Technology, especially mobile technology, continues to offer unprecedented opportunities to improve pressing social issues in both developed and emerging economies. Still technology is too often touted as an all-encompassing answer to problems that are ingrained in human value and belief systems. Understanding these complex human systems and their underlying dynamics is an essential step in establishing a more inclusive society.
The goal of many financial inclusion initiatives is to empower half of the world’s population to join formal financial systems. While this is a laudable goal, any path leading to the desired end-state must account for people’s perceptions of what a “financial system” actually is.
In the same way that poverty is not necessarily a permanent state — the world’s most vulnerable often drift in and out of it — inclusion has to be seen as a dynamic condition. People in many emerging economies comfortably live across the formal and informal financial system, and often do not perceive any difference between the two.
For people who live straddling the poverty line, every single decision has survival implications. Deciding to invest money today to reap benefits at a later stage, for example by opening a bank account, is carefully weighed against the impact on access to essential necessities tomorrow. The same is true for a visit to the doctor, or investing in micro-insurance for one’s crops. For people living in poverty, every decision is perceived as a survival decision.
This does not imply a lack of hope or aspiration — quite the opposite — but it does undermine an inclination for long-term thinking. A survival approach, and the associated continuous stress it creates, tends to shape a risk-averse mindset. Such a mindset favors short-term economic certainty, even at the conscious risk of undermining better opportunities in the longer term.
How should we account for these factors when supporting initiatives promoting economic and financial inclusion?
I’ll focus on three possible vectors: cross-silo synergies, local solutions to local problems and adopting a human-centered innovation process.
frogImpact, frog’s social impact practice, works across different facets of inclusion, such as education, health, agriculture and finance. What we have often seen is that many of the initiatives promoting inclusion, especially the ones that rely on technology interventions, risk falling victim to a silo syndrome. They become mBanking, mHealth, mAgriculture or mLearning initiatives, and fail to leverage the opportunity to work in synergy. Here we see why belief and value systems are so important: many of these silos are essentially trying to address different facets of the same human mindset.
Looking after long-term physical health is not dissimilar from looking after long- term financial health. The same mindset also informs decisions around one’s professional activity, or the education of one’s children. Just as the aspirations of the person or the family are similar in these scenarios, the “mechanics” of possible interventions in these apparently diverse areas are not only similar, but deeply intertwined. Making someone a “better farmer” or a “better entrepreneur” by giving them access to innovative mobile technologies, without considering what they will do with the extra income, risks facilitating only a short-term strategy.
My personal opinion is that many interventions stay at the pilot stage and do not scale because they are not integrated with other initiatives happening in complementary sectors.
Human beings hardly ever separate financial stability from other essential factors like health or self-fulfillment. We all live one life, with many different facets. Digital technologies inherently provide opportunities to instantly share data, information and knowledge. It is time to think across social innovation silos, and promote initiatives that drive economic inclusion by addressing human beings holistically.
Nobody understands the problems of a specific socio-economic context better than those who live in that very context. To promote inclusion it is essential to create local capacity for innovation, so that both individuals and organizations can autonomously generate and sustain solutions for the markets they comprise.
Nairobi’s current technology and start-up scene is a good example of this model. Spurred by local initiatives such as those promoted by the long-standing iHub,the current explosion of innovative high-tech companies has resulted in what — for good and bad — has been called the “Silicon Savannah.” Many global players have been investing in the area as a result, with innovation labs opened by diverse organizations such as Unicef and IBM, not to mention the recent partnership between Mastercard and the Gates Foundation aimed at creating a Financial Inclusion Lab in Nairobi.
Building local capacity for innovation, technology, and design in emerging economies and low-resource areas of the world is, once again, a way to focus attention and investments on the human end of the innovation spectrum.
How can organizations effectively harness innovative technologies in an effort to influence deep-set human behaviors dictated by culture and context? It probably won’t surprise you that I think they must start from a solid understanding of human belief and value systems, in order to establish a solid foundation to build upon. I strongly believe that a Human Centered Innovation process can be a crucial asset to achieve these objectives. Such a process requires involving the end-users of a product, service or strategy in the definition, development, deployment and evolution of that strategy.
As demonstrated by organizations like CGAP applying a human centered innovation process can result in solutions that match existing habits and behaviors, thus reducing barriers to adoption. In addition, this type of process helps to identify needs and aspirations that are currently unmet, pointing to new possibilities for intervention.
Technology offers unprecedented opportunities to improve inclusion at all levels. Organizations that are actively working in this space would benefit from adopting a Human-Centered Innovation process. It will help them better understand those they are trying to help, and keep them focused on the needs and aspirations of real people. This type of innovation also fosters a culture with the capacity to source its own innovative solutions to societal problems that have so far proven to be very resistant to change.
A version of this article was originally published on the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth Blog on January 20, 2015.