Where design, technology, and international development meet is where Panthea Lee and her firm Reboot work. Lee has overseen the implementation of projects ranging from improving disaster relief in Pakistan to a social accountability system with the Nigerian government. She’s turning field data into practical and effective intervention.
What is service design and why are designers well positioned to lead cross-disciplinary teams to achieve results in international development?
Services, at their core, are relationships.
They are the interactions between individuals and institutions. To affect social change, the right policies are important—and we do plenty of work on those. But, ultimately, we at Reboot often return to services because they are where "the rubber hits the road." For us, good services are the most concrete means of improving human outcomes and the foundations for a 21st-century social contract.
Plenty of thought goes into good industrial design and good interaction design. We do the same for public and social services. In our view, service design is a multidisciplinary approach to creating more useful, effective, and efficient services.
In the space of international development, we find designers particularly well suited to the task of creating good services because they are highly analytical systems thinkers.
Services are more than just pulling a lever to get a result. Services are a complex series of interlocking relationships and institutions, and each one is different. Their design requires deep empathy for users and a nuanced understanding of context. And you’ll never get it right on the first go—they require significant testing and refining until they’re right.
Designers understand this.
Can you give a good example from one of your favorite projects?
Nigeria is a country that is oil-rich but accountability-poor. This is partially due to the lack of connective infrastructure that service delivery and social accountability systems require. Only 10% to 15% of Nigerian roads are paved, Internet access is limited to 11% of the population, and most of the country has electricity a few hours per day at most. The lack of infrastructure is not simply a daily hindrance in people’s lives. It also prevents them from being able to demand better services, and, over time, it undermines their confidence that they have power to make any demands at all.
At Reboot, we’re working to tackle this challenge by helping the government of Nigeria, with the support of the World Bank, to develop a social accountability and citizen feedback system. We’ve developed a mobile platform to collect citizen feedback on government health care and agriculture programs. Equally important, we’re designing the supporting program that will make sure the feedback is put to use in improving those services.
A service on top of existing services? Yes, but one that will then help those existing services work better for communities. What’s not to love?
How can the tools and principles of design address traditional flaws in international development and governance?
Most successful development programs—not unlike all strong design—are based on a deep understanding of the institutional and environmental context and empathy for the people they serve.
These two concepts are the intuitive core of effective development. But institutional procedures, budget constraints, policy or donor priorities, tight timelines, and the pressure of solving urgent problems all conspire to wear practitioners down and constrain their work. Sometimes, this means we settle for subpar solutions—leaving the communities we serve to settle, too.
Design can help governance and development practitioners better understand the causes, relationships, and human dimensions of complex contexts, and then provide tools to incorporate this knowledge into the design of innovative and realistic interventions.
When did you realize your career as a designer would be focused on giving back?
I never set out to be a designer or to “give back." Like most, I was simply curious about the world.
Originally, I aspired to be a journalist, mostly because I wanted to see the world and to hear people’s stories. As my travels took me farther, I was struck by the immense role luck plays in all of our lives. Where and when we are born largely dictates the opportunities we are afforded. Much of the world is unluckily born into difficult, debilitating circumstances.
Some of these circumstances, such as geography and natural disasters, are beyond our control. But many disasters are the products of bad decisions, not random acts of fate. Where it is within our control to do better, I believe we have an obligation to do so.
While we face plenty of challenges in the developed world, we generally have basic social safety nets that prevent absolute destitution. We don’t live in fear of dying from diseases that we cured 70 years ago. We don’t live in environments where threats to our fundamental security are the norm, not the exception.
But for millions of people in places like Afghanistan, Sudan, and Sierra Leone, challenges such as these are the norm. And as much as mainstream media portrayals of troubled parts of the world will have us believe, these challenges are not simply the results of “intractable issues.” Bad decisions created these problems and better decisions can help resolve them.
For us at Reboot, this is less about “giving back” than it is about “setting right.”
What is the name of one up and coming service designer we should be watching and why?
Merrick Schaefer, a senior innovation specialist at the World Bank and a founding member of UNICEF Innovation. He is a rare combination of big-picture visionary and detail-oriented systems engineer. Although he doesn’t call himself a service designer, that is exactly what he does.
Among his many accomplishments, he led UNICEF’s development of Project Mwana in Zambia, one of the first mobile health programs to be scaled nationally. In Zambia, where the prevalence of HIV infection is 14.3%, timely infant diagnosis and treatment is critical. If HIV-positive babies are not treated within their first year of life, their chance of dying is 30%. Merrick helped develop an innovative service that has, using basic text messaging, improved the turnaround time for delivering HIV diagnosis results to underserved communities by over 50%.
Design is glamorous, implementation is not. You can be the greatest designer in the world, but if you can’t mobilize others to implement a solution, and implement it well, then your design has failed.
Who inspires you most with their generosity?
I can’t pick just one:
My parents Lee Ming-Ying and Huang Te-Chen immigrated to Canada when I was six because they wanted their children to have a better life. Taiwan’s education system, they believed, undermined creativity and they were worried about Cross-Strait relations and other unrest. And so they gave up their family, friends, careers, and all they’d ever known to start from scratch. They had little savings, no jobs, and didn’t speak English. The depth of their generosity is humbling. They worked tirelessly to give my siblings and me a shot at a better life; it’s only right that I try to pay that forward.
I met Hameed Tasal in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, several years back. He was a sharp college student with big ambitions. While he had opportunities to go abroad, Hameed was determined to help realize change at home, a highly volatile region. He worked tirelessly—as a volunteer with FabLab and using low-cost materials—to get Jalalabad online. His efforts enabled his fellow citizens to gain critical information and educate themselves, important for realizing a better future for both themselves and for Afghanistan. Not only is Hameed generous, he is also resourceful and courageous. I’m grateful to have learned from him.
David Sasaki is an enabler. He helps others realize their potential and, in the process, a better future for us all. To get a sense of his generosity, see this collection of videos from activists and civil society groups who were mentored by David. I am a long-time fan of his blog, where he writes thoughtfully about the hard work of trying to realize social change. In an age where each talking/blogging/tweeting head is trying to look smarter than the rest, his honest and often personal writing is a gift. He practices what he preaches, and has taught me to give thoughtfully and with intentionality.