When culture destroys technology: de-risk your innovation project with human centred design.

Matthew Simms


3 min read

The lakes are bloating in the Peruvian Andes. The ice capped peaks surrounding them are shrinking. Glaciers are melting with colossal chunks cracking off and tumbling into the water below.

Swollen lakes that are rocked by huge pieces of mountain can be catastrophic for the communities in the valleys below. The resulting flood of water carrying plants and mud and rocks can wipe them out.

Climate-induced disasters are becoming more frequent yet unpredictable. But there is a solution to overcome the volatility.

High-tech monitoring placed high in the mountains could alert the communities below. The early-warning system would give people a critical 30-minute window to evacuate.

The solution seemed perfect for those in the shadow of Mount Hualcán and threatened by the brilliant blue waters from Lake 513. A sophisticated system of seismic sensors, cameras and monitoring stations was set-up to keep the villages safe.

It operated as promised. And technically it was brilliant. So innovative that it was lauded as a blueprint that could safeguard other Andean communities.

This brilliant system was however a spectacular failure. Not because of the technology, but because of the people it was meant to save.

Villagers marched up the mountain and tore it down. This pioneering technology is now stored in a village church gathering dust.

Farmers believed the glaciers were sacred places and the antenna were causing a drought. Homeowners felt bringing attention to a floodplain would lower their house prices. Others were worried it would dissuade tourists from visiting the area and hurt their livelihood.

The project failed as it didn’t properly account for culture. How deep-rooted beliefs can lead to behaviours that seem absurd but are entirely logical within a group.  

Culture is essential to humanity as it provides meaning and cohesion within communities. Community can stretch in many directions; it can be geographic like a village in the Andes or one centred around passions such as surfing.

Understanding complex social structures that govern a community’s rules and rituals ensures change isn’t disruptive and therefore rejected.

Throughout an innovation process we must immerse in a community, learn their attitudes so we can design for behaviours. This means going deep into people’s lives, their motivations, values and relationships.

Transformation is never about technology. It’s always about people. It’s about the mindset of the individuals shaped by the shared beliefs of communities they belong to; whether a Peruvian village, a customer segment, or a team within a corporate.

Shift focus from the capabilities or possibilities of technology. Be led by people. Start and end with their demands or desires, what they believe and how that influences how they behave.

Use human centred design to understand culture or risk your technically brilliant project being torn down.

Learn about how Symplicit uses human centred design to put people at the heart of innovation. Read about our projects in large scale transformation and behaviour change: Sydney Metro and Bushfire Recovery Victoria.

You can read more about the Mount Hualcán flood-warning project via EcoAméricas.

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