New ways of thinking: From critique to optimism (but still in beta)

I don’t know if there’s something inherent to the discipline of
anthropology that moves us toward critique: the tendency to pick-apart any kind of human effort to do anything in the world. Modernization: homogeneous and violent. International development: bureaucratic and self-interested. Food aid: corrupt and exploitative. Humanitarianism: ineffective and paternalistic. It seems that our gaze upon the world is colored by darkly-tinted lenses; we see problems as if they were highlighted in neon; we even historicize them so as to find their roots, the concepts behind these global systems.

But critique itself can be a violent thing. It destroys everything in its path with a smug wave of its hand, and leaves nothing in place of what was there.

When I got out of graduate school, the first thing I did was go to Senegal to work on a sustainable development project. I cannot tell you how excited I was: completely enraptured by the idea of anything that was labeled “sustainable,” “intercultural,” “participatory,” and so on.

Once there, however, the critical anthropologist in me took over. We weren’t practicing any of those principles enough, in my eyes (and I wasn’t alone). It was too top-down, there were too many barriers between locals and foreigners, too many loose ends that required tying in order to truly make our project sustainable.

Defeated by critique, again! Alas, I returned to the States, uncertain about the potentials of my training in anthropology, about the possibilities of poverty-alleviation, about wanting to “help.”

Then, fortunately, a friend told me about Dowser.org.

“Who’s solving what and how” is the focus of Dowser. Since I’ve been writing for this site, I’ve profiled individuals, organizations, and ideas that are using innovative, human-centered strategies to bring solutions to serious world problems. And I’ve never been so inspired in my life!

Every time I interview one of these change-makers, I ask, How did you do it? How did you make your idea come to life? And it’s not just for my readership. It’s because I truly get so excited that people are moving their visions along despite all the obstacles, including that ever-present critical warrior in all of us who says, That idea won’t work.

These days I’m focusing my energies on design-thinking and social entrepreneurship, two fresh approaches to problem-solving that, I think, build on all of those destructive critiques we’ve waged at other tactics. But instead of miring in those critiques, human-centered designers and social entrepreneurs actually use them as jumping-off points. It’s not: We’ve failed, oh well. But: We tried that, it didn’t work, what can we learn from that failure, how can we make it better?

I’m optimistic, but not naive. There are still obstacles to projects based on design-thinking, and shifting from the development paradigm to the design/entrepreneurship one is not a seamless transition.

But as I learn more about these philosophies through experimenting with sites like openIDEO.com (which I’m profiling for Dowser soon), I’m struck by the potentials they have for solving problems.

And though I’ll have my critical lenses on for sure, as I always do, moving forward I’m not so much asking: What’s wrong here, how are we failing? But rather: How are we responding to our own actions, how are we moving forward, how can we succeed and set ourselves up for future successes?

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