Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Redesigning the Social Safety Net


The past two years have laid bare that we inhabit a world with enormous and increasing inequality. We’ve also seen a decreasing level of faith in public programs and institutions to provide quality health care and education or even fair access elections. And the very systems designed for the betterment of all are often siloed and ineffective. This session comes at a time when policy and regulations affecting social safety net benefits are more in flux than usual in many countries. Using the tools of data, design, activism, technology, and innovation, these panelists have led an ethnography-forward approach to reimagining these systems and move toward safety nets that work for all.


panelist headshots

Nadine Levin, PhD, is an anthropologist, Rhodes Scholar, and UX researcher who focuses on improving equitable access to technology. After several years of academic research with biomedical scientists, during which she studied the challenges of using big data to improve healthcare, Nadine moved into the private sector with Facebook, where she conducted research on aging populations, digital literacy, and privacy for vulnerable populations. She has recently moved to a research role with the City of San Francisco, where her work will focus on areas like affordable housing and supporting small businesses.

Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child, winner of the 2020 Best Information Science Book Award, draws on archival research and ethnographic fieldwork in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project—and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Her next project extends the questions she asks in The Charisma Machine regarding the interaction between computers, ideology, and identity to explore the role that utopianism plays in discourses around childhood, education, and ‘development’ in two geographically overlapping but culturally divided worlds: developer culture of Silicon Valley and the working-class and immigrant communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Zahra Ebrahim is a public interest designer and strategist, focused on shifting power to people who are typically underrepresented in institutions and systems. Her work has focused on deep, community-led approaches to policy, infrastructure, and service design. She is the CEO of Monumental, an organization focused on supporting an equitable recovery from COVID-19 through building fair and just cities and institutions, producing creative, socially-driven initiatives, and amplifying BIPOC leadership. Prior to this role, she built and led Doblin Canada (Deloitte’s Human-Centred Design practice), focusing on engaging diverse sets of stakeholders to use human-centred design to address complex organizational and industry challenges. In her early career, Zahra led one of Canada’s first social design studios, working with communities to co-design towards better social outcomes and leading some of Canada’s most ambitious participatory infrastructure and policy programs. Zahra has taught at OCADU, MoMA, and is currently an Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto. She is the Vice-Chair of the Canadian Urban Institute, and the Board Chair for Park People.

Mithula Naik the Head of Platform Client Experience at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS), a central digital services unit in the Government of Canada focused on delivering simple, easy to use services for all Canadians. In her role, Mithula works closely with government departments and agencies in building public-facing platform services that uplift the needs of users and, as a consequence, improve the quality of public services and people’s experience of government. Prior to CDS, Mithula ran design-led interventions to improve policy, program and service delivery at the Privy Council Office’s Impact and Innovation Unit. Mithula’s career spans India and Canada, where she has worked with startups, charities, and household technology brands such as Nokia, Xerox and Hewlett-Packard in shifting towards human-centered product development to enable broader impact for the betterment of society.