With Intent Podcast
With Intent is a podcast from ID. In Season 1, episodes below, host and producer Kristin Gecan talked to a range of people—writers, business strategists, policymakers, doctors, community organizers—about how they use design in their work.
In Season 2, Scratching the Surface podcast host Jarrett Fuller, ID’s 2022–23 Latham Fellow, will host conversations about the state of design today and ID’s latest chapter as it celebrates 85 Years of Making the Future. His episodes launch in Spring 2023.
Ruth Reichstein is part of the European Commission’s Presidential Advisory Board on the New European Bauhaus, or NEB, an initiative developed to help the EU achieve the goals set forth in its Europe Green Deal.
The NEB aims to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. In this episode, Ruth talks about the initiative’s goals, how design will help them realize those goals, and what the NEB means by “beautiful.”
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I’m Kristin Gecan. This week I talk to Ruth Reichstein.
Ruth is part of the European commission’s presidential advisory board on the New European Bauhaus. The New European Bauhaus, or NEB, was developed to help the EU achieve the goals set forth in its Europe Green Deal. The NEB aims to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. We at IIT Institute of Design announced our partnership with the New European Bauhaus earlier this year. This partnership brings ID’s relationship with the Bauhaus full circle. ID was founded as the New Bauhaus in 1937 by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy on the recommendation of Walter Gropius, a founder of the original Bauhaus. Ruth opens our conversation up by illuminating the relationship between the historic Bauhaus and the New European Bauhaus of today.
When we look at the historical Bauhaus, there are quite some elements that are also important for our New European Bauhaus. We don’t want to copy the historical Bauhaus, but they are important elements.
One of these elements is that the historical Bauhaus emerged also at a moment of deep transformation. And it was the beginning of the industrial era and there were a lot of challenges that society and economy and the industry faced back then and now it’s a bit the same with climate change and that we really have to transform our economy.
We also are in a moment of deep transformation.
And the historical Bauhaus answered in a way that is today very interesting. One of the things is that they had a very interdisciplinary approach that they brought together craft art, design, architecture, science, and they created this really very inclusive approach, which is also something that we would like to do with the New European Bauhaus.
And they explored a lot of new technologies and materials that were not used before. Like back then, it was basically cement and steel, which are now obviously materials that we are having a problem with because they produce so much CO2 in the production. Now again it’s the question of building material and what kind of materials can we either use that exist already, like for example wood, but also what kind of other materials might we need to develop or change that we can come to a more sustainably built environment.
And I could continue with other elements, don’t want to copy the historical Bauhaus at all. Gender is, for example, one of those. I mean, the historical Bauhaus was not great in how they treated women. And when you think about the president of the commission as the first female president, this is for sure not something that she would like to copy.
Yeah, certainly there are elements that are there to celebrate and then others that we can improve upon. The New European Bauhaus—I’ve seen it called both an initiative and a movement. And I wonder if you can reflect on that and tell me how you think of it.
Well, I think it’s an initiative and we would wish that it will transform into a movement as a political institution. It’s a bit complicated to say that we found a movement. Is it something that is normally more done by, well, the society is such with certain actors within a society. But it’s really very interesting and nice to see is that only now, I mean, we really started in January, so it’s really not all time ago, and we see already that there is a movement that is built and that is growing and really all over the European Union, but also in other parts of the world. So it seems to work and I can give you more examples if you will wish for, but, well, in the beginning, it’s an initiative and it’s hope that it can really develop into a movement.
So two things, we’d love to hear some examples of how you’re seeing this manifest already, just especially in everyday things that you come across, and then the other thing that I wanted to point out is what you had just mentioned earlier.
One of the things that’s been recently in the news in the US is investments in infrastructures across the US with the Biden administration. And we talk a lot about infrastructures in design, and we’re not always talking about ones that you can see, like rail and highways and things like that. And often we’re talking about invisible infrastructures. And I just wondered if you had any comment there about the types of infrastructures that you’re looking at it in the EU, if you’re thinking about these as both the visible types of infrastructures that we often talk about colloquially, and/or if you’re also considering those invisible ones that I mentioned. And then what are the visible things that you see today coming out of the New European Bauhaus? So I guess this sort of question of like what’s visible, what’s underneath that maybe we’re not seeing too?
Yeah, maybe I start with saying that the New European Bauhaus has for sure, two dimensions in a way. So one dimension is really the very clear transformation of the built environment and then we come to building materials and other stuff. The other dimension is more the reflection and maybe also the cultural dimension of the European Bauhaus and both are of course interlinked. So maybe I first go a bit into this question of the movement and I would just give you two examples. So one example is that we have invited all kinds of organizations to become official partners of the New European Bauhaus. So these are actually non-profit organizations, can be universities, can be NGOs, can be foundations and many others that actually would like to contribute to the New European Bauhaus.
And there you’ll see that there are already a lot of links that emerge between these organizations that did not really talk to each other before and suddenly you get new initiatives. For example, we have now an initiative that is called New European Bauhaus goes South, where you have a cooperation of several universities, so including Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, but now decided to have a kind of new program around the built environment and the question of innovation and to reflect together on it. And another example is the wood industry that is very [inaudible 00:06:31] genius. And now they came together with an alliance. They called that Wood4Bauhaus and they are now together looking at the challenges and what they can also do to make the transformation happening in the construction sector. And so these are just two examples. I could give many more, but that shows a bit that things are happening even without that we do any special political action or that we give funds whatsoever. It’s just happening because this idea of the New European Bauhaus is there.
And that then also relates to your question on the infrastructure, because for sure we are talking about buildings and also about the space that is around the building. So it’s not only about the walls and so on, but it’s also about squares and gardens or parks or whatsoever can be around the buildings. We are very clearly also saying that it’s not only a project of the cities, but it should also look at rural areas that have pretty much different challenges.
But then of course we are also looking at what is happening in the building. So the New European Bauhaus should not only be a building that is, let’s say, climate and energy neutral and has the highest standards when it comes to energy efficiency and stuff like this, but we would also see then that inside the building, there’s a space for conversations and reflections. And that can be workshops around sustainability, but that can also be a residence for artists, for example, that work on operas around sustainability or whatsoever else. You can really imagine a lot of different things, but there is for sure this idea to have both, to have very tangible projects of infrastructure, but also this much broader conversation and reflection of how we want to live tomorrow. And with this very clear art/culture contribution.
So the New European Bauhaus was developed to help the EU achieve the goals of the Green Deal, as you mentioned, and you seek to make Europe the first climate neutral continent by 2050. Do you think that’s a realistic goal? Do you think that will happen?
Well, I mean, otherwise I think we would not have set this target or this goal. Of course, a lot of things still need to happen until then, and not only in the New European Bauhaus, but just in general. We will present in July a huge package of regulation and enabling framework things and stuff that will pave the way because there’s just then to get to our new climate target for 2030, which is minus 55% when it comes to CO2 emissions, but that will only be the beginning. And of course, it’s also not enough to just put regulations on the table, but you also need to take the whole society along and that there is really change in all the sectors and all areas of the economy and the society. So, yes, I think it’s a realistic goal, but a lot of work still has to get there.
I want to just move back and just think about, we at ID sort of reached out when Ursula von der Leyen made her State of the Union address and she said that she sees design playing a critical role in building the world we want to live in. And that’s a project that will require designers, architects, engineers, and others across borders to all work together like never before. So I just wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the role for design in the initiative.
For me, it was personally also an interesting learning experience because I must admit as I’m really not coming from this architecture and design background, I will be very honest and say that for me, design was really about the design of nice and beautiful objects. And I really discovered how much design can contribute to a co-creation process, that was actually something that I learned and where I think that design in general can play a much bigger role that would be in this narrow things of creating beautiful objects have in mind of design. There are so many examples. Some of our designers, for example, go to a hospital and everybody thinks that they will just change the color of the walls and then suddenly they look into the medical side and come up with great solutions.
There is this one example of a service in a hospital that deals with sick children and to really know how to treat them they needed a lot of data from the children and the children always had to do all kinds of things during the day to get all this data to the doctors. And then designers just invented a video game where the children actually automatically provided all the data that was needed and then it was much more efficient and actually they could really decrease the mortality of these children that were treated in that hospital.
And I think these are the examples where you see that the role of design is so much bigger than what you might think. That is the potential in a way that we would also like to use for the New European Bauhaus. I mean, we have so many examples where design can actually really bring solutions for a more sustainable way of living. Also, circular design, for example, where you reuse materials to create new objects and products. It’s very impressive what exists already. The use of design is really very broad and that there’s a huge potential that we don’t use often enough in a way.
Your tagline for the New European Bauhaus initiative is: beautiful, sustainable, together. As you know, Institute of Design is your partner on this, one of your many partners on this. We think of ourselves as really contributing to the second two legs of that tagline, the sustainable and the together. This aligns with our focus areas at ID. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more actually by what you mean about beautiful in the context of the New European Bauhaus, because from what I can tell you are not defining it narrowly on aesthetics. As you mentioned, design is not just about another pretty vase, so to speak, it can offer much more. And so I just wonder what you mean by beautiful in this context.
I think it’s a bit the other way around because I think for designers it might be obvious that something needs to be beautiful to be accepted, but what we see very often also in architecture in our cities is actually pretty much the opposite, especially when you go into areas that are not the fancy city centers, for example. But when you go into the areas where a lot of social housing is happening, very often, these are not beautiful buildings. Very often, the only thing that people have in mind is that it has to be functional and cheap. And you forget that the people who will live in these houses actually would feel much better if the whole surrounding would be a nicer and more friendly atmosphere. And that has actually in the end an impact on a lot of things.
And this is a bit what we have in mind when we talk about beautiful. You saw it with the Pritzker Prize this year, this architecture prize, where for the first time it was awarded to French architects who did actually refurbishment of social housing in Bourdeaux in the south of France, which was actually beautiful refurbishment and not only sustainable. It was not only about energy efficiency, it was always also to do it in a way that the living quality of these people was improved.
And I think this is very much what we are looking for to say okay, it’s also about quality of design and architecture. We cannot always only argue that we have to find the most cost efficient way of doing things. The word beautiful is also a word that is pretty much not existent in policymaking, let’s say. And so I think that is also quite an innovation for the European Commission to say, okay we want to achieve something that is not only having as a goal, for example, to reach our climate targets, but we also want to do something which is actually improving the quality of life and which makes the experience of the people better. So that is more or less what we think of when it’s about beautiful.
Thinking about the quality of life of the people—why do you think that systems design and participatory processes are important to this initiative?
Normally, when the European Commission makes proposals, it’s actually the other way around. Of course we have consultation processes with stakeholders as we call them. So with people who are really like directly impacted by a proposal, and then we come with our proposal and then people can react to it and whatsoever. So it’s pretty much a top down approach, but this time we said, okay, with the New European Bauhaus we want to do it the other way around. And we first listened really to the people, what they think this New European Bauhaus should be about.
And why is that so important? It’s because it is a fact that the Green Deal for now, or the European Green Deal for now, is pretty much technical and economic driven project, which is normal because we have to transform our economy to reach our climate targets. But it’s not a project that is very emotional, or, and I always like to use the word, which is probably not a word, but a touchable experience. It’s very far away from people and the only thing that very often they think of is that they should drive less, they should eat less meat, they should find other ways not to overheat their houses. I mean, it’s very much about all these kind of forbidding things. And the New European Bauhaus really tries to have a different approach and bring about a more positive and hopeful narrative to the Green Deal that shows actually the opportunities of the transformation. And if you want to do that, you cannot just put that on the people. You have to do it together, and you have really to bring the people along. And that brings us back to this question of movement.
I mean, if we would have just said, okay [inaudible 00:16:45] here’s the New European Bauhaus, I don’t think that then so many initiatives would have emerged. Actually, we leave at the moment a huge freedom and that really every organization or every person who would like to contribute to this can do it in the way that it fits best. And I think that is really something that is very valuable to this project, to for now have this very broad approach and this participatory process, which in a way should also happen whenever there is a transformation happening in a city or in a village or wheresoever.
It’s not that the politicians or the promoters will decide how they will rebuild or build a new building or renovate or I don’t know what, but that there is really a consultation with the people who live there and who can actually also tell what their needs are and their wishes are and what they would like to see. So this is really the idea that it’s really at the heart of the European Bauhaus to try as much as possible. I mean, we are aware we are political institution in Brussels, which can sometimes be perceived to be very far away from the citizens in the different countries. We will not change from today to tomorrow with the New European Bauhaus, but at least we try to get as close as possible and to really listen to the needs and the challenges of the citizens.
Many people, when they think of the Bauhaus design and the Bauhaus legacy, they think of Mies van der Rohe, they think of Walter Gropius, they think of ID’s founder, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and they consider Bauhaus in the realm of art and making. We’ve talked a little bit about this already, but just wonder if we could explore a little bit more why it makes sense to invoke the Bauhaus in order to work toward this climate neutrality goal and other New European Bauhaus goals.
Well, I really think that one key element is this interdisciplinarity because it is very clear that the Green Deal can only be a success if everybody contributes to it and also if we overcome some barriers and bring the potential of all the people together. I just had a call with a gallerist in London, and he suggested, for example, that in every urban planning team there should be one artist who could actually bring this perspective to the planning process and that is something that we really can learn from the historical Bauhaus.
Also, to not have this deep kind of separation between the craft people and the more university people, but also they have to come together and to work together. So I think that is really one of the most important elements. Of course, it’s also a fact that the historical Bauhaus very, very quickly became a global movement. Of course, we will be very happy that our New European Bauhaus would achieve to do the same. That would probably be, for me, the two main elements to mention there.
So thinking about the exciting potentiality of this becoming a global movement. Can you tell me why it might be important for you or why it makes sense to have a North American partner?
I think in general, we look with a lot of expectation, of course, now to the US and to the new administration. Very glad that the US rejoined the Paris Agreement and I think this kind of translates then in all kinds of different sub-projects in a way, and the New European Bauhaus can be one of those. That is on the general level, but then of course, it’s also that you have a huge expertise in the area of the New European Bauhaus. I remember when we had one of our first meetings, you were showing so many different projects that you were having where we can actually get great inspiration from what you’re already doing and what might also be helpful in the New European Bauhaus. That is one thing that we just have to tap into the potentials wherever they are. It doesn’t matter so much if they are now in the south of Europe or in the north of America whatsoever.
And we see that already inside of Europe and then it’s of course even broader when you go global. The local situations are so different. So I give you an example from over here in Europe. We have in Portugal, for example, we have a huge interest for the New European Bauhaus and they developed a concept of the Bauhaus of the Seas, because obviously for them, the ocean is very, very important because they have this tiny stripe of land and the whole country is actually more or less living on the coast. When we have started to work on the Bauhaus, we have even not thought about oceans because here in Brussels, there is no ocean in any reachable distance.
