Design, Monitoring and Evaluation for Peacebuilding

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Book Review: Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation


Book Review - Change by Design:  How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation by Tim Brown, HarperCollins, 2009.

We all wonder at times, where do great innovations come from?  Do they come from the minds of geniuses, or perhaps from years of study?  Maybe they fall out of the sky while out for a run or in the solitude of the shower.  The truth, however, is that although some great innovations come from smart people, people who study, and moments of solitude, many of this world's best innovations don't fall from anywhere - they were designed.

Tim Brown's book, Change by Design:  How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, is "not by designers for designers" but rather a breakdown of the design process for the non-designer who wishes to tackle a particularly complex problem.  Brown is CEO of IDEO, an international design firm which designs everything from toys to hotel lobbies to advertising campaigns to toothbrushes, to name a few from the book's many examples and stories. 

Good design, he argues, doesn't magically happen to creative people.  It has characteristics, tools, and processes that can be replicated in the NGO and not-for-profit world.

Design thinking can be applied to many of the tasks undertaken by leaders and thinkers in the fields of conflict analysis and peacebuilding.  Program development, proposal writing, and even evaluation can benefit from the tools of the designer.  Brown first describes what he calls the divergent and convergent phases of design.

We have all experienced (as individuals as well as teams) the dampening effect of deadlines, fires to be put out, and the constraints of a funder's criteria, which drain the creativity from our ideas.  On the other hand, we can all relate to Blue Sky or Brainstorming sessions that result in one dreamy idea after another with little connection to reality.  Good designers allow for divergent (broad) thinking early in the process while converging (narrowing) toward a prototype solution by using a design brief.

"Almost like a scientific hypothesis, the brief is a set of mental constraints that gives the project team a framework from which to begin, benchmarks by which they can measure progress, and a set of objectives to be realized... A well-constructed brief will allow for serendipity, unpredictability, and the capricious whims of fate, for that is the creative realm from which break-through ideas emerge."[i]

How do you and your teams maintain a posture of creativity aimed at solutions?  Brown suggests the need for us to be T-shaped.  T-shaped people have the depth of knowledge (vertical) required to design, for example,  a complex peace program, but also the ability to (horizontally) reach into other fields for inspiration.  This can be accomplished by maintaining that all good design is "human-centered".  One example from the book is illustrative.  IDEO was asked to design an Emergency Department waiting room in Sidney Hillman Health Centre in New York.  They explored renowned design blueprints and interviewed staff, but their greatest insights came from designers who spent several days in ERs.  By taking a human approach, they created a hospital experience that allowed family to easily cluster chairs for privacy, which then enabled intake staff to go to the patient for assessment.

Brown argues that good design saves time (how many of us would so "no" to that!?) because skills such as adapting old ideas, tweaking ideas that almost worked, starting with the end user, and staying within the constraints of a design brief get you to a solution quicker. 

The final section of the book directly applies these principles to real-world problems, like the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina relief.  For example, Brown describes a lofty, seemingly out-of-reach goal such as the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals.  Describing the goals in terms such as "eradicating extreme poverty" is too vague and vast to be useful.  "If the Millennium Development Goals are to be met, they will have to be translated into practical design briefs that recognize constraints and establish metrics for success."[ii]  He suggests the following questions:

·         How might we enable poor farmers to increase the productivity of their land through simple, low-cost products and services?

·         How might we train and support community health workers in rural communities?

·         How might we find low-cost alternatives to wood-burning and kerosene stoves in urban slums?

·         How might we create an infant incubator that does not need an electrical supply?


That final question did, in fact, come from a real-world experience.  Where electricity was unreliable and generators were expensive, a team instead designed an incubator which was not dependent on unreliable sources of heat and power.


Another example of design thinking relates to a technique meant to get beyond the same-old mental road blocks when tackling a problem over and over.

If I asked you to quickly write down how we as a society could reduce obesity in children, you'd probably come up with a few ideas, but you'd be unsatisfied with the result.  It is a complex problem.  Designers would say, start by designing the opposite.  What would you do if you were in charge of all public policy and you wanted to make every child in your country as obese as possible? 

·         How would you design food advertising?   

·         What would be different about grocery stores and restaurants?

·         Which foods would you tax highest? 

·         How would you discourage people from dieting?

·         How would you discourage exercise? 

In tackling the problem by design, what you don't want is just one design technique used by designers to help you outside of your everyday problem-solving and into creative and productive design-thinking.[iii]

Leaders in the not-for-profit and NGO fields will undoubtedly find this to be an accessible read with plenty of easily understood examples, little jargon, and ideas that will undoubtedly spark new ways to tackle tough problems.

[i] Change by Design:  How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation, Tim Brown, HarperCollins, 2009.  pp 22-23.

[ii] Ibid.  p. 217.

[iii] Ibid. This exercise is described and framed on pages 116-118 in reference to Whole Foods Market and IDEO's engagement in marketing for this large retail chain in the US which is mentioned throughout the book.

Design thinking can be applied to many of the tasks performed by leaders and thinkers in the field of conflict analysis and peacebuilding. Program development, proposal writing, and even evaluation can benefit from the tools of the designer. CCNA Certification