Transdisciplinary Design

The Example to End All Debates

Posted by Cameron Hanson on December 11, 2014

Throughout the semester, our class has engaged in heated discussions on a series of debate topics. Invariably, the conversations end up in the middle, or they pivot on the use of a single word in the prompt. I take one example of successful design – that of the mobile mapping platform Ushahidi – to make a topline argument for the side of seven recent debates.

Bottom-up innovation is the only lasting innovation.

In response to the violent protests in the 2007 presidential elections in Kenya, a nimble group of four Kenyans created and implemented a program through which people could send SMS messages to report their location and corresponding details to an aggregated internet database. By sidestepping the mistrust and bureaucracy of the government, and by scaffolding a reproducible structure, people were empowered to react and respond to crises themselves. This agency for self-resiliency is exactly the emergent behavior that Steven Johnson describes in his book Emergence. Ushahidi can even draw parallels to Johnson’s example of the ant colony. Just as ants follow pheromones to find their way out of colonies, the information from Ushahidi delivers digestible and actionable information. Furthermore, Johnson stresses the effect of group mentality in encouraging behavior when he states “local information leads to global wisdom.”


An online community can never serve the same functions as a real life community.

In times of emergency, human behavior is anything but normal. When life is viewed in the extremes, it’s the things that matter most that come to the surface, such as community bonds and human compassion. Ushahidi is genius in that it leverages the bonds of community and reconstructs it through telecommunications. It temporarily serves the same functions of community, such as looking out for one’s neighbor, maintaining open communication, and communing in a shared experience.


True lightness is no longer achievable.

Two other components of Ushahidi further demonstrate its model for success. First, rather than creating another physical thing that adds “heaviness” to the world, Ushahidi leverages current infrastructure and human behavior to introduce a service to an existing system, thereby fostering sustainability. Second, the concentrated geographic scope of Ushahidi means that the chance of engagement is higher. This theory is based on the law of locality, in which John Thackara explains “that network traffic is at least 80 percent local.”


Open source is really only a successful as a business model in software production.

The open source nature of Ushahidi has meant that this platform for real-time social engagement is available around the world. From the Haiti earthquake to tracking forest fires in Italy, groups have been self-empowered to use the platform in their own localities. In fact, Ushahidi’s platform is just the jumping off point for other initiatives. Ushahidi provides the framework, but local communities are responsible for integrating the program technologically and socially.


System design is not too mechanistic to model the messiness of the real world.

Political unrest, natural disaster and domestic violence are incredibly messy topics, with no clear solution. Rather than admit defeat to these wicked problems, Donella Meadows empowers us as designers to lean into the unknown and leverage our skills of seeing relationships, listening, and visualizing new realities. Just as Meadows proclaims, Ushahidi is not meant to “fix things, but to envision new realities.”


Global flows of people, ideas, and resources has not fundamentally changed our global, political landscape.

Ushahidi is but one example of ways in which aggregated data has deeply informed the world about disasters and their aftermath. Through the frequent sharing of information across borders, designers are able to better iterate their ideas and the lives of local citizens are improved.


Designers should make an even greater effort to effect change and alleviate suffering globally.

With the power to design comes much responsibility. Ushahidi is a marvelous example of taking a simple concept and using technological design to make it a reality. There’s no right way to perform one’s designerly function, but this case study absolutely shows how design can promote good. By opening frameworks, improving communication flow, and maintaining local agency, people in times of emergency have more support and hope than ever before.



By Cameron Hanson

Works Cited

Steven Johnson. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.

Donella Meadows. Thinking in Systems.

John Thakara. In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World.

Photo credit: