How would you connect with communities and people that are different from you or your way of life? How would you design a program that can help farmers in developing countries begin to create a relationship with digital technology?
How would you help a community of 10,000 Filipinos understand the impact of misinformation on their daily lives? How would you navigate the politics of the public sector to help improve the lives of your local citizens?
In this episode, we talk to Joie Cruz. She’s a designer turned social innovator based in Manila, leading a team at The Limitless Lab. Her team specializes in designing and developing public sector programs that help improve people’s lives in the Philippines by using design thinking and co-design to work hand-in-hand with local public servants. Joie is also one of the innovation coaches working with Bloomberg Philanthropies in the Philippines. Today, Joie talks to us about what it takes to become a social entrepreneur and agent of change inside a developing country and how she’s found inclusive collaboration to be the key to some great outcomes.
ANALOGOUS: What is happening at Limitless Labs these days, any projects that excite you?
CRUZ: Where do I begin? We’ve had a lot of projects since we last saw each other, so we’ve still been working with government agencies here in the Philippines. For one, we are working with the Department of Agriculture, and that particular agency is called the Agricultural Training Institute. So basically, using design thinking, we co-design a toolkit with them to create a delightful learning experience that would help farmers learn about the basics of technology, from how to use a smartphone, how to post their products on Facebook, marketplace and so on to us, even as designing their posters on Canva and so on. So that program is called the Digital Farmers Program. What else have I been? You know, like you can easily get lost right now.
ANALOGOUS: What has been an unexpected outcome or a reaction that you’ve gotten in your work that you still think about to this day? So something and something unexpected came up.
CRUZ: When I learned about design thinking, my world opened up. I learned that there’s so much more to design than just graphic design. So when I would approach government agencies introducing them to the concept of design thinking, human-centered design, and how to co-design solutions with their stakeholders, some would be very surprised that this thing even exists because, for us, designers, is pretty much natural. It’s already our instinct to talk to people. But surprisingly, especially for a lot of government agencies, it’s not an instinct, it’s not a standard way of doing things. So that’s one of the main reasons we push for public sector innovation in the country.
Another project actually that we’re working on is with Google Philippines and ASEAN Foundation. I’m unsure if you’ve heard, but the Philippines is patient zero regarding disinformation and misinformation. You know, there’s a lot of fake news as, as the colloquial term for it is, and it influenced a lot of our political decisions, our past elections right now. So we wanted to do something about it.
Coincidentally, because I believe in the synchronicities of the universe now, we didn’t know how we could help in the fight against disinformation and misinformation. And it does not just apply to politics, Even when it comes to health-related news and so on.
If someone is not digitally literate enough, it can be a matter of life and death if they easily believe the misinformation and disinformation. In fact, according to the news, I think around 800 people died due to disinformation and misinformation during the time of it.
Back to my story: we’re working with the foundation on the Digital Literacy Program Project. Essentially we want to develop the consciousness of Filipinos, their digital literacy, and on how you can spot fake news, disinformation, and misinformation online.
Google and the ASEAN Foundation designed this program. It will be implemented all over Asia, but the Philippines became a pilot area. Limitless Lab is part of the pioneer implementers in the Asian region. The initial design was to roll out essentially some very technical modules, and the target learners are our grassroots communities in the Philippines, which are basic political units or Barangays.
This is where you can see disadvantaged communities from our senior citizens, the youth, and so on. So then we ask them, how can we make these modules more people-centered? How can we make these learning materials easily relatable to our target learners? Using design thinking, we talked to many of our target stakeholders or got learners to empathize with them. And that’s how we came up with a gamified module, it’s called #Digitally. We also coined the term because the original name of the project is a digital literacy program. If you’re someone in the grassroots communities of the Philippines, it’s not something that would easily connect with you. So #digitally not translates to hashtag DG Smart in English. So, what we did is to gamify and storify the toolkit.
Now we’re in our volunteer master training. We have around 70 volunteer master trainers across the Philippines because we want to reach far-flung communities, right? We want face-to-face on-the-ground training with barangays with far-flung and rural communities.
First, they learn about what digital literacy is, and why it’s important to learn about digital literacy because that’s the central insight we got during our empathy interviews. They don’t feel that digital literacy, the issue of disinformation and misinformation, is close to their basic needs. They don’t feel that it affects them on a daily basis. It feels so abstract to them. So we had to devise key messages and visuals to illustrate how important this issue is and how it actually affects them on a day-to-day basis. They also will learn in this journey the types of disinformation and misinformation and so on.
