How active is your economic imagination? Can you envision a world that rejects the notion of individual ownership? One that uses different currencies altogether? How about bespoke financial institutions designed to strategically support certain communities? frog Senior Strategist Megan Nesbeth stops by to talk about how expanding your economic imagination can lead to better products, stronger communities and, most importantly, a more meaningful way of thinking about what human beings are able to give to one another in the world.
Megan’s Recommended Resources:
Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas
Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Lesley Ann Noel’s “Who Am I” Positionality Wheel
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 15: Expand Your Economic Imagination
Guests: Megan Nesbeth, Senior Strategist, frog New York
[00:09] EW: Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood [EW].
[00:24] EW: Today on our show, we’re going to be using our imagination–our economic imagination that is. To do this, we’re joined by Megan Nesbeth [MN], a senior strategist in frog’s New York studio. Megan’s role at frog steering innovation work often requires her to step outside of what seems probable now, to imagine what might be possible tomorrow. This kind of work, while exciting, can also be challenging. Re-thinking our current systems, expanding our understanding of how business impacts society, making choices that potentially affect entire industries and communities–these are weighty topics that require a healthy appetite for suspension of disbelief when it comes to envisioning something new. But expanding our economic imagination can actually be a powerful force for change at this unique time in our human history. Here’s Megan now.
[01:12] MN: I think a lot of us are talking about, you know, what is this normal going to be? What is the new normal, the next normal, whatever buzzword we put around it. At the same time, it’s happening, right? We’re here in certain parts of the world. And I’m sorry that we’re not here in more parts of the world at this moment, but we are moving into this time beyond that initial shock of a pandemic. And beyond the greatest lockdowns that really gave us this, this window to think about what was going to be different and to live in a completely different way. So what I challenge us to do is to really not think about it as what’s the “new normal”, or “next normal” that’s descending on us, but to really talk about what is the new normal that we’re making and co-creating together?
[01:50] MN: I’m Megan Nesbeth. I’m a senior strategist at frog. I’m based out of our New York City studio. I interned in the San Francisco studio, back when I was starting out. And it’s such a small detail. But I think I’m somebody who’s really sensitive to place and sensitive to the way that you come into different organizations–that memory of starting out. So it is kind of how I think about my time beginning at frog with this specific kernel and this specific place, and a lot of how I think about, you know how I come into my work.
[02:17] MN: I spent the last decade of my life bouncing around and moving every few months whether for voluntary travel, a job opportunity, school, whatnot. I’d finally decided to move home to the east coast, particularly to New York City, to be close to my family, friends, start digging in again. And then the pandemic hit. So, of course, this last couple of years has been really different than I would have imagined it, but in some ways, it’s pushed me even further to home. So these days, I live in the Poconos. I have my coffee on a deck that I built with my parents when I was one or two years old. Small kids love to pretend that they can help but are really just toddling around and making more trouble than anything else. This sense of really coming back to the smallest, earliest bit of home has shifted the way that I think about what home means is more of a container for this place that feels safe, this place that has your memories, rather than say, you know, a grand place that you want to buy one day.
[03:10] EW: During our conversation, Megan spoke of a collective awakening that is taking place around the notion of identity, and its influence over our understanding of how we engage with the world. She shared how her own lived experience informs her perspective, and why that matters when it comes to how she approaches her work.
[03:29] MN: I think around frog, I’m known as somebody who tries to bring a systems lens to everything that I work on, and to center inclusion and ethics in my work. And part of why that’s so important is that I really think it does shape how we approach the work.
[03:41] MN: All of these things come into play, when we think about “What does it mean to be talking about any of these topics at this particular moment, and who’s doing the speaking?” So I often describe myself as a black woman, US-born, cisgender, raised in the global north and west. So a lot of my perspective is very much coming through that lens.
[03:59] MN: I think the part of my identity that comes into my practice the most is being a child of immigrants. So I’m a first-generation American of Jamaican parents. My dad was born in England and actually came to Jamaica on a steamship… how long ago? My mom was born in Jamaica, but went back and forth between the US and Jamaica when she was growing up. And I have a sister who’s, similarly to me, born in the US, always grew up with a sense that we were Jamaican, but never spent a lot of time there.
