Like many good tales, this one centers upon a misfire.
In 2012, CGAP (Consultative Group to Assist the Poor) in partnership with Mexico’s largest national banking institution, Bancomer, commissioned IDEO.org, the non-profit arm of pro-HCD design giant IDEO. CGAP contracted IDEO to apply their human centred design strategies in an attempt to get banked the unbanked fifty (yes, fifty!) percent of Mexico’s poor and working classes.
To be clear, CGAP + Bancomer + IDEO.org were interested in creating the kinds of products and services that would attract those individuals historically overlooked by banks in Mexico, as in the rest of the world.
Key to this endeavour, the not-currently-banked poor and working class members in Mexico City, then as now, are more accurately understood, not as unbanked but as de-banked, many having left the formal banking system following a series of fines and commissions which drained their balances or even left them in the red. The question, therefore, with which IDEO.org’s team began was, “How do we bring them back?”
What followed was something like this:
IDEO sent young engineers and industrial designers to collect data on the ground (this meant: in colonias populares in Mexico City, and the work of data collection was not unlike ethnographic research, given that the team’s primary methods were interview and observation). The team was “on the ground” for a total of two weeks, before returning to California to develop prototypes.
IDEO’s crew was to innovate product and service alternatives, agree to several prototypes, and then supply the behemoth bank with the concrete results of their genius. Note: It seems that someone agreed with someone, some time near the beginning of this story, that the solutions IDEO.org members proposed could be the kinds of solutions which bring the unbanked to Bancomer without generating a profit for the bank.
IDEO’s team invested several months in labouring from California, arrived at the multiple prototypes expected of them, and returned to Mexico City to “try out” their models on the individuals they aspired to serve.
- IDEO’s team proposed two product lines to Bancomer with the intention of piloting both. They were then told by Bancomer officials that in fact the bank would be unable to proceed with a zero-returns project, and …
One full year of labor and innovation later, the project was dead in the water. The poor remained unbanked / de-banked and underserved, the bankers remained largely unconcerned, and the young, creative Californians went back to surfing or whatever else they do when not playing at ethnography.
So exactly what went wrong? Stay tuned for our follow-up article.
This article was written for Fern Software by an economic anthropologist who has worked in and around Mexico City since 2005. The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Fern Software or any employee thereof. We make no representations as to accuracy, completeness, timeliness, suitability or validity of any information presented by individual authors.