Better together: how design thinking can deepen social impact

Robert Fabricant and Ravi Chhatpar co-founded Dalberg Design five years ago. After a long history of working together at global innovation firm frog design, the pair were eager to focus more on the social impact sector and mesh their skills with an organization with the scope, expertise and mission that Dalberg could offer. Five years on, Dalberg Design is a World-Changing Company of the Year finalist in the Fast Company Awards – a marker, Robert says, of the fact that the firm now has “a very credible portfolio.”

We spoke to Robert and Ravi about the impact of the awards; why they joined forces with Dalberg, and why they’re so enthusiastic about how design can meet the needs of the world’s most underserved citizens.

What is the significance of the Fast Company Awards?

Robert Fabricant (RF): “Fast Company has always seen design as playing a critical role in driving business innovation. Alongside their Innovation by Design Awards are the World Changing Ideas Awards, which are focused on social impact. The fact that these two sit side-by-side is, for them, an appreciation that some of the most innovative ideas these days do not necessarily come from pure private sector business or market-driven efforts. I think they launched [the World Changing Ideas awards] understanding that a lot of their readers wanted to hear about how design and innovation can fuel positive impact in the world, so it balances out the tech-driven stuff that they normally recognize.

“There are a lot of really talented designers and technologists who are rethinking where and how they should be applying their thinking and their skills. One of the primary reasons that Ravi and I joined Dalberg was a recognition of all the creative capacity that could be unlocked around the world. [Look at the] skills and capabilities that we have in the amazing Dalberg staff, as well as the communities and organizations that we partner with. Part of our goal on each project is to find new ways to tap that capacity. That mission extends beyond our project work, to the founding of the Nairobi Design Institute, for example, or our support for UNLEASH – a global innovation lab where 1,000 people a year come together to work on advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.”

Dalberg has also received honorable mention for three projects that you have worked on – The Human Account; Tech Bets for an Urban World, and Design for Health. What does this recognition mean for the firm? 

RF: “We feel like finally, at the five-year point, we have a very credible portfolio in place. Last year, Fast Company recognized DigiFarm, which is a million-plus user platform to help smallholder farmers in East Africa that we designed and developed in collaboration with MercyCorps and Safaricom. But with The Human Account, for example, we’re not launching a product or a service, we’re creating a set of global insights – market by market, segment by segment – that could be transformative to financial service providers, governments and other stakeholders. We have shown how that data illustrates the needs of millions of people; with the huge scale of opportunity that represents. It is an incredibly unique resource, and a compelling way to shift the conversation and empower so many other actors in this space.

“The breadth of our work demonstrates what Dalberg can achieve as a complete organization. It also reflects a certain pride in some of the different things we’ve been able to accomplish by adding a small, agile design team into the mix. I am particularly excited by the diversity of the kind of work that has been recognized by Fast Company. In the past, they would only be interested in something like DigiFarm, because there’s a strong private sector and digital product angle. But what our design team has learned is that the capacity-building piece is equally as important to the success of a service like DigiFarm as the user research and UX design.

Our portfolio maps out the breadth of the space – from capacity-building (with Design For Health) to insights, to products and services, to business models (with Urban Tech Bets) – where we can bring design and demonstrate its value as a strategic process that starts early. Design is not a set of capabilities that comes ‘after’ the strategy has been figured out. Rather, the convergence of skills and expertise we now have within the firm are absolutely necessary to unlock the potential of the communities we are trying to serve better.”

Why did you found Dalberg Design? 

Ravi Chhatpar (RC): “If you really believe in achieving impact, we have to have the humility to say that design can’t solve all of the problems that we’d like. So having the ability to bring in financing, stitch together partnerships, think about policies, think about measurement and evaluation and how you assess real impact – those are disciplines that we knew little about before joining the firm; that the design world has only dabbled in, so organizations like Dalberg have a lot of expertise and knowledge that we couldn’t find anywhere else. Being able to tap into all of those other disciplines, we thought, would be a game-changer.”

RF: “For us, another big part of the reason to join Dalberg was to get out of the bubble. We didn’t want to start in San Francisco and try to figure this sort of design practice out, and then slowly grow from there. Establishing a Nairobi presence in our second year; establishing a Mumbai presence soon after… building out a team, the majority of whom are not in the US, that’s all been a part of making sure that we feel like we’re staying true to the integrity of the work and continuing to test out the potential of design in new contexts. 