So that shows that the local setting is so important when people think about how they want to live and how they want to create and shape the future. And this is also why it’s so important to have global partners from different parts in the world. And like you, we also have, for example, members in the high-level round table from Japan and from India, that of course bring also completely different perspectives to the project. And that is really very valuable because it avoids that we might have a very European centered approach that would not take into account that there are other realities in the world. So that’s why we are very happy to have you on board, but also others that will just remind us all the time that perspectives can be very different and that. We should take the different perspectives into account for the project.
So the design profession developed, as I think we talked about earlier, the design profession developed as a result of the industrial revolution. When the machine replaced the craftsman and mass produced goods replaced individually made artifacts. People worry then and now a lot about machines replacing humans and putting us out of jobs, but nevertheless, we’re all drawn to technology, the latest iPhone, what’s next, what’s happening. Could you talk a little bit about what you think technology’s role in the New European Bauhaus initiative is?
Yeah. I think that we are still in thinking, but I would mention maybe two elements. The one element is, and they’re actually complimentary, one element is for sure that we have to look into future technologies and innovation and be it hydrogen, be it how we get our steel production less CO2 intensive, be it how we can use digital tools, like for example, the digital twin for buildings to already know beforehand how we can maximize energy efficiency, for example. So this is for sure part of the Bauhaus, the idea is really that we can help to bring innovative products to the market and how to support innovation.
At the same time, and this is also something that comes very much through the contributions that we get through of the design phase, a lot of people also say, let’s also not forget that there is so much knowledge already and especially also knowledge from the past, let’s say. That sometimes you had techniques or technologies that were used in the past, especially also in the building sector that have been forgotten or that have not been used anymore, because everybody is just going for the easy solution of cement, for example, or whatsoever.
And that these two should be combined so that you combined really innovative future technologies with the knowledge that you have and that can sometimes be very local. Because it might be that you have a great technology, but that it doesn’t work at all because in the local setting, it might be that because of strong winds or whatsoever else the technology will just not work out. There you really need to combine the knowledge from the people very locally, sometimes with these kinds of future technologies. And this is also something that we would like to explore in the framework of the New European Bauhaus.
Design often talks about the original triad of designing something. You want it to be desirable, viable, and feasible. And more recently we’ve extended that triad out to also include that you want whatever you’re designing to be just, equitable, and sustainable. I wonder if you could talk about any efforts or evidence or thinking surrounding the New European Bauhaus in making its efforts just or equitable. Obviously, sustainability is a big part of this, but maybe we could think or talk about a little bit about justice and equity’s role in these efforts.
Well, I think part of it is really, we just don’t want to limit ourselves to fancy projects in places that are already fancy and cities that are already in the middle of the transformation and having all kinds of nice projects for a better city, but that we really want to look also where the ugly parts are of the cities and where actually people live who cannot afford renovation that makes the houses nicer looking, but also more energy efficient and will bring down the energy bill. And social housing and affordable housing will for sure be part of the New European Bauhaus so this is one way to address the justice or equity part.
Another thing is that we are also looking into the question of generations. Of course, the young generation, now where you can say, okay, we really have to change things now because we cannot leave all the burden on the future generations, but also the older generation. So we would really love to get also more conversations going between the 90 year old artist and the 20 year old tech freak that they can sit together and explore where there might be a common things and how they could imagine the future together.
What we get very much from the conversations that we are having and from the input is that there is already quite some work ongoing, for example, in architecture and design around sustainability. But that people feel that this whole social aspect, but also the social aspect in the sense of community building and how you can design also places and space in a way that it’s inclusive and that everybody can find room to develop and to grow. This is something that people are very much longing for and education in general as well, which very often is the kind of precondition to a more inclusive society where everybody has the same possibilities.
One question, which is simple, but if someone comes to you and they ask: what is design? Given all this that we’ve talked about, how do you define design?
Oh my God. That’s a very philosophical question in a way, no? How do you define design? If I now take the really big picture, I would really say that it’s really the reflection, how to make the world better in a way. And yeah, I think that’s pretty much it and it can then be, of course, in different areas. You can make things more sustainable or more inclusive or more whatsoever. But I think it’s really, well, also more beautiful, but for me, it’s really very much at the core of design to try to bring things forward and to make things better and to improve certain situations. And this can be done via a process, this can be done via an object, it can be done via conversation, but in all these different kinds of types of tools, you can use design to make it happen.
Thank you to Ruth Reichstein for joining me today and to the New European Bauhaus for their partnership. Ruth is an advisor appointed to the European Commission’s Presidential Advisory Board on the New European Bauhaus. You can find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu/podcast. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum, Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
An organizer in Chicago for more than a decade, Richard Wallace, founder and executive director of EAT (Equity and Transformation), is focused on supporting Black informal workers—people like George Floyd, who are boxed out of the formal economy.
Richard talks about his confidence in democracy, the reasons we have an informal economy in the first place, and why the informal economy is tied to issues of equity and race. Richard is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I’m Kristin Gecan. This episode, I talked to Richard Wallace, an organizer in Chicago for more than a decade. Richard is focused on supporting black informal workers. People like George Floyd, who for whatever reason are boxed out of the formal economy, actually, there is a reason, Richard explains the reasons we have an informal economy in the first place, the historic rivalry between Hispanic and black informal workers, his confidence in democracy and why the informal economy is tied to issues of equity and race.
The informal economy essentially is about 40% of the US workforce, almost 70% of the global workforce. When you talk about workers across the world, the majority of those are informal workers. It is a diversified set of economic activities and enterprises that many folks engage in, in order to make a means to subsistence. It looks like the bucket boys, looks like street performances. It looks like hiphop. The origins of hiphop is informality. The origins of jazz is informality, the origins of the lottery is informality. What we used to call number running back in the day is what they call the lottery today. If you look at ride sharing, it was an informal practice, an informal occupation.
If you look at childcare specifically in our communities today, there’s still tons of childcare that goes unrecognized, if you have children, you have to work. Someone take care of your children. And not everybody has the capacity to spend $1,400 a month for childcare. It’s ultimately like our folks are answering questions that are pressed upon them or there’s a demand upon them. And they create solutions to it. And many of those are just informal occupations looks like selling socks. It looks like bootlegging alcohol. If you looked at bootlegging alcohol during prohibition, there was a multitude of Black and Brown and white bootleggers that were all working together. And the second that it becomes legalized formalized by the state, there’s a lack of inclusion of Black workers in that industry. And Black owners in the manufacturing. Like you could find a lot of Black brands or labels, which is just a label. I think a lot of people get that confused.
They’re like, oh, well this is rock. It’s like, yeah, that’s rock, that’s a label, but they don’t manufacture the actual liquor. Those recipes aren’t forgotten. They don’t have access in this moment. And it goes to like street performances and there’s a ton of occupations that exist out there. It also looks like a lot of people work and they do demo. So they’ll go and they’ll demolition a house and they’ll get paid in cash. There’s just a host of black of informal occupations. There’s the candy lady. I grew up in a community where there was a candy lady that lived on the block and you would go there and you would buy your frozen like Kool-Aid cups. I don’t know if you know what that is in. It’s like styrofoam, you rip it off and you eat it all the way down the bottom and get your candy and whatnot, just straight from our house.
That is informality. Recently, we released a report and it showed pretty uniquely that among the informal workers that were surveyed, most of them had multiple occupations, multiple informal occupations. So the person who was selling socks, sold CDs on the side, also did childcare on the side, also hair braided and so it was like, I think in our original strategic plan, we were thinking about building out these informal worker associations by trade. And then when we got into it, we learned that like, no, it’s almost impossible because they would all be the same people because these jobs are kind of like, it’s a system of occupations and they wear different hats in different moments.
They’d have like 10 different union meetings to go to and…
Yeah, unique. It’s unique in that way. Like they would all be in different. So what we have to just house everybody is in.
Okay. And so another thing that black informal workers or any informal workers seem to share as a sense of entrepreneurialism. Like meeting the moment and finding what they can do to meet that moment. And I think you framed this in the past as a deep creativity of being able to kind of make ends meet or whatever the end goal is. So one of the things that you’ve said is the depth of creativity required to thrive within an alternative labor system. So can you just talk about that depth of creativity that you mentioned, and is there a way that, what you mentioned just now with like the potential unions might be able to…
To organize yeah.
What would they be able to do, in order to, yeah.
Yeah. I mean, I think it’s a con I mean, creativity generally is at its best when conditions are dire. Like you ever looked inside of your refrigerator. And it was, right before, like a week, a couple days before payday, you hadn’t gone grocery shopping or whatever, and you just make a meal up. And it’s like, oh, this is one of the best meals I ever had. For a lot of folks this is the constant condition. Where you open the refrigerator up and there isn’t much in it and you have to figure out something and it’s sometimes pairing with things which you would never have paired before. So there’s innovation. And there’s a lot of things that go into to it. But creativity, like I said, it comes from pression and it also comes from scarcity.
If there’s one car and there’s 20 people living in a few buildings and chances are they’re going to share that car. And then you get ride sharing. If someone has a particular skill, whether it be hair braiding or there’s some folks that just go and help people set up their computers and whatnot. And help them navigate, setting up a Gmail account. That’s another creative, but it’s also answering a need. When you think about Eric Garner, he was selling loose cigarettes two for a dollar. Let’s take a look at the average per capita income and the areas. So if you look at West Garfield park, average per capita income is $12,000 a year. Common sense says they don’t have $15 to pay, to buy a pack of cigarettes I’m not endorsing cigarettes smoking. But it does make sense that you would buy two for a dollar there.
Same thing as it relates to like towels and socks. And there’s a demand for lower price commodities. And there aren’t avenues for them. A lot of the brick and mortars that existed in our communities are shut down. People have to travel hours in order to get fresh produce. And getting on the train, train to the bus, bust to the train, et cetera, to get fresh produce, and then to tow it back, bus, train bus, when you see people that are selling fresh fruit or food in the community, it’s really it’s addressing that need. So that’s when I say the creativity, it’s kind of rooted in the needs and then know how could unions in the long run.
I organized in labor for a number of years. One of the challenges for me was just the history of labor. If you think about the Wagner act, you think about the national labor relationships act and the exclusion of agricultural workers during the time, like those blow close to Black workers, historically created conditions where informality became the need or became the answer. When folks were boxed out of, you think about early unionism, it created the middle class in America. You had living wage employment, you had benefits, you had the ability to purchase housing. And then there was red lining. And so there’s this kind of like almost every fold or every turn Black folks were left behind. And so we created something.
And that’s informally, I don’t necessarily know if that’s a space where unionization can actually come in and win or benefit. I don’t know if the income is at a steady enough rate to ensure that dues and union dues are paid on time. But I do think there’s a lot to learn there. A lot of our folks are making under minimum wage. We just released a report called the survival economies report and 40% of the respondents had never, ever had a full-time job. And they’d never seen a full-time job and did not know where to find one. And that even when they do find formal occupations, they’re still working in the informal economy to make ends meet. Because you know, like I know that $12,000 a year is not enough to survive in the city of Chicago. So it’s just kind of like they’ll get a part-time job or work at a staffing agency and then they still have to sell loose cigarettes. They still have to sell socks or they still have to perform and rap or whatever it is that they may do in order to make ends meat.
Do you believe that informal workers have to leave the informal economy to achieve equity?
It’s ableism, the transphobia, the anti-Black racism in the formal economy that has created the informal economy. If everybody could get a job right now and got living with job, making $20 an hour, whatever it is that to live in the city of Chicago, I wouldn’t think that there would be much informality. In fact, some of the theories around informality is that as economies grow then formality slowly but surely kind of just goes away. But in the United States, 500 years, we’re still here. You know what I mean? So I think if formality was anti-racist, was accepting of all genders and gender expressions, et cetera, et cetera, was absent of sexual assault, sexual violence, et cetera, then there wouldn’t be a need for informality.
You talked about how you’ve worked in this area for years in terms of the area of labor organizing and that. Can you just tell me a little bit more about your own history with other organizations and how you came to create EAT?
I think at the time also I stepped into the work as the bringing down barriers organizer for our Chicago workers collaborative and there we were bringing out barriers between Black and Latino temp workers. And there’s a tension that lied there and there’s still tension within our communities, right between Black and Latino workers. But in the staffing agencies, it was literally created. You would go into the waiting room and wait to be picked for a job, which is a very exploitative relationship anyway, the temp labor sector is this triangular relationship where they buy one person’s labor for $15 an hour or for $9 an hour, then they sell it for 15. But even in that, a number of the Black workers were not being chosen. A number of the Latino workers were being chosen. It was a very hostile staffing space where Black workers were like, coming, they were extremely, like, why are you all getting chosen first?
It’s because your cousin works here. You hear all of the stories. In reality, what it was is that what we’re able to do is through our bringing down barriers conversations would bring Black and Latino temp workers together into the same room, bring in translators, which you know, language was one of the first barriers that existed between them. And they were able to translate the stories from the Latino temp workers. And they would tell the Black workers the stories about yeah, we were chosen first, but did you know I only got $6 an hour because I’m undocumented. Did you know that my sister, this person was sexually assaulted and there was no recourse. There was no one for us to go to. Did you know that the transportation, the drivers would take us to the currency exchanges the cash to checks and take 20% of everyone’s profit across the bus.
And the Black workers were like, I wish they would. I wish they would do that. Da, da, da. And then we would lean into the conversation about citizenship. And so through those conversations, Black workers were able to realize, oh, oh, they don’t select me because of my citizenship. My citizenship demands through the national labor that they give me minimum wage at the least. My citizenship ensures that if something happens to me or I’m attacked, I can call the police or I can call whoever, I can call security. I can call whatever in order to get some kind of reprimand. But for the Latino workers, the undocumented workers in specific, there was nothing in nowhere that they could turn. And so, yes, it was an okay to get on the bus, but it was also an agreement to a deepen level of exploitation.
And so we’re able to have these conversations, one about discrimination, because they would see the background check signs in the window or whatever, whatever. And the other one was about exploitation and it kind of landed, I think my mentor at the time, my boss, he was my boss then, Leon would say he was Latino brother and he would say, they don’t love us. They just hit us both differently. And that would just would open up the door for new conversations. And then what created, what happened was a very integrated workforce. And they were willing to fight for each other to get on the bus. Like I’m not going to get on this bus to go to this factory unless some Black folks get on with me because I know that they’re going to stick up for me if X happens.
