A recent text suggests that with a human-centered design mindset, “all problems, even the seemingly intractable ones like poverty, gender equality, and clean water, are solvable.” This claim, however, is not borne out by over a decade of design projects in international development. Time and time again, issues beyond the traditional scope of design – of preexisting culture, politics, and economics – overwhelm the impact of even the best-designed artifacts and processes.
To explain this phenomenon, I propose a simple Law of Amplification that suggests (1) why a deeply ingrained “ethic of design” can be counterproductive for social change projects; (2) how following good design principles should sometimes lead away from problems addressable via design; and (3) when good design is most likely to have positive impact.
About Kentaro Toyama
Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology. Until 2009, Toyama was assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, where he founded a research group that conducts interdisciplinary research to invent new ways for technology to support the socio-economic development of the world’s poorest communities. Prior to his time in India, Toyama did computer vision and machine learning research and taught mathematics at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana. Toyama graduated from Yale with a PhD in Computer Science and from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree in Physics.
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