“It’s very important to not jump quickly, to what you think are the right solutions, or what your instincts tell you is the right hypothesis, but to go to people and really see how solutions can fit in with and shape their lives positively. That’s one of the reasons that this collaboration with Dalberg has worked so well. As much as our colleagues have a very powerful set of tools, they know that the data they’re building off of, and the analysis and expertise that they can tap, often surfaces many gaps in understanding, particularly around user behavior. Our work at Dalberg is very much about how we bring those capabilities together to understand and address problems from a variety of  angles.”

What’s so special about Dalberg? 

RC: “We knew about Dalberg for a while, and really admired the real commitment to diversity that Dalberg has. It’s not all about a western-educated, elite school – Harvard, Oxford-bred management consultants. There’s a real effort to accommodate a diversity of perspectives and experience: Dalberg has 15 offices in Africa, and most of those offices are full of fantastic, local talent. There’s a lot of investment in growing that team and building their capabilities. Creating interdisciplinary and very diverse design teams is really hard to do. But when you get it right, it is truly magical. It’s something that I deeply believe in – that diversity just breeds the best form of creativity. We saw that as a similar value in Dalberg and it was so core to how we wanted to build our design team here from the ground up (and not with frog transplants).”

What is exciting about bringing human-centered design to the social impact space?

RF: “One of the things that has been such a natural part of the collaborations we do across the firm is that we start by looking at the challenge and the issue and the need. We recognise that that context can tell us so much more about how to potentially empower people, how to find different pathways for change and impact together with the people we are trying to support. But too often they don’t have a voice, or a seat at the table.”

RC: “At frog, at a certain point, I asked myself, what we’re being paid to do, and paid a lot of money to do, and a lot of money to have teams of some of the truly best and most amazing designers in the world do, is to try to convince you that the expensive smartphone you bought six months ago isn’t good enough anymore: you need to get the newer version with the latest camera. A lot of the work tried to help clients find that edge that gives you six months of advantage over your competitors. It feels like a rat race, and companies are spending millions of dollars on the best design talent in the world for this purpose – whether that’s Barclays (which employs more designers in the UK than any other company) or Samsung, with one of the largest design forces in the world.

“I remember when I first moved to China, and then started doing work in Indonesia and Vietnam, and I’m visiting villages and I’m walking through the rice paddies and you see a farmer using a simple mobile phone service – a small thing that just provides basic information on where to sell their produce for higher prices. A design like that might take 5% of my creative thinking but would make a huge difference. You just start asking yourself, where should the design capacity of the world really be directing its energy? The reason for this work comes out of a real belief that the world needs it and not enough people are doing it.” 

What’s next for Dalberg Design?

RC: “There’s so much need. It’s great that in a company like Dalberg, we’re working in places like Kenya and Rwanda and Tanzania and South Africa, but who’s doing work in the Central African Republic? Who’s doing work in Somalia? The list of countries and the need for design thinking is just too big to fathom. While we’re proud to have four Dalberg Design locations, I think from a pure geography perspective, we’re not as representative as we want to be. For example, Latin America is an obvious gap where we’re starting to do a lot of work –and we recently added an amazing Colombian designer to our team – but we would like to have a formal presence there. It would also be wonderful to have a Francophone design team in Dakar. 

“The human-centered design toolkit is always evolving, and I think The Human Account work, for example, really helped us understand how valuable behavioral science and behavioral design can be. Historically, that’s always been its own discipline, and we’re really interested to see how we can bring it into the fold. We have two behavioral scientists who have now joined our design team in Nairobi and Mumbai, and that intersection between behavioral science and human-centered design is an emerging field where I think there’s a lot of potential.

“There are many sectors that we would love to do more work in – from the domestic markets in the US and Europe to working in mental health, as we have done this year with CitiesRise, an initiative of GDI, another Dalberg offshoot. And while we’ve worked in agriculture and environmental sustainability, climate change is such a massive topic and there is a lot more to do there. So we’re continuing to expand the footprint of places where we can experiment.

“When we started Dalberg Design, we felt there were real opportunities for impact that we could bring as part of a truly global, interdisciplinary team. Looking at what we’ve already achieved, it’s exciting to see where the next five years will take us, and how the evolution of design can continue to support solutions for the world’s greatest challenges.” 

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