And they’re going to ensure that if this bus pulls over at the current exchange, ain’t nobody cash a checks. It was like it created some balance. And so that was like my entry into the labor work. And then from there I was the deputy direct of the worker center for racial justice. And that was kind of like, Scott worker’s collaborative was extremely focused, fine tuned. It was a niche. The worker center for racial justice was just the whole world of what is Black. It also is right around the moment where Mike Brown is killed in Ferguson, Missouri and Laquan McDonald is murdered here in Chicago and Raquel Boyd is also killed. And so it was just kind of like this direct connection between the forced discrimination of Black workers within the temp labor sector, which is honestly like the last house on the block.
If you really, really, really need to get a job, this is where you go. But it’s often the only opportunity that you have, but seeing that and seeing all of those folks that were lined up to get work every day, they’re up there at six o’clock in the morning, it literally beat any myth or notion that people have about Black people not being interested in labor should go visit a staffing agency at five or six in the morning, you have Black folks lined up at six and these staffing agencies are nowhere near their communities. They literally have lifted up staffing agencies out of Black communities and moved them to like Berwyn, Cicero, et cetera, et cetera, like corridors of them. And so Black folks are getting up early in the morning, getting on buses to get to these staffing agencies, sitting there for three or four hours just to be told no, that experience then paired to this reality of police, state violence when it came to Laquan McDonald and the 16 shots and the lack of mental health and services, et cetera, cetera, for Black communities, except it just kind of broadened my vision to be like, okay, this system of discrimination is a microcosm of a larger system of discrimination.
And anti-Black racism. And so through that work, I kind of got a broader sense of understanding of exactly how systems are working. It trickled down, they create the possibilities for staffing agencies to do what they do. I ended up becoming the Illinois campaign director for a place called Jobs among America. And we did inclusive procurement work, which is, sounds very wonky, like very like, ah, inclusive procurement. But essentially we need to know that it is how our government, local government spends money. And so through procurement, this procurement in specific was coming out of the CTA and it was about rail car development. So it was a billion dollar plus procurement. And what inclusive procurement is essentially, how do you create an MOU. What is another way to put it a community benefit agreement in the negotiation process. It is so that when you bid on this contract in order… It’s a lot easier to get them to fill out a community benefits agreement in order to get to the money.
It’s really hard to get them to commit to community benefits agreement. After they get the money through that CTA contract, it was a CRC side thing is the company that wanted out of China. There was an agreement to develop a rail car facility in Chicago. This is where the rail car movement within a black community was born. And so I was really proud of that moment. It ended up producing about 300 or so jobs. I’m excited. We’re talking with IBW and SMART two powerful unions in Chicago, developing pre-app apprenticeship programs to ensure that young Black folks can get access to these living wage, life changing jobs. And I came back to my desk and I quickly Googled the unemployment statistics in Chicago and realized, I did all the numbers, broke it down.
I was like, so there’s nearly 80,000 unemployed, Black people in the city of Chicago. This is 300 jobs total. Now of those 300 jobs there, certain percentage are going to be Black minority folks, but it was going to be a lot, a lot of folks, right. But 300 is the max. And so at the end of the day, I was like, no, this is something to celebrate, but there’s so much more work to do. There’s so much more work to do because I correlate through my own experience, the unemployment statistics are directly correlated to the Intercommunity violence statistics. If you look at young African American men ages 17 to 24, they have the highest rate of joblessness. They have the highest rate, but being perpetrated as a homicides and highest rate of being victims of homicides.
You plug that, take that statistic, sit it right there. And then go look at the unemployment statistic for that same exact demographic. And it will match. So for me, access to employment was more than just creating a living wage and being able to acquire subsistence, it’s life saving. And so I was just like, for the other 80,000 or 79,000, 970, whatever the number was going to play, or 900. Yeah. Whatever for those folks, what do we do? And so that’s really where I got to equity and transformation. It was that, okay, we got 300 in the door. They’re still the rest of them. Who’s organizing the rest of them. Labor’s got labor. And those are the people who currently have occupations or car carry members who are on the roles to get the next job.
But who’s got the folks that are not employed, have historically been unemployed and who are the greatest victims at the greatest risk to gun violence in the city of Chicago, who’s organizing those folks? Because the solutions to their problems are not going to come from some ivory tower, they’re going to come from them. And so really the goal of organizing is to really mature the voice of the most marginalized in a way that like influences democracy. And so that’s how we got to equity and transformation, like all of these folks, and it was also like, yo, if we got 80,000 unemployed black folks, then it would look like people literally starving out on the streets, which is, we do have that. But when you add informality to the picture, what you’re able to see is that, oh, we’ve created a process of survival, absent of formal labor economy.
Because historically it hasn’t come to save us. A lot of our folks realize it’s not going to come to save us. So it’s really like I’m on my own in order to make ends meet. So you get a lot of this entrepreneurial spirit, you get a lot of business development, you get a lot of I can buy this for $20 and sell it for 40. You get a lot of that business minded folks or whatever, you get a lot of that in the community. But I think it even goes a little bit deeper when you start to look at what existed in those communities before credentialism literally shut black businesses down.
So there’s a lot of themes here that you’re tying together that make a lot of sense in terms of how you’ve kind of demonstrated the correlations between unemployment and safety. Equity and Transformation is the name of your organization. Why isn’t it something like Safety and Employment, or something like that? Other than obviously that wouldn’t give you the desired acronym, but is there a reason that, I mean, one way to look at it is that Equity and Transformation is positive sounding. I just wonder what kind of thought went into positioning it in that direction and why you sort of trump it those particular words.
Yeah. So equity is the inverse of inequity, right? And inequity is unfairness. Equity is a fairness, essentially everybody’s starting to race with equal footing. And so equity is the goal, but in order to get to equity, certain things have to happen. My position currently right now in 2021, my mind is like reparations has to happen. You can’t get to equity without addressing slavery, without addressing redlining, without addressing the war on drugs and the impact that’s had on Black communities. It’s like, we’ll do everything except do what we know needs to be done. Let’s get creative, we’ll create a workforce development, we’ll put billions of dollars in the workforce development program. Everyone gets paid except the people that are actually the participants. Like they’re not the trainers and not the facilitators, whatever. And so it’s like equity essentially means fairness, fairness in my mind as it relates to how we get the Black community to where it needs to be or to equity is actually, it’s about acknowledging past harms.
It’s about committing to repair that, it’s about a guarantee of non repetition, guaranteeing that this will not happen again. The war on drugs was bad. We literally have billionaires walking around who are the biggest dope dealers in the world right now, selling cannabis every day, it’s completely legal. But then even with the new kind of legalization, there’s still increased arrests of Black people. There has to be repair. So if you hurt me and you commit to repair, you’re going to be there, you want to return me to my original state. And then the last piece is compensation, which I think is only thing that’s usually lifted up in the eyes of folks, Black people reparations, that means we got to cut the check or people talk about the 40 acres in the mule, but the UN made a whole nother argument as it relates to reparations.
And it’s not just compensation. The other pieces are to ensure that this will never happen again. That’s how we landed on equity. That’s what equity means to me. And transformation is essentially once we get to equity, we will transform. One of my comrades, Mary Hooks works at song in Atlanta. And Mary Hooks told me, we are transform through the work. When you ask people, what does safety mean to you? And the majority of the folks that were in our community were like, the ability to walk to the store without being in fear of either the police or inter community violence occurring. But in order for that to be transformed, there needs to be some form of equity.
So at EAT you work on a number of initiatives. Can you tell me what you’re focused on right now? And maybe a summary of the types of projects or initiatives that you’re… But maybe start with what you’re focused on right now.
Yeah. We passed two policies. We’re a part of coalitions that passed two policies. One was HP 1438, which was cannabis legalization. The other one was recently HP 3653, which is the breathe act / the safety act / pretrial fairness / prison gerrymandering. It was a lot. And so right now we’re focused on doing political education around what was actually included in HP 3653, because although I think the policy makers academics the lawmakers, whatever they know what was included, the community doesn’t as well as it relates to end money bond or as it relates to early release mechanisms for their family members who are currently incarcerated, et cetera. So it’s really about doing political education within community around that. The other piece is we also do research. And so the continuation of that survival economies report is we’re exploring guaranteed income targeted guaranteed income.
And there’s a very big difference between universal basic income and then targeted guaranteed income. And so we’re exploring a targeted guaranteed income pilot project that we’re launching. It’s called Chicago Futures Fund on the west side of Chicago in west Garfield Park, where we did our study. And it’s a continuation of that research. The participants are young African Americans from west Garfield Park who were previously convicted of a crime. So the study’s going to be looking at recidivism rates, income volatility, psychological wellness, they’ll receive $500 a month on for 18 months. And we’re really going to be telling a really robust story about how this increased income impacts their life. And I think that in some ways it’s like not a big deal. It’s like, oh, that’s only $6,000 a year. Doesn’t make a big dent if you live in Lincoln Park.
But when you live in west Garfield Park where the average capital income, like I said, is around $12,000, it’s almost half. We believe it’ll have an impact on recidivism. And so that’s that piece. And then in addition, we are in the early stages of kicking off a campaign for reparations for the war on drugs.
The reality is there’s an economic hole. There’s a hole in our communities, a financial hole in our communities that has to be filled before we can even start the race. And we keep just thinking, oh, we can just create a policy. It was a good policy, but you didn’t repair the community first. You didn’t repair the applicants first. So those are our campaign. And so we’re focusing on reparations for the war on drugs and what that would look like ultimately for me is like a direct cash payment to victims of the war on drugs in Illinois, we saw recently that young Black folks are on the increase as it relates to tickets and fines as it relates to cannabis, simply because they don’t have the canister that you hold the cannabis in inside of your vehicle.
And so I know a lot of white folks that smoke weed in Chicago and none of them have that canister either. So why are we getting increased arrests? Because there’s increased surveillance in our communities. A lot of folks also don’t know the law. And that’s in the white community as well, but they don’t have to worry because they don’t have to use it necessarily. But we have to know what our rights are. So we’re also going to be doing kind like a know your rights component.
Tell me about how you see design coming into your work or not, and your relationship to design.
Design is everything, the computer that we’re on right now is designed. Like you knew that if I came on here, you said, use your headphones. Make sure that you press record and when you hit record, you expect it to work. Because it was designed that way. The absence of equity essentially for me is because of a design. And so we really have to begin to reimagine what this design looks like. And we’re trying to reshape this economy into one that actually answers to the demands of the people in need, opposed to the demands of the people that are in power. What does it mean to not have wages or not have access to wages in a wage based economy, an economy that was designed for you to have wages, You go to the grocery store, you can’t be like, yo here’s some hope take this and let me get these eggs. And no, it doesn’t work like that. You legit have to have cash. So what does that mean? Within the design for people to not have cash.
You also talk about the importance of democracy and people having agency in their democracy. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about any work that EAT might do in that area or how that might relate to design or how design might be able to aid that situation?
I think democracy is one of the most unique components of our design and one of the most empowering components of our design specifically in the state of Illinois. In the state of Illinois, no matter if you’re formerly incarcerated or not, you can vote. And the way that we kind of articulate democracy at EAT is that if a decision is made that impacts your life. This is when we’re talking to somebody, you have a right to play a role in how that decision is made. So that could look like voting, that could be joining the student or the teacher. What do you call it? The parent conference.
Yeah. PTO. There we go. Yeah. Yeah. But you can engage to democratically in your area. And you can speak to your elected officials and you can create change. And that’s a very powerful tool.
Which is why in places like Florida, where they’re restricting voters’ rights and they’re scaling back accessibility to voting, et cetera, et cetera. There’s a reason why they’re doing it, because they know this is a powerful tool, because a host of things have happened in the city of Chicago that were not great during the pandemic. And so we want to make sure that folks are held accountable and we can hold people accountable through our vote. And so that’s really like how we assess democracy at Equity and Transformation and we believe deeply in the power of democracy, but that really just come through the building of local power, doing a lot of political education like yo, do you know who your alder person is? Do you know who your state representative is? Have you ever spoken to him?
Have you ever been to Springfield? And I’ll say one little short story, we brought brother named Solomon. You don’t mind if I mention his name, his first time to Springfield, this was before pandemic, the glory days. And he had never been to Springfield before and he’s up and down the hallways he’s talking to all the different state reps. And he had no idea that they were that accessible. Because he had never been there during the lobby days, et cetera, et cetera, when the halls are just packed. And so it just sparked him, like he came back to his community and was just like, I got a selfie where I got a picture with this legislator and I met this one and he was just telling stories about it. And then other people were interested in going. And so that’s really about like creating momentum so that people can kind of join in this process towards creating or re imagining the society that they want to live in. And then getting into the rooms with the decision makers and informing them that this is the world that they want to live in. And these are the policies, this is the way that they want the policies to be shaped, to create that.
So I have a question that I’ve been asking each time I do one of these. And how would you define design? I know we talked about design a couple questions ago a little bit, but do you have, what would be your definition for that word?
I think it’s like in my most non studied way, it’s a utility to make things easier for people. We design a wheelchair, we design the wheel, we design whatever, but ultimately it’s in order to make a life easier for people, for animals, I guess as well, for the environment, et cetera. But it’s a utility at best to just make things easier.
And so with that definition, how do you see EAT using design?
Well, I think that we’ve designed a program to make it easier for Black and informal workers to have their voices heard in our democracy. Really it’s all we do. There’s a lot of brilliant language on our website, but that’s essentially what we do.
Thanks to Richard for sharing how he uses design as a tool for transforming our current situation into a more desirable and equitable one. Richard is founder of EAT Equity and Transformation and a 2021 Latham fellow at the Institute of Design for more about our Latham fellows visit our website and YouTube channel. You can find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu. Please subscribe, rate and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we’d love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Rita Nguyen, Assistant Health Officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health and founder of the Food as Medicine Collaborative, explains why doctors should be able to prescribe food—and why the healthcare system should pay for it.
Rita considers the individual patient experience as well as the healthcare system’s role in food security. She is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I’m Kristin Gecan.
Today you can fill a prescription for food. Walk into a pharmacy in San Francisco to pick it up. This episode I talk to Dr. Rita Nguyen, the person who’s made this possible. Rita believes that doctors should be able to prescribe food and that the healthcare system should pay for it. Trained as a physician and currently assistant health officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, she’s also founder of the Food as Medicine Collaborative. Rita talks about how she’s scaling the collaborative, and how she got interested in design as a way of achieving her goals.
Coming from a healthcare background, coming from the field of medicine, how did you get interested in design?
