But critique can itself 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 finished graduate school, the first thing I did was go to Senegal to work on a sustainable development project. I cannot overemphasize my excitement; 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. In my eyes (and I wasn’t alone), we weren’t practicing any of those principles enough. The program, a two-month endeavor involving a needs-assessment of a northern Senegalese village, was too top-down, there were too many barriers between locals and foreigners, and 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, 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. Finally, instead of focusing on problems, I’m shifting my perspective to look at their potential solutions. And it’s inspiring.
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.
More and more, 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 that have been 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, give it up. 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 continue learning 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, as I always do, moving forward I’m not simply asking: What’s wrong here, how are we failing? But rather: How are we responding to situations, what kind of an impact are we creating, and how can we form strong relationships that set us up for future successes?