[04:27] MN: But I think that there’s something fundamental when you kind of understand that there are these different ways that one could be in the world. This idea that my parents who, right, are the people who are most similar to me, in some ways have grown up with some of the same values and have tried to impart those to me came from a completely different country, a completely different world, a completely different way of being. And if you think about the time that many of us move through, that’s something that I think is true of almost any family. But I think it’s particularly available to children of immigrants, who may have seen some of those cultures going back and forth. So that sense that there always could be another way that a reality is shaped is something that I bring into every bit of my work, particularly when we’re doing research with different users and different people who might use some of the products that we’re building.
[05:13] MN: Marina Gorbis, the executive director of the Institute for the Future actually has this beautiful saying that I like to bring into the way that I think about immigrants doing work, and all of us thinking about the future where she says, “We’re all immigrants to the future.” And what I like about that concept is that, you know, it brings with it some stakes, right? When you think about immigrants coming to a new country, when I think about my parents making a life here, there is a sense that if you don’t figure out how to navigate this new space, there’s going to be some suffering, there’s going to be some consequences. And I think when we all talk about how we want to shape the world, how we want to imagine the world, it actually matters that we approach it as if this is something that matters and that we have agency in and that we truly are putting our best foot forward to create a collective well-being, not only for ourselves and our families as is often the case with immigrants, but for community going forward, for the world going forward.
[06:06] EW: Megan’s background in sociology found an unlikely match in her passion for economics. While these two worlds may seem at odds in some ways, Megan has found that each of these social sciences actually have a lot of lessons to learn from one another, especially when it comes to imagining new ways of bridging real, human needs and resource allocation.
[06:26] MN: Economics is really just a deep dive into a specific system, but one of the most powerful systems that we’ve seen out there, and that’s resource allocation. So when we’re looking at how we spend our money, how we expend different resources, who gets what and who gets to live a good life in a lot of ways, we’re really starting to see that economics gives us a lens to think about all those societal pain points. And that’s part of why so often we get into the debate around, “Well, you know, is it just money? Or is it the conditions that people are living in? And are those actually the same thing or something completely different?” So I like to think of it as two ways of coming at power and the orientation around power is what makes economics and sociology so different. Sociology centers itself around the question of who lacks power, and why is that, and how do we start to remedy some of that? And economics is often centering itself around the question of saying, you know, how can we step back and try to be more of a neutral study?
[07:23] MN: So let me back up for a second. So by no means have I solved all the big scary things around economics. I still think there’s a lot in that field that gets at big words that most of us don’t understand and forces that feel far beyond our control. But at the end of the day, you know, I was the last person that you would have expected to go back to business school, right? I was a sociology major, and I love sociology, it immediately clicked for me. But despite being a social science, sociology is often positioned as being diametrically opposed to economics. But over the years, I started to realize there were actually two sides of the same coin.
[07:58] MN: Economic imagination is a riff on the term sociological imagination, which is kind of one of those things you learn in SOC 101. So I think it’s attributed to this author C. Wright Mills, from the 1960s or 1950s. Sociological imagination is really just the sense of understanding that you’re part of a wider society. And then thinking about what does that awareness do to how we each individually behave, what we see as being possible? And I think when I started revisiting the concept, I started thinking about it, as you know, that little trip, they always say, “If aliens were looking down on us, what would they think right now? Or if somebody were dropped here from outer space? How would they make sense of this particular context that they’re seeing?” So that’s sociological imagination.
[08:43] MN: Then you take economic imagination, which is a topic that I feel like I’ve become just thoroughly obsessed with in the last year or so. And to me, that’s all the different ways that we’re called to imagine a different type of world, right?
[08:55] MN: And I think where I really started to get very interested in this was early pandemic, everybody was talking about how, you know, not only do we have this true medical health emergency right now, but we also have the global economy grinding to a halt in a way that we had never seen before, right? Or at least in recent history we hadn’t seen before.
[09:17] MN: And it was connected in a way where it was an existential threat that really pushed this. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you know, we’ve seen the collapse of the financial system in ’08 recently.” This was more “Oh, everything could just stop in a way that nobody understood”. Like everyone kind of remembers where they were last March, when they suddenly realized they were gonna be working from home for a while. We kind of remember where we were when we realized this wasn’t a four-week thing.
[09:44] MN: So I think we had this push that called us to say, “Well, what does it really mean to have an economy?” The economic imagination starts to get into combining the way that we build our society and the economic forces.