That’s a fascinating question. I had no idea what design was until a friend of mine put the Stanford d.school fellowship in front of me and said, “You should apply.” And because I didn’t know what design was, I didn’t even understand how it fit within what I was doing, but she did because she understood design could do for I was trying to accomplish. And I ended up applying and getting the Civic Innovation fellowship out of the Stanford d.school. And that’s where I really picked up my design chops and even understood what it was, how to apply it. And honestly, coming from a medical background and training, it was just incredibly eye opening because it’s a totally different way of thinking.
So then maybe we should back up a little bit further too and find out how you got into healthcare. What fed your interest there?
I think I’ve always been committed to social justice and recognizing the inequities around me. I don’t know. I just remember growing up that, I think I was always acutely aware of my privilege. So even though I’m, I don’t know how folks call it, first or second generation immigrant, but my parents came over. So I was born here. And they literally came over with nothing because they were escaping a war in Vietnam. But I do acknowledge that the privilege they had was that they were educated. So even though they didn’t have any money or belongings when they came as refugees, the fact that they were educated was already a place of privilege that others didn’t have. And so I was lucky enough that because of their education they were able to get jobs. They had to get retrained in the US and all that, but then I grew up in a household where I had two college graduate working parents.
And I recognized that my life was comfortable. I didn’t have trauma. I didn’t lack resources. But growing up on the east side of San Jose, a lot of my friends did. And I think I always just immediately recognized the inequities that were surrounding me. And I don’t know. It just always got to me. It was like, well, I just happened to be born in this family. I just happened to get these resources. And so I think a lot of what drive my work is social justice.
And then there was something about health that seemed very concrete to me, that was like, obviously I want people to be healthy. So medicine wasn’t always the path I knew I wanted to go on. I think I was always interested in the concept of public health and community health, and how do we uplift the health of entire societies? I could see a path with clinical medicine. It didn’t take me long after getting all my training done to then find my way back to public health. So right now I only see patients maybe 10% of the time, and the rest of my time is committed to public health, community health, how do we fix societies to be better and healthier?
So if we think about what you mentioned earlier, this friend kind of came to you and knew that this design tool set would be of service to you in some way. And you are already coming with this social justice mindset. How did you start to see that there were underlying systemic issues that needed to be addressed? Do you have a moment or a story in which you sort of realized, oh, I need a different way to confront this.
I think I recognized relatively early on that’s systems issues was what I needed to address, that it wasn’t enough to treat patients one on one. I mean, a lot of what brought me to clinical medicine was the experience I had in college around a free clinic. And so it was very satisfying, gratifying to have someone in front of you and give them something, and be able to hear their ailments and literally just give them medicine because we were a free clinic.
But then very quickly I was like, who’s keeping an eye on you after you leave here? The 20 minute encounter I had with you, and now you have to navigate a system because you have Parkinson’s and you don’t speak English and you need to go see a neurologist. I was working on the back end of the clinic, trying to connect people to all those other things they needed beyond the 20 minute encounter with me.
I think I just became very frustrated with the system that we work in and the constraints and how difficult it made for people to access healthcare, or honestly when it comes to social determinants of health, just the basics of living with dignity. I think I’ve always had the framing of, it’s gratifying to see the impact one on one, but I need to do something about the system that underlies it because these feel like band aids.
Part of my frustration was that I felt like we were working within a disease care system rather than a healthcare system. That we’ve set up systems to just tackle specific diseases, but not looking at a whole person or thinking about, how do I actually get to the outcome I want? Which is healthy, thriving communities. And so with that lens, and thinking about food security is a major social determinant of health, that’s where the concept of the Food as Medicine Collaborative came out of. It’s like, how do we really start to reimagine what the healthcare system could be doing differently to actually get to this goal of healthy thriving communities, rather than just, let’s deliver disease care. And the concept there was really to get healthcare systems to own food security as a health issue, not just this moral issue that nonprofits and public health departments had to worry about. But if you actually want to make your patients healthy, you have to address the fact that they don’t have access to healthy food, nor do they sometimes know what to do with it.
And so what the Food as Medicine Collaborative does is, we are a multi-sector collaboration comprised of nonprofits, government, food businesses, researchers, academia, who are trying to bring together the food system and health systems to promote greater health equity by addressing food insecurity. And so we wanted to tangibly provide an intervention for healthcare to recognize how they could actually do this work. And so programmatically, it manifested as what we called food pharmacies, where just an onsite entity that allowed doctors to prescribe healthy foods to their patients and the patients could actually fill it onsite like you would at a pharmacy.
And we didn’t want food pharmacies to merely be a food dispensary, because I think the goal here isn’t to turn clinics and healthcare into grocery stores and food pantries. I think that doesn’t quite leverage the full potential of healthcare and what we could be doing for patients. But it was really about, how do you really marry this idea that food and nutrition is critical to your health? We’re not just paying lip service to it. We’re making it possible. We’re enabling it. But pairing it with other skills and tool sets so that you can actually use the food.
So it’s not just a handout, but it’s paired with nutrition education. We have cooking demonstrations with our nutritionist there. We also give out tools to patients, because a lot of our patients don’t have kitchens even, and so they need things like crock pot or cutting boards or knives, even to just get started. And then the final key piece to it is connecting them to the food safety net. Because I’m not saying that healthcare needs to own food security. I’m saying healthcare needs to have a role in it. We can’t pretend that this doesn’t affect our patients. And we occupy about a fifth of the GDP for the country. If you could get healthcare to care about these things and invest in it, then you could really have an impact on healthy communities.
And so it started with the programmatic element, but we always had systems and policy change in mind. So we first started off with the pilot that the d.school helped us get off the ground. And then within a year we had three food pharmacies at clinics. In the next five years we now have 16 food pharmacies across five health systems in San Francisco.
So we were really scaling a programmatic intervention, but seeing the systems change. All these clinics and health systems were starting to really buy in, that this is work we should be doing. We should be investing in this. And we leveraged that to get them to organize around a statewide policy ask so that Medicaid, which is the health insurance for low income and pregnant women and kids and so forth, to actually pay for food as a covered medical benefit, so that in the same way that insurance pays for your diabetes or your hypertension pills, they should be paying for your food because that will also make you well.
And so after about a year and a half of work, Medicaid in California actually included it in our next waiver. And so that was a huge win for this body of work, is that we started from these programs that were helping one-on-one people, changing a system in healthcare, but then having statewide policy change to actually funnel healthcare dollars to support food security and what was underlying health disparities.
So, can you walk me through how this actually works for an individual? How do they get connected to it and what happens when they do?
A key piece to how we approach this work was through a health equity lens, and so we were very purposeful about who would get access to food pharmacies. It’s referral based. It’s just kind of like a prescription. You can’t just show up at a pharmacy and say, I want morphine. It has to be prescribed to you. So we would message to providers that they could prescribe food pharmacy as an intervention to certain patients.
And also much of this work was designed with a race equity lens. And so we looked in San Francisco and who was having the most disproportionate health disparities in the city, and it was Black African Americans in San Francisco. And so we really wanted to prioritize those patients, because as you can imagine, demand was much greater than supply, so we had to really focus, what’s the population?
And so, providers could write prescriptions to a food pharmacy. So you would show up and you would say, hi, I’m Kristin. And it’s very much so a farmer’s market style in a lot of our clinics. And that was intentional. We didn’t want this sterile, uninspiring environment that healthcare sometimes has. And sometimes people associate healthcare and food with a message of restriction and no, like, don’t eat this, don’t eat that. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. And it’s not really a message of inspiration or hope or enabling patients to feel self-empowered. So these are some of the concepts that I got out of my experience with design. How do we create experiences that empower patients to be active advocates of their own health rather than these passive recipients of healthcare? And so the experience is informed by design and being intentional about how you want people to feel when they’re there.
But anyway, you show up and all the foods have been selected by our registered dieticians. And there are stations throughout where folks are giving people as much produce as they can pretty much carry home. And then registered dieticians are there, volunteers are there providing nutrition, education, and recipe cards. And then there’s various stations to also … For example, there’s like a cooking demonstration station with a registered dietician. And then we also have a referrals table that helps connect people to local resources.
So when you walk into it, it’s a lively environment. There’s food, but there’s also healthcare professionals there. There’s also referrals. Most of our sites we actually have either a physician or a pharmacist who’s actually talking to patients about their health issue, whether it be hypertension or diabetes, and also making adjustments to their medications. And so there’s really this marrying of the concept that, food actually is really core to my health and healthcare is delivering this to me. We’ve heard patients say through our focus groups that they really see that concept when it gets tied to healthcare, and they pay more attention to their numbers. They’re excited to get their blood pressure checked on site because they’re thinking about, what did I eat this last week? It’s going to show in my numbers. Which I think is great. It’s like, yes, you are empowered to make an impact on your health. You don’t just have to receive our pills and take it.
You mentioned that you identified this particular population that was prioritized, and that you had to talk a lot about race as you were, I think, maybe putting the collaborative together and figuring out how you were going to deliver these services. So could you just give me a little bit of a flavor for what those conversations looked like? I’m sure there were uncomfortable moments and then there were some rays of light. And how this came together for you.
I would say that race equity, in many ways, laid the foundations for this work to scale. And what I mean by that is that the San Francisco Department of Public Health had already committed in 2014 to really focusing on health disparities in Black African American communities in San Francisco. So the whole department was really trying to walk the walk of saying, we do tackle health disparities and what are we doing for this community in San Francisco that has the worst health outcomes. That and Pacific Islanders. And the system had bought into the idea that we need to start being intentional about our interventions and who gets access to our interventions.
I think what’s important to recognize is when you’re trying to design an intervention that is very intentionally tackling race equity issues, that you have to recognize that you can’t just off the bat do that. It requires a lot of culture change underneath it for a system to buy into why we need to be an anti-racist organization that is specifically calling out race and anti-Black racism. I can’t take credit for all that background work, but we were certainly part of it.
To be concrete, if you were to first start asking clinics, we want you to prioritize Black African American patients for this intervention. So we want you to call them up and invite them personally. And for the other patients, they don’t get such high touch support. You can imagine there’s resistance at first where it’s like, well, what about my ethnic group? Why are they getting special treatment? Why are they getting more? So a lot of the work actually has to start with confronting racism and anti-Black racism and how it manifests and the repercussions it has for that community.
And so it took literally took years, and we’re still on the journey of having even just our staff recognize that anti-Black racism is so prevalent. And in order to do something about it, you actually have to really embrace and pursue equity and thinking about disproportionately investing resources and efforts into communities that have been historically disinvested in and structurally oppressed. A lot of that work was culture change. A lot of that was messaging around why we were even doing this and getting folks to buy in. That then allowed us to actually prioritize patients for the program itself.
What I’ve heard from other colleagues and efforts to address racism is that if you don’t approach it with nuance and purposefulness and just a lot of thought, you could actually do more harm than good. So if you bring your staff in at too late of a stage to address anti-Black racism, it could actually worsen race relations. So I think figuring out where to start from and engaging that conversation is important. And we benefited from the expertise of many leaders and experts who talk about race relations. So I think you got to do it right.
So we talked a little bit earlier about the difference between treating a patient individually, being able to have that satisfaction of seeing that impact being made there, and then moving to the systems level. There, you run the risk of being a bit more removed, not maybe being able to see sort of that human aspect of it quite as much. And also not being able to sort of bear witness to what’s working, what’s not working. Have you experienced that or noticed that? Or are there ways that you’ve tried to make sure that you’re able to iterate and improve?
I think that is one of the greatest challenges of applying human centered design to systems change. Because I by no means think of myself as an actual designer or an expert in design. I was lucky enough to be exposed to it and trained in some of the skills. I felt like design was particularly good for creating user-centered products and experiences. So, very much so focused on the individual. I think it was harder for me to recognize how to apply some of those frameworks and tools to large scale systems change. And I think the way I’m reconciling it is that design is one of many tools that a change agent can employ to impact large scale change. So depending on what your goal is, you would use design, or sometimes you would use research, or sometimes you would use Lean process improvement methodology.
So I’ve seen design as one of my tools in my toolkit of how I want to affect change in my community. And I do think it’s particularly good for the programmatic elements of what I’m to get done. There are mindsets within design that I think are applicable across the board, like showing more than telling, for example, or radical collaboration. Those design mindsets I think apply more across the spectrum in terms of what you’re trying to get done.
In our work at the Food as Medicine Collaborative, we are so intentional that our goal is systems change, but at the same time we can’t lose sight of the whole point of all this was to actually impact people’s lives. And I think it’s reflected in our work. We started out with a program that patients love, that they kept coming back to. If we hadn’t designed a good program, then it wouldn’t have scaled. If it didn’t scale, health systems wouldn’t have bought into it. And then I couldn’t have done all the policy work we did on the other end.
Rita Nguyen (19:17):
So I think there’s a balance to be struck and different skill sets to be used depending on what you’re trying to get done. I think it also falls down on values, if you stick close to your values. I don’t think we would ever tolerate a program that was disrespectful or uninviting. We, I think, naturally have designed something that will meet people’s needs, but also be a positive experience, while also balancing the other goals that we’re trying to accomplish beyond a killer program.
So, what is your dream for it? Ultimately, it has scaled. It is scaling. What’s sort of the big goal that you’re alluding to? What are you after?
So one of our biggest goals is having healthcare pay for food, and we’re getting there. There’s a mechanism for Medicaid in California to pay for food now, but our next goal is Medicare. So between Medicare and Medicaid, they are the largest payers of healthcare, especially for vulnerable people in the country. So Medicare is more for disabled and older adults, and those on dialysis and so forth. We want private health insurers to also pay for food. So we want it to become the norm. Food is just part of medical care and that you should be able to have access to it, to manage your chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes.
And the Food as Medicine Collaborative, even though in San Francisco we’re most tangibly known for our food pharmacy intervention, whenever we interface with another healthcare system, we say that we are agnostic to the intervention. You don’t have to have a food pharmacy. Maybe you want grocery bags to be delivered, or maybe you want food vouchers so that your patients can go buy these foods at the grocery store. The reason why we coined it the Food as Medicine Collaborative and not the Food Pharmacy Collaborative is that we are not wedded to this one intervention. We just want food and healthcare to work together, whatever form that takes and makes sense for patients in the healthcare system they’re in. It’s more buying into this concept that healthcare needs to pay attention to food security and do something about it and not wait for nonprofit and healthcare to just tackle this problem on their own.
You mentioned hypertension, diabetes. People with these particular conditions are able to access the Food as Medicine Collaborative. Is there a longer list of conditions?
