Design Intervention & Participatory Systems

Title photo by Shaun Fynn of Thunk in India weaver, Tamil Nadu village, India
Second image, Muhammad Yunus, photo by Andy Mettler

The idea of inclusive and participatory systems in business may not be particularly new but it is one that may have been harder to realize than other business practices. The Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, Nobel peace prize winner, author of Banker to the Poor, World Without Poverty and Building Social Business is someone who has dedicated a great deal of energy developing economic theory and business models that may leads us to new horizons of how we conduct business with more mutually beneficial results for the participants. What is most interesting about Yunus’ work is that it is not overtly ideological as many proponents of such systems have been before. In fact, his propositions of social business are not complex and are based on simple observation of stark realities.

“My greatest challenge has been to change the mindset of people. Mindsets play strange tricks on us. We see things the way our minds have instructed our eyes to see”

Muhammad Yunus

Yunus studied economics in the United States and returned to his native Bangladesh in the early 70’s to begin a teaching career in Dhaka. His return coincided with the end of the war of independence and Yunus realized that the economic theory he was teaching in the classroom had no relevance to the social or economic situation he witnessed outside the classroom as he observed the streams of starving refugees flooding into the city.

His response to this stark realization was the founding of the Grameen Bank (translated as village or rural).  This initiative pioneered the micro finance model and depended on lending to individuals who all financial institutions at that point had considered unworthy of credit, an interesting point highlighted by Yunus is that the majority of the world’s population has no access to credit. The first participants were primarily rural poor and predominantly women whom he regarded as more trustworthy in management of money and repayment of loan. This model was highly successful and formed the foundation for the social business concept where a social or community ideal is served and profit reinvested.

The Grameen Bank is not without its critics or opponents, some say it has become too franchised, political opposition has arisen, some debate the effectiveness of the model and how it should be applied but what is important is to return the concept of its foundation and explore how design can close the loop to bring some innovative and original business concepts to fruition.

One important debate is how scalable a model of social business should be. If something can work at a local level should it not work a global level too? Both are relevant propositions but today the effective social businesses that are design based do have a local impact or origin. Thunk in India is a great example of how to close the loop with design practice and thinking. Thunk is a small company based in Coimbatore, India who has evolved a functioning system of collecting waste plastic materials from factories, turning this into a woven fabric in Tamil Nadu villages using traditional loom methods and then designed into bags and fashion items in Bangalore. Everyone is a stakeholder, traditional skills are preserved, unnecessary geographical migration averted and the planets resources conserved.  There are no real losers in this form of business ecosystem. It is a local endeavor right now but the products of such ventures can become global and the business model could be scalable in the sense that it can repeated in other local contexts although the form may change.

Everyone is a stakeholder, traditional skills are preserved, unnecessary geographical migration averted and the planets resources conserved.  There are no real losers in this form of business ecosystem.

The French company Danone also ventured into the territory of combining their traditional profit maximized business with social business in their ventures to establish methods of local yogurt production and distribution in Bangladesh beneficial to stakeholders and community. They were so inspired by the Grameen model that they called Yunus personally to collaborate on this venture. This seems like a practical application of social business in the corporate sector where it becomes a parallel venture along side the profit maximized model allowing genuine concern for the participation and well being of the stakeholders and community. It maybe early days for such schemes but the concept of the hybrid model is well worth exploration. Such ventures go beyond corporate social responsibility whose critics sometimes consider as nothing more than a marketing tool or something that rarely translates into serious practice. 

Obviously there will be an overall beneficial brand building impact for companies like Danone with such ventures but why not build your brand this way? In a world of increasing consumer awareness and increasingly pressing social, infrastructural and environmental issues business ecosystems are ripe for reform and new ventures where design can close the loop.

Interesting links to explore
Grameen Creative Lab
Grameen Danone Foods
Daily Dump