frog rose to fame in the early 1980s with innovative product designs for firms like Apple and Sony. How long has the company been engaging in social impact?
Fabio Sergio: We started off with frogImpact ten years ago, collaborating in partnerships to start with before it became part of our consulting business. And you’ve been involved right from the start?
A: Yes, I’ve been with frog for ten years now and I got involved with social impact projects quite soon after joining the company. I’ve been in charge of frogImpact at international level for about three years.
Q: Social impact is a relatively new talking point. When did the concept first emerge?
A: The term itself became part of the discourse about 15 years ago. But design has always had a social orientation, and it always has an influence on society too – whether intentional or not. It doesn’t matter whether you design a song, medical diagnostic equipment or a website for a bank: ultimately, it will have an impact on society and on human behaviour. Organisations like UNICEF are increasingly working with designers nowadays too, probably because they’ve come to realise that the innovation and solution processes originally developed for commercial clients can be applied to social problems as well.
Q: Would you say social impact is mainly relevant for humanitarian organisations?
A: No, I don’t think you can restrict social impact to that particular field. Besides aid organisations, some major corporations are starting to combine their business interests with social goals and social responsibility as well.
Q: Why is that?
A: In the past, when companies took an interest in social issues they mainly did so via their charitable foundations. Nowadays they also try to bring their products, distribution networks and staff to regions where many of the things that industrial societies take for granted simply don’t exist. When they share knowledge and create conditions that enable people to become successful, corporations can actually play a key role in development.
Q: When social and economic interests coincide, does it give rise to cooperations between the private and public sectors?
A: Charitable organisations welcome initiatives in the public- private sector – for instance when they’re looking for partners who can facilitate long-term investments to solve really substantial problems. And that kind of activity is encouraged: the United Nations’ recently published catalogue of 17 global sustainable development goals contains incentives for that kind of partnership. And a growing number of startups are combining commercial and social goals. These purpose-driven companies are often launched on platforms like Kickstarter and are succeeding because people want to buy products from firms that make the world a better place. These developments have been boosted by the media revolution too.
Q: What impact has the digital revolution had on social impact design?
A: Things have changed radically over the last decade as a result of mobile technologies. Take the financial services sector, for instance. Ten years ago, a bank still needed branches, employees and all sorts of other things. Nowadays there’s a real boom in systems like M-Pesa in Kenya, which uses text messaging for cashless transactions. There are countless examples of how digitisation is providing new ways to tackle old problems. And because these technologies enable change from the bottom up, they’ve triggered a wave of innovations. What’s more, they’ve encouraged a totally new way of thinking about where and how meaningful interventions can take place.
Q: In what way?
A: Take the earthquake that struck Italy in August. After the catastrophe, the Red Cross made enquiries in the affected areas to locate people who still had intact Wi-Fi networks. Anyone who did was asked to open their network up to the public so that communications could be kept up and running. Ever since the digital revolution arrived in the social sector and charitable organisations have been seizing the opportunities provided by the new communication technologies, the demand for design has been growing too. Things like designing easily accessible user interfaces – not least in order to support staff who depend on a reliable exchange of data. That’s what the Humanitarian Data Exchange was all about, for example: it’s an open data analy- sis platform that Frog developed in collaboration with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) so as to improve the coordination of relief efforts. Does social impact still have anything to do with the traditional understanding of design?
One of the major differences as compared to traditional product or service design is the context. Developing regions often lack the systems that people in industrial societies take for granted. So we have to take the level of the system into account when we’re tackling an assignment in areas like that.
Q: What does that mean?
A: Solving one problem at a time and not trying to redesign the entire system all at once. As a discipline, design lends itself to interpreting and visualising complex facts and circumstances. That allows us to identify areas where inter- ventions can have a big impact. This process is often referred to as design thinking, but it’s also known as strategic design, service design or system design. Anyway, whatever you call it, it’s about taking the user as your starting point, bringing ideas together and then interpreting, testing and validating them until you end up with something that works and can be implemented. A lot of humanitarian organisations and development agencies have started using this method.
Design for and with people: participatory methods play a key role in social impact. Photo by Red Cross
Q: On your website it says that you’re “fanatical about improving the world”. It’s an aspiration with echoes of the tech entrepreneurs.
A: Labels aren’t important to me. As a designer and a human being, I believe the future will be better than the present and that what we design today will decide how we live tomorrow. On the one hand, you can design consumer goods that are totally irrelevant to our continued development. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s fun, and sometimes even satisfying. But you can also design things that play a part in shaping the future. What was it computer scientist Alan Kay said? “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” And that’s precisely what firms like Airbnb, Uber, Google, Facebook, Apple or Microsoft are doing. In my opinion we’ve got good reason to believe in the potential of their technologies. They can improve education and healthcare. Their power impacts people and economies. We need to realise that – and welcome it.
Q: Sometimes charitable involvement is just a facade. Take Mark Zuckerberg’s audience with the pope: isn’t it just a bit of “I’m-one-of-the-good-guys” PR?
A: It’s true that the level of significance companies like Facebook have reached almost equals that of nation states. So you more or less expect Zuckerberg to have an audience.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: The conclusion of a long project with the GSM Association; it’s about mobile technologies for farmers in six different countries. We’re starting to see the first positive effects – it’s very exciting.
Q: Your projects call for a lot of empathy. Is there one that was particularly dear to your heart?
A: It’s hard to say. It’s like asking me to choose between my kids. Our work is very moving and we’re very passionate about it. I also take a lot of pride in the fact that I can be part of solving these problems and work with organisations like UNICEF and the Red Cross.
Q: Does the fact that design can combine and unite lots of different things play a role in this kind of creative management?
A: That’s exactly what provided the basis for many of the things we’ve been doing over the last five years. In our work with the World Health Organisation (WHO) for in- stance, it was a question of determining to what extent mobile technologies can help manage non-communicable diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure. We organised a workshop with more than 80 experts. Doctors, alternative practitioners and policy decision-makers made a joint ef- fort to see reality through the eyes of the people who will eventually use this kind of programme in various African, Asian or South American countries.
Q: How significant are traditions?
A: That’s an important question, but not an easy one to answer. So let me just say this: we confront the challenges that present themselves to us with a great deal of sensitivity. We always work on the assumption that the people we want to help are the ones with the best idea of what the solutions to their problems could look like. That’s why we use participatory methods whenever possible.
Q: How long do these projects last?
A: It’s totally different to design consulting: with this kind of project, we often observe the progress and provide decision support for as long as two or three years. It’s important to keep a close eye on the problems and monitor how the solutions are accepted – and hopefully, how they spread.
Q: Does the way something is implemented depend on the clients to some extent?
A: frog decided early on that it would focus on collaborating with globally oriented partners. If you only work in one country and then only on little problems, there’s a danger of investing a lot of energy in a functioning solution that ends up not being shared. Our collaboration with major organisations like UNICEF, OCHA, the Red Cross or the GSM Association has shown us what it means to be able to change something not just locally but globally too.
Q: How do you manage not to come across as invaders when you’re operating in different cultural areas?
A: Besides respect, you need to approach the project with a deep understanding of which solutions have any chance of being accepted in a given cultural area. Nobody understands the problems better than the people who are directly affected by them. But there’s something else I’d like to say about traditions: new technologies can be a really good way to encourage the emergence of new cultures. Take a look at Kenya, where the economy has really taken off thanks to all the new startups. It’s awesome to see how the younger generation is welcoming these technologies with open arms and how local entrepreneurs are proudly developing business models for solving social problems.
This interview originally appeared in the June, 2016 issue of Design Report, published by the German Design Council.