In this conversation, between Tom Savigar and Alexia Pache, Nacho Contreras, Natalia Zauner, Oriane Rajaonarivo and Ali Ganjavian we explore Studio Banana’s journey to enriching the lives of others by transforming complex problems to creative possibilities, and how its Banana Hope initiative is exploring ways to expand this purpose way beyond the boundaries of its core business.
- Philanthropy is on the rise, and designers are increasingly transforming complex problems to creative possibilities for less advantaged people around the world.
- Financial contribution is one thing, but welcome a new era for contributing with new impact-driven forms of creativity and collaboration to solve ‘wicked problems’.
- Finding the right intervention points is the key to having the greatest positive impact, and getting onsite makes all the difference.
- For designers, self-esteem and satisfaction take a back seat as a ‘job well done’ increasingly means something altogether new.
- Creativity is born when “ready-made” solutions can not respond significantly to a problem.
- The future of NGOs could become vast networks of incredibly talented creative minds looking at problem-solving from a creative perspective to create impact at scale.
The past few years have been years unlike any other, and looking forward, the compounding crises worldwide are accelerating the ‘giving economy’. Companies in first-world countries are investing more time and money in philanthropic initiatives. Total charitable donations in the United States alone rose 5 percent to nearly half a trillion dollars, a record level, according to the annual Giving USA Foundation report.
When it comes to Studio Banana, it is in its DNA to be an enabling force. “In the constitutions of our studio, 5% of all wealth we create is contributed to philanthropic causes”, states Ali. While Studio Banana clients hire it because of its ability to successfully put creativity at the service of complexity, it is through Banana Hope that it aims to bring the full breadth of its capabilities to those who ordinarily do not have the means to gain access to such services.
Banana Hope is an open platform for creatives: transforming complex problems to creative possibilities for less advantaged people around the world. “What we’ve discovered with Banana Hope is that our values of integrity, curiosity, togetherness and authenticity have really come to the fore when we engage in philanthropic activities”, says Ali. “Banana Hope is now becoming a vehicle for accelerating these values.”
Indeed, since the beginning Studio Banana has been doing philanthropic projects, especially within education, and now it is scaling these initiatives with infrastructure projects. What started as financial contributions are now transforming into something altogether more profound. “Banana Hope is not only the act of contributing money to something we care deeply about. It is becoming a space for us to act as designers and be part of something much bigger”, says Nacho.
From contribution to commitment
Like many others engaging with philanthropy, Studio Banana has been in exploration mode for some time, but now they are coming out of its chrysalis. This is about leading a new era in contributing with new impact-driven forms of creativity, and committing to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (9.1). Furthermore, it is about developing quality, reliable, sustainable and resilient infrastructures that support economic development and human well-being, with a focus on affordable and equitable access for all.
“I think the word contribution is often seen as something finite. We make a financial contribution and then that’s it. It is actually about going further with contributing our minds, and getting on the ground to see change really happening”, says Alexia. “This requires us collaborating with local NGOs and developing projects with them as the challenges evolve.”
Leveraging world-class creativity and design to fix wicked problems is increasingly a critical intervention and a value-add for creative agencies like Studio Banana. But knowing one’s role in change efforts is important. “What we’ve appreciated is that we needed to understand what’s really happening on the ground to then understand the problems that really need solving”, comments Natalia.
“Having a first-world perspective does not work. For example, going in with creative ideas and replacing the work of people would not be as impactful as going there and helping people develop solutions themselves; encouraging their work and their economy”, agrees Alexia.
“It makes sense that we would find it more rewarding to collaborate with those on-site and really analyse what life is like; what kind of problems they are seeing every day on a daily basis; and then develop ideas with them that could help give a deeper, longer-term impact”, says Oriane.
Finding your intervention point
Knowing where to contribute financial and human capital shapes the impact one can have. “We went through a holistic process to select what and how to help”, says Natalia. “When you find yourself in the situation where you can help it can be overwhelming because you go outside and you realize that help is needed in so many places and for so many reasons.”
This is why Studio Banana teams conducted lengthy research to identify areas such as education, infrastructure, health and migration, and then investigated the real challenges with local NGOs in several countries. “We know some things, but we found that activity-based philanthropy was not something we had a lot of experience with,” says Natalia. “And so the first priority for Banana Hope was learning from others who have a lot of experience and proven results.”
Once this investigation was completed, teams presented their proposals. “The energy between us was amazing, and it brought a lot of motivation to the studio because everyone got to hear about all these organisations and people doing amazing things in countries like Senegal,” continues Natalia. “That’s how we chose infrastructure in Senegal as our brief. We chose an NGO with shared values, contributed money and our minds”, says Natalia.