So that was a hugely successful project. We launched the toolkit for the Master Trainers, and that was around August. As of today we have already trained thousands of Filipinos and we’re expected to train 10,000 Filipinos on misinformation, digital literacy, and how to spot misinformation and disinformation.
ANALOGOUS: That’s amazing. And when you were working with these communities, learning to connect with them and design for them, was there something that surprised you or was there something unexpected that you learned from it?
CRUZ: Definitely! The co-design process, is always a paradigm-shifting experience, as designers, our approach, of course, would be to set aside our own preconceived notions and biases. But sometimes, it’s not that easy, especially if politics are involved. So, when we had these interviews, we connected with communities. We were very surprised by how our realities were very different from each other. I’ll give you an example: we conducted several behavioral tests for them to spot real news versus fake news. They spotted the first four questions that we showed them. They spotted it correctly that it was fake. However, with the fifth question regarding a controversial political figure, we showed a post that it’s a screenshot of a YouTube video that says Nostradamus predicted that this person will win the elections. And guess what? Did they believe it or not?
ANALOGOUS: When when you set yourself up to have these conversations with people, what helps you set the stage so that you get what you need?
CRUZ: As a team, what we always do is prepare in advance, do our homework and set our guide questions and try to make the community understand that this is not an interview process. This is just me. In Filipino terms, we call it the penguin thumb. It’s Filipino psychology, just sharing stories so that they feel more comfortable with you. But at the same time, you have to establish that you treat them as equal. Because the moment you go to a community and they feel you feel like you are better than them, or superior to them because you’re professional or something like that. Then, the conversation just becomes them telling you something that they think you might want to hear. So that’s what you don’t want to happen. You want it to be as safe space as much as possible and to just really be a sponge and try to understand.
ANALOGOUS: Because in all of your work in the public sector, in your career as a designer. Is there a piece of advice you’ve gotten that stuck with you?
CRUZ: Yeah, for sure. I guess in the Philippines, there is a lot of corruption as as you might have already read in the news. Right. And it’s an age-old problem. It’s a vicious cycle of corruption. When I started on my public sector innovation, of course, I was confronted not only by my voice but also by the voice of my other colleagues and friends. Now, what would happen if a public official tells you, “I’m going to adopt your project? But this comes with a price. And that’s a very realistic thing that can happen when you’re working in the public sector, at least in my country. So that got me thinking. When a mentor of mine asked me, what would you do in that situation? I was so young at the time, I didn’t know what the answer would be because I was also very idealistic. That really stuck with me. What helped me actually to answer that question is to set my non-negotiables. So now I already know what the things that I am willing to compromise are? What are the things that I’m not willing to compromise regarding my values in working with the public?
ANALOGOUS: Can you share some of those values that you would never compromise on?
CRUZ: Number one, of course, I would never practice any kind of corrupt activity. So whether that may be in the form of fraud or influence, or actual kickbacks. We have a term called kickback in the Philippines. I’m not sure if the same if it’s the same in other countries, in the Philippines, in local government units, there’s also a thing called SOPS, and that means Standard Operating Procedure, 20 to 30% of a government contract should go to the public official. That’s the number one thing that I will never do. Because I believe that the moment I bend my values for this, It will be an excuse, for myself to say, Oh, okay, I’ve done it one time, and maybe I can do it again. I’ll never do that.
The second thing would be that I will never hurt anyone during my practice or advocacy. So I don’t believe that the end justifies the means as well.
Number three would also be I won’t work with public servants whose values do not resonate with me. I think that’s a pretty simple thing. If you don’t want to be straight, straight away, then don’t surround yourself with people who might potentially lead you in the wrong direction.
ANALOGOUS: Where have you found that it does make sense to be flexible in public sector work in the Philippines?
CRUZ: Here’s the interesting thing. So when I speak with public servants in the Philippines, I have to, empathize, of course. You have to speak their language as well. When I talk to people in the private sector, I speak a different language. So you have to be very flexible with that, make sure that they understand, in what other areas can I be flexible? Well. So when we get clients from public sector organizations, if it’s not a long-term partnership, there’s also like a period right in the beginning. So you have to figure out if these clients’ values align with ours, and our ways of working. So we give that time. I would say maybe that’s around 3 to 6 months figuring out and seeing any red flags or this does not fit our ways of working and so on.
We try to be as flexible as possible during those first few months of working together. If requests are not within the scope of what we do, we always try to go beyond. But if we find out after a certain amount of time this is not working, you know, we are not afraid, of course, to say no, as do our clients.
