The world has spent more than $3 trillion on development aid since the 1960s. These investments have achieved many successes, but challenges remain, with development “solutions” failing to really solve what ails the world. Clearly, the needs of people demand solutions that are innovative – but also feasible and scalable in terms of resources, capacities and the agendas of governments and development partners.

Esther Duflo and her colleagues at The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) who were awarded this year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, broke new ground in the field of development economics by using randomized controlled trials to identify what works in terms of intervention design in specific settings.

To continue building on these accomplishments, we need tools that help us grasp why interventions work, and how they might be scaled up or replicated in new locations. The challenge is to find a way to understand socio-economic,  cultural and political realities, including defining behaviors and social norms, and translate this complexity into effective development solutions.

Over the past five years together with a team of researchers at the Stockholm Environment Institute, I have been working on a way to integrate design thinking into development policy. I believe the results of our work could complement “the Duflo’s approach” and bridge national-level planning with granular local reality. This way, we can design well-fitted solutions and enable communities, implementers and donors to carry them out together side-by-side.

Service design is an approach for understanding people’s needs, motivations and behaviours as well as the context where they take place. It aims to create services or systems that meet the needs of the end-users. It has already been successfully applied to design public policy in Europe and North America,  but hasn’t yet gained traction in international development. So, we made a toolkit specifically with development interventions in mind. ( Explore our conceptual framework in the World Development Journal.)

The idea is to co-define a problem together with key stakeholders, then map the context of the problem from the perspective of the recipients, and after that co-design a solution through rapid prototyping and testing.

The conceptual framework for behaviour-based intervention design.

We tested this approach in East Africa, in three completely different situations: to design a weather index insurance product in Uganda, to support the development of mango value chains in Kenya, and to promote wider use of clean cookstoves, also in Kenya.

These trials helped us to identify three ways service design can be used in development interventions.

  1. To translate complexity into concrete solutions. In Uganda, we worked with local partners to understand how to design a weather index insurance suitable for small-scale farmers. This was challenging. Even in this target group, people are very different, with widely varying social networks, experiences, and levels of income, education and skills – all of which translate to a different degree of vulnerability and typical risk response behaviors. Using our toolkit, we created maps of how farmers interact with people around them and how they are affected by different conditions. Gradually we identified three main farmer archetypes – strongmoderate and weak capacity to respond to risks. We then developed possible insurance-based solutions for each of the archetypes and tested these in a field experiment too. The findings demonstrated that the solutions we proposed were highly relevant and provided a base for the design of climate insurance in the future.
  2. To ensure new interventions are inclusive. Service design addresses this question by vizualizing complex systems together with key stakeholders. This way everyone develops a joint understanding of the context and the problems. In Kenya, we worked with small-scale mango farmers who were not adopting post-harvest technologies provided by the funder. The assumption was that selling mangoes internationally would boost farmer’ incomes, and for that mangoes need to be without cosmetic damage. After applying our toolkit we found that farmers don’t have direct access to markets and are better off selling mangoes locally for juicing and pulping. Logically then, the main concern of farmers was increasing the quantity rather than the quality of mangoes. Moreover, our behavioral mapping exercise sparked an open discussion about how to solve the underlying problem between the project funder, the farmers and technology implementers. Later the project funder provided support for a small-scale processing plant so farmers can generate added value on-site.
  3. To fit rapid prototyping in development solutions. Service design uses quick prototyping of ideas and solutions, early in the design process, where there is still room to make changes at a relatively low cost. This makes it possible to create new services together with a range of stakeholders, including the final users. Incorporating multiple perspectives early in the design process, captures and translates the inherent contextual complexity into new services or system improvements. As a result, improvements have value and meaning for users, and they are feasible and scalable from the perspectiveof the implementors and service providers – right from the start. In an ongoing project in Kenya, we worked with the people who had just bought biomass pellet-burning cookstoves. The stove users identified the key problems, namely unreliable fuel supply and a lack of local technical support for when stoves act up or break. They also worked in teams to develop solutions to these problems, which were then communicated to service providers and public policy managers. As a result, all the parties agreed that more efforts should go into supporting users later on in the cookstove adoption journey. Furthermore, pellet fuel producers are pushing for lower taxes and the enforcement of fuel quality standards which would spur the development of the fuel supply infrastructure.

By all means, these are small-scale trials, and they need a wider application to prove their worth. However, already at this early stage, the approach shows that service design can help us make sense of the complexity surrounding development interventions. It offers a way to work side by side with people who the development solutions are for. With this approach, we can deliver what international development projects aim for: solutions that work because they are context-specific yet scalable and because they are grounded in reality by design.