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We Must Stop Designing for Needs and Start Designing for Aspirations

By Wayan Vota on June 22, 2017

Traditional design works hard to accommodate people, to accept their attitudes, skills, and values as they are. International development, however, typically requires people to learn, grow, and evolve.

In the paper “Design, Needs, and Aspirations in International Development,” University of Michigan Associate Professor Kentaro Toyama (a.k.a. the ICT4D Jester) argues that this difference is among the deeper causes of the routine failures of ICT for development. A methodology that seeks to avoid changing people is unlikely to succeed at outcomes that require human change. Below are excerpts from the paper.

The Needs Fetish

Design and international development nevertheless have an affinity based in part on their focus on needs – an interest that arguably borders on fetishism. “Needs assessments,” for example, are a beloved activity of both technology designers and development specialists.

Much of the rhetoric of both development and design builds on the higher moral ground that comes from addressing human needs. The fear and urgency of needs pushes us toward packaged solutions. Hunger demands food. Illness demands treatment. Ignorance demands information.

And if we view international development as one long succession of needs, it is tempting to respond with a succession of quick solutions – solutions that are easy to replicate and deploy. It is no wonder that so much of international development seems to be about providing rations, dispensing pills, or in the case of ICT, developing apps for smartphones. We allow the urgency of needs to dictate the timeframes in which our solutions must fit.

But while needs-focused approaches are appropriate for dire situations such as disaster relief, their tendency toward quick, replicable solutions is less appropriate for the sustained efforts required of international development.

A Shift to Aspirations

To counter this, I propose that development practice shift to a focus on human aspirations, one that move attention from problem solving to people nurturing. Aspirations are a kind of desire; they are persistent; and they aim for something higher. Human beings have many other desires – some are fleeting, some are mundane, some are undesirable – but aspirations differ because of their long-term, growth-focused nature.

An aspiration-focus would tilt development efforts toward programs that help build people’s own ability to achieve their aspirations. Arguably, such an approach makes traditional forms of design less applicable, but that is part of the point.

The persistent, upward nature of aspirations is better suited for building the individual and institutional capacities that are required for long-term, large-scale international development.


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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3 Comments to “We Must Stop Designing for Needs and Start Designing for Aspirations”

  1. Josh says:

    I agree with the importance of focusing on aspirations, although I wouldn’t throw out needs entirely. I think we need to look both at current needs as well as future aspirations when designing any program.

  2. Isabelle Amazon-Brown says:

    Couldn’t agree more!
    I cut my m4dev teeth on designing mobile communities for young South Africans that were entirely aspirational: we focused not on, say, proving that we were improving people’s reproductive health, but on that abstract idea of ‘resilience’ – creating spaces where young people could joke, write poetry, share their hopes and dreams, as well as get generic life skills advice. What was crucial was that we made it ‘their’ community – they dictated the content they wanted, whether it was jokes, or CV tips. What is really great is that with this model, you provide entry points to the more needs-driven issues – so a dating tips article would include a little something on getting tested and flag up a useful resource.

    Sadly, we were never able to get funding because as you say, that sort of service doesn’t meet the current development model. I really believe if given a chance, we could leverage such sites to achieve much more enduring change – beyond the eternal 4 year programme window.

    thanks for a good read!

  3. STEVEN VOSLOO says:

    Thanks for a great post and well argued article. As an ICT4D practitioner for 15 years I increasingly feel the limitations of tech — however exciting it is — when implemented in a broader constraining environment. As you ask, is the tech solution really addressing the root cause of the bigger problem, or simply solving one aspect of it?

    By highlighting the limitation of ICT4D, the piece reminds me of Evgeny Morozov’s concept of solutionism — “the idea that given the right code, algorithms and robots, technology can solve all of mankind’s problems” (https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/mar/09/evgeny-morozov-technology-solutionism-interview).

    I am by no means less passionate or excited by ICT4D, but more conscious of it being one part of the solution.