[09:58] MN: Much of the years in between when I had discovered that design thinking was a thing, and when I went to business school and eventually came back to work at frog, I was working in education, I was working in workforce development, I was working in all of these different spaces where really, people were just trying to have a leg up to be able to get to a better quality of life. And we know money can’t buy happiness, but we know that there’s a certain amount of money that is going to allow you to actually be a little more comfortable, and give your family and yourself health, and some wealth, and actually know that you’ll live in a safe neighborhood.
[10:34] MN: Those different pieces that can be accomplished through money, all of that, to me is part of the economic piece of things rather than just the economy itself as a system. And then economic imagination is like a call to imagine a braver, more equitable form of the economy in which we really think about redistributing things in a different way, redistributing our resources, and allowing more and more people to be on that path towards something that will feel good.
[11:00] EW: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, Megan shares how she’s helping clients flex their economic imagination as well.
[11:09] BREAK: Hi, I’m Ian Lee, Design Director in frog’s London studio and leader of frog’s convergent design discipline. Convergent design looks across digital, product and service domains to unite organizations and enable next-level experiences. Check the show notes to get my full report on Convergent Transformation. Find out why innovation can’t be forced through old silos–and why real transformation takes convergent design.
[11:37] EW: Now back to Megan Nesbeth, Senior Strategist in frog’s New York studio.
[11:43] MN: When our clients come to us, they’re imagining a new future for their business, right? Most often, they know that something has changed, or that there’s a change they need to start responding to. It feels like their ground is shifting beneath their feet. And there is a lot of fear in the room. And that’s why I like to bring this idea of imagination in to say, let’s, you know, put down the fear for a second. We’re going to recognize that it’s always there. It’s always in the room. We have to address it, at some point, right? Because at the end of the day, people are fighting to keep their jobs to keep their livelihood to keep this idea that they’ve believed in for a really long time in the world. But how can we just approach it for a little while from a place of play and imagination to think about what is it that we really want to build?
[12:26] MN: There have always been experiments and alternative types of economies running alongside, you know, the typical system that we know. And this has more been in the ways that different people shape their own individual groups, resource exchange. Co-ops, local currencies, community development, financial institutions–all these different ways that people have found around systems, whether they formally put one of those games on it to something as simple as you know, the person who watches all of the kids in their neighborhood after school because they work on a different shift than someone else.
[12:54] MN: But what we have the ability to do through provocations, like economic imagination, and through starting to think together towards what a more collective economy, a more equitable, just future for all of us looks like is to say, “How do we take these from informal pockets of action that we’re seeing to be the really normal part of a system–to be the baseline of what we see?”
[13:14] MN: We can write rules and write laws that start to build that type of collective safety net, in a way that’s going to support a greater number of people. And I think it’s as simple as being able to say, well, do we approach interactions from that shareholder perspective? Or do we approach them from that stakeholder perspective? And that’s something we can look at at the corporation level, but it’s something that we can also look at in the ways that we design local communities, local governance, on a regular basis.
[13:42] EW: According to Megan, economic imagination requires us to explore the power dynamics that influence our decision-making as individuals, as organizations and in society as a whole.
[13:55] MN: If you know me, you know that I talk about diversity and inclusion a lot. So I advocate for it strongly. And a lot of people always think it’s really about thinking about just who’s in the room and not wanting to be the only of something in a room. But at the end of the day, I’m advocating for diversity on our teams and diversity in our rooms because I’m thinking about the bounds of the system. I’m thinking about what it is that we’re going to go out and build.
[14:18] MN: So we’re never going to be a more equitable society, we’re never going to build more equitable products and services that serve a greater range of people in a way that’s really just and whole in their lives if we don’t change who’s sitting in the room at the moment those decisions are made.
[14:32] MN: I think, you know, everybody may want to do good. But it takes a lot to really start to think about giving up power unless you have somebody at the decision-making table who can advocate for that different perspective. Because we’re all going to hold on to the bits of power that we have. And take these ideas of positionality and power and start to call things out and then start to think about what it is that we’re designing. That’s how we start to get to you pushing towards a new system.
