Is good design the secret ingredient to the Nordic quality of life? Can development be seen as a design process? What do well-designed environments have to do with better decision making? In this article, MSc IDHE Student, Emma Smith, tells us about what she learnt from the Cities of Ice and Glass panel discussion at last weekend’s London Literature Festival. 

This weekend, the London Literature Festival hosted a panel entitled Cities of Ice and Glass. Renowned designers and writers discussed how we can look to cities such as Copenhagen and Stockholm for lessons of livelihood. The Nordic nations are global leaders in: gender equality, sustainable development, minimizing corruption, poverty reduction, and education. And of course, happiness.

As Michael Booth, panelist at the Cities of Ice and Glass event and author of “The Almost Nearly Perfect People”, put it, “if you want to know where to look for the definitive model of how to live a fulfilled, happy, well balanced, healthy and enlightened life, you should turn your gaze to the north of Germany, and just to the left of Russia.”

As an International Development student, I wondered, “How can the developing world achieve the all-around well being that, year after year, these Northern luminaries do?

The answer from this weekend’s panelists was very clear: design.

Design is “the purpose, planning, or intention that exists or is thought to exist behind an action, fact, or material object.” If you’ve ever been to Ikea, you know that the particular features of Scandinavian design are simplicity, minimalism, and functionality. Well, these don’t just go into making your coffee table. Design could very well be the secret ingredient to the Nordics’ social, economic, environmental and political accomplishments.

Panelist Linda Thiel, a Swedish architect, explained that a majority of Swedish homes benefit from “district heating”, a thoughtfully designed approach to increasing heat functionality (particularly in urban areas) through a centrally distributed system. This simple mechanism has led to higher efficiencies and better pollution control. Panelist Onny Eikhaug, Programme Leader at Design and Architecture Norway, commented that this kind of inclusive design in the business and public sector also serves as an effective strategy for innovation. Take the equality-first and best-in-the-world education system in Finland as an example.

Indeed, there are many instances where thoughtful design may be behind many Nordic successes. It is important to note that there have also been failures.

So, what does design look like as a part of international development?

There are many kinds of design processes currently emerging in the development field. In keeping with the Scandavian theme, I’ll focus on the trendiest:

  • Design thinking (also called human-centered or user-centered design). Design thinking is an approach that involves including the target user at every stage of the design process. Some examples of effective results of this design process can be found here. Human-centered design involves three phases: 1) inspiration through learning the wants and needs of the target user 2) ideation through identifying possible opportunities and creating prototypes 3) implementation through realizing a solution by means of an iterative process. The context-based and localized solutions that result from design thinking serve as a successful alternative to donor-driven development projects.
  • Behavioral insights. In 2017, Richard Thaler won the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on the idea that well-designed environments can impact decisions. He suggests that behavioral insights like anchoring, availability heuristic, status quo bias, or herd behavior can be used to create tailored policies that will improve human decision-making. One example of this comes from Colombia, where there was a policy that rewards the parents of students with good school attendance with bimonthly cash transfers. After a simple behavioral insight – change in timing – was applied, the parents instead received one lump-sum payment reward at the student’s graduation. This increased post-secondary institution enrollment by 49% as parents no longer had to think about saving or managing the bimonthly transfers. More examples in behavioral insights for policy change can be found here.

As we strive for better international development, we can look to the Nordic countries for lessons and inspiration. In doing so, we might begin to think of international development as a process of design. We can use the techniques involved in design thinking to involve the local population, to prototype, and to iterate. We can use behavioral insights to build development programs that improve human decision-making. Design helps us to create a purpose, plan and intention behind our international development projects. And arguably, better-designed international development projects lead to better outcomes.

Design may be an important tool in international development, but we must remember that there are many others in the toolbox. Design thinking or behavioral insights should be used with and alongside research, policy, technology, and activism. We need this multi-disciplinary approach. Especially if we want to do more than create the development equivalents of Henry Ford’s “faster horse”.

I conclude with findings shared in panelist Michael Booth’s book – findings that should shake us all awake. Based on factors such as freedom and social support, 82% of Danes were found to be thriving (the highest score) according to a Gallup World Poll. Only 1% were suffering. In contrast, in Togo, the lowest ranked country on the poll, only 1% were thriving. This gaping disparity serves as a call to action. If we know even a hint of the secret to the Dane’s success, we have a responsibility to share it. Sharing knowledge, tools, and practices, is after all, what international development is all about. We must therefore take seriously the possibility that design could improve our international development work. If it indeed can, we may just be able to achieve the equality, sustainability, education, and overall happiness that Scandinavia has proven is attainable.


Emma Smith is an MSc Candidate at LSE in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies. She completed her bachelor’s degree at Duke University in International Comparative Studies, Arabic Literature, and Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Her research interests are in technology, private sector, and behavioural insights for crisis preparedness and response.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.