Seven Ways to Improve Everything for Everybody

Kel Smith

This presentation is all about using technology to remove barriers: the economic, physical and logistic gaps that separate people from the things they fundamentally need. Whether our goal is improving access to education, affordable housing, healthy food or social justice, we can be inspired by new forms of design thinking that make human services accessible and meaningful to everyone.

During this session, we’ll examine real-world examples of frugal innovation around the globe. We’ll build upon these case studies to formulate a sustainable, outcomes-based framework for social impact, and we’ll uncover ways that digital tools can amplify these benefits to serve people of all abilities and backgrounds.


Thank you. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, wherever you are. I want to start by telling you a story about water. It’s actually not about water, it’s about the inherent optimism of today’s design thinking. There are parts of the world—mostly developed countries such as the Gambela region of Ethiopia and others—where people get their daily water from a river nearby. The river is usually polluted. This is what they use for their daily drinking and bathing and whatnot. Obviously, polluted water is a problem. What many well-meaning government agencies and private companies want to do is install water treatment facilities in these areas so people have a constant, fresh, free source of clean water. The only problem is they’re having a hard time getting people to use them. Why would someone make a conscious decision to get polluted water rather than get it from a free facility? For one thing, in order to use the facility, people are required to use the five gallon government-issue container. Which isn’t a problem in and of itself, until you consider how many people in developing nations tend to carry large objects. If you think about this, you realize they carry large objects on their heads. I can’t speak for anyone in this conference, I know that I’m not strong enough to life five gallons of water and put it on my head and walk any distance. Right away, that’s a design flaw.

There’s another aspect that I think is a little more subtle. As soon as the river was removed from the equation, they removed an essential component of what made these people who and what they are as a community. Everything happens at the river. This is where they congregate. This is where they worship. This is where they educate their children and settle disputes. By removing that component of their lifestyle, in some ways, it destroyed the very fabric of heir society and way of life.

This is an example that I didn’t come up with on my own. I found it in a really, really interesting paperthat appeared in the Stanford Innovation Review, written by Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt. They mentioned this example as well as others. They say, time and again, these otherwise well-meaning initiatives will fail because they’re not based on the needs and behaviors that people actually have to use them. We live in interesting times, which probably goes without saying. We live in these times when almost everyday we have some new technological thing happening. I remember five years ago the iPad came out. Then it went to wearables. Now we’re talking about AI and machine learning. Yet, there are still some areas where some of these fundamental questions don’t get answered and fundamental problems don’t get solved.

As a way of example, the year I was born, Victor Papanek wrote what I think is the seminal book on this topic. I would think it’s been mentioned today already at some point, but if it hasn’t, I will mention it. It’s a book called Design for the Real World. It still holds up. It’s absolutely brilliant. To me, everything that we’re talking about today pretty much begins and ends inside these pages. Mr. Papanek is also responsible for this mildly complex mind map diagram where he tried to depict, pictorially, the dichotomy between what people really need and how we get them to that point. I’m not going to read every single bubble here, thankfully, but I do want to point out two items. He calls out that what people really need is participation and making goals for themselves. The way false goals are achieved is when we do a very small part of what needs doing in order to keep things the way that they are. That’s part of the dichotomy, as he saw it.

How do we solve this problem? I’ll go into that in just a few moments. First I want to tell you another example of inherent optimism in design thinking. This one is close to me because I actually work in this space. It’s also close to home because it takes part here in the United States, where I live. Just like there are people who don’t have access to fresh water, there are also people here in this country who don’t have access to fresh, affordable food. They call these “food deserts” in the United States. Time and again, people who live in primarily urban areas, though it can be rural as well, they tend to rely on corner bodegas and small shops for their food items. These places tend to be overstocked with junk food and other kinds of non-nourishing items. Again, this is not a critique. Well-meaning people look at this and think, “You know, we really need to have a grocery store in this neighborhood. That would solve all the problems.” So they have a somewhat awkward groundbreaking ceremony. People come by in suits and put a shovel in the ground and everybody comes by and says, “Look! This used to be a food desert,” in Gary, Indiana or Eureka, California or Camden, New Jersey or anywhere else. Now the problem is solved and there’s tremendous celebration because 46,000 square feet of nonperishable stock has now entered into the community. Everything is fantastic, until two years later, for any number of reasons, the store is unable to maintain its profit margin and it goes out of business. Now the problem is worse than ever. Because not only have they lost a food source, they’ve also lost a source of employment.