I mean, as you can imagine, the list is essentially limitless. The true prevention would be like how do you intervene with somebody before they got diabetes or before they became obese or had kidney disease. A huge number of health conditions are diet sensitive or diet related. And so our group has thought about that comprehensive list. And just trying to think realistically, we can’t ask healthcare for all of that all at once. So we have to prioritize certain diagnoses that seem more obviously tied to diet than others. But honestly, depression and anxiety, the outcomes there related to how people eat as well. Right now we phrase it as medically supportive food and nutrition to really hone in on the fact that this is to support medically your health. And again, this is being strategic with healthcare. They want us to speak their lingo. I get it. They don’t want to become food pantries, nor should they. And so they need to think strategically about, how do we invest in medically supportive food to advance medical outcomes.
And by starting with these, sort of the short list, then you’re able to provide the evidence that it works and then move on to other conditions.
We talked about how you were introduced to design. How would you define design?
I would say human-centered design is an approach to tackling a problem that is rooted in empathy for the user. I think it is an approach to innovation and thinking differently and creating differently, that really is based in empathy for who you’re designing for. And under that premise, if you base what you’re trying to do in an understanding and empathy for your user, it leads to better products that are more informed by what people actually want and can use and love.
And so along the same lines, the title of our panel a couple weeks ago was, For Whom Am I Making This? And that is part of this Latham series where we’re thinking about these fundamental questions. Why am I making this? For whom am I making this? Do you ask yourself those types of questions from time to time as you’re thinking about the important work that you’re doing, and just kind of grounding it and kind of coming back to purpose?
I would say I don’t in terms of the people I’m trying to serve, but I do when I’m trying to ask my myself, am I designing this for people or am I designing this for systems? That’s the contradiction I feel internally. It’s quite obvious to me, my commitment to mission and my commitment to equity. That’s not hard for me to remind myself that this is for the communities that are most depressed and disenfranchised, and in our society it’s often Black African Americans. Pacific Islanders is quite comparable in terms of their health outcomes.
I think what I struggle with more, and I think it’s just a process for me of just acknowledging that I’m also really targeting healthcare as a target. I want healthcare to change. I want them to evolve. And so a lot of what I do focuses on, how do I get them to change? I’m designing for them in many respects. I think part of where my struggle with this comes from is that framing that I introduced around the health impact partners. They have a framework where they think about … Most people think about the health inequities. People of color are dying from heart attacks more than others. You go deeper then you’re looking at social determinants of health around food, housing, education, so forth. And then you go deeper than that and then you’re looking at power imbalances and structural oppression and racism.
And so where I struggle is that the intervention at that deepest level is to put power in the hands of those that have been disenfranchised. And sometimes I struggle with whether or not that’s what I’m doing if I’m rectifying the healthcare system. Again, I recognize that our interventions are giving more resources to those that are disenfranchised, which in some levels may be power, but somehow it feels like a more removed version of power than just giving power to the people directly.
Honestly, if you just gave people money. Poverty is a lot of this, right? If people just had more money, a lot of these issues wouldn’t exist. And I think where I’ve landed is, I think it’s a yes, and. I think you can’t have either. I think you can’t just have either in isolation. I think it’s yes, and. We need to think about how do we give more actual power and resources to people. People need to be able to make their own decisions, not just these healthcare executives that decide how to spend taxpayer dollars. I agree with that. They do need power. But at the same time, we also need the system to become more equitable. We need the system to transform. So I think that’s where I’ve landed, is that I do believe in restructuring our societies so that power is more equitably spread, and I think we need to change our systems to reflect that as well.
How do you give yourself room to resurface these questions over time? And the answer today may be different than the answer tomorrow. And not just you individually, but as a collaborative, as an organization, do you have space, time, room set aside to entertain these questions?
I don’t have dedicated time, but I acknowledge that it is a process and it’s a journey. I think it would be a real disservice to assume that the solutions we thought of today should always be the solutions. And I think that’s where the iterative mindset comes in. And I personally think that I’m still in a growth journey around race equity and how to make that manifest, and how do you balance people power and system power. And so I’m very open to those conversations and that dialogue to continue. I actively feel like I’m in evolution and in growth, which I think honestly, everybody should be, because otherwise we’d be a very stagnant society. And so the short answer is I don’t have dedicated time to think about it. I think it just sort of surfaces as we evolve the work, and as I hear from others and they plant seeds in my mind of how I approach my own work.
This is sort of an outlier question. There’s not a great segue here, but I need to ask about it. If there was anything as the Food as Medicine Collaborative continued work through the pandemic, what special challenges that might have presented to you, and if any of those became opportunities or presented new ideas.
I mean, the pandemic, just unprecedented on so many levels. So we did pivot quite quickly to different interventions like home delivered groceries or giving people more vouchers so they could go purchase groceries. And we also just had more mobile food that was being passed out and less of a whole experience.
What I was so grateful for, and what I think was a manifestation of that systems change, is I thought healthcare was going to pull the plug. I thought they were going to say our hair’s on fire. We got to deal with COVID. We can’t do anything else. But we grew in 2020. More clinics got on board.
And I think that speaks to the inequities that COVID laid bare. It was no surprise that the communities hardest hit by COVID were those who were low income or communities of color who lived in disenfranchised communities that were disinvested in. There was just more of a recognition of how on the edge people live. And so healthcare saw that too. Healthcare providers felt like it was really in their face. They really couldn’t ignore the fact that so many of their patients didn’t have enough money to buy food anymore. So nationwide, I think food security became more visible as a result of COVID. And it was wonderful to see our healthcare partners continue to invest in it and grow the work because they really saw how stark the need was for their patients.
And so we had more clinics jump on in 2020. We also had our partners raise something like 1.7 million dollars in 2020, just for food. There was just more visibility around how important food security was as an issue.
A big thanks to Rita for giving us a window into a compelling new way of confronting and preventing disease. Rita is one of ID’s 2021 Latham Fellows at the Institute of Design. For more about our Latham Fellows, visit our website and YouTube channel.
You can find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we’d love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
As Global Head of Employee Digital Experience at the Kraft Heinz Company, Tope Sadiku describes herself as a corporate doctor. To extend the metaphor: her patients are Kraft employees, and her medicine is technology.
Tope considers the evolving employee experience—really, how an employee spends their everyday—and how technology can enhance it. Tope is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Kristin Gecan (00:01):
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I’m Kristin Gecan. This month, I talk to Tope Sadiku. Tope is the global head of employee digital experience at the Kraft Heinz company. So what does that mean? She describes herself as a corporate doctor. Her patients are Kraft employees and her medicine is technology.
In this conversation, we consider the employee experience today and how technology can enhance it. Here’s Tope starting us off with how she became a corporate doctor.
Tope Sadiku (00:48):
I hope that I don’t romanticize this story because I think when you look at anything in retrospect you’re able to make sense of it, whereas maybe in the moment, it doesn’t make sense. But if I was to look in retrospect and try and make sense of my life today, I started my career in finance. I was probably in finance for almost like 10 years. I became a chartered management accountant, so I understood how organizations made money. Actually, I recommend that as a good way for most people to start their careers, or even if not start, delve into finance because whether you’re self-employed, you work for big organization, or you maybe want to start your own company, you need to know how money works and that was really what I learned.
And then I began to realize, “Well, hang on, if it makes so much sense, if it’s something that you can just learn, why isn’t everybody like rich? Why isn’t everybody rich? And why do organizations fail?” It doesn’t make sense because this is something you can be taught. And if it’s something that obvious, I just did on some way, saying companies failed. I’m being silly and provocative, but you know, on [inaudible 00:01:43] you can say, “Well, why then isn’t everybody rich?” And then I began to look at it more and I realized, “Okay, well, there’s a lot of people in this and you can’t really control people.” And a lot of economic models say like, “Humans are rational.” But the reality is just, it wasn’t really what I saw. And if you think about supply and demand, well, “Hang on, how come it doesn’t always work like that? And why don’t people just do what makes like financial sense?” Like, “This product makes sense? Why aren’t people just buying it if there’s a gap for it.” Right?
Something curious about people and like why, and like, to what degree are humans rational? When are we irrational? And then I read this book called Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, it’s a really old book, but I absolutely loved it. And I remember I was on the tube in London, reading this book on the way to… It took me about maybe a week or so to read it. And I was jumping up and down on the tube in London, so excited because I thought, “Oh, hang on. This all makes sense because humans are irrational and we act emotionally and we’re kind of predictably irrational.” Right?
And I got more interested in like people and how you could encourage people to do the right thing without necessarily giving a lot of… How do you architect choice? You know, this concept of libertarian paternalism. That was the first time I was introduced to that concept and they were talking about it in the sense of healthcare and how you encourage patients to take care of their health, or from the government and how you encourage people to invest in their pension and how you can make things automatic, easy.
So then I started to combine finance and psychology and I started to look at the psychology of investments and why we invest in things that we invest in and why we sell when things crash and why we invest when things are high and why we don’t necessarily feel brave enough to do it in the reverse. And then I moved to Croatian and then I started to get more interested in, “Okay, well, how does technology play into all of this?” Because you’ve got this way of making money, but you understand how people work and sure your technology can be used as the mechanism to kind of eliminate human error and gain global scale. You don’t really need to know how tech works, you need to be like a critical thinker. And actually, if we invest so much in technology, does it actually add value to the end user’s life? Surely that is the purpose of what we’re trying to do.
I’ll never forget, I was in business school. I went to Rotterdam and I took a Uber from the train station to my school, it was like an hour. And my Uber driver was telling me about how the internet was created and it was created by looking at ants and how ants transfer information with their antenna. And that was how the, well, not the internet, but wifi, was conceptualized. And I remember thinking, “Okay, well, the answer to the questions in the world must exist in the world already. And all we have to do is look at how nature works and that would give us inspiration about how people and technology can work as well.”
Kristin Gecan (04:32):
It really strikes me. I have a six year old and he, alternately on any given day, will tell me he wants to be a scientist and then he wants to be an artist and then he wants to be a scientist. And so we’ll go back and forth, which is fantastic, I think. And it’s also, I think probably why you and other curious people often do end up working at least tangentially with design in some ways, because it brings all these ways of knowing together. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about when you say that you’re interested in democratizing technology to enable people to achieve the promise of work and life. So there’s two chunks of that that I really want to tease out with you. And one is the democratizing technology piece and the other is the promise work and life.
And I’m going to start with the end of it because it’s a values question, it’s a balance question, it’s a question of… Employees don’t all necessarily want the same things so not only does that probably make your job a challenge, right? But it’s also a question for me of like, “Why, you know, now in the 21st century, when we’ve seen the importance of work life balance, is it still something we struggle to preserve? And why do we still have the 40 hour work week?” And how do you think about these things in your current role and how do you decide whether you’re doing a good job?
Tope Sadiku (06:09):
It’s a good point. So let’s talk about this idea of achieving the promise of work slash life. And I say work, because I work in an organization where I care about employees, but then I actually think life, because I don’t really see a differentiation between this concept of work life balance doesn’t mean anything to me. And I look it as a life balance and I want to be fulfilled in everything I do. And I want everything to work towards the bigger goal of why Tope exists and why am I here? And what’s like my purpose on this planet, in this human experience?. And I look at people and I think, “Well, everybody wants to achieve their purpose.” And I agree that it’s not the same for everybody, I get that. In fact, I say my purpose on this planet now is to enable people to be happier and healthier. And I really believe that I do that in everything I do.
In the work I do in Kraft Heinz, I look at an employee’s day and I say, “Okay, how do I like eliminate just waste or, like, ‘yuck work’?” Because I want to give people time back to just feel creative and inspired. I actually want to give people time back so they can go outside, get the fresh air on their skin and breathe and just get excited. And who knows what you create? Maybe you create the next ketchup, who knows? Maybe you create the next product, who knows? Maybe you fix a problem that you just haven’t had the mental capacity to give enough time to, who knows? But I feel like everyone deserves that on basic human level, everybody deserves that time just to think, to breathe, to sit and to wonder.
So that’s my aspiration and I am a believer that if I’m able to eliminate this like yuck work this time when we’re not… If we can do the things that we used to do in maybe cool new novel ways maybe, and also save a bit of time on it. I’m just curious to see what people create at the end. So how do I measure success? I can do that on a very tangible level and I can say, “Okay, this activity took this amount of time. Now it takes this amount of time.” I can say, “Okay, I’ve been able to eliminate waste in this activity.” Or, “I’ve been able to give this team…” I don’t know, maybe they were spending this amount of money to deliver this activity and actually we’ve reduced the cost because we’ve rationalized what they use.
The hard part is where does that thing get reinvested into, right? Because I’m not saying give it to me, I’m actually not even saying about like the displacement of jobs in any kind of way. I want people to be able to reinvest that time elsewhere. So I say that my mantra, my objective is to give our employees time back to be more productive so that they can be creative and inspired. But then I say within that creative and inspired, it’s like bounded creativity.
I like this idea of frugal innovation in the sense that I say, “I want you to be creative, but I’m giving you like an easel, I’m giving you like a canvas and I’m giving you some paint and paint something. I have an art gallery, I only have walls. So whatever you make has to be able to be hung on my wall, but I don’t care if you want to make a painting of your dog, if something really abstract, whatever you want to paint is your own prerogative. And however long you want it to take however, whatever size you want it to be, it’s really up to you, but I want to see a painting.”
And at least that for me, it creates those boundaries for creativity. And I guess I can measure success in the productivity side and then I can measure success in the creativity side, because is my gallery full of paintings on the wall? And are they paintings? And it’s not really up to me if I like them or not, but does it inspire something else within others? Even if it’s not always just me. That’s a bit harder to measure, but at least I can theoretically conceptualize what that could look like.
Kristin Gecan (09:50):
I like what you’re saying about boundaries to creativity. I mean, I think creative people talk a lot about the importance of constraints, right? In order to be creative, sometimes being given a blank canvas is the most challenging thing, right? I also think what I’m hearing you say is that you’re a creativity enabler, right? You’re setting up the conditions for creativity.
I wonder how you think about this question that we were addressing in the Latham talk, which is why are we making this and how sort of social responsibility is embedded in that question? And I think that the answer probably is somewhat attached to what you were just describing of, “Why are we making this at this moment in time?” But I also wonder how you think of your sense of responsibility. You’re employed by Kraft Heinz, but it sounds a lot like you’re also thinking about your responsibility to the employees of Kraft Heinz. So maybe you could speak to that a bit.
