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Boardroom Anthropology for Beginners 3/N: Reading List

It has been some time that I have been active on this Blog. After my last Blog in September, I found out that I am pregnant; in between I got married and moved houses. Now, with the baby arriving any time from now, I am committed to re-start this Blog – and I have a lot on my list I want to capture, share, and explore through writing. For the next few months, I will not only be on maternity leave, but also have a number of side projects I will engage in – reading is of course one of them.

As I am being asked a lot for introductory readings, this blog is devoted to that: A reading list of 10 books from my ‘Boardroom Anthropology Library’ that I recommend. This is not a ranking, just a variety of readings from different disciplines that I really enjoyed and that I think provide a good overview on perspectives, methods, and stories on the subject of this blog.

#1: For a great introduction to anthropological thinking, I recommend Matthew Engelke and his How to Think Like an Anthropologist. The LSE professor provides an easy to read introduction to “What is anthropology” and the methods used by this discipline, presenting a range of examples and highlighting why anthropology matters in many of today’s conversations. The book just recently came out, so it’s a timely read with lots of references to contemporary topics and offers ‘Boardroom anthropologists’ a good basic read.

#2: Ethnography is one of the core methods in human centric design. But why does it matter to talk about the matsutake value chain? Using one of the strangest commodity chains, The Mushroom at the End of the World – On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins is a great ethnographic tale on capitalism, told by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing. The book won the 2016 Gregory Bateson Price, The 2016 Victor Turner Price in Ethnographic Writing, and many other awards, and I recommend it as an unusual read for those interested in ethnographic writing.

#3: I have spoken a lot about the need for participatory or generative research techniques for human-centric solution development and innovation: I enjoyed the Convivial Toolbox: Generative Research for the Front End of Design by Liz Sanders, as an introduction to participatory design methods. The book introduces a range of methods and tools and is highly visual, making it a good reference book on human centric design.

#4: A great reference book with a very comprehensive description of design thinking tools and methods is  Design Thinking: Process and Methods Manual by Robert A. Curedale. I found it a very useful guide and recommend it to those planning to apply the methods in their daily work and looking for a quick reference book.

#5: One of my favorite action-oriented reference books on service design innovation and for facilitating human-centric design workshops, is the The Service Innovation Handbook: Action-oriented Creative Thinking Toolkit for Service Organizations by Lucy Kimbell. The book is full of real-life examples and provides easy to replicate tools, methods and frameworks for those who aim to apply human centric design in their every day work.

#6: For a classic on user centric design principles, read The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman. Even though first published more than 25 years ago, it is still recognized as one of the most influential books in human centric design, recommended by the likes of Tim Brown of IDEO, and many others. Definitely worth a read, especially the revised and expanded edition with lots of new examples!

#7: It all becomes more real by looking at examples: I found Ten Types of Innovation: The Discipline of Building Breakthroughs by Larry Keeley to be a useful visual overview on patterns of innovation and innovation opportunities and the ‘how’ of breakthrough innovations.

#8: How can human centric design be applied in real life: For an overview on how Google does it, Sprint offers a good read on testing new ideas in just five days and through a very lean approach that can easily be replicated, applying methods of human centric design.

#9: Visualization is one key method used in human-centric design and solution development. Visualization techniques and tools can be used to get insights from your team, user, or target group and to develop new ideas. A useful and often referred to introduction to visualization games for those who facilitate workshops and meetings is Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray.

#10: in my previous blogs, I spoke a lot about the social embeddedness of  what we perceive as ‘reality’: An every-green and absolute must-read on the social construction of knowledge is Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Originally published in 1967, it is one of the most important sociology books of the past century and hence can be treated as a ‘classic’.

I could continue the list, but I stop here for now. I hope you find this useful as a first list – I will provide more topic specific lists in the future.

Happy reading!

Boardroom Anthropology for Beginners (2/N)

Opportunities for business mainstream

In my last blog, I wrote about what anthropologists can add to businesses and had a look into the anthropologist’s toolbox. In this blog, I want to speak about the opportunities of application. What do approaches such as ethnography, collecting ‘thick data’, and the immersion into the context as well as participatory research mean for everyday business practice? And what does this human-centric approach mean for startups, corporates, governments, development agencies or other institutions aiming to create social innovation at the ‘base of the economic pyramid’? Here are some areas where I see opportunity for ethnography and generative, participatory, human-centric research approaches.