Yet, someone has managed to overcome these obstacles. A man by the name of Jeff Brown, who heads an organization called Uplift Solutions, has opened a number of ShopRite supermarkets in the new York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia corridor, in areas that used to be known as food deserts. These stores are thriving. They’re bright and beautiful and they do fantastic. They’re almost ensconced in the community. What has Mr. Brown figured out that other people haven’t?

If you were to do a Google search for things like “social innovation”, you would see there are a number of frameworks and books and articles out there. They all kind of center around the same idea. In order to achieve productive, positive change, we need some combination of vision, skills, incentive, resources, and an action plan. That’s how we move forward. If any of these things are missing, things tend to go asunder. If we don’t have vision, people get confused. If we don’t have skills, people get anxious. If we don’t have incentive, we have delays. If we don’t have resources, people get frustrated. If we don’t have a proper action plan, we have many false starts. Just so you know, I’ve done every single one of these mistakes at some point. Just by way of disclaimer. However, one thing I have thought about, as good as something like this can be, in terms of a strategic model, it doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of how to bind good design to good results. I thought about this for a long time. This is the kind of thing I think about. I struggle with this question. In the summer of 2014, I found the answer. I found it in a very unlikely place.

About five years ago, a Kansas City advertising agency called Victors and Spoils was charged with developing a campaign to get people to eat more broccoli. I was fascinated by this. I read about this in The New York Times magazine. I reached out to the person behind the campaign. His name is Andy Nathan. He knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody who knew me, so kind of playing the networking game. He agreed to talk to me for about one to two hours. Really smart guy. Really brilliant. He said a lot of smart things. But the one thing that stuck out to me, more than anything else, was when he said, “You know, Kel, it’s not about getting people to eat broccoli. It’s about changing behavior. The only way you can change a behavior—there’s one thing you absolutely have to do. You have to create an enemy.” I started thinking, “Alright, who or what could be the enemy of broccoli?” The enemy of broccoli was deemed to be kale. Broccoli’s hipster doofus cousin. If you really want to be healthy, you eat broccoli. That’s the real stuff. Kale was for posers. We can agree or disagree on that, but it worked very well.

I began to think, “What is the enemy of inherent optimism? What is the enemy of poorly thought out design thinking?” I’m not sure what you call it but I think I know what it looks like. Here we have a staircase in Minsk and a photo taken by my friend, Deb Gelman. This is about 26 or so steps. You’d think, “That’s a lot of steps for somebody who’s elderly or blind or in a wheelchair or a father and mother with a kid in a stroller,” or anything like that. Again, someone, very well-intentioned, thought, “We need to do something about this. Provide a ramp or some alternative means of going up and down these flights.” They created a very long, steep slope. Which is very dangerous to go down and next to impossible to go up. I’m not sure what you call this, but this is the enemy. The things we’re talking about here is this nice-to-have, this bolt-on, something that happens after the thought. What we need here is some means of, perhaps, thinking about this in advance.

Which is why I will introduce to you, as per the title of this discussion, seven ways that we can achieve sustainable impact. I’m not saying they go in order. I’m not saying you use them all. I’m not saying you have to use any of them in any particular instance. These are just examples that I’ve seen in my investigation and I’m like to share them with you. We’ll see where we go.

They are as follows: problem recognition, personal empowerment, solution framing and reframing, persistence, upcycling, storytelling, and understanding. I will explain all of these esoteric terms. No one will be left out.

They are as follows: problem recognition, personal empowerment, solution framing and reframing, persistence, upcycling, storytelling, and understanding. I will explain all of these esoteric terms. No one will be left out.

We’ll start with recognition. Which, to me, is about acknowledging that there are social models of exclusion that take place. I’ve certainly seen it in my work in the disability sector. It’s often unspoken but it is there and it’s something that we have to acknowledge and recognize is part of the design construct. I’ve been doing some work with the Renaissance Project in New Orleans, who really impress me. Even 10+ years after the effects of Hurricane Katrina, more than half of working age African-Americans males in New Orleans remain out of work. The Renaissance Project tries to build cultural and economic programs, largely centered around the Lower Ninth Ward, in terms of elevating this consciousness. I bring them up because I’ve gotten to know Greta Gladney very well, who is the executive director of the Renaissance project. What she has said is that people tend to live in a scarcity mindset. For them, it’s just a given that there are those who will go without. That’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it always will be. I’m not saying it’s our responsibility as designers to change that, necessarily. However, I think it is our responsibility to understand why and how that can happen. Because once we do that, we can look at achieving empowerment. Which, in my mind, is really about celebrating the self. I think about someone like Ron Finley, pictured here, who is known as the Guerilla Gardener of Los Angeles. He takes empty parking lots in south central LA and turns them into gardens so he can distribute vegetables throughout his neighborhood. I think about 15 year old Trisha Prabhu, who developed an app called ReThink, which helps to educate and protect young people when they go online from cyber bullies. This is a very wise quote from Trisha: “I already know how to code. I know it’s something I’m passionate about. I know that I can make a difference.” By empowering herself, she ends up empowering other folks.

While we’re talking about technology, we should think about what the role of technology really is in this space. The way I look at it is, it’s about expanding the continuum of human capability by framing and reframing a problem in different ways. For example, I think about Liam McCarthy, who got a 3D printer so he could develop a prosthetic hand for his son. What compels someone to do this? What compels Alexander Shay to create a foot-powered wheelchair for his young son who has a spinal injury, so he can control the wheelchair on his own? I think about the words of Dana Florence, who is a mother of three children with cerebral palsy. She is the executive director of a nonprofit that supports parents with kids with disabilities. What she has said, and I’ve heard her say this, is: “The most frustrating thing for me, as a parent, is waiting for something that I know I’ll never get to use. Because it’s hidden in some university laboratory someplace. Or any number of logistical or financial or other reasons why something that could transform my child’s life is just not available to me.” They try to find the solution themselves or build it themselves. There’s a very terse meaning here. This idea of persistence. This idea of constantly looking at problems and trying to translate them into a what-if scenario. For example, Gabriel Diamante, who developed an open-source still that transforms salt water into freshwater through some kind of composite ceramic housing. I think about Dr. David Walmer, who has developed his own colposcope, which is made out of a pair of binoculars, a bike lamp, and a green filter. It sounds kind of basic, but what he’s done with this intriguing instrument, is reduce the instance of cervical cancer in Haiti by almost double digit percentages. I take great inspiration by things happening in developing countries. For example, an all female technology collective in Nairobi called the Akirachix. They created a very simple SMS texting app that improves price transparency among farmers, thus helping distribution of crops to the villages in Kenya who need them, and reducing market corruption.

One of the things that has probably been discussed already today, and I think we all would agree to this, seeking inspiration from the things that surround us. Upcycling solutions in different kinds of ways. I think that’s really what being sustainable is about. It’s about not having to discard a solution that maybe didn’t work for one thing but could work for another. An example I’ve always like is this by the My Shelter Foundation. There are many homes in the slums of the Philippines who don’t have electricity. So they sit in the dark in the middle of the day.This group takes discarded plastic bottles, fills them with chlorinated water, and puts them on the roofs of the homes, which creates natural light. They’ve done this in 10,000 homes in Manila alone.

When we get into telling these stories, it’s one thing to say what the problem was and what we did for it. But it’s another to think about what success looks like and how we know if something is working. How do we emphasize the results of a solution? Consider the example of Architecture for Humanity, who build schools in Africa. Very, very well-designed schools. If you were to ask the executive director of Architecture for Humanity, Cameron Sinclair, he would tell you that he’s not funded based on the school’s design. He’s funded based on the number of jobs that the school will ultimately create in that community. He has a very specific marker of success that he uses.

Which brings me to the last component, which is understanding. I have here “design for empathy and accountability.” I think these have to go together. Empathy is one of these words that I think is, to be honest, is getting used quite a bit in design space. Perhaps used too often. To me, empathy has to be bound to accountability in order to create that sense of understanding. That sense of, yes, I get it. I understand all of the social, cultural, and economic factors of a problem. My ability to be able to create transformational impact because I really do understand it well. I think the only way to achieve that is to immerse ourselves into an environment. If you’re interested in developing an agricultural program for kids in urban areas, you know what? Go to a school in an urban area and talk to them and get an idea of what would translate well. If you’re one of the many people who want to disrupt healthcare through use of an app or device, one thing I would probably go is spend time in a clinic with the front desk nurses. These people are superheroes. They’re the ones who keep the health ecosystem moving. It involves a lot of phone work and a lot of paper. If you have been charged with developing a mobile app for people who can’t see, turn off the screen on your phone and rely on voiceover or talkback and get an idea of what it’s like for them. Millions of people do this. It’s perfectly possible. In fact, they excel at it. If you’re interested in creating a sustainable source of light for homes with no electricity, sometimes it’s valuable to turn off the lights in your house and try to get along for a few days and see what that’s like.

