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Of all the ills that impede development around the world, persistent conflict may be the most pernicious and the most widespread. As the World Bank noted in its April 2011 report, insecurity “has become a primary development challenge of our time. One-and-a-half billion people live in areas affected by fragility, conflict, or large-scale, organized criminal violence, and no low-income fragile or conflict-affected country has yet achieved a single United Nations Millennium Development Goal.”1

Much of this conflict takes the form of “small wars” that involve nonstate armed groups such as insurgents, terrorists, pirates, gangs, narcotics and weapons traffickers, and people smugglers. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) now spends almost 60 percent of its foreign assistance in 50 countries that are experiencing, recovering from, or attempting to prevent armed conflict.2 Civil war also takes its toll. Some estimates of the social and economic cost of a civil war to a low-income country run as high as $54 billion.3 But the costs aren’t just financial. Violence also poses huge challenges for public and private entities that work in these dangerous and unstable environments. And many of the traditional approaches to development simply will not work in conflict-ridden zones. From lack of mobility for aid workers stuck “behind the wire” to the corruption unleashed by the cash that flows from large-scale programs to the difficulty of finding local partners able to stay the course amid instability, development projects in war-torn regions present unique challenges.

We believe that work in these difficult regions requires a new approach, which we call Designing for Development. The approach combines several elements. First, to create a deep understanding of the issue to be addressed, it calls for quantitative, remote observation and analysis, using new tools, such as big data, crowd-sourced reporting, and interactive visualization. To build a deep contextual understanding, it also requires on-the-ground observation and research, preferably carried out and directed by well-trained members of the local community. Finally, the big data and local insight must be integrated and used to shape a solution with the help of design thinking.

Let’s look at the data component first. New analytical methods, powered by advances in computing power and software, enable the use of data in important new ways. The ability to manipulate big data, visualize dynamics, and recognize patterns and signatures for conflict creates new opportunities for humanitarian and development assistance in the most complex and dangerous environments. New tools also enable remote assessment in places that are simply too risky for traditional on-the-spot evaluation. Analysts can use signatures—patterns of population movement, price fluctuations, market activity, or Internet usage, for example—to make informed judgments on the stability of a community over time.

Acquiring the data to be analyzed has also become more feasible. The World Bank,USAID, and the United Nations, for example, have all taken steps to improve transparency and accountability through data sharing. USAID offers the Foreign Assistance Dashboard, a data-driven interface that allows users to examine, research, and track aid investments. Interested users can trace USAID investments in programs to support peace and security programming worldwide. At the World Bank, users can call up the Data Visualizer, which tracks civil war, homicides, terrorism, and trafficking in countries around the world, as well as socioeconomic, demographic, and political data to put it into context.4

Organizations also have more options for generating data themselves. The Frontier Digital Gazette, an open-source tool developed by a Caerus associate, helps civil society and local governments collaborate, while Crowdmap, from Ushahidi, allows users to crowdsource information and display it on a map and timeline. Walking Papers, created by Stamen Design, is a tool for citizen-generated mapping that enables real-time exchange of data. Caerus is now helping to adapt it for use in conflict zones.

Local insight

But remote observation and computation, alone, do a poor job of developing usable insight. Data can be corrupt or patchy, analyses open to multiple interpretations, and causation difficult to identify. Hence, the best new approaches combine quantitative remote observation with on-the-spot qualitative field research by teams of local, primarily indigenous analysts and designers.

Obviously, fieldwork in conflict environments requires close attention to risk management and security, as well as a tight partnership with local communities. And this underlines a lesson that development professionals have learned and relearned in conflicts over decades: the local population truly is the principal actor. Far from being a passive recipient or “beneficiary” of international or governmental expertise and largesse, in real-world environments the locals rapidly end up calling the shots. Acting on this understanding—genuinely putting local people, their perceptions and ideas, their priorities and knowledge at the heart of a design-driven development approach—is hard but important.

Designing for experience and impact in conflict environments

The two perspectives—remote observation and deep-dive fieldwork—must next be fused into an integrated picture of conditions on the ground. We can then begin to design for development in a more conscious and deliberate way, even under conflict conditions. The disciplines that make up the field of design—graphic, product, structural, process, and business model design—share a focus on creative problem solving. In recent years, evidence-based disciplines such as management consulting have taken notice of design. Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, in Toronto, describes design as the ability to create better things as opposed to traditional analytic thinking, which he says is about choosing between things that already exist. Like design, development seeks to create new experiences for communities: justice, equitable access to resources, political legitimacy, economic stability, and peace. Thus, design and development share a commitment to transforming the status quo, in creative ways that may not be readily apparent at the outset.

Human-centered design

Human communities are the engines of social transition, and thus meaningful development programs must put communities at the center of the design process, but doing so in a high-threat environment presents extra challenges. Designers must be present in the community long enough to build credibility and trust, and to help align interests within and across communities. But they must also be acutely aware of the risk their presence may create for themselves and the communities, and must actively work to mitigate that risk.

Designing for development can help manage many of these challenges. Following a process that combines remote observation with deep field research can facilitate deep understanding of both the community and its issues. A willingness to experiment, synthesize feedback, and engage in real-time learning and rapid prototyping can help to understand and avoid unintended consequences before scaling up. Where poor freedom of movement threatens accountability, crowd-sourced reporting technologies can augment community-led monitoring and evaluation.

Our experience suggests that restrained, nonintrusive, minimally disruptive interventions, guided by local knowledge, are the key. Practitioners must be trained, equipped, and prepared to accept a level of physical risk that allows them to engage communities directly, without the massive security presence or logistical footprint that typifies traditional approaches. Most important, they must be willing to support the community’s emerging ideas and resist the temptation to impose their own goals, timelines, and objectives.

Problem solvers working amid the overlapping challenges posed by conflict—resource inequity, poverty, fragile governance, environmental damage, and disease—need imagination and integrative thinking skills. Development professionals, designers, and communities need to be the joint architects of social, economic, and political change. A design approach to development emphasizes communities’ experience and unique perspectives, informed by rigorous analysis.

Designing for development in this way, truly putting local people at the center of a design process that seeks to optimize their experience, we believe, is the best path to overcoming the threat that conflict poses to social, political, and economic development.

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Tags: Big Data, Data Science, Data guys, Decision Science, small wars

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