Doing good or Doing well?

Again, this post has been underway for some time, but now here..

This year we had the EPIC conference (Ethnographic Practice in Industry Conference) in Copenhagen with more than 300 participants from across the world sharing methods, ideas and insights about doing ethnograpy in all kinds of industrial and commercial settings. It was great to be part of this community of likeminded people and to actually meet the people who has been the drivers of this field in the US for two decades, and who have been the inspiration for a lot of what is going on in Denmark now in relation to ethnographic practice, user centred innovation and design research. Also great to be part of the Danish ‘tribe’ in userdriven innovation, who gathering for the exhibition at the Design School the day before. More than being an imagined community, this is a community of practice.

Unfortunately, I had several deadlines and proposals falling at the same time, so I couldn’t participate as much as I wanted to. But I did get to attend the session about “Doing good or Doing well” facilitated by Mikkel Brok-Christensen from Red Associates (together with Bo Wesley from Novo Nordisk, who unfortunately had to leave the minute before). Mikkel was deliberately raising the question whether business can make business of doing good – which is the underlying premise of the concept of Base of the Pyramid business.

cimg2609Mikkel told us about the project that they have been doing together with Novo, where 12 people went to India for 14 days to gain insight into the Indian health care system, and to explore the meaning and context of diabetes among the poor part of the population. The ambition was to be able to develop new products or business models that would help also poor people in India who suffer from diabetes.

Diabetes is one of the major health problems now and more to come in India. It is estimated that 41 mio people suffer from diabetes, with only 30 % being diagnosed and only 3 % receiving treatment. And here is actually an important comment to be made, because diabetes is not only a life style decease among the middle class who adopt western eating practices. It is also common amongst the less fortunate, for whom suger, oil and refined rice is a major part of the diet.

From this project the experience is, that doing user research in emerging markets or BoP markets is not only about identifying needs and aspirations of people, but also to understand the larger context and eco-system in order to develop adequate products, services and business models. This project also shows, that the main challenge can be the relation of the new BoP-business to the existing business. In this case, Novo chose not to continue with the project in India since it would be seen as a way of dumping prices rather than do good. Therefore Novo will now look at a market, when they are not already strongly present.

The conclusions from the following discussion about the role of ethnographic practice and user research in the BoP field were many, but definetely with an agreement that ethnographers do have something to contribute in this field. For me, it actually feels like a coming home… with this new field where most of the work is done in developing countries and where there is an explicit motivation for making the world a better place for the less fortunate, there is a deep resonance with a lot of the skills and values in anthropology and ethnography. Yes, there is a lot of ethical pitfalls in this field, but that is by no means a new situation for anthropologists to work with this.

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