ANALOGOUS: Can you give some examples of how you changed the way you talk about your work in the public sector versus private sector clients to get those outcomes for the communities?
CRUZ: Of course, when you’re talking to public sector organizations here, the priority should always be on the public value that your project will bring to their community. But also, what we found is effective in our public sector organizations here is fostering a little bit of healthy competition. So you always have to say, oh, you know, like we’re already working with this government agency or another city is already doing this and that. That’s something we found is very helpful in convincing skeptical public servants, you know, having the proof of concept. Of course, when you’re when you’re talking to the private sector, most of our clients in the private sector are CSR arms or community engagement arms. Of these corporations, aside from the impact that the project will bring. Of course, there’s also a question of how this project will also benefit them financially or maybe their public image and so on. So this makes sense.
It does. You know, you’ve been co-designing social innovations with many different partners. And I think that so many of the projects have had so much of a big impact on the Philippines.
ANALOGOUS: Do you have any advice for people trying to do something similar elsewhere? What piece of advice would you give others that are trying to use design thinking and conversations to co-create solutions to improve social conditions anywhere?
CRUZ: This will sound clichet, but of course, people first, right? Because as designers, you have to identify if this is a social innovation that needs a funder and who can be that potential funder. Do you have the user right, and do you have the customers going to pay? So that’s how I design this lab. That’s how I redesign all of our projects and always start with what are the characteristics of our persona,. What’s the value that we can give to these people? How can we solve their pain points? But also, this is advice that I often give young entrepreneurs that I try to mentor, or even aspiring entrepreneurs don’t just start something just because you want to start something. It’s important to identify first your Y or Simon Sinek’s index. Golden Circle.
ANALOGOUS: So, what’s next for you and Limitless Lab?
CRUZ: We revisited our vision this year: it’s now designing a better road. So the operative words there would be co-designing and the world because we want to expand to a bigger market, not just in the Philippines but also in the ASEAN region. What we’re doing right now is creating digital products for designers and innovators in government, not only in the Philippines but hopefully will also be used by public servants and innovators in Southeast Asia.
One key challenge for scaling up that we have also encountered is we have a lot of requests for our services in the countryside in the Philippines. We’ve encountered maybe counselors and public officials who attended one of our workshops in Manila and would like to franchise Limitless Lab. They wonder how we can bring it not to our little town south of the Philippines. Because of that, we also want to empower other social innovation facilitators. So we’re also working on a certification program right now for potential consultants that we can map in the countryside areas of the Philippines because we believe that it doesn’t make sense for us to always go there to the community. Bring this design thinking concept to them from Manila, from the Manila-centric Philippines.
When we have youth leaders there, we have young professionals there who can be empowered. So they can be change-makers, can facilitate change and innovation in their communities. So I guess the next step for us is replicating ourselves and creating digital spaces, digital platforms that can empower other innovators and designers.
ANALOGOUS: That’s amazing!. So, the conversation and the work don’t end here, but I’d like to know some words, some thoughts, or some advice? Do you want to leave with our Project Inclusion audience?
CRUZ: The first one is to always know that you have the limitless within. No, it’s you might not realize it right now, but once that power or that potential has been sapped or let loose, then you will be a change maker as well in your community. But at the same time, my second advice would be to don’t be afraid to say no to opportunities that do not resonate with your higher purpose in your why? Because when you start getting out there and being more vocal about your advocacy.
When I was younger, I would say yes to all of these opportunities, and it drained me out. You have to ensure that whatever opportunity you say yes to aligns with your higher purpose aligns with your world. So you might have a fear of missing out. But it’s important to go laser-focused on what matters to you and what would help fulfill your mission.
ANALOGOUS: Thank you for joining Mindy and me, in this conversation with Joie Cruz, about what it takes to bring social innovation into your own community and how you can use inclusion and design thinking as tools to drive collaboration and success, even in the most difficult scenarios or when working with stakeholders and communities different from ourselves. If you’re interested in more of Joie’s work or the social innovation team at Limitless Lab, check out their website at limitlesslab.org, or follow “The Limitless Lab” on Facebook or Instagram.
If you’re interested in learning more about our conversations with the makers and shakers in the world, of how we build more inclusive business practices and products. Subscribe to the Project Inclusion podcast from your favorite listening platform. If the stories from this episode inspired you, let us know in the reviews, or share the episode with a friend. To check out more episodes of Project Inclusion, go to our website at ProjectInclusion.us.