Idea Generation & Concept Development

Developing new ideas and transformative solutions is hard and sitting in research labs or behind a desk in office spaces, far removed from the end-user may not bring about disruptive solutions, but rather incremental changes. Where quantitative research approaches help to uncover what people do and highlight areas where there may be gaps, excel sheets remain silent about insights that can be used for actual solution development.

At the same time, inspirations for new solutions are plenty in everyday life and approaches of anthropology and ‘the study of people’ can help uncover needs and opportunities for new ideas and concepts. With roots in the 19th century and originally studying cultures and tribes foreign to the researcher, anthropologists have developed a methodology set and mindset to study ‘the other’, which is relevant for business. The same methods can be used ‘to make the familiar strange’ and hence plays an important role in the creative process.

Borrowing these methods, human centric design and design thinking is using tools such as observing body language, eye contact and facial expression to understand feelings, experiences, and needs of the user and look beyond what he speaks. Likewise, techniques such as asking users to write diaries or create photo journals can be a great source of inspiration and help to learn about a person’s life. Other visualization techniques such as drawings or creating resource flows and maps can help to understand the context and reveal opportunities.

Product and Service Design

 We live in an age where technology is believed to solve many social problems. We have hopes that digital financial services will increase financial inclusion. We expect that sensor technology, robotics, artificial intelligence in combination with other technologies create ‘farms of the future’ and increase small holder farmer productivity. We believe that mobile-enabled market places will improve access to quality medicine in rural parts of the developing world.

However, technology and algorithms alone will not solve problems. Innovators, startups and corporates need a deep understanding on how to create consumer touch points. Ethnographic research approaches and gathering ‘thick data’ that explains daily lives of the user, helps understand what is important to him or her, and gives insights on how users interact with technology and reveal his user journey can help in early stages of product and service design. Understanding the client and his or her context and feedback on the intended solution early on reduces the risk associated with developing new ideas.

For those interested in a deep dive, CGAP has documented how human centric research has changed the way they develop solutions in the area of financial inclusion. A well-documented and often quoted case study on what empathy with the end-user can do, is how GE Healthcare industrial designer Doug Dietz has re-thought X-ray and MRI procedures for children. Likewise, in a recent blog Ideo discusses how human centric approaches are applied in healthcare, specifically in schizophrenia care.

Organizational Change Processes

Organizations are made out of human beings – they are manifested patterns of communication and interaction of humans. Human-centric approaches are essentially ‘interaction design’ at the core and hence offer the opportunity to create meaningful interactions within and outside organizations, design impactful change processes and influence organizational life more holistically. In fact, more than serving as a ‘tool’ applying these approaches opens up a new mindset for leaders and teams, their problem solving and decision-making capabilities, marking a departure from the traditional management view. Because human-centric approaches are participatory in nature, they engage the whole organization in the change process.

What does this mean for organizational cultures? As organizations are increasingly dealing with complex internal and external problems, people need to make sense of them. A human-centric culture allows employees to observe behavior and from there conclude what people want and need. It empowers teams to be creative and helps leaders to enable meaningful team work. A human-centric organizational culture embraces ambiguity and risk-taking, encourages prototyping and testing, and allows individuals and teams to fail and learn. That such a culture shift doesn’t happen overnight is clear; however, an increasing number of organizations are starting to embark this journey.

One of my favorite case studies on how an organization moved towards a human-centric culture is the case of Intuit, a business and financial software company. Challenged by a rather saturated market when it came to its product offerings in 2008, Intuit CEO Brad Smith changed the culture of the tech giant into a startup: agile, fast moving, embracing uncertainty and celebrating learning with the credo “Design for Delight” in the center. If you think this is only possible for tech companies, read the case study on how the Australian tax authority went through an organizational rebirth and integrated a human-centric lens to their DNA. In fact, human centric design has recently started to enter the policy sphere, with even actors like OECD advocating human centric policy design.

The Coming of Age of Anthropology

In the early twentieth century, American anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote a book called ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’, an anthropological study about youth in Samoa. While for a long time, anthropology was a niche subject studied by travellers and adventurers and was associated mostly with the study of tribes and cultures in far-off countries, today, more than a century later, anthropology has entered the business mainstream. Unfortunately, it is less the anthropologists who move out of their ivory tower, but more designers, product or service developers, or organizational development experts who get acquainted with anthropological research techniques. Research and study programs on the intersection are increasing, hence supplying the future demand for boardroom anthropologists.

For similar articles, see: Jon Kolko 2015: Design Thinking comes of Age. Harvard Business Review, September 2015

Boardroom Anthropology for Beginners (1/N)

What anthropologists can add to business

When I finished my undergrad degree in 2007, it was not very sexy to go on the job market with an anthropology degree, not even to think of a job in the business world. The perceived value of my education to employers seemed to increase when I applied with degree from London School of Economics, ironically the academic home to some of the most famous anthropologists like Bronislaw Malinowski or Evans-Pritchard. The situation has changed: With the rise of participatory and human centric design, the demand for anthropologists in business seems to be higher than ever before. Microsoft, for example, is said to be the largest employer of anthropologists globally. What is it that suddenly makes the perspectives of anthropologists attractive to actors from Silicon Valley to corporate board rooms? This article tries to explain the ‘the rise of the anthropologist’ in business, diving deeper into the anthropologist’s tool box.

‘Sense making’ – A look into the anthropologist’s toolbox

Never before did decision makers have the amount of quantitative data as today. Technology advances such as sensors, artificial intelligence, and the ‘internet of everything’ drive the ‘big data’ revolution. While the excitement is big that the amount of data helps in developing customized solutions and democratized access to all kinds of services, many are recognizing that ‘big data’ require sense making. Large data amounts help decision-makers to understand WHAT people do, but they do not explain WHY people do what they do. For this reason, methodologies from humanities and social sciences are increasingly borrowed in the business world to help turn information and data into knowledge and meaningful insights.

Ethnography and the need for ‘thick data’

Originally coined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in 1973, ‘thick description’ has gained renewed recognition in recent years. In contrast to quantitative data, thick data is gathered using ethnographic research methods to uncover how people give meaning to the world around them. In this sense, ‘thick data’ captures not just raw data or facts but the context around those facts. Especially to uncover less formal or ‘tacit knowledge’, which much more difficult to capture or verbalize, qualitative research approaches are needed. While big data can tell us what people purchase, it does not tell us the nuances behind the why  – here is where ethnography can help.  Thick data collection hence involves a range of qualitative and generative research approaches, tools or techniques that help gathering granular knowledge about research subjects such as deep dialogue, focus group discussions and interviews, timelines and diaries, visualization techniques, games, or videos. A number of good online toolkits exist that explain these methods.[1]

Immersion and the power of ‘participatory observation’

Immersion into the context of interest and participatory observation is a key method borrowed from anthropology to understand research subjects, their lives, truths, and rituals. While traditional market research applies methods such as surveys and interviews to understand user or consumer needs, immersive research approaches help to not only understand what people say, but also help understand what they think, feel, and do as well as what external influences they are exposed to that may shape their action. Observation reveals contradictions and hence helps to understand complexities to solution development. Immersion can mean a day, a week or longer in the context of interest, shadowing the people of interest, have them explain their daily lives, certain work flows or experiences, or just play fly on the wall and observe their actions. Tools such as the empathy map or customer journey maps have gained popularity to capture the insights derived from participatory observation.

Why now – and why in the impact ecosystem?

It seems like a paradox to me to ask this question. When I entered the impact investing and social entrepreneurship ecosystem, I was convinced that this would be a place where social scientists contribute to solution and business model development with their deep understanding of people and context. However, I found myself surrounded by economists, investment professionals, technocrats, engineers, and MBAs and surprisingly few social scientists and anthropologists. While a number of rural development organizations have been applying action research and participatory rural appraisal methods to involve the beneficiaries in solution development, these methodologies have for a long time not entered into the ‘business for development’ mainstream.[2]

With the rising popularity of design thinking and human centric design in development through organizations such as ideo.org this has started to change. Corporate and startup innovators as well as donor programs have realized that the complexities of issues they are aiming to solve at the ‘Base of the economic pyramid’ requires a different set of methods. In a time, where increased hopes and expectations are on the power of technology to solve social challenges, it is important to involve users in the solution design process. To bridge the gap between the tech developers and the beneficiary, the demand for service design and user experience design experts is hence increasing.

However, the service provider landscape in emerging markets is still scarce, especially for startups and small and growing businesses. Many design firms are largely catering to multinational companies and Fortune 500 companies with deep pockets. As qualitative research and human centric approaches are generating deeper insights, they are priced as premium offerings. The time is ripe for to think of new service offerings to integrate more anthropologists in the development of business solutions for low income contexts.

