutions, to also think of extended family and peers as ‘infrastructure’; that any solution going through social networks means compromising degrees of personal, and convenience – though depending on the concept this could be for better or for worse; given the opportunity most people will upgrade their phone to one that includes FM radio – it’s one of the most request features; the mobile phone is relatively more important as a vehicle for aspiration and status compared to say someone in London or Tokyo since there are less alternative available; hence if people can afford something a little bit flashier they will; hence just because you design something for that demographic in mind don’t assume they’ll aspire to use it; once people are connected they talk, and one of the things they talk about are the kind mobile phones they want to connect i.e. knowledge of the latest thing travels fast – don’t assume last year’s model will do; what aspects of the service do you need to design – be open to the fact that the local market can design the last mile in tune with local conditions better than you – step messaging was used as an example. Phew.

Deep breath… In markets where there are price barriers e.g. calls to another network cost more than calls within the network – highly price sensitive consumers who can afford multiple SIM cards will use multiple SIM cards – depending on the context more sub-saharan consumers may use two phones compared to consumers in the US; for solar to become viable in off-the-grid locales it needs to match the convenience and robustness of local alternatives – most likely to be car batteries.

And when thinking about ideas for projects – don’t be afraid to go back to the basics: warmth, food, shelter, finding a mate, pro-creation. They’re called universals for a reason.

With thanks to all concerned for the opportunity to share, listen and learn.

Photo: the view from the UNICEF offices, were it not for the Millennium Hotel that sits in the way