Tope Sadiku (10:52):
Sure. A lot of things have happened in the last few days that have just made me maybe reflect. Yesterday was earth day and for whatever reason, this earth day I was like, “Is this every year, because why does it feel different this year?” It felt so different. And on top of that, I listened to this Guy Raz, How I Built This Podcast. And he interviewed a guy who was the founder and CEO of a company called American Giant. Now, I’m not familiar with American Giant, I’m kind of like quite new to America. But it’s an organization where they make these sweatshirts. What he was talking about was that, and maybe at least what I took, was that for a product to be quality, you can actually create a good quality product that is really bad for the world and like bad for people, but it tastes great and it will last forever. And that’s what we used to deem good quality, but now good quality is like, “What is its wider impact on the environment?”
It’s not always like the cheapest, most robust product that tastes delicious. It’s bigger than just cost and taste. It’s like, “What is the lasting impact on the world? Like beyond just the initial consumption of whatever you’re trying to create.” And I think, “Okay, I work for a food manufacturing organization. We can think of like products that we make.” But then I can even think about like, “How do my employees consume new technology?” Like, “What is the impact on their lives there?” Because we’re looking at like ESG and while that’s its own bigger agenda within Kraft Heinz, I remember yesterday for Earth Day, our CEO said, “But this is all of your responsibility.” And I thought, “Oh yeah, it is.”
When I think about encouraging people to meet smarter, actually it is my responsibility to think about the wide impact of that. Okay, I can encourage people how to have smart remote meetings, but really, what is the bigger impact of that? Because look, we may actually end up producing travel costs if we ever go back to whatever the world was, but once travel opens up again, do we actually need to travel? Can we actually deliver what we were trying to deliver through this democratization of technology? To put tech into the hands of everybody and showing people ways to achieve objectives in smart, new, novel ways. And those types of things excite me because it’s like, “Okay, I can teach you how to have a smart remote meeting, but what is the longer world impact of that?”
I was having a conversation friend of mine, he’s the director of AI at Google. And he’s talking to me about some of the work that Google are doing. And I said to him, “But you know, when you know all of this information, do you not feel you have this like moral obligation to make people happier and healthier on this planet?” And we laughed and we joked and I thought, “Well, that’s the same with me when the more I study and the more I know, and the more I experiment and test around how people interact with tech. It’s like my moral obligation to kind of encourage people to be happier and healthier in their day through what I know.”
So I try and bring everything I know into a development. So for example, when everybody moved to be remote, we rolled out Microsoft teams. We did a huge rollout to all of our, we have 40,000 employees. And we split 50, 50 between knowledge workers and frontline workers. And we rolled out teams to all of our knowledge workers. And actually we’re now exploring what it looks like to roll out to our frontline workers in their every day. But then for me, it was more than just a technical deployment. It was an opportunity to kind of try and connect people. And how do we give people time to relax, even, to stop stressing, to feel like they have to be too formal. How do we connect people and bring them closer together? I’m trying to layer in everything that I know into everything that I do without it being too bombarding. I can’t deny certain things that I know, once I’ve been taught, anyway.
Tope Sadiku (14:41):
Kristin Gecan (14:46):
Can you speak to that idea of the values that you’re finding among employees and how you’re greeting those, how you’re trying to satisfy those?
Tope Sadiku (14:57):
I wouldn’t say I’m just learning this, but I’m realizing that it’s very, very important that people want to be able to have a life balance. Previously you would go to the office, like you want to work, I don’t know, 8:00 till 6:00, those are the hours that you’re in the office. And then maybe you want to do some admin, you got to take a morning or afternoon off work or try and do over the weekend. People want to have a life balance and actually everyone feels better when they do. And that might mean like I’m not in back to back meetings. It might also mean that I’m able to just have lunch with my children or I can go and take the dog for a walk or I can just sit and have peace, or maybe I feel like I’m the most effective at this time of the day and therefore I want to have the means to be able to, I don’t know, have my focus time at, I don’t know, the hours between midnight and 3:00 AM, silly example.
And these values are this like… I guess the overarching principle for me is this idea of life balance and how do we enable technology to give you that life balance? I was talking about wellbeing and employee experience, maybe nine months ago. And someone said, “Who’s responsibility is it?” And I thought, “It’s very difficult to say like it’s the employer’s responsibility, but it’s also very difficult it’s the employee’s responsibility.” It’s like, it’s a dual responsibility that both have to be mindful of how the other one feels and what’s available to achieve certain objectives.
Tope Sadiku (16:19):
I guess that it’s easier in that knowledge worker space because it’s not outcome driven in the same way. It is like for someone on a factory line, right? You got to make, I don’t know, X amount of B product in C time. It’s not necessarily like that in the knowledge worker space. But I think in both kind of archetypes that we have this idea of life balance is bigger now than ever.
Kristin Gecan (16:45):
Yeah. And what you were saying before, I think was that you try to think about it in terms of life balance, not life work balance. Work is part of life, right? So one thing that we talked about in the panel discussion was getting feedback and metrics and quantifying things and how difficult that can be in design or in the work that you do, which sounds much like design. And one of the things that I really [inaudible 00:17:14] on that you said is that we don’t quantify love or happiness, but we know that they’re critical to our wellbeing, to our life, to our performance. So given that, are there ways that you decide whether an effort that you have is successful or whether it’s time to try something new?
Tope Sadiku (17:36):
I guess one of the things I can think of is around when we were at Microsoft teams, we did a lot of ethnography so we kind of just watched how groups work and we kind of said, “How do you work today? And how do you think you want to work in the future? And then how do we think we can… Like where are the things that you may not have realized? But we might also know just based on like knowledge of like the wider organization and the technology tools we have access to.” And I guess when it comes to like being successful, we ran these ethnographies, we did some webinars and then we realized that, “Oh, hang on, it’s great to have that one way, this is what we’ve learned in general. And here, here are some tips and tricks in essence, like here’s the art collaboration, here’s how you can meet smarter, here’s how you can be agile, here’s how you can think like from a design thinking principle.”
But then we realized, “Okay, people need a bit more of an interaction. They need a bit more like interaction so then we started to run these workshops. And I guess when it comes to being successful, I don’t know, there’s some general feeling that something has like run its course, and maybe we need to evolve or tweak or ramp up. But we really reach out to so many different groups. We have like a group of employees and something called our Collaborations Champions Network. Then we speak with our exec and then we speak with like leadership and then we just solicit feedback from all different channels. And we really say, “Look, guys, tell us, tell us, tell us, tell us.” And then we do these quantifiable surveys where we just like ask generic persons and we can see the benchmark of how people feel.
And then we come together as a group and we say, “Okay, what do we think this tells us now?” If I wasn’t in the group and I was looking at it, I could say, “How much of that is really what you believe and if you’re in a group, do you look for the answers that you want?” It’s very difficult to take all of that out, right? But I think when you take feedback from a number of different angles, you can’t help, but just see the truth there and that you have to pivot and change. Because at the end of the day, my obligation is to the employees, not to myself. I’m almost like a vessel, right? The pipeline by which they get what they need. And like, it’s not for me, a successful employee experience.
Maybe it makes my life happier in the short term, like my Tope life, but really it’s to serve others. So I have to kind of solicit the feedback of others and understand how people feel. And even if one person says, “Oh, hang on, I didn’t really like this.” I tend to just listen to that voice as well. I might not significantly throw away and scrap an entire strategy, but I try and tweak what we do to like the pulse I have of employees.
Kristin Gecan (20:03):
Another thing I wanted to ask you about is, you describe yourself as a corporate doctor who uses technology to enhance the lives of your patients. So I wonder, is there any sort of creed that you live by much like doctors do, like first do no harm? Is there anything that you have come to sort of check yourself with to make sure that you’re proceeding in the right direction?
Tope Sadiku (20:29):
I guess maybe I could go back to like my life principle, there are a few things that were running in my mind. I thought, “As long as I’m enabling people to be happier, to feel happier and healthier.” And I say, “Feel.” As opposed to kind of like, “Be.” Because sometimes it’s like perception is reality and I even struggle myself, like when it comes to medication, to what degree is it the medication or is it like the placebo effect you just feel? But either way it works and as long as it works, it works. So for me, I’m like, “Does the person feel happier? Do they feel better? Do they feel healthier?” That’s probably my overarching principle, like my guiding star, my north star.
My CIO, he says he wants people to have a delightful experience. And I guess like, delightful is another way of saying, “Do you feel happier? Healthier? I don’t know, excited to be in work?” So, yeah, I guess it’s a lot around feelings, which again is probably quite interesting for somebody who has a background in finance. How do you quantify feelings? [inaudible 00:21:26] like that love. It’s very difficult to quantify. It’s easy for someone to say, “I feel a certain way.” And then they take that feeling with them, whether or not it is the reality, again, going back to like placebos, if they work, they work. Right?
Kristin Gecan (21:38):
It’s interesting that what you said about your CEO wanting folks to have a delightful experience. And then as you just underscored your own background in finance. But then also this challenge of being able to quantify what impact you’re having. And so I wonder how you’ve been able to see that, like, I’m actually not aware, is yours a new role at Kraft Heinz? Have you been able to see how making people feel happy actually? I mean, at the end of the day, people are still curious about like, “Well, what does that do for the bottom line?” Right? And so I wonder if you could speak to that at all. Like what impact or outcomes you’ve seen from just actually being concerned about people’s wellbeing?
Tope Sadiku (22:20):
Yeah. And I should be very clear, like my role sits within technology and actually it is a new role. It was a role that we created in Kraft Heinz in 2019. And I think, okay, I talk a lot about feelings, but my reality is I’m going to talk about business case. I do talk about the financial implication. So for example, a move towards Microsoft teams does reduce travel, it does help the synchronize and harmonize and also like create a universal platform for people to work in. So then we can remove a number of different alternative solutions we have, which have a very material, financial benefit, right? When it comes to the feelings, you can even say that was a side effect. Although it was kind of the driving reason why we took a certain decision or why we took the decision to move to a certain way.
But yeah, we still have to be able to quantify things. I treat the company’s money as though it’s my own. And I think, “Well, hang on, is this like the correct holistic business case of… You know, if I bought a new house, yes, I want my children and my family to feel great in my new home, but doesn’t make economical sense for my family. Is it close to somewhere that, you know… Does it help where we need to travel for work and other recreational activities?” You have to think about the total package and I won’t pretend that we just say, “Okay, people feel great, let’s just spend.” No, we think about the entire package around that. So in that way, it’s quite easy to quantify. Are you delivering on what you said you would deliver?
Kristin Gecan (23:44):
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. What energizes you most about the work that you’re doing?
Tope Sadiku (23:50):
That’s a very fun question. What energizes me the most? I guess I get excited by thinking of, and I hate this phrase, but it kind of works, yeah like the art of the possible, like what could be. Imagine if there was a workspace where you just didn’t know if you were physically or virtually next to someone, it kind of like felt the same, somehow. And I felt like I could touch someone, even if I didn’t know if they were physically or virtually there. And then somehow I was able to like achieve business objectives, irrespective of where I was based. And then I get excited when I think about like VR, AR, a mixed reality. And then I think, “Okay, to be able to even have those conversations, you need to have like a certain type of behavior or mentality embedded in your organization, within your employees. And then you need your it team or your technology team to think in a certain way.”
And imagine if you could use tech to like heal people. I mean, that exists today. There’s so many projects and experiments and organizations that I’m able to kind of work with in that space. So for me, the idea of being able to use technology to really heal people and to connect people, that excites me. I can tell you, I work, I don’t even know, I don’t watch TV for a start and I save so much time by not wasting time on TV and social media. I really don’t do any of them. I’m able to then invest time to things that I get super excited by and run experiments and have some really, really cool conversations with some really innovative people and organizations.
So yeah, that really excites me about what I do. And then I see the work I do in Kraft Heinz, like contributing towards that. I see the work that I do with these different boards, contributing towards that. I see the startups that I get to work with contributing towards that. And I find it really fun.
Kristin Gecan (25:28):
Maybe just one last question about the, we talked about, being responsible. I wonder just about being cooperative, right? And this must be very important to your role because you’re thinking about everyone that works at Kraft Heinz and I’m sure you’re working with any number of people on making technology work in service of those people and in service of the organization. So just any sort of top level thoughts about how you’ve been able to do that cooperatively and bring the people that you are sort of working for into the equation, if that makes sense.
Tope Sadiku (26:06):
Well, I guess for me, there’s this concept of goal congruence. And when I recognize is that everybody’s goal, like the aspiration is the same. People want to feel great at work. If you didn’t care about feeling great, you just wouldn’t come to work, so people want to feel great. If you have an aspiration, a mission, a goal, as broad as like feel great when I come to work, it fits into what everybody wants to do. And it’s actually not that difficult to get that goal congruence.
I’ve learned a lot about listening to people. I listen so much more than I probably have in my entire life. And I appreciate the ability to listen and talk a lot about like the death of this self, like dying to my own ego and being more humble. And I recognize that when it comes like enabling people to be their best selves at work, there is a lot of death of ego. I’m like a servant, right? I’m like of service to employees. So that’s really helped. I don’t know if that answers your question, but I would say that that definitely has really, really helped me.
Kristin Gecan (27:03):
Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you have a good rest of your day and weekend.
Tope Sadiku (27:10):
Oh, thank you so much and you too take care. Enjoy the sunshine.
Tope Sadiku (27:12):
Kristin Gecan (27:18):
Tope is a 2021 Latham Fellow, for more about our Latham Fellows and their discussions, visit the IIT Institute of Design website and YouTube channel. You can also find show notes and a full transcript on our site. Please subscribe, rate, and review With Intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we’d love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.
Kristin Gecan (27:47):
In the first episode of With Intent, Kristin Gecan talks to Morgan Ames, author of The Charisma Machine, about One Laptop Per Child—a hugely ambitious, or as Morgan defines it, charismatic project with good intentions: to bring a laptop to every child in the developing world.
We talk about why that project failed, how it connects to utopianism, and what design might learn from it all. Morgan is a 2021 Latham fellow.
Kristin Gecan (00:01):
Welcome to With Intent, a podcast from IIT Institute of Design, about how design permeates our world, whether we call it design or not. I’m Kristin Gecan. This month I talk to Morgan Ames. Morgan is the author of The Charisma Machine, which dives into One Laptop Per Child, a hugely ambitious, or as she defines it, charismatic project, with good intentions; to bring a laptop to every child in the developing world.
The project was widely celebrated when it was announced in 2006, but in the end, although 3 million laptops were reportedly shipped, the project failed. I talk with Morgan about that failure. We also talk about how important the central tenets of design are when building internationally-driven, and, in some ways, utopic projects. Utopianism is a contentious concept at the heart of Morgan’s research. To start things off, here’s Morgan, on the tech-centered ethos surrounding One Laptop per Child, and how she became interested in this project in the first place.