[1] See e.g. NESTA DIY Kit, Ideo Design Kit or Service Design Tools

[2] See e.g. Robert Chambers 1994

The flipside of modernization: Kenya’s Maasai caught in a development conundrum

Pathways to Universal Energy Access

With Sustainable Development Goal Number 7, energy is being recognized as a key enabler for development. Access to energy for all, a higher share of renewable energy and significant improvements in energy efficiency are now an integral part of the global development priorities. Ensuring universal access to affordable electricity by 2030 requires investments in clean energy sources such as solar, wind and thermal. Expanding infrastructure and upgrading technology to provide clean energy is therefore a crucial goal that can both encourage growth and help the environment.

In order to close the energy gap, East Africa is currently undergoing an energy revolution, with large infrastructure projects across the continent. This revolution is driven by large oil discoveries in Uganda and Kenya and massive offshore natural gas finds in Tanzania. While off-grid energy solutions are part of a more sustainable path to increase energy access, these are not able to meet the country’s overall demand. Hydro and geothermal energy are therefore seen as key solutions to drive access to renewable energy in the region. The World Bank estimates that geothermal from East Africa’s Rift Valley could possibly power 150 million households.

According to World Bank data, only 36% of Kenyans have access to energy. As part of its Vision 2030 and the policy roadmap to become a middle-income country, the Kenyan government has ambitious objectives to close this gap and geothermal plays a critical role. About 14% of Kenya’s power generating capacity is geothermal today. To expand geothermal energy, the Kenyan government together with World Bank, European Investment Bank, and other development partners has invested in a multi-billion dollar project 120 km west of Nairobi to build one of the continent’s largest geothermal plants. While these investments are needed to drive energy access, they have a flipside: Relocation and resettlement of local communities, a complex reality with no easy solutions.

Living conditions before resettlement were basic

Looking at the flipside

The two sides of modernization become visible taking a closer look into the booming geothermal industry along the Rift Valley. While the neighboring urban population in towns like Naivasha benefits from the transition, it is a local Maasai community of 140 households, who has been living there since the 18th century, that seems to be on the losing side. The Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) and Kenya’s Geothermal Development Company (GDC) have implemented a number of initiatives to protect the standards of living of those affected by their projects. However, many of the community members perceive they lost out in the process of resettlement. While part of the loss is tangible, a big part has to do with identity and other intangibles.

The Maasai community has traditionally been a pastoralist community, whose life and identity revolves around livestock. Livestock such as cattle, goats and sheep have been the primary source of income for the Maasai, critical for subsistence security (milk, meat, blood) but also with a social utility. They were traditionally traded for other livestock or cash, and serve as insurance and risk mitigation mechanism for difficult times. The entire Rift Valley and especially the area around Naivasha due to its supply of water, used to be the traditional heartland of the Maasai territory, hence connecting the community with strong ancestral ties to the land. In recent years, many of the Maasai community near Olkaria have been involved in tourism, running a cultural center, selling of beads and jewelry and other cultural projects, sharing their culture with the number of tourists coming to Hell’s Gate National Park. Another part of the community has been involved in trading activities with nearby towns.

Livestock traditionally has been the wealth of the Maasai community and is an integral part of the identity.

 

The resettlement provided around 1200 people with new housing, a school, clinic and other infrastructure as well as different compensation packages. However, for many the change in living conditions affected their previous livelihood and income sources as well as aspects of culture and identity. The new location removed the community from their livestock due to a lack of green pastures and grassland. Traditionally, property did not mean anything to the Maasai community. With the new 2-bed room houses new aspirations got created, such as televisions, furniture, cars or other material goods. The new life style requires new daily expenses such as charcoal used in the modern kitchens, instead of the fire wood used for traditional cooking methods. With the integration in the cash economy and new requirements of the modern way of life, the Maasais’ perceived wealth is diminishing as cows are turned into money.

Housing conditions sigificantly improved. 2 bed room houses were built for 140 households.

 

A recent study on alternative livelihood opportunities for the Maasai provided me the opportunity to understand these complexities. In a participatory process, we immersed ourselves in the local context for some time to understand how different members of the relocated community perceive the change. We wanted to understand how different members feel about existing and possible income generating activities and to jointly identify pathways for alternate livelihood options.

