Can Consumer Product Design Really Drive Systemic Social Change?

04/03/2015 11:30 | Updated 03 May 2015

A recent Forbes piece by Ashoka's Michael Zakaras takes product design to task as a source of transformational social change. To provide an antidote to the fashionable fascination with "things" as the answer to all our social ills, the article uses examples like Toms Shoes' one-for-one model and the distribution of mosquito nets as evidence that products normally fail to engage with the roots of complex social problems.

In one sense, he is completely right. Toms Shoes' give-a-man-a-pair-of-shoes model is nonsense as a form of systemic social change. There is strong evidence that, like free mosquito nets, this approach undermines and damages local markets, develops reliance on handouts and presents a destructive, outdated image of helpless recipients and grinning, bounteous donors.

But these aren't inevitable characteristics of mission driven consumer products, they are inevitable characteristics of bad ideas and poor design. Any type of social design - whether a piece of legislation, an infrastructure investment, an education programme, a community scheme or a consumer tech product, can be ill-conceived. It can also be developed and implemented in isolation, which characterises many of the examples used by Michael Zakaras and other critics. Systemic change is only possible when several strands of intervention combine over a long period of time.

Consumer products have a unique role to play in the development of multifaceted, systemic social interventions, which can be unlocked by human centred, iterative design.

Here are three characteristics of that role:

1. Consumer products are very effective in the "last mile"

Product design is an essential companion to other forms of intervention because it connects directly to everyday consumer behaviour, which is intimately linked to so many of the social problems that we face. While many forms of intervention create the context for change, such as awareness and public policy, consumer products can ensure that it reaches the target audience and translates it into action.

It is actually in the negative role that products can play where we see this potential role most clearly. Many efforts at public education, which tout the long term and communal rewards of positive habits, are ambushed at the point of decision making by the highly appealing and immediately gratifying range of products and services that surround us everyday.

High streets in many deprived areas illustrate this effect strikingly, with fried chicken shops, pay-day loan companies and bookies often dominating the urban landscape. While education can increase awareness of the risks of these services and public policy can reduce their density, these products reflect real needs, which cannot be ignored.

Social innovation that repopulates these environments with products and services that meet consumer demand and deliver positive behavioural and social effects are crucial. The pay day loan services of Faisel Rahman's Fair Finance or our own work to put new healthy, tasty and affordable fast food on high streets in areas dominated by unhealthy takeaway outlets are both being developed in the context of an evolving legislative framework that is capping loan interest rates and investigating the creation of exclusion zones around schools for unhealthy fast food.

2. Consumer products as a source of prevention

Early intervention to prevent the emergence of social problems is perhaps the biggest priority of a progressive society. There are many ways of delivering early intervention, including awareness campaigns that inform better choices, like Change4Life, and government services that target the early years, such as Sure Start.

Consumer products can complement these services and campaigns to unlock another source of early action and prevention. You can already see this happening consistently, from health and debt to education and sustainability. Currently, this picture is much is clearer amongst the protective purchasing behaviours of the "worried well", who represent a large pool of existing demand and disposable income to be tapped for commercial product developers. The growth in high end wearable health tech products, like Jawbone and Pebble, and mindfulness meditation apps that target young urbanites, such as Headspace and Buddhify, would be good examples of this.

However, this hasn't stopped the positive preventative effects of some products reaching audiences that benefit the most, at a very large scale.

Sometimes, this has come through a combination of technological progress, improving public infrastructure and decreasing production and distribution costs. In health, flushable toilets, toothbrushes and hand soap - and hundreds of everyday consumer products like it - have helped transform public health through prevention over the last 100 years. Some bottom of the pyramid product design also operates within this context and has this effect.

Most excitingly, a growing group of mission driven consumer product designers, like Proximity Designs and Significance Labs, are finding opportunities for innovation that would be left untouched by commercial designers and, as a result, unlocking new benefits in the most important segments of the market. A particularly interesting area of innovation is in personal finance products, such as Hello Wallet and Digit, which use defaults to help you save, or low-fee remittance services like WorldRemit.

3. Products as self-perpetuating solutions

Michael Porter believes that businesses are entering a new phase in their relationship with society, within which actual products and services will provide the most powerful tool for solving social problems. This theory of "shared value" predicts that the most innovative companies will move beyond the traditional routes of philanthropy and corporate social responsibility to using their core business to drive change and generate more profits.

At the heart of this vision is a very compelling proposition: if you want to drive systemic change, you have to identify and harness the most powerful resources within that system. Stating that "all wealth is created by business...and business creates wealth when it meets needs at a profit," Porter unequivocally identifies products and profits as the means to unlocking the world's greatest pool of resources for social progress.

It doesn't really matter whether or not you choose to drink all of Michael Porter's shared value Kool-Aid. He identifies the key problem for innovations that attempt to drive profound change sustainably and at scale - a lack of resources - as well as the main source of these resources - revenue from products. Unlike interventions that are funded by grants or government, products that "create wealth by meeting needs at a profit" tap into the best fuel for self-perpetuation.

Developing products that align user needs, positive social impact and commercial value within some of the most challenging marketplaces is not straightforward. But, as Michael Porter suggests, we have to take on this challenge if we hope to harness our biggest resources to face-off our biggest social problems.