Morgan Ames (01:13):
People would tell these origin stories about themselves. They would say, “Oh, well, I got into coding when I was nine or I got into coding when I was six. And here’s the platform I used, or the game I used or whatever.” That origin story ends up being told surprisingly often in the tech world. I’ve heard stories from tech workers that it comes up in interviews.
My theory is that this story and particular forms of it, specifically, do a kind of cultural work in kind of signaling who belongs and maybe who doesn’t belong so much. So people who have stories like my own story into computer science, where I took my first computer science class in college and had very little programming experience before that. I was a bit of a math geek, but I was a bit of a geek around a number of things. So I couldn’t even claim that, particularly.
I found that people who have that kind of story, end up having to account for themselves in a way that people who started coding younger, don’t always. Even if the coding that they did from whatever age they started, eight or nine or 12, up until college, was probably not very sophisticated in most cases at least. Sometimes they had to unlearn bad habits in fact in college, when they started really getting into efficient data structures and such. So I found the fact that so much weight was placed on this origin story really interesting.
And that’s something I’m trying to follow up on and just see if that holds consistent, for example, across different generations of tech workers. So that’s one piece of it. And then the other piece is looking at what kids today, especially kids who are maybe out of the spotlight of what the “typical kid,” which of course is a very raced and classed and gendered assumption, around childhood, what these kids are doing with tech, and what it means for the tech industry, where those mismatches appear.
Kristin Gecan (03:12):
That’s super interesting, and of course, very logical too, considering what you talk about in The Charisma Machine. And it also brings me to my next question, which actually is connected to childhood.
So there’s a book that maybe you know, it’s called Locomotive and it’s by Brian Floca. It’s the story of basically the transcontinental railroad. It really does drive home, I think, this idea of not just, “This thing happened at this time in history,” but what maybe it felt like at that time in history, for this to actually be accomplished. That people could travel from one side of the country to the other, and what that meant for people at that moment of time.
And so one of the big things that you hit on in The Charisma Machine is how society interacts with and understands new and emerging technologies. And so you actually talk about the railroad in the book,
and you say that there are these feelings of sublime awe and transcendence that the locomotive evoked across the nation; that led the United States to pay an enormous price in resources and lives, in an attempt to realize the utopian promises of rail.
Do you see anything along these lines that is happening today, that we are sort of as a society, willing to kind of put our all behind, in terms of resources? Something that might make for a really good story, like the locomotive?
Morgan Ames (04:39):
Yeah, absolutely. And I think there are a number of them. I might augment this a little bit to say what I see now, as things that attract people’s attention and their passions, these charismatic projects, and then what maybe should be a little more charismatic, but maybe isn’t.
A lot of the discussion I see around self-driving cars, around the so-called privatized space race to Mars. These, I think are not nationalistic projects in so far, that they are funded wholly by the national government, by the US or another national government. Of course, they do get a lot of government contracts, but I think that they are enough part of the popular imagination in the US, and also beyond.
And I think they resonate in particular in the US, because we’ve had these narratives part of our national identity in the past. We’ve had the ’60s space race, we’ve had Manifest Destiny. And so this race to Mars, and I would say also the promise of self-driving cars, really do attract so much attention, so much journalistic commentary. There’s of course, both good and bad. A lot of people will say, “Oh, this isn’t possible. What are the ethics of this?” But I think the amount of attention, whether it’s good or bad, is already an indicator that this is really capturing the imaginations of a lot of people.
And I remember growing up in the 1980s, up until the Challenger disaster, I feel like NASA had a similar kind of cache of like, “Oh my Gosh. It captures the imaginations of adults, but also children by extension.” I mean, I think there’s a lot of children’s culture that gets tied up in these kinds of large scale projects.
I think there are others too, and they’re a little less tangible. So I think that there’s a lot of discussion around artificial intelligence. I think that in reality, machine learning takes on so many different forms and does so many different things. It’s a little hard to pin that on a particular technological system. It’s a lot of technological systems, all across the world, and different mechanisms.
So that one, I would say is similar in a lot of ways, although much more, a little hard to grasp, I guess. I would say there are things that maybe should get a little bit more attention along these lines, but are not quite as flashy or charismatic. The infrastructure bills that are being touted in Congress right now, focus a lot more on maintenance and repair, and this is something that is generally just not as charismatic. We like new and exciting, brand new ways of moving or thinking or looking at the world, and maintaining what we have is not something that seems as attractive.
Similarly, I would say that funding public education adequately is something that I feel like should be way more charismatic than it is. And that’s not to say that there aren’t charismatic projects within tech, within education. I think that there’s a lot that have to do with throwing technology at education. And it’ll be interesting to see after, as the kind of remote distance learning from the pandemic starts to wind down, how the various ed tech companies that really were heavy use this last year, how they kind of pivot, if they pivot, what stories they tell about themselves going forward.
But I think this last year wasn’t necessarily really charismatic in terms of the ed tech we all had to use every day, because we were living it. We knew all the ins and outs and the ups and downs. It was not something that was a kind of five or 10 year out horizon. It was something like, “Oh, nope, we have to just grapple with it.” And I think a lot of people saw that it wasn’t so much the technology, but the
people involved; the teacher on the other end, the parents in the room, trying to keep the kids’ attention on the class, and not wandering off, all of that, that really sustained all of that effort.
Kristin Gecan (08:54):
It’s hard to tell good stories about infrastructures. They’re not the sexiest things in the world. And many times, especially in design, they’re totally invisible. So it’s really hard to get someone to understand what it is that you’re driving at or talking about. And so, of course, many of the infrastructures that we’re talking about today, are concrete and visible; rail, and roads, and that sort of thing.
But I just wonder, as you’ve worked on writing about these stories, how have you found good ways to translate their importance for people?
Morgan Ames (09:31):
Oh, gosh. I wish I had a really solid answer and I could say, “Here it is. Here’s the way to make everybody believe in it.” It’s something I certainly work at. And a lot of it is, my own approach tends to lean on kind of inverting people’s expectations about things. Where people expect maybe a technology, some, a laptop for children, for example, to transform the world. And I say, “Well, here’s all of the ways that it made assumptions about the kids, that weren’t true, and here’s all the ways it fell down. And here’s all the ways that it leaned on maybe infrastructure that wasn’t there.”
So it’s kind of turning expectations on their head just a little bit. And I mean, I don’t do that for no reason. I really follow the evidence as best I can. Another thing I’ve really tried to do for the One Laptop per Child project write up in particular, was write it as sympathetically as I could.
I mean, here was a project that by all accounts, really failed. But the people who believed in it, really wanted to make the world a better place. And I acknowledged that. I acknowledge that these aren’t evil people out to make a buck off of the lives of children across the global south. They really wanted to transform the world.
It’s very easy to say, “Oh, the whole tech world is out to ruin the rest of the world. Just out to make money.” And I say, “Well, there are certainly people in the tech world like that, but there are a lot of people who really want to do good in the world, more broadly.” So we need to sit with that complexity, I think.
Kristin Gecan (11:08):
Right. I wanted to ask you about that idea of charisma and what you mean by it, because we’re kind of dancing around a lot of the ideas here that you set out in The Charisma Machine. But I think maybe one way, if folks haven’t read the book, to kind of get at what we’re talking about a little deeper, and to understand it better—if you could talk a little bit about what you mean by charisma.
Morgan Ames (11:31):
Yeah. I lean a lot on past sociological and STS work in this area. So of course Max Weber first theorized charisma as a sociological construct. He of course, connected it to people, to especially religious leaders and cult leaders, who didn’t necessarily have institutional authority or kind of authority via tradition.
Like a patriarch say, or a head of state, but still had an authority.
And he said, “How do we explain this authority? It’s almost kind of magical.” And so he dissected and says, “Charisma is what is bringing these people together around a particular leader. Here are some dimensions of charisma, and here’s how charisma eventually subsumes into one of these other kinds of authority,” because it’s an unstable kind of authority.
In a kind of STS turn, as I was analyzing all of my interviews and field notes and everything, from my time in Paraguay, studying One Laptop per Child, I just kept having this kind of nagging feeling in the back of my mind like, “This laptop is kind of charismatic. What would it mean for a laptop to be charismatic?”
We understand charismatic people, but STS often says, obviously there are differences between people and machines, but there is something to be gained by analytically thinking about them in similar ways. And so I use that kind of STS move with charisma to say, “This laptop itself has a kind of authority.”
I mean, of course the people who lead the project, also have, in a lot of cases, charisma, as well as various kinds of institutional authority, coming out of MIT. But the laptop itself also had charisma, based on the kinds of stories that got told about it, based on what this project promised to do in the world.
And one thing about charisma that is interesting, it certainly connects to the sublime, to some other ideas that STS and cultural scholars have teased apart within the history of technology. David Nye talks about the railroad, for example, as a sublime technology. And it goes beyond just charisma. It really evokes this feeling of awe, sometimes terror. Like that sublime feeling you get at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or maybe in a really grand cathedral, if you feel religiously connected, is the same kind of feeling people got with the locomotive.
And I thought, “Well, that’s not quite the same as what they’re getting with this laptop.” I mean, it was specifically designed to be friendly and cute. It’s not designed to evoke awe and terror, but there was something really attractive about it. So I thought, “Okay, charisma is related to the sublime, it’s related to some of these other ideas, but it is somewhat distinct.”
One other aspect of charisma that I focus in on in the book, and I think is kind of important for technological charisma, and possibly for people’s charisma too, is that there is something a little bit ideologically conservative about it. It appeals to people’s established sense of self, their established worldviews in some way. And that’s how it resonates.
If it’s really saying, “Oh, we’re going to turn everything on its head. We’re going to completely invert power structures.” I think it would not appeal nearly so much as if it said, no, the power structures that people, at least within the project acknowledged of people in the technology industry, having special kinds of insights into people, and into learning that other people may not have.
The project really just reinforced those if anything, even though I had this veneer of, “This is totally new. This is a completely new approach to things,” but it kind of preserves that idea of these technical people knowing best. To them, they can be at the top of this hierarchy that this project kind of establishes.
Kristin Gecan (15:33):
Great. So I think, as you’re saying, charisma is sort of connected to this idea of something also being magical or transformative. And so transformative design is kind of a buzzword too, and you consider how we dispel the magic of that technological transformation, and what we need to do with technology, or alongside technology in order to actually accomplish real transformation. And that maybe it often has to happen at a slower pace than we want it to.
So are there other things that you see might allow an emerging technology to be successful or transformative, while maybe it can’t be as charismatic, but it could actually be effective?
Morgan Ames (16:18):
Oh yeah. That’s a great question. Certainly all of the discourse in Silicon Valley around disruption. It’s very much akin, it’s very much in the same vein as this sort of transformative. I can’t say that there is a formula that guarantees that a technology will be transformative. I think that there are plenty of
projects that have great potential, that are doing all the right things, that just aren’t maybe in the right place at the right time.
There’s an element of luck. But the projects that I look to as doing a really good job with this, are ones that are deeply engaged with communities that they are hoping to transform.
Hopefully, even centering them in some way. Giving them leadership roles in the project, making sure that there are really strong deliberative processes that don’t just bring in community members as kind of tokens, but really involves them in a very deep way, from the beginning. These are the ones that really have the potential or have in the past, actually, changed things in a really fundamental way.
When I think about certainly a lot of the infrastructural expansions across the US, in the 1950s and 60s, not to say that they were benefiting everybody equally, there were clearly problems with them, with institutionalizing, redlining within infrastructures, for example. But there was a process by which there was discussion with communities, some communities at least, and a lot of those have been baked into city planning practices now. So there’s public commentary periods, et cetera.
And some people are frustrated by how slow these go, but that is a way to really make sure everybody’s voice can be heard. And I think technology companies, and design firms can also have this kind of thing.
When I look back at the history of Scandinavian design, for example, or participatory design, its roots are really quite radical. They’re really tied within workers’ rights, they’re tied in unions in some cases. It’s something that really centers the worker and the workers’ voice, and the solidarity that they might feel with people that they’re trying to design for.
When I see participatory design kind of enacted within firms, it’s often a lot more closer to kind of typical user experience, where it’s like, “Well, we’re going to design something, we’ll get a little bit of feedback, but we’re going to ultimately make the final decisions. And we may well just throw out some of the feedback that we get from the stakeholders, the user stakeholders.”
So, yeah, I think that there’s certainly a lot of different approaches to this, but I would say that kind of distinguishes the transformative potential of some projects, with projects that either don’t take off or end up maybe steamrolling over people that they are meant to benefit.
Kristin Gecan (19:17):
It’s interesting you bring up this idea of participatory design. We talk about this a lot at ID about this, designing with people, not just for them, and you’re right. Certainly that happens more in certain realms than others.
I wonder about in terms of participatory design, like let’s say, a project like One Laptop Per Child, that was able to inspire so many people, both in their hearts and in their pocketbooks, and part of the reason that they were able to do that, and part of what is really important when you’re trying to put a project like this together, or even when you’re trying to do a startup, or something like that, is being able to ignite that passion in people, so that they do reach for their pocketbooks and that sort of thing.
One Laptop Per Child was able to do that because it had this approach that looked like it could really scale, and really could make this huge impact. So I think kind of going back to a little bit about what we were talking about earlier, of whether or not that’s realistic to say that things could happen at such a pace. And also, whether or not some of these concepts, can realistically scale. So if you look at something like this, where I think originally, One Laptop Per Child was supposed to focus in on areas in Africa, and it ended up being more in Latin America and that sort of thing.
But then is it realistic to think that one solution could work in this continent just as well as it would work in that continent? And especially if you’re designing with, and for people, how much do you need to
localize your efforts? And then if you’re having to localize that those efforts, how much are you really able to scale?
I mean, we want to be conscious designers that are designing appropriately with people, and for people, in a way that works for them. But how do you play that against the idea that, you have to sell an idea, right?
Morgan Ames (21:18):
Absolutely. It’s a great question. I mean, I think one irony within One Laptop Per Child, is that they sold the idea to other tech workers. And I think in the American imagination more broadly, it certainly caught on. There was ton of press. But they did not sell it, so to speak, to the actual beneficiaries of the project; the children who would be using this across the global south, or their teachers, or their parents.
There were a lot of people I encountered in Paraguay, also in shorter visits in Peru and Uruguay, that really saw this as a little toy, and not something that was interesting, not something that was educational. Even though they have been told by the local NGO that this was educational.