Three change catalysts

Over the years, the situation has become complex in Olkaria: Our research showed that there is no easy answer to providing new income opportunities for those living in the four villages. A multi-year mediation process, the engagement of various NGOs and human rights organizations as well as an other organizations that have been coming in due to the increased national and international attention have left their marks on the community, resulting in a complex local power play and political economy.  A number of community institutions have been formed as multi-stakeholder forums to articulate and represent the interests of different groups and members within the four villages.[1]

We realized creating alternative livelihood opportunities, building skills and capacities, and creating a community vision that emphasizes education requires a long-term process. While a number of Maasai have been provided with jobs through KenGen, the challenge is to create alternative income opportunities in the surrounding areas or as micro entrepreneurs. Overall, formal education and skill levels of the Maasai community are low, posing an additional challenge. However, through a participatory process that involved different social groups of elders, women, and youth, we found key individuals that can act as drivers of change in any new planned livelihood intervention:

Elders: The Influencer

Social interactions, household responsibilities, political power and rituals depend on the age and gender of each individual in the Maasai community. Elders are traditionally the directors and advisors of day to day activities and hold key functions in the Maasai political system. Post the resettlement many elders received functions in community institutions. While some of the elders recognize the importance of education, others have strong perceptions about ‘modern’ employment opportunities, for example in tourism or local business. Others acknowledge the role of education: “What is good about my current job is that the job is providing money for education,” mentions a local elder who works as a security guard. It is hence critical to involve those who recognize the need for change.

Elders have a critical role in the community political system and hence need to be involved in any change process.

 

Women: The Drivers of Change

A number of mid-aged women have found ways to integrate themselves into the modern economy: While some have tried out employment opportunities at nearby flower farms or in the tourism industry, others have ventured into starting micro-businesses as shop owners or in small-scale farming. Seeds of cooperative structures and self-help groups exist that can be leveraged to increase income opportunities, increase produced quantities of beads and jewelry, and to act as aggregator needed to create market linkages. “We are 25 women in our group; we all save KSh 250 per month. If it is your turn, you can take a loan,” explains one of the women. Many women use the loans to purchase beads for their jewelry business or for other economic activities. A number of women in the community value education and despite low incomes make it a priority to pay for children’s primary and secondary education.

Young women with aspirations play an important role to drive change in the society. This young woman finished class eight school education and would like to work in an office. Her husband has formal employment.

 

Youth: The Visionary

While the amount of school drop outs is high and the number of those youth completing secondary education is low, a few ambitious young boys and girls can act as important change makers in the community. “I want to be an engineer, and work with KenGen,” tells us a young boy, who finished class 12 and shared with us how he loves science. “The kids are thirsty and hungry for education, they love learning,” shares the Head Teacher of the local school. The number of children and youth with primary and secondary school education has increased over the past decade; however, there is little awareness about how to enter the formal job market or access vocational training. “How to access the world outside is the biggest challenge,” the head teacher adds. If not nurtured appropriately, the vision and ambition of the youth may faint; hence it is important to work with the few role models and involve them as multipliers for change in the community.

Youth is the future of this community. This young woman finished her class 12 and is now applying for university.

Outlook: The need for Participation

The Rift Valley is not only an environmentally, but also a culturally fragile part of Kenya. It is part of one of the country’s poorest communities. The expansion of geothermal energy demonstrates that modernization comes with a complex set of socio-economic impacts on the local communities. The geothermal plant has contributed to the transformation of the Maasai community’s way of life. While the resettlement has improved the quality of life in some parts through better housing, sanitation, and education, it confronts the community with a tension of modern and traditional life styles. Providing alternate income opportunities for this community therefore requires a long-term process that can only succeed if owned by the community and involving key drivers of change in the creation of a change vision.

Other Resources:

Mariita, Nicholas O (2002): The impact of large scale renewable energy on the poor: environmental and socio-economic impact of a geothermal power plant on a rural community in Kenya. Energy Policy 30 (2002), 1119-1129

Mwangi-Gachau, Elizabeth (2011): Social aspects of geothermal development – A case of Olkaria geothermal project in Kenya. Kenya Electricity Generating Company Ltd.

[1] Philipp Juma Barasa (2015): Public Participation in the Implementation of the 280MW Geothermal Power Projects at Olkaria in Naivasha Sub-County, Nakuru County, Kenya. Proceedings World Geothermal Congress 2015.