[14:58] MN: The other big piece of this is really thinking through what does it mean to be the team that’s in power and holding all of this space to be able to design for different communities? How do we make sure that community that we’re designing for is as inclusive as possible? So I’ll give an example of, you know, a lot of the financial services work that we do here at frog, typically, we’re in a room with executives who’ve come up through the financial services industry, we’re coming in from the design side, and then we’re designing products that are supposed to be for your average American, which becomes the biggest possible bucket in the world.
[15:32] MN: So how do we start to say, what does that mean to make sure that when we talk about the average American, quote-unquote, it’s not just reflective of our individual experiences? The more diverse our teams are, the more we’re naturally doing that through our push and pull with one another. But I think the more that we have that awareness across a full team, the more that we can fill some of those gaps. And the more that we think about our particular power in the room, which I like to call positionality.
[15:58] MN: So positionality is this really, really geeky sociology term that I picked up on way back in the day but I credit Lesley Ann Noel working out of Tulane University with really bringing it into my design practice. And it’s exactly what it sounds like. So it’s the idea of thinking about what position do you hold in a particular space that you’re entering into? How does that start to layer power dynamics onto some of the identity that you may be bringing into that space?
[16:22] MN: And so even when I say something like, you know, I work in the New York City studio now, but I started out in San Francisco, it’s the sense of, there’s some type of history that I’m carrying with me into my time, in the New York City studio for frog. Similarly, we see this with a lot of our clients, when we’re thinking about, what’s the different dynamic if somebody has been at a company for 10 years, versus somebody who’s stepping into the room for the first time today, regardless of what title they have.
[16:49] MN: So it’s that position of how you relate to the space, how you relate to your identity in that particular space, how you relate to power in that environment, and then sometimes even relating to the specific topics that we might be taking on.
[17:03] MN: I think this awakening around identity, and what role it plays in society, is going to push us to a different type of product. And I’ll give you an example. You know, we were talking about some of the financial services work, there are a whole suite of banks that are starting to pop up that are less focused around a particular feature, and more focused around a particular community. Greenwood is a new neo-bank that is meant to serve Black Americans, Daylight is a new bank that is meant to serve the LGBTQ community. And each of those are building specific features that matter to those communities. So right, the LGBTQ one that I mentioned, Daylight, has a couple of different features where you can start saving towards either surgery for transition, the ability to change your name, if you’ve gone through a particular transition that are not a part of our regular banking system right now. And then Greenwood has a number of different parts of its product that allow you to re-circulate money within the Black community to think about improving the economic situation of the Black community overall. So in many ways, I look at trends like that as a provocation that’s coming from the outside that will eventually affect things like our mainstream banking system.
[18:11] EW: So, change is happening at what can seem a very rapid pace–that’s sort of part of the deal when it comes to innovation work. But to Megan, speed isn’t everything. There are other ways of using time to frame how we design change in the world.
[18:25] MN: Landscape architecture is a strange influence that I bring to my work that really expanded the way that I think about time horizons, right? If you’re thinking about planting an entire park or planting an entire city-scape and drawing that out, you’re not only thinking about what that’s going to look like on the day you plant it, you’re thinking about what it’s going to look like through all four seasons. You’re thinking about what it’s going to look like when those plants grow at different rates over the course of its history. You’re thinking about what it’s going to look like when it rains and there’s runoff in different types of roots hold the soil differently.
[18:59] MN: And so you translate it to something like a client coming in and saying you have 12 weeks to come up with the future of our industry, or 12 weeks to help us figure out how we’re going to revolutionize our entire business. It’s that same horizon piece of zooming in and out and thinking through all of the different types of shifts. So you know, in so many ways this year, I think has strengthened all of us in terms of thinking about different time horizons, and what types of shocks to a system you can have. But that perspective really honed it for me. So that’s one that I carry with me.
[19:32] MN: One of my favorite quotes of all time that Nelson Mandela made is that your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears. That’s what we have to do to move towards a world where we can actually say, regardless of where we’re starting on this journey, “Let’s begin, let’s take those steps and let’s move forward together.” And that’s what imagination does for us. And that’s what I hope the idea of economic imagination can do for us collectivel in thinking about what we’re able to give to one another in the world.
[20:01] EW: That’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a global design and strategy consultancy. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation. We really want to thank Megan Nesbeth, Senior Strategist in frog’s New York studio. Megan was kind enough to share a list of recommended reading if you want to go check that out on our site. You can find that in the show notes. We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us, and be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.