Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Change Engineering to the Rescue

How do people and communities change their behavior? We can do all the inventing we want, but if we don’t anticipate how people receive new ideas then we are probably doomed to failure – as soon as we leave, the innovations we brought with us to a developing world community are out the door as well. Aid organizations and engineers working on problems have limited resources – both money and time are scarce, but the problems that need solving are innumerable so we don’t have the patience to work on too many things that don’t work (because we dropped the ball and forgot to anticipate how people might react to change in their environment). If we want more successes we have to design our implementations better, taking into account everything we can learn about what makes people tick.

For lack of a better term I call this thought process “change engineering” – designing/implementing new products and innovations very deliberately so that they stick when applied to a new community or market – perhaps requiring equal parts anthropology and social engineering, with the harder sciences mixed in to address the technology part (and some things we have to make up as we go along)? Too often our teams going to the field are made up of traditional engineers only – people trained to appreciate new products for the sake of newness only, forgetting that not everyone is like us – specifically they might value innovation differently than we do. Our (first world) culture is famous for innovation and I find this to be practically a defining characteristic of life in these modern times - but it’s different in more traditional cultures. Imagine our distant forefathers eeking out an existence on the savannah, do we really think that the serial risk taker was the one who got the most genes in the pool at the end of the day? As I travel I find that it is more likely that they are the one written off as a menace to the well being of the community – a crackpot with at the very least undesirable habits.

Perhaps we need to try and correlate risk aversiveness with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – where he speculates that people strive to meet basic needs (like feeding their families) before they move on to tackle more complex ones (like saving the environment). The ability to tolerate risk is correlated with security – represented by higher levels on the pyramid - which is distributed differently around the world. What if people with little disposable income don’t approach risk the same way we do – in our case we will borrow to the hilt on credit cards for consumer electronics we don’t need then still take out a for-the-rest-of-our-life 30 year mortgage on a house, while in most countries borrowing is from families and spending beyond means is not taken to the extreme lengths that we see here at home. It is widely known that people save money differently around the world, with poorer people tending to save more, but what does that mean? The financial literature speculates that saving money is a virtuous activity, and theorizes that “risk averse consumers set resources aside as a precaution against possible adverse changes in income”; our culture meanwhile incorrectly assumes that our present level of income will always be there.

People may have savings that they seem unwilling to spend on things that we think will be valuable assets for them – foiling our plans – because purchasing such unfamiliar goods represents an unacceptable risk to them. We must consider the implications of this mentality when we want to introduce say an improved cooking stove (perhaps saving them time and money, and improving health) that competes with the status quo – often just a simple ground stove fueled with free biomass. The new thing is sometimes just too strange. If you add into the equation differences in the way people value their time – free time may not be such a luxury in much of the world so typical activities like firewood collecting are not necessarily judged as drudgery – we can find that even giving away free useful goods is problematic! Of course the key to engineering change better is more observing – until you have become an expert on your community’s problems and have lived life a little in their shoes. Collect some firewood, start a fire with wet wood, cook a meal over a traditional three stone fire… and definitely listen.


Teddy Kinyanjui said...

hi good site, love all the info, here is a link to what we do with charcoal ovens and promoting charcoal farming in kenya.

keep up the good work.


Clouie said...

Not all is open for a change... Sometimes it takes time.... People may listen to those people whom they think would understand them more and has been on their shoes before has taken the risk of changing...

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