Getting a full picture of the challenge by being on the ground is incredibly important. For the Banana Hope team, it kickstarted a process of understanding how a challenge evolves, from a surface to systemic appreciation of social, economic and political dynamics at play. “You need to really understand what needs to be done. It’s a bespoke process with local teams, and we need to be comfortable with not knowing what happens next and what the outcome looks like. Just giving money to help means we will never know what the impact is afterwards”, adds Oriane.
“In Senegal, we learnt from our NGO partner Nouvelle Planète that our projects can become so much about building buildings. We could also transform behaviours which have been the norm for hundreds of years”, explains Ali. “For example, in the crop sowing season, the norm was to collect wheat and sell it at a very low price to commodity traders because there wasn’t a physical place to store it. People had to get rid of the produce cheaply due to a lack of condition infrastructure and management. Then when they needed it again, they had to borrow money and buy it back. This was an unsustainable ritual that stopped with the introduction of the physical infrastructure by Nouvelle Planète.”
From Studio Banana, one can see why the Banana Hope team quickly realised they were in a creative bubble that was removed from the reality of the challenges they were examining.
“When we started to think about contributing our ideas and economy to a project I remember us saying we were going to design a super nice project, well designed and something we would be proud of. But in the process of trying to figure out the best way to help local partners we quickly realised we had to focus on solving very very basic needs”, says Nacho. “I remember asking a local partner what they needed, and they said a computer.”
For world-class creatives with a conscience, used to pushing boundaries and delighting clients, this realisation of doing the ‘little things’ reframes the creative challenge. Leading creative agencies to hire teams based on best in class skills and experience, and teams are used to being highly creative, lateral minded and future-oriented when on projects. However, when it comes to ‘philanthropic design’, Banana Hope’s learnings show that a designer can approach a systemic challenge like education or famine with a fresh mindset and methods.
So is the future of design philanthropic in nature? Is the intent of modern design only to make beautiful things and experiences? Or is it to do something more profound and impactful? “I think it should be a blend. The purpose of designers will increasingly be about designing solutions that really have an impact and really bring better solutions”, says Oriane. “Creativity is born when “ready-made” solutions can not respond significantly to a problem.”
When wicked problems arise, people look to creativity when they need to change. So when companies are in the state of transformation, they think about possibilities in a creative way, they think outside the box. “We need to think of our role as creators. The word design means to resolve, to solve problems, and that is the DNA of Studio Banana”, says Ali. “As designers and strategists, our role is to transform complex problems into creative possibilities. And we do this with the sole purpose of enriching the lives of others. And these others are increasingly the ones who are needier than us.”
Banana Hope is clearly on a journey, and realises the role of design, creativity and giving can be elevated to a new level. Indeed, the true meaning of Studio Banana’s values is appearing in Banana Hope’s initiatives, which could spark and could inspire others to do the same. So what does the future hold for Banana Hope, and NGOs for that matter?
“Well I think the biggest dream would be that Banana Hope becomes an entity of its own, I mean an NGO of its own”, says Alexia. “There is still a lot to learn, but there is an opportunity to redesign the model and methods of development agencies. If the concept of a development agency is to develop societies and economies in challenging environments, why can’t it also develop corporations? Why can’t it develop a new form of consciousness and behaviour that is often lacking from modern capitalism? I would love to see clients and partners taking part in our projects to help us achieve a greater goal.”
“What our minds are capable of imagining and creating is far greater than the economy we could contribute in this transformative journey. And I think that is where the superpower of design agencies lies”, says Ali. “If I jump to 2025, I see a vast network of incredibly talented creative minds looking at problem-solving from a creative perspective to create impact at scale.”
Banana Hope is indeed becoming a vehicle for encouraging, empowering and bringing others together. It has plans to be an open environment for creatives to contribute, where it is a philosophy for others to join this way of thinking. “I think Banana Hope can become an entity that does so much more to help, and establish new types of alliance that bring diverse minds, skills, resources and capital together”, says Natalia. “NGOs can be very bureaucratic and heads down. I can imagine there is an interesting fresh perspective on what an NGO of the future is.”
There is a lot to look forward to in the changing of philanthropy and the role of design in creating positive impact, and Studio Banana is constantly experimenting with these new realities. Here are a few thought starters to inspire our next conversation:
– How might your organisation shift the concept of philanthropy from financial contribution, to more a sustained human capital commitment?
– How might your organisation be more systemic in mind, and take responsibility not only for ‘its world’, but also for the larger social and natural systems that we all depend on?
– How might your organisation see design and creativity as unlocking problem solving from a creative perspective to create impact at scale?
To learn more about the future, check some other Studio Banana Futurecasts:
– A look forward to the future of purpose-focused spaces.
– A look forward to the future of change.
– A look ahead at the future learning.