What Happens When You Mix Bankers, Insurers, Consultants, Anthropologists and Designers: The Saga of Project FiDJI in France

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This essay explores an initiative carried on by a group of three banks , two insurance companies and a consulting firm, European leader in the field of innovation, towards the development of a methodology aimed at innovating through a user-centered approach in design. The project, baptized “Projet FiDJI – Finance, Design et Joie d’Innover”, brought together sponsors of the banking and insurance sectors with ethnographers and designers within an academic lead context. The aim was to develop a methodological approach that would push banks and insurances to shift their focus from the more traditional, marketing lead quantitative studies towards a more qualitative appreciation of their clients. In so doing, it tried to re-position the main strategic approach of the institutions involved from that of product focused companies to user focused, service oriented ones. Project FiDJI was awarded the highly competitive label of “innovative and strategic project” by France’s “Pôle de Competitivité Finance Innovation” due to its unusual co-opetitive approach and the integration of a multi-disciplinary methodology axed on a more complex understanding of users involving them in a co-creation process.

This essay analyses the dynamics that contributed to the project’s success in spite of the various pressures that affected it and that were both intrinsic to the work being carried out and extrinsic to it. It provides a first hand ethnographic analysis of the management of change within such a traditional sector as the banking and insurance industry. However, the essay is meant as a starting point for a wider reflection. How to imagine change and affect it then from a professional standpoint? How to accompany it? Anthropology’s and indeed design’s position as relatively new comers in the field of management requires from both to constantly justify the “value-added” contribution they have to business. The anthropologist/designer is here projected from the role of peripheral contributor to that of change manager within a constantly complex global world. Moving from the role of mere “addition” to that of full blown strategist within an industry or a company requires an understanding of the complexity inherent to organizational and indeed global business dynamics. Most companies today are at a loss to deal with such complexity and here an alliance of anthropology and design can bring added value to a company’s overall strategic vision due to these two disciplines’ holistic approach to first research-analysis and then problem solving. Such an alliance, however, necessarily challenges more traditional business approaches and hence places them in a difficult position to already existing power dynamics within companies. How then can anthropologists and/or designers engage with power in order to bring about the creative solutions they identify as pertinent? By analyzing how anthropologists and designers navigated through FiDJI and beyond, this essay hopefully begins to bring some answers to these questions.

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