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Using anthropology, data and design thinking to disrupt development consulting

In sunny Singapore, one start-up is disrupting the world of development consulting.

The field, in which companies advise public and private sector players on projects related to economic development, traditionally uses a top-down strategy. Zeroth Labs, however, takes that a step further with an adaptive approach to problem solving and constant experimentation.

The two-and-a-half year old consultancy applies behavioral insights to urbanization challenges in order to create new services and business models within emerging economies, and it's beginning to make waves.

"In the dominant business model of development consulting, you create great strategy based on great information and analysis, and expect that to work on the ground. But things aren't always as linear we'd like it to be," said Zeroth co-founder Bernise Ang, who was recently named a young global leader of the World Economic Forum.

One of Zeroth's projects: A prototype of a service center in Gazipur City, Bangladesh.
UNDP - Zeroth Labs - Tandemic
One of Zeroth's projects: A prototype of a service center in Gazipur City, Bangladesh.

Development professionals need to formulate hypotheses, create a small-scale prototype, test it, and pay attention to what the data says you need to do next, said Ang, who boasts a finance and psychology background. "It's not as sexy because it now places the client as the expert instead of the consultant. Still, this is what I think will truly build the capability for developing countries to make life better for citizens."

In 2014, Zeroth worked on a United Nations project designed to improve Bangladesh's social services that saw municipal officials in the city of Gazipur generate concepts for how they believed services should operate from a user perspective.

The end product was a new range of services that supported the blind, was more sensitive to women with children and culturally relevant for female slum dwellers. "An interesting prototype that emerged was an app for municipal payments and services — not because it's techy, but because of cash and corruption issues surfaced by the mayor's office staff," said Ang.

In international development, where the interaction of public, private and civil society players is key, understanding human behavioral patterns is crucial to creating sustainable solutions to real-life problems. Organisations such as the Brookings Institution have long advocated the importance of behavioral science in economic development.

Women in Gazipur City working on the Bangladesh social services project.
UNDP - Zeroth Labs - Tandemic
Women in Gazipur City working on the Bangladesh social services project.

"Many mainstream management consulting firms don't have a significant anthropology practice where they conduct their own ethnographic research as it's more time and cost intensive, but it's a key way to uncover the kind of deep behavioral insights we find," stated Ang.

Zeroth, a spin-off from Ang's previous non-profit Syinc, deploys a careful blend of anthropology, data analysis, design thinking, and lean startup methodology across a range of social issues, including sanitation, waste management, youth, education, and healthcare. The key lies in the ability to pull these different ideas together, noted Ang, deploying her music training as a metaphor.

"I used to play jazz trumpet, and a lot of amazing jazz solos come about from playing metaphorical Lego with other pieces but in new, combinatorial ways. Everything is a remix."