Technology for Social Good – What a bicycle can teach us about technology adoption

Since the past year I have been working increasingly on the question how emerging technologies like block chain, internet of things, sensor technology, robotics, and artificial technologies can contribute to solving some of the world’s pressing challenges. Corporates, startups, innovators and development agencies are similarly excited about exploring the exponential impacts that possibly can be created, leveraging digital technologies. At Intellecap, we have been working with a range of clients on developing solutions, assessing the market potential and bringing tech solutions to market. A glimpse on Intellecap’s Point of View around the role of emerging technologies to contribute to Africa’s development agenda and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals can be found on the Microsite Africa 2030 – Technologies that shape Africa’s tomorrow.

While the potential is great, the elephant in the room is still how to actually foster technology adoption und unleash the potential of digital technologies by creating solutions that users at the “Base of the Pyramid” actually use and accept. Tech enthusiasts often refer to Africa’s leapfrogging story with the mobile phone revolution. With the spread of e-commerce, the continent may once again leapfrog and skip building physical supermarkets. Over the past years, we have been working with a range of tech startups and innovators to help create digital solution that address gaps in sectors like healthcare, energy, agriculture, water and sanitation, and financial inclusion, and while some of the innovations have scaled, others have not reached the expected potential. So the question remains:

Why do some tech innovations die while others survive?  

I am a fan of history and sociology of technology and thought a look into history may help to get some insights on technology adoption. Some interesting lessons can be drawn looking at the history of the bicycle: In retrospective, the evolution of the bicycle shows that technology adoption is not at all a linear process. In the 1880s, multiple variants of the bicycle with quite different features were present in the market – for those interested, some of the models included the Boneshaker, Penny Farthing Bicycle, or Lawson’s Bicyclette, and a range of variants with names like “Xtraordinary”, “Geard Facile” or the “Kangeroo”. So why did some variants die and others survived?  One of my favourite articles on tech adoption by Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker has some interesting insights:[1]

 

  1. Social groups matter!

Part of the answer lies in understanding the meaning different organized social groups such as institutions or organizations as well as organized or unorganized individuals attached to different variants of the bicycle. Instead of talking about the consumer or user, deciphering different social groups and the meaning they give to the technology artefact is important to understand the selection process. For the social group of young men, for example, riding a bicycle was primarily for sport rather than transport. On the other hand, for the female cyclist, an increasingly important social group at the time, reaching the church on Sunday in a faster manner was a key value proposition.

  1. Problem definition matters!

Different social groups had different problems with the technology features: Older men, for example, were primarily concerned about the safety, whereas women cyclists were concerned about whether a particular model was suitable for the dress code at the time. Other perceived problems included the speed or the vibration problem. These concerns spurred technology improvement and the introduction of brakes, the lower front wheel, spring frames, or the air tire. Again, solutions were interpreted differently by different social groups:  For some social groups, the air tire was a solution to the vibration problem, for others it was a means to going faster.

  1. Closure matters!

It took a process of a total of 19 years (1879 – 98) that the “safety bicycle” as we know it today with low wheels, rear chain drive, diamond frame and air tires evolved. So how did this stabilization happen? Generally, technology closure happens when controversy disappears. This does not imply that problems are solved, but that the relevant social groups view the problem as solved. Advertisement has played a key role in promoting how “perfectly safe” the bicycle was – and rhetorically closed the matter.  Re-defining the problem was another way to close controversy: While the air tire was perceived by the masses as aesthetically ugly, mounting the air tire onto a racing bicycle changed the perception. Opponents of the air tire were astonished when they witnessed the speed that could be achieved, leaving all rival cyclists behind. The problem was hence re-defined towards how to go fast – and by this redefinition, closure was achieved among two important social groups, the cyclists and the public.

The wider context: Tech innovations for social good

This look into history has important take-aways for the conversation around ‘technology for social good’: Technology adoption is essentially a social matter and needs to be deciphered in this manner. Social groups and the meaning they give to technology and different features as well as the perceived solution are key. Whether we create a hardware or software tech innovation for the ‘Base of the Pyramid’, technology adoption requires us to understand what features are perceived as a solution by the maximum numbers of relevant social groups in our context. – Next time, you want to understand whether an innovation creates value for a mass market, it may therefore be useful to map out all social groups that have a view about the technology, assess what problem they attach to the technology as well the perceived solution of a particular tech feature. What is needed to create closure among a large number of social groups?

[1] Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker: The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology Might Benefit Each other, The Social Construction of Technological Systems, MIT 2012, p. 11-44