Wherever there are rules, people break them. But they do it for a lot of different reasons, one of which is necessity. Consider a recent article by Robert Neuwirth in Scientific American titled Global Bazaar. He notes that 50% of workers in the world operate outside of formal structures and that projections suggest that, "By 2020 the informal economy will encompass two thirds of the global workforce, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development" (p 58 of the print issue, September 2011). By any measure, that's a significant amount of human and economic activity.

Positive deviance is well-intentioned rule breaking, making something better by going outside of what was intended. It happens when people tweak, modify, hack, or mash-up a product or service and end up improving things. The off-grid workforce within the sprawling metropolises of the world, the territory that Neuwirth is known for, contains within it positive deviance at a massive scale. The problem is that we are ill-equipped to tap into those innovations not only as a means of helping the poorest among us but also as a source of insight for solving problems in more well-developed cities.

We might profitably ask what systems, structures, platforms, and institutions can broker the high-density, mass deviance that is occurring in marginal areas around the world with current, formalized planning and development processes. There are hopeful trends and themes within the design field, people who are working on technologies that are native to the locations where they are used rather than depending on imported and thus fragile approaches. Given the scale of the informal economy, it will be essential that we find ways to weave the fringes into formal process intelligently.

Here are a handful of obstacles (there are many more) that I think we will need to overcome:

  • Prejudice of source: Formal sources, experts, or regular planning and development circles are neither the sole nor always the best generators of insight (eg. Historic explorers who "knew better" than locals and then died).
  • Different is bad: Unfamiliar approaches in problem-solving need to be given space.
  • Lack of open platforms and institutions: Current bureaucracies are ill-equipped to use renegade planners and renegade systems.

We can bolster our thinking about positive deviance possibilities by highlighting where it is happening and being written about. Some sources of insight include:

  • Neuwirth's books and writings have many excellent case studies, examples and possibilities.
  • Fan fiction as balance between what is strictly legal and what is illegal but beneficial—see WIRED magazine and the shadow world of manga fan fiction.
  • Stories can deepen our empathy for people and the informal economy. Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath are worlds apart but provide similar insight.
  • City Museum in St. Louis is a concrete experience of how not-normal can be great—you can actually visit it and experience it. I've written about it here.

The informal economy is a massive current reality and will grow in the future. It can become, with the application of courage and creativity, a vast stage for positive deviance and a deep well for the kind of social ingenuity we are increasingly in need of everywhere. Traditional professions, brace yourselves.