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Creativity and the business of social innovation.

Design Is a Privilege: An Update on frog’s Mobile Mandate and Social-Sector Impact

Five years ago, frog launched Project Masiluleke, an attempt to tackle the HIV epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, with a mobile-technology solution (in this case, a simple text message that encouraged people to reach out for information on HIV testing and treatment). It was our first meaningful social impact collaboration, and the beginning of frog’s mandate to create a series of initiatives that deploy mobile services in a humanitarian context and build support for scalable solutions that can have a positive social and economic impact. 

Back in 2007, we had zero funding for Project Masiluleke and no idea how we might make any sort of dent in the AIDS crisis in South Africa.  All we had was the fairly tenuous belief that we could be a catalyst for the role of design and technology in the social sector—that we could help bring together a diverse group of cross-sector partners and address one of the most challenging public health problems in the world. One way or another we felt fairly sure that this endeavor would teach us new things about the role of design and renew our appreciation regarding the privilege of being a designer.

In the last 12 months we have seen our commitment to deep learning through social-sector collaboration reach a new scale both within frog and across a broad ecosystem of industries and fields, from health to energy, finance, gender empowerment, and disaster response. We have engaged teams from almost every frog studio, from Shanghai to Kiev to Austin, Texas, in this work. And we have seen deep partnerships with organizations such as UNICEF reach substantial scale. We are working on a variety of solutions that include, but expand beyond, mobile technology. We have also been able to attract a much more diverse set of funding from corporate foundations (Nike Foundation, GE Foundation, Johnson & Johnson) to philanthropic organizations (Robert Woods Johnson) to NGOs (World Health Organization and UNICEF).  

An Enormous Asset

Most important, we have seen how our social-sector work can be an enormous asset in strengthening our relationships with existing clients, such as GE, as well as attracting new ones. Clients will always expect frog to bring them insights and ideas from beyond their experience and horizon. The social sector provides an enormous opportunity to challenge our assumptions and provoke new thinking. For this reason, we remain committed to a model in which our social innovation work is integrated into our overall design practice, and not a specialized track that is set aside for a specific team.

Our work with communities around the world, from Rwanda to Bangladesh, continues to amaze and inspire us, giving back to our teams as much or more than what we put in. We are constantly reminded that everyone has a meaningful perspective shaped by his or her own experience. As designers, we have an important but relatively minor role to play in unlocking that experience and creating the necessary momentum towards broader social change. Yet, we have also seen—most strikingly with the adolescent girls who were our collaborators on Nike’s Girl Effect program—that not that many individuals are given the opportunity to ask “why” their situation might be challenging or “how” it might be changed. Too few people have the opportunity to contribute their ideas to a collective process of reshaping their community and their world in a meaningful way.

The following highlights from our Mobile Mandate and social-sector work in 2012 illustrate our collaborations and their profound social and economic impact.

Taking Control of HIV

iTeach, our lead partner in South Africa, has made huge strides in bringing HIV self-testing to reality with continued design support from frog and approval from Massachusetts General Hospital and the Government of South Africa. Key elements of the design have been tested and refined over the last two years with the involvement of hundreds of South Africans in preparation for a forthcoming formal study. In addition, frog helped create a framework for the use of mobile technology to prevent the transmission of HIV from mothers to infants around the world, in cooperation with UNICEF, Johnson & Johnson, Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, mHealth Alliance, Clinton Health Access Initiative, CDC, CARE, and Save the Children.

Harnessing the Girl Effect

frog partnered with the Nike Foundation on its Girl Effect program, a broad initiative to increase opportunity and reduce isolation for young women. frog led a series of  workshops and co-design activities with girlsin Kenya, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, to look at how communication technologies might unlock new ways to connect girls and build critical leadership skills.

Spurring Collective Action Through Design

Our collaboration with the Girl Effect revealed a new purpose for design as an essential set of skills to help communities to solve their own problems. Inspired by the Girl Effect, we created the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT)—specifically for nondesigners. The CAT encourages problem solving as a form of skill development, and connects change-makers with the appropriate digital tools and resources to meet their activist goals. This move towards “community-centered design” isn’t without its own challenges, as groups by nature engage in dialogues, often without enough “making” to help shared knowledge emerge and point to hypothetical solutions. “Making things” forces groups to align, describe, and evolve the solutions that fit their communities. This concept led to our mantra “Groups MAKE Change.” Thousands of people around the world downloaded the CAT in the first week of its release.

Expanding Access to Financial Services

Building on frog’s past research on mobile money in Afghanistan, conducted with partners like financial services company Finmark and IMTFI, we continued to explore the frontiers of financial inclusion in nations such as Rwanda, India, and South Africa. Our immersive research approach allows us to identify emerging needs and behavior at the edges of formal economies and capture and communicate new opportunities to address the financial needs of the poor through mobile technologies and other channels.

Measuring Impact

The World Health Organization issued a report confirming the positive impact of Project Mwana, our first collaboration with UNICEF’s innovation team. The WHO study showed a dramatic reduction in the amount of time it took for critical lab results to get to clinics and caregivers in the rural districts where the mobile intervention was implemented. Project Mwana is now in the process of a national rollout in Zambia.

Creating New Emergency Response Solutions

UNICEF is one of the earliest responders to humanitarian crises around the world. We partner with them to tackle the challenge of increasing their ability to coordinate resources across the globe and prepare their teams to make decisions under enormous presses with unreliable information. frog has been collaborating with the UNICEF innovation team on a game to simulate this decision-making environment for UNICEF staff and funders alike.

Driving Collaboration Across Sectors

Design is increasingly seen as an ideal partner to help drive cross-sector collaborations. frog has been asked to play a lead role in designing and facilitating collaborative sessions for diverse stakeholders at organizations like the Ford Foundation, Gates Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Omidyar Network, Pop!Tech, World Health Organization, mHealth Alliance, and UNICEF. In addition, GE Foundation has come on board as a partner to help fund continued work with frog and UNICEF on community health system strengthening in East Africa.

A New Strategic Framework for mHealth

As part of our partnership with UNICEF’s innovation team, we continue to tackle critical issues in the development space. This year we helped convene a rich set of partners, from Johnson & Johnson to the mHealth Alliance, to develop a strategic framework for the use of mobile technologies to prevent the transmission of HIV to infants. We produced a detailed report capturing the process. Findings from this collaboration have been presented at multiple conferences, and the report continues our series of joint UNICEF and frog publications on topics like real-time data, mobile health, and emergency response.

As frog's Vice President of Creative, Robert Fabricant leads efforts to expand the impact of design into new markets and industries. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert is lead partner in Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat HIV and AIDS in South Africa. He is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York.