Design · Economic development

‘Iterate, iterate, iterate’: Reboot re-thinks social service delivery through design

Panthea Lee, co-founder of ReBoot, conducts a group interview in Afghanistan, photo courtesy of Jan Chipchase

When most people think of design, often the first images that come to mind are of suspension bridges, urban landscapes, or well-formed living room furniture pieces.

But “design” has become a broad-sweeping movement to use a process of ethnographic research and collaborative iteration to create innovative solutions to social problems. Large design firms like IDEO are becoming known for their efforts to extend the reach of design to social services, and meanwhile, smaller organizations are popping up that exclusively apply design-thinking to the social sector.

Reboot is a startup company that emerged out of its founders’ desire to build a better model for delivering social services to underserved populations around the world. Their unique approach is bolstered by the kind of optimism that any young startup needs. It comes from a belief in the power of listening to a population’s needs before determining how to provide a service for them.

RS: So what, in a nutshell, does design for social services look like?
Panthea Lee, co-founder and principal: [Reboot is] in a relatively new market, trying to bring service design to the public sector – to nonprofits. It’s not Design with a capital D. I’m not a classically-trained designer. We have subject area experts on our team and we’re using a process we’ve seen work before. Urban planners and human rights activists, they can design social services.

What were you doing before Reboot?
I was at an innovation group within UNICEF. We were tasked with trying to use new technologies to improve UNICEF’s programs and operations. They were focused on mobile phones – how do you deliver services like health via mobile phones? Later, I was working as a journalist, and traveling a lot in the developing world. I started getting upset and frustrated – at a lot of these structural deficiencies and systemic poverty in these places. These systems don’t work. Why don’t they work? So, I started looking into the history of international development, and aid, and colonialism – there are real, structural flaws.

How did those experiences feed into Reboot’s approach to designing service delivery?
Something exciting about right now is that people have greater power to connect with one another. There is greater power in citizens’ hands right now, as a result of changes in technology over the past couple of decades. I think the challenge is – you have one group who wants technology as the solution, as a silver bullet. One of the hardest parts about what we do is trying to talk people away from technology as a default. There’s a lot of talk around ICTFD – information and communications technology for development. Technology becomes central to programming. We’re trying to talk people away from that.

What’s lacking when organizations focus on technology solutions?
Understanding the context they’re working in, understanding the people they’re working for. People see all these exciting examples of how technology has been used, so they think they need it. Something that has been challenging is getting people to slow down first. It’s hard to tell [clients], we don’t necessarily know what the solution might be, we’re going to go through a process of discovery, of research, then we’re going to iterate, iterate, iterate. Because it’s not going to be right the first time. You’re solving big, complex problems.

How has Reboot used this approach on the ground?
We  have two ongoing projects in Pakistan right now. There’s a bank there  that, in the wake of the floods last year, started helping the  government and the World Bank doing cash deposits. The group they were  handing out these cards to were people who had never been banked before.  They were handing out $230, I think, to help people rebuild their  homes. All of a sudden these people suddenly had an account created in  their name. The bank penetration in Pakistan is around 11 per cent. It’s really low. People get robbed on pay-day because they’re bringing home cash. There are a lot of ways the bank thought they could better serve this market. They asked us, How can we do that? One Executive Vice President said, ‘I want to serve the bottom of the pyramid. But I don’t know who these people are.’ So we went in saying, you need a better understanding of who these people are, first.”

And how did you tackle that knowledge gap?
We spent a couple of weeks there doing design research. We were trying to develop different segmentations. ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ – is that your $1-a-day farmer? Is that your $3-a-day entrepreneur? How is it different serving women? We were developing segmentation so [the banks] could do sophisticated banking, and marketing, for these people who are illiterate, who don’t trust banks, [who] are scared of putting their money into an ATM machine. Then we put forward design recommendations for how to change their service delivery model so to service these populations.

How did the bank receive your recommendations?
We went back to Karachi and did three days of workshopping. Initially when we got the contract, they believed in the approach, and they said, ‘Send us the report at the end and don’t bother coming back.’ And we said, ‘No, we’re coming back and we’re doing a workshop.’ They just wanted to know, What are the top five things we need to do, and we’ll do them. But it’s more impacting to present it in person. They were surprised at where we got our insights –  we used information from organizations already working in that area, focusing on health, insurance, development, education.

What’s in store for Reboot’s future?
Eventually we’ll start a nonprofit wing. For now we are a social enterprise because we believe there should be a market for what we do. It helps to evaluate our approach. Relying on grants can be a problematic business model. We’re working on a program that provides services as a version of human rights – as the tangible moment of human rights delivery. The effects of a policy change can take a long time to trickle-down, so we’re taking on that process. We’ve also been working in Egypt, [since nine days after Mubarak left.] There’s all this media attention there on youth activists who used Facebook and Twitter – but these activists don’t have political carrying capacity or established credibility. We’re looking at less sexy groups that can implement substantive reform, through investments, like the labor movement. Change is not just about technology.

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2 thoughts on “‘Iterate, iterate, iterate’: Reboot re-thinks social service delivery through design

  1. Rachal, I just want you to know, you have this 65 year old retired fella excited and inspired to keep reading your posts, and apply what you’re learning and sharing with other ethnographers who from another generation.

    I simply love your tenacity, you go girl. I have not read the whole article yet. But … I’m on it!

    Thank you and you can visit my blog at
    Rural Ethnography

    My WordPress blog is still under construction.

    Thanks for sharing and please keep in touch.


  2. Thanks so much, Michael! Your projects sound really interesting. We should set up a time to talk; I’d love to hear about how you got into what you’re doing. Send me an email – the address is in my “about” section.

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