I really think this is how we graduate from the area of “nice-to-have” to something that is essential for human survival. I think this translates no matter what kind of technological solution of design construct we’re starting with. I know that we’re in a time when the discussion now is about artificial intelligence and machine learning and when are robots going to take over our jobs and all that. But we will never lose that human component. We will never lose the importance of hearing someone tell a story and being able to say to them, “Yes. I get it.” In case you’re wondering, yes, this is the binary code for the words “I get it.” I looked it up.

Every technological advancement over the past 500 years has followed the same format. Whether we’re talking about the first prosthetic hand or moveable type or the Post-It note. Anything in the past, or whatever technology ultimately becomes, as I said before, it’s all about extending human capability by meeting fundamental human needs.

I have a few minutes left I think. I’ve been told, or at least I’ve read, or somehow I’ve noticed, that people only tend to remember three things from many presentations. So I thought I would give you three takeaways as the conclusion of this talk. I’m going to give them to you in the form of quotes by my late grandfather, who himself was a designer and an architect and a humanitarian and, frankly, a little bit of a curmudgeon. I’ve always taken these with me. I think they translate well to our theme of SustainableUX here today. These are three quotes by Kel’s grandfather. Get ready.

The first one is: “If it was a snake, it would bite you.” This is what he would say to me when he asked me to go into the garage to get something and I couldn’t find it, even though it was right in front of my face. Chances are, there is something obvious that we’re missing. It probably has to do with understanding the behaviors and attitudes of the people that we want to serve. It makes perfect sense that no one could put a five gallon of water on their head and walk some distance. But it’s OK, because once we understand that, we can work with it. It becomes obvious only because we get exposed to it eventually.

“You can’t get up from the top,” that’s the second one. Every failure is an opportunity. I’ve certainly failed as much as anyone, if not more. I’ve learned that success is a process. There’s never a shortage of good ideas. The difference, largely, between success and failure is the attention to the boring logistical details. Being able to understand at what point we need to perhaps change our thinking in order to move forward.

Finally: “Remember where you came from.” In my mind, SustainableUX and sustainable design practices are not simply about how to make better apps or sites or wireframes or doing better research. Although those are absolutely critical. It’s really about addressing our own capacity for human survival. Design is about our heritage. It’s about legacy. It’s about culture and love and faith and healing and pride. The work we do will bind families, it builds communities, it reduces social isolation, and it makes for a more inclusive society that helps everyone, no matter where they live or what they can do.

I want to thank you all for taking the time today and just kind of hanging out. I also want to thank Jen, James, and Jenn from SustainableUX for putting this together. In case you’re interested, I did write a book about some of this stuff. It’s called Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind. It was published by Murray-Kaufman two or three years ago. I’ve been told it still holds up. In any event, that’s me. Thank you all for the time and I hope you enjoy the rest of your day.

Tim Brown and Jocelyn Wyatt.: Design Thinking for Social Innovation
Design for the Real World
Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind


Kel Smith is a designer, author and instructor in all things related to technology and behavior. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, and his speaking credits span nearly 100 cities in seven countries. Kel’s work as been featured on CBC Radio’s “The Current,” the BBC Ouch! Network, National Public Radio, The Globe & Mail Canada, WBAL Radio, The Austin Chronicle, Fast Company and Baltimore Magazine.

Kel is an adjunct instructor at the Center for Innovation Education at Rutgers University, and he has mentored young entrepreneurs in Kenya and Sierra Leone for Global Minimum. Kel is the author of the book Digital Outcasts: Moving Technology Forward without Leaving People Behind, published by Morgan Kaufmann in 2013, and he sits on the Board of Directors for Inglis Foundation. He lives and works in Philadelphia and New York City.