Solving Problems without Defining Them


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Giulio Quaggiotto
Giulio Quaggiotto is an innovation professional. Until recently he was Senior Program Manager at Nesta, responsible for advising international development and public sector organizations on the implementation of their innovation strategies.  Prior to joining Nesta, Giulio managed the Jakarta Lab of the UN Global Pulse, a flagship innovation initiative of the United Nations Secretary-General on big data for public policy. He set up UNDP’s first innovation practice focused on Eurasia. Giulio’s development experience also includes stints at WWF, UN University and the World Bank. This interview presents his personal views. @gquaggiotto.

Why don’t you like the expression “bottom-up solutions?”

If you’re using an expression like “bottom-up” you’re making an implicit value judgement: something is “above” and something is “below” and one matters more than the otherFraming issues this way means that many organizations, however well meaning, operate with a White Savior Complex – what has been effectively dubbed “the reductive seduction of solving someone else’s problem”. In a typical scenario,  they send someone – often from a completely different context if not another country –  to a poor community. Their first instinct under those circumstances is to ask, “What problem do you have here and how can I solve it?”.

I would argue instead, that an equally legitimate strategy is to consider the “bottom” as the “top” – i.e. the place where innovation happens – and design processes backwards. The first question one should be asking is: “What’s happening here already? What assets do you already have here?” We call this “solution mapping” – an approach that, incidentally, runs against the mantra that you need to define problems first before solving them.

The approach is based on the work of Eric Von Hippel who researches open innovation at MIT. In all of the countries where he has conducted research, around 4-6% of the population are “household” or “free” innovators. This means they buy something—a fishing pole, a bike, an appliance—and they hack it because it does not fully meet their needs. Products are only the producer’s best guess at meeting your needs. For example, most products are designed for right-handed people.

So – to simplify to encourage innovation you can imagine two strategies. The first is to hire the best specialists, create an innovation lab, and have them get to work. That’s a centralized innovation function. The second option is to ask: what clever new designs have household or “free innovators” already created? That’s a distributed innovation function– lots of people are already experimenting and improving on a particular product or issue and you provide them with a platform to augment what they are already doing. For example, a recent exercise conducted following this approach by the Red Cross identified 22 homegrown solutions to floods in Indonesia. I am also a fan of the Cairo Contemporary Hack map.

Cairo residents capture the water from leaky air conditioning units to water trees. Image via the Cairo Contemporary Hack Map.

How do you translate those approaches to innovating for cities?

In development and government, we should start assuming that the people most affected by a problem might have already have created innovative solutions towards it. Once you find them–since people understand their own problems very well and usually through a process of constant tinkering and adaptation–those solutions tend to be more sustainable and appropriate than what would get brought in from the outside. They often also explore a range of “oblique” approaches that might look counterintuitive to a central planner. The best approach to tackle a complex issue in a city – like, say, domestic violence or unemployment – might not be to start with the natural default of planners: namely, with a workshop with experts trying to exhaustively define what is by nature an impossible-to-fully-define problem.

The problem solveres are not always interested in becoming entrepreneurs. So how do you empower them to do more of what they’re already doing? Von Hippel suggests to build “lead user platforms” or toolkits. One example is the manuals that at one point the Mexico City government used to hand out to encourage safety practices in self-constructed homes. Whilst city planners tend to suspect informality, in this case they encouraged people to pursue self-building, acknowledging the reality that encouraging local adaptations–while promoting safety standards–was probably the most pragmatic strategy to address housing.

Another issue one might encounter following this approach: how do you connect localized experiences rather than assuming you can simply replicate solutions across countries? Here again, we should reframe the discussion of scale.  In the development sector, most donors are obsessed with the notion of scale, which is often derived from manufacturing. But what if we thought of scale not as a whale, but as a school of fish, with lots of contextually relevant little experiments and adaptation and variation! More Darwin than manufacturing.

What are some examples of these approaches executed successfully?

Who has the highest interest in solving a disease? The patients who suffer from it. Patient Innovation is a very successful platform that looks for patients who have already found a cure to their own disease. Typically they do so because they are fixing a market failure: no company is interested in investing in finding a cure to their disease because it is so niche. For example, one guy who had to go to the hospital every week to get a particular treatment for his lungs attended a live opera performance and the vibration the music made him realize that he could actually hack an amplifier in his own home to replicate the hospital treatment. This way, he developed a prototype of a solution that could help others in similar conditions.

This girl made a device to help her paralyzed grandmother read.

The Open Access Malaria Box is a project that disrupted the traditional development approach – “these people are sick with malaria. We should send them medicines.” They opted instead for sending the basic compounds that work against malaria to local universities in places that are affected by malaria problems and encouraged them to experiment. One year later there were six new patents. Now this model is being replicated for other tropical diseases.

How have these methods been received? Do you think they’re going to become standard practice?

None of this is very new, it’s quite old in fact, but it has not at all become mainstream. For instance, one of the classical “solution mapping” approaches, positive deviance (PD), originated in the 1990s in Vietnam through the work of anthropologists Jerry and Monique Sternin for Save the Children. The starting point of PD is to ‘look for outliers who succeed against the odds’. In their case, they were looking for villages where, in the midst of a children malnutrition crisis, children were very poor but still well fed. Following the insights they derived from these outliers, they were able to cut malnutrition by two thirds across the country. So positive deviance has been around for 30 years and you’d think it’s quite a logical starting point but unfortunately it’s still very far from common practice. Unfortunately, it going against the grain of deeply held beliefs in the development community.

Ikea Hacked Robot Sculpture

What are the obstacles stopping these methods from taking hold?

These approaches are often ignored or resisted to because they are counterintuitive to the White Savior Complex instinct and the problem definition mantra that is so ingrained in our trainings. You have a similar problem in government: the Bureaucrat Expert.  The central issue is that this is less about appropriating a new methodology and more about cultural change. It’s questioning the role of the expert and reframing problem solving.

Another big issue is that the back offices of development organizations or governments are not structured to effectively interface with local innovators.If you, for example, are in government and want to procure a particular housing solution from one citizen innovator (as opposed to, say, an enterprise) procurement would most like prevent from engaging with him/her. Our systems are not designed to support this type of approach. They’re designed for government-knows-best as the underpinning assumption.

On top of this, there are political constraints. Amplifying local solutions is often a harder strategy to sell because there’s little or no political kudos when it’s not your own, “new” solution that you’re spreading. “The people in the favelas already solved the issue, we simply allowed them to do more of it” is often not a sexy political sell.

What can governments do to begin to take down these obstacles?

The necessary paradigm shift is to start understanding that the best expertise is often outside of the government. Then we ask: how do we best support that expertise? I call this “building elevators for mutants.” Mutants are the positive deviants, the strange things we don’t know how to identify or work with. We need to start to think about how to produce platforms that allow them to do more of what they’re doing. Take the site Hack IKEA for example in which people post examples of alternative items they’ve made out of IKEA furniture. At one point, IKEA was going to shut down their site.  But someone smart in the company realized the site was a valuable source of innovation, so instead they sponsored it. This what governments can very effectively do: allow innovators to do more of what they’re doing, and help them amplify their impact.