Inspired by China, Made in Bangladesh

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Bangladesh’s cities are growing at breakneck speeds.

A decade ago, the country’s economy was still largely agricultural. Today, more than 60% of the national GDP originates in the cities, and by 2030, the population living in urban areas is expected to double at 80 million.

Small wonder then, that infrastructure and services have not been able to keep up.

Long queues and repeat visits are common if you have some business with city officials. Citizens frequently face a variety of complexities in registering a birth or death, in paying bills (e.g. tax, fees), or requesting connections to municipal water supply.

Officials, stretched thin for resources and man-hours, concede that the sheer numbers they deal with are overwhelming, dwarfed only by the solutions they require now, let alone in another decade.
 
Despite some healthy skepticism, those solutions are emerging from unconventional sources.
 
It’s a chilly fall morning at the Ciqu Community Service Station in Beijing, and residents are coming in to receive health testing and immunizations, learn about public safety, and play sports at the adjacent gymnasium.

The Station provides vocational training to support employment opportunities, and activities for elderly populations. Residents can also save time in accessing forms and understanding requirements by calling a designated service-center hotline. Here is a city that is familiar with addressing urban bottlenecks at massive scale – and they are bringing all their services under a single roof.
 
Can elements of China’s model play a role in improving Bangladesh’s own service administration? To understand this, UNDP has partnered with Zeroth Labs and Tandemic, two Asia-based firms specializing in Design Thinking.

 Panorama of the Bangladeshi capital shows some of the challenges of designing services for residents for contrasting socio-economic realities. Photo - Al-Emrun Garjon.

In late 2014, we brought four city mayors, local officials and citizens to the table for a design jam in one of Bangladesh’s largest satellite cities to see if we could customize the Beijing solution for the Bangladeshi reality.
 
The team began by identifying priority goals for their one-stop service center. Next, they analysed the needs and expectations of their existing service users, by mapping the journey of several residents as they visited city offices.

They closely observed, for example, the experience of one local man applying for his grandson’s birth certificate, from his early awareness of what forms were needed, to finally receiving the certificate several days later. Facilitators also encouraged participants to consider the diverse needs of citizens requiring services by developing personas, such as a female migrant worker, an elderly gentleman with mobility challenges, and a local businessperson.
 
Insights garnered from these experiences helped participants to design their own One-Stop Service Center prototype. They generated a wide range of possible services that the One-Stop Center could provide. Features such as a waiting room, help desk, and call center were prioritized based on importance for users and feasibility for providers.
 
Finally, participants created a rough model or “prototype” using followed by a life size prototype using the conference room to test how their ideas would function in practice. The prototype is simple, inexpensive, and therefore easy to alter and revise to suit context.

 Participants at the Bangladesh design jam create a prototype using Lego blocks. UNDP Photo.

So, the big question is, will the vision of a One-Stop Social Service Center in Bangladesh become reality?

It’s difficult to say, perhaps. But it’s got some critical features going for it.

Whereas technical development assistance has conventionally been transferred from North to South, the exchange between China and Bangladesh offers a way forward between countries in the South. The reason this matters is that innovations in one city may have important insights for addressing challenges in others that are facing similar rapidly expanding populations, environmental challenges, and changing demographics.
 
Secondly, the experience shows the promise of using unconventional tools and processes to improve not only services in the recipient country, but also the process by which insights, innovations and knowledge are adapted from one context to another.

Design thinking asks us to “walk in the shoes” of the people whom we are aiming to serve. It can also help build credibility of local government by engaging users from the earliest stages of development.  And by constantly exploring and testing, it encourages taking risks in developing new solutions to old problems.

Blog post Inclusive growth South-South cooperation China Bangladesh Governance and peacebuilding

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