So that charisma didn’t translate to the people who were most important in the project in a way; the children across the global south. So, I mean, it’s one thing to say, “Okay, how would they have made that charisma translate?” One would be, to acknowledge that computers today are media machines, that the internet is a media rich place. This was not a computer that was designed to support a media rich environment, but another would probably be to say, “Well, even in the 1980s or the 1990s, when some of the people who are really passionate about One Laptop Per Child came of age, not all kids who had computers grew up to be programmers.”
There were a lot of kids who said, “I’m just not really all that interested in the computer,” or, “I’m interested, but I want to play some games and maybe chat with my friends online and then go off and do some other stuff.” So I think that recognizing no matter where you are in the world, not all kids are really going to be all that into computers, would have been a really big first step.
And certainly something that I saw in the field, something that I’ve seen across a lot of fieldwork with kids in a lot of different environments at this point, and something that throws a lot of the assumptions behind the project, really into question. So I think that that’s, maybe one, if they had worked more closely with the actual beneficiaries of the project, they’d really have to reimagine the whole project.
In terms of localization, this is something I struggle with a lot myself and I lean on some of the excellent work by Anita Say Chan and others. She wrote a book that also did some work analyzing One Laptop Per Child, but the laptop project in Peru in particular, and she talks about how there is this myth of digital universalism.
The same system can be just scaled up, it can be rolled out everywhere and it’s going to not just be adopted everywhere, it’s actually going to create a transcendent culture. A hacker culture maybe, if you want to call it that. A cosmopolitan culture that children around the world in the case of One Laptop Per Child will join and want to be part of.
So she grapples with this in a really lovely way in her own work. It’s something I really grapple with too, because I take people’s cultural contexts of course, very seriously and the differences between different cultural contexts, but I also take their yearnings really seriously.
And I don’t want to certainly be the person going in and saying, “Oh, well we need this something. Something that’s really specific to your local context. You don’t want that same thing that people in the
U.S. have. You don’t want that same thing that people elsewhere have.” And the local folks might go, “Well, yeah, we do. Why wouldn’t we? Why should we have something different?”
And this comes up in all sorts of interesting ways. So one thing that I found that had a lot of tension within my own field work for One Laptop Per Child was around language. Something like two thirds of the internet is in English. Kids were constantly encountering stuff in English.
For some of them, it was part of what turned them off from the machine. Some of them figured out where Google Translate was with the help of teachers and others, and would just put things in and get, not perfect, but okay translations to try to understand what was online, but a lot of them said, “I just wish there was more things that I could understand online.”
So Spanish internet culture is fairly big. Guarani internet culture though, which the other official language of Paraguay, is non-existent practically. There’s little Guarani content. So this is something that I found, it was a very clear line of exclusion for a lot of these kids and something that for some of them created disinterest, but for others really created a desire to be able to understand that content, to learn that.
So I would say it’s uneven the kinds of reactions people have and the understandings they have on the ground. I do really love the idea, in anthropology, of bricolage. So this is not dominant culture steamrolling over everybody else and creating this universalism. It’s everybody actively deciding what to appropriate and what to take up, what to transform, what to reject, and that really influenced the way that I looked at this project on the ground.
It’s not just a case of everybody adopts it in the same way. Everyone makes up their own minds about how to adopt it. Of course, influenced by their social lives and social worlds in various ways but that individual choice is really important.
Kristin Gecan (27:07):
As I was reading the book, I noticed that it says One Laptop Per Child serves as a case study in the complicated consequences of technological utopianism. And the reason I really remarked upon that is that of course, many years ago now, ID founder, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy said we need “inspired utopians.”
The Charisma Machine cautions against utopianism, or what can happen as a result of utopianism. Could you talk a little bit more about the role of utopianism, whether good or bad, the danger of it for design? As we work as designers to build responsible and intelligent futures, it seems as though there may be a role for utopianism, but it’s something that we need to be conscious of and cautious of.
Morgan Ames (27:55):
Absolutely. Well, I would say there are some different kinds of utopianism. The kind that we are most familiar with by far is the, “Let’s imagine a completely new world,” utopianism. We don’t imagine necessarily how it’s connected to our current world, we might have a fairly simplistic story about how we might get from there to our, our utopian world but we don’t have a really comprehensive understanding of, of what that process looks like. What are the pitfalls?
It’s much more building that new magical world over there. And that disconnected kind of utopianism is incredibly powerful, certainly. It’s alluring, it keeps me reading science fiction among other things. And there is a role for that, but I think that not enough attention is paid to the ways that it almost removes us from the here and now of our daily lived experience in the actual world.
It’s not something that connects us to that. I would say that the fact that I’m even doing the research, I am, it might seem like I’m doing very critical research, but the reason I feel like it is hopefully valuable in the world in some way, is I hope it makes a difference.
I would say that I am, in some ways, an optimist about the potential for us to steer the world in a good direction. I don’t know if I would call myself quite utopian, but I think that there is room for utopian visions that have a really strong grounding in present realities.
Gosh, there’s even some science fiction that I feel like does this in a really wonderful way that tells you something about our present condition. Maybe the inequalities in it and how we might be able to overcome them. So I would say, clearly utopianism is something that is powerful and I would love to see more instances of utopian stories that are really grounded in the lived experiences of people today, with a clear, as clear as we can obviously, path from where we are today to that idealized future. And that’s something that often is missing from utopian stories today.
Kristin Gecan (30:18):
Yeah. And that also kind of connects to the danger of nostalgia, which you also talk about, which is looking backwards at your own experience and, “Okay. This is what worked for me when I was playing around with computers when I was young and learning to hack and this and that,” and it kind of gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling of like, “Oh, I know it worked for me, so maybe this will work for this whole next generation of children in the world.”
And I think what you’re saying about utopianism is also probably applicable to nostalgia in that if you’re focusing on what worked for you or what worked for a certain generation and extrapolating it to today, that’s also dangerous because the role of the computer is different today, et cetera.
So how do we make sure that we’re really thinking about today and today’s conditions and not transporting ourselves back and forth into our own experiences? I mean, I know it’s very, sort of a central tenet of design to think about the people, as we talked about earlier, whom you’re designing with or for, but people continue to drift into this, “This is what worked for me and so…” I don’t know. Do you have any notes there for how to stay away from them?
Morgan Ames (31:38):
Well, and I’m so glad you bring up nostalgia in this moment too, because just as utopianism is often disconnected from the present in any way, I would say a lot of those nostalgic stories are also disconnected from the reality of even of the past.
So when I hear that story of, “Oh, I got my first computer when I was eight and it was love at first sight and I just taught myself everything,” very rarely is part of that story who got them, the computer. Where they went for help. What kind of home environment enabled them to do that kind of exploration?
And of course, there’s often a kind of privilege that gets unexamined in those nostalgic stories. So there’s a disconnect between the way they tell those stories and the way they believe those stories and then what actually happened. It’s a very hero narrative lens on it. It’s all about them and the computer.
I mean, it’s very powerful. People build their identities around it. Their sense of self is kind of built, especially their professional selves, for a lot of people in the tech world, gets built around these stories of, “Oh, well, I taught myself when I was eight and here’s what I loved. And I think today’s kids will also love it.”
And this is a bit of a blind spot we have culturally generally. We love hero narratives. We love stories that are focused on the individual on the psychological level. We don’t love sociological stories. We don’t love infrastructural stories, as you said earlier. Those are hard stories to tell.
So I think part of what I do, even in interviews, when I interview tech workers and if they tell us some version of this story, not everybody does obviously, but if they do, I let them tell it and I talk a bit about, “Where does this come up? Can you remember the last time you told it to someone else?”
And I start unpacking it like, “Well, who got you that computer? Why did your family get that computer? Why did you have the access that you did to it? Why were you able to use it as much as you did, perhaps? Where did you go with questions?” I start unpacking and sometimes even in the interview they have this realization of like, “Well, yeah, I guess it was a lot more complicated. It wasn’t just me and the computer.”
So that reconnect those stories to what actually happened. I feel that there have been a lot of similar paths in this, maybe this last year especially, but going back longer for some, in examining one’s own privilege. I mean, this is something that I have definitely grappled with.
I don’t want to claim any kind of superiority. I’m done, but as a white cisgendered woman, there’s a lot of privilege I have in the world that has smoothed the way for me. And I think that similarly, these kinds of stories often embody a lot of privilege that gets unexamined.
So I feel like that’s a great first step. It’s a hard step for a lot of people to start thinking about the ways that their environment helped them along, but I think it’s a great first step to really reconnecting to, “Okay. What are the lived experiences of people all around the world? Not necessarily who are all like me, and how can we better design things that really augment that multiplicity of lived experiences all around the world?”
Kristin Gecan (35:12):
Everyone’s memory is always faulty to some extent. So the way I remember something and the way my brother remembers it, is probably pretty different. And so that’s one thing in play. The other thing that I think that you’re noting here is that there’s something that we know, but again, I think it’s part of this, what are the stories that we like to tell or that we key in on, or that we connect with and having an easy answer to something like parachuting a laptop into a region in need maybe is really exciting that, “Oh, that could make a difference.”
Whereas if we look at what we know in terms of education, as you mentioned in your book, that we know that that’s a very social experience and that there’s lots of people involved in that. And so designing, not just for one end outcome, but for this entire system that is at play in order to get to that outcome, I think is really important and it’s something that we focus on at ID.
Just to bring the focus back to design for moment, we focused on human centered design, we focused on systems design, we focused on co-design. I wonder just how your work intersects with those different types of looking at design, different ways of designing in your work in science and technology studies if anything reveals itself to you as maybe coming next or being the next shift in design.
Morgan Ames (36:42):
Oh God, gosh. Yeah. This could easily be maybe a whole class. Multiple classes. And this is something I talk about in my own teaching, certainly, because I think that all of these methods can be done really well and really sensitively, and they can also be done very perfunctory without really good outcomes.
And so one thing I always caution students about when I talk about these, as well as, there’s been this move towards audits of artificial intelligence systems, right? How do you do an audit? All of these tools are only as good as the thoughtfulness that you put into them.
Many of the methods across human-centered computing, I would say broadly, whether it’s co-design, participatory design, have a lot of potential to really center the perspectives of those who, those who are meant to be the beneficiaries of the design.
There’s been so much great work in theorizing design recently. I think about some of the design histories that Daniella Rosner has been working on a lot, some of the new possibilities around intersectional design that maybe Sasha Costanza-Chok and others have been really working on, and I think that these all have a wonderful potential to help people be less perfunctory about these methods.
If they really immerse themselves in them, if they really question a lot of the assumptions they maybe come in the door with about either the design process itself or particular beneficiaries they have targeted in for a particular project maybe, or what their role in the whole process is going to be.
And I think that that is the kind of depth that for any of these methods can lead to much more fair outcomes. Outcomes that are much more oriented towards social justice in the end.
Kristin Gecan (38:51):
How do you define design? It’s a question we’re always grappling with because it’s something hard to pin down and so I wonder how you might, say you have a student in your class, how do you define design?
Morgan Ames (39:05):
Like many academics, I would probably say, “Well, here’s how you look at it from this way and then there’s this other way,” and then it’s going to be a very long answer. I think though, if I were to be pinned down to have a more concise answer, not just citing a whole bunch of different people’s perspectives, I would say that any time we are shaping our environment to suit human needs, we are designing.
So there’s little designs I do all the time around my house to just help things along. The house itself is obviously a lot of design hooked up to a whole city infrastructure that was also designed. We lived in such a designed environment, but I like this kind of definition and how it just decouples itself a little bit from technologies and the more formalized design process, because I think it helps students recognize that design isn’t necessarily always a institutionalized or rarefied thing.
I think a lot about Lillia Ronnie’s work and how design became an, entrepreneurial design in particular, became this particular state-making enterprise for the Indian State and I think for states all around the world. They’re trying to look for a particular kind of entrepreneur to design your particular kind of thing, and they have a particular vision of what design is.
But I like thinking about design a bit more expansively about all the kinds of things we do in our everyday lives to make things a little easier for ourselves or for our loved ones, or maybe even for our pets. Maybe I’d expand that beyond humans. There’s certainly things that are designed for animals and trees and other things in our lives.
One thing I also emphasize a lot in teaching is the ways that more institutionalized design intersects power, and the ways that we do draw boxes around design, often implicate institutional or national or other forms of power that some people exert over other people.
I always like foregrounding that in my, certainly my own research and also my teaching, just to sensitize students a little bit towards the institutions that they will probably be entering into; tech workers and tech companies that do have a lot of power within the broader ecosystem for political, economic, historical reasons, and to try to wield that power wisely, maybe try to distribute that power more
equitably. I do think that power is not often enough discussed in the realm of design. Sorry. I meant that to be a very short answer about design and it ended up being a long one.
Kristin Gecan (41:59):
That’s the way it goes. No, that was an excellent answer. One final question, maybe no less difficult to answer, but when have you asked yourself, “Why am I making this?” and what was your answer?
Morgan Ames (42:13):
Yeah, gosh. So often these days, what I make is words, so it’s a little bit different. When I do think about though my role within this broader ecosystem and what effects I hope to have, I mean, as I said earlier, one reason I’m making, even the words I am is because I hope to have a good impact on the world.
I hope to be able to leave the world a little bit of a better place than I entered it. And I feel like the same goes for, certainly some people’s motivation with within technological design too. They really want to make a difference in the world. And this of course, implicates power again.
This is something that, here I am in an academic institution writing with legitimacy behind the presses and the journals and elsewhere that I publish and here are others working within big tech companies with a lot of power over people. And so when I think about, “Why am I making this?” the answer of, “To make the world a better place,” of course needs a lot more pinning down to make sure that what I am doing ultimately is good.
Because that’s the same story that One Laptop per Child people really fervently believed. They’ve all wanted to make the world a better place. And so their answer to that question may not be any different than my own answer. So how do I make sure that I don’t get so caught up in a vision I become disconnected from reality?
And that’s something that I constantly work on. I really try to meet a huge variety of people, look at things from a huge variety of perspectives, but even then it’s partial and I have to accept that at the end of the day, I have my own perspective and it’s partial and it will never be everybody’s perspective everywhere. And so I hope that in aggregate, we can all work together and achieve this goal of design of making the world a better place.
Kristin Gecan (44:26):
A big thanks to Morgan for joining me today. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley, where she’s focused on science and technology studies. She is also one of our 2021 Latham fellows at the Institute of Design. For more about our Latham fellows, visit our website and YouTube channel.
You can also find show notes and a full transcript of this conversation on the IIT Institute of Design website, id.iit.edu. Please subscribe, rate, and review with intent on your favorite service. This is a new show and we’d love your support. Our theme music comes from ID alum Adithya Ravi. Until next time.