13 June 2013

Design Thinking and the Politics of Atrocity Prevention

By Andrew Blum, Vice President, Program Management and Evaluation. United States Institute of Peace. Views expressed are my own, not that of my organization.

I have followed the Atrocity Prevention Challenge for awhile. So when I heard on Twitter that the challenge moved into the “evaluation” phase I spent some time reading through the ideas of the 17 organizations chosen as finalists. The winners of the Challenge were announced on June 5. 

I came away underwhelmed. Of course there were some good ideas, but nothing I saw had the potential to be transformative.

So what happened? After all, the Challenge was organized by a veritable super group of organizations: Humanity United, USAID, and OpenIDEO. Humanity United and USAID have done very good work on conflict management and atrocity prevention, and IDEO is a leader in the design field. 

The answer I think lies in the structure of the challenge, which is organized under the top-line question: How might we gather information from hard-to-access areas to prevent mass violence against civilians?

The little two-letter word in that question is doing an awful lot of work, and signals the core premise of the Challenge, that if we get the gathering of information correct, then atrocities will be prevented. This is a mistake we’ve been making for a long time. The mostly implicit idea behind the “first generation” of early warning/early response initiatives was that if we build really good predictive models of conflict (and maybe include enough advanced statistical techniques) those predictions would be compelling enough to create a response. 

It didn't happen. 

Merchants have joined the peace networks. Disputes at the market can be swiftly defused. [credit: USAID/Sudan]
It’s hard not to see the innovative information-gathering and visualization tools of current efforts as just the latest effort to make the presentations of information compelling enough on its own to create a response.

We should know better by now. So again, what happened? 

I would argue that part of problem is the limits of “design thinking” in its current form. This approach, championed by IDEO, began in the world of things, and the world of software - in the design of shopping carts and user interfaces. More recently it has more adopted by non-profits and “social innovators”. Design thinking is not one thing, but at its core is the idea of re-engineering things and processes in an on-going, iterated way in order to solve problems that impact people (design thinking is often called human-centered design). In the Art of Innovation, for instance, Tom Kelley, one of IDEO’s founders, talks about keeping a “bug list”.

A list of things in the world that we may take for granted, but that don’t work right, or that create problems and extra effort expended. At the top of my list right now is the fact that parallel parkers in DC can cause traffic to back up for minutes at a time. So the design question is, could we re-engineer the parallel parking system (streets, cars, spaces) to solve this “bug”?

Design thinking excels when there is some consensus on the problem at hand. People don’t like to be stuck in traffic as the result of parallel parkers. If the goal is clear, design thinkers are really good at working on identifying new pathways to get there, and finding creative ways of removing hurdles along those pathways. But what if there is a lack of consensus on the problem? 

What if there were two different groups in DC. One of whom hated sitting in traffic, one of whom saw sitting in traffic as fundamental to their identify? In other words, what if the problem was political. 

Without going too far into the thickets of political philosophy, I think we can agree that political problems are those defined by issues of identity, power, and legitimate authority, and how they interact. How do we organize ourselves into formal and informal political communities with a common identity? How do we grant legitimate authority? How is power gathered and wielded to confront illegitimate authority?

Students visiting the temple at Naqa to teach the them about their common identity and culture [credit: USAID/Sudan]
Atrocity prevention from the local to the international level is an intensely and inherently political process. Those working on atrocity prevention must find creative ways to confront illegitimate authority, disrupt the configuration of identities that contribute to violence, and craft new means to provide legitimate authority for those with the power to prevent atrocities. 

What the Challenge did is identify a narrow slice of the atrocity prevention challenge, the gathering of information, that is highly-amenable to a design thinking approach. What if we have information in one place that we want to get to another place? What are the systems and processes we would need to engineer to move that information? Admittedly, the information itself is politically-loaded, but within this frame, the groups who don’t want the information to get out become simply a bug to engineer solutions around.

To be concrete, I want to compare the atrocity prevention problem, as identified by the Challenge, with a different project that both Humanity United and my organization, the United States Institute of Peace, have supported in Sudan. A UK-based organization, Peace Direct, helped establish the Collaborative for Peace in Sudan, which among other things, is working to create peace zones in South Kordofan. These are communities that refuse to participate in the war in South Kordofan and whose members work with all sides of the conflict to maintain peace in their area. 

These efforts are similar to the long-running “peace communities” effort in Colombia. Think about the nature of these efforts. The peace committees in South Kordofan are constantly confronting dangerous sources of power, finding new means to establish authority within the areas they work, working to craft new identity groupings that mitigate instead of exacerbate violence and so on. 

Collaborative for Peace in Sudan peace building seminar
The point here is not that these efforts are local, it is that they are political. Similar political processes need to take place within the UN or the United States Department of Defense before an international response to prevent atrocity can take place.

It’s not good enough to argue that this is simply a division of labor – let’s innovate on how we gather information and let others figure out the messy political realities of the response. This is not a two-step process.

The information gathered has to be gathered, aggregated, communicated, and leveraged with the responses in mind. Returning to the South Kordofan example, it may be the case, for instance, that because much of the politics in the area relies on the interaction between nomads and settled communities, the rainfall pattern is the key piece of information to feed into the process of establishing safe zones. Looked at this way, even the core assumption of the Challenge, that we should be gathering information on atrocities in order to prevent atrocities, is one that may need to be questioned.

I am not privy to how the Challenge was designed. But from the outside looking in, it seems as if the approach, design thinking, helped shape how the problem was defined, instead of vice-versa. 

If documentation of atrocities is our goal, and it’s a worthy goal in its own right, then the approach would fine. If we want to prevent atrocities, however, we have to design solutions that can confront the exceedingly complex politics involved. Perhaps ironically, this would constitute a true innovation in the field.