Design for Social Impact + Systems + Co-Design

I’m taking a break from design consultancy work to focus on my art and writing for awhile. Maybe a long while. But as they say: you can take the girl outta design, but you can’t take the design outta the girl.

I thought this would be a good opportunity to capture my current thoughts around design for social impact, as my hypotheses are always evolving through learned experiences and depending on the latest book/mental model/framework/kool-aid-du-jour that I’m currently excited about. Hopefully, over time, this thinking is getting more nuanced and more attuned to the realities of our complex world.

One thing I know for sure — there are also more and better questions over time!

I fully acknowledge that this blogpost is rambly and long. It is not “the simplicity on the other side of complexity”, where I have synthesized enough to communicate the complexity in a compelling manner. But this is partly for my personal archives, and if you’re a process geek and willing to wade a little in the weeds with me, I am happy to elaborate on any of these points in discussion — as a way to keep pushing the conversation forward.

The past few years

I have had the great pleasure of being able to work at Daylight Design on some amazing design for social impact projects, and a couple of them have made it into the “real world” via prototypes and pilots. One of the projects was even working with teachers, which was a dream of mine coming out of grad school. One of my projects was CSR for a multinational corp. A few projects circled the theme of social and emotional learning (SEL) for young children. Over the past half-year, I have been working on projects which gave me a crash course in systems thinking and another crash course in measurement and evaluation (building off cursory knowledge from a previous M&E internship with Livelyhoods).

I think one of Daylight’s secrets and one of the reasons they are able to do effective social impact work is that they have longterm trusted relationships with some of their non-profit and foundation clients, who are willing to experiment in partnership with new ways of approaching challenges and projects.

My current working hypotheses

My current working thesis is that the interventions, opportunity areas, and ideas generated through the human-centered design process (while still based in human needs and insights)…

1) would be much more compelling if they intersected with an identified leverage point(s) for change within a system, which requires a good solid understanding of the system (the foundation of which could also be gleaned during deep-listening, ethnographic research and continue to evolve over time).

2) would be more effective if the initial systems mapping and understanding is done in collaboration with community members and other stakeholders, who then—through the process—have an understanding of “I am part of this system” and “this is important” and “oh shit, this is also my responsibility to work toward changing.” (The process is the product, the process of working together and understanding the system together is a necessary ingredient in changing systems. Also I believe that co-design efficiently+effectively overturns unhealthy transactional relationships and toxic power dynamics and old ways of doing things.)

3) would be more effective in the long-term if teams could treat the ideas generated as hypotheses (putting the theory back in theory of change, heyo!), which they would then prototype in an agile (?) way/environment with the community because you have to put pilots/prototypes out into the system in order to see how the system will react/change/pushback/etc. We have to probe the system with “gentle action” (Andrew Zolli) in order to change the system.

4) would more realistically be able to shift the system if there are multi-prong approaches, so recognizing that individual [design or otherwise] interventions exist alongside other approaches. If a ‘portfolio’ of things are targeted toward affecting the same leverage point and the same desired goal for change, then individual things have more potential for actually working. (I guess even if some of us end up working on targeted interventions because goodness knows we need teams on the ground actually doing stuff, how do we keep an eye on our partners, what else is going on, how to work in concert with each other…how do we keep a systems view on things?)

Thinking about this set of things within a consultancy framework or within an academic year or within a fellowship’s timeline is difficult. #3 in particular is really hard because “near term” timelines for systems stuff is like 1-3 years. Although, I guess if it’s a narrower, smaller, more contained (community? geographically bound?) system, it might be possible to see some change or effects in a system in a 6 months-1 year time period?

The tricky thing is a mindset shift from planning + problem solving >>> to adapting and responding to the system. My previous feelings and writing around “we should work in our own backyards” and “we shouldn’t parachute in to save anybody” are about this topic. My more nuanced view is that the reason you need longterm commitment and engagement is because to be a systemic practitioner, you need to 1) recognize your role in the system, 2) have some responsibility in acting on the system and responding to the the changes in the system, and 3) systemic change takes time. Also 4) there’s something woo-woo yet also very powerful about the fact that a lot of systems thinking books (even the densest, most academic ones) end with the idea that “to change the system, you have to change yourself.” (So chew on that! For instance, how does one go about decolonizing one’s life and relationships…?)

I think a true mindset shift to working as [design or other] practitioners within systems would change how we talk and think about: deliverables at the end of projects, the “end of projects”, the goal of the end of a residency or fellowship year, the pitches (“this will change the world! this solves it all!”) to get funding to launch prototypes into the world. (We should be funding teams to work on specific problems and their ‘north star’ impact goals, not funding the solutions — which should change if they are truly working within a system and responding to its needs.)(At the very least, we should be funding teams to test their prototypes, and expect follow-up conversations and funding that allows for failures, “so what did you learn?”, and pivots.)

For ‘design for social impact’ initiatives/programs within academia, this is tricky because of competing, parallel goals: training and getting students ready for a job market vs. impact on a system. For the program to survive, the former is paramount, and the secondary is merely bonus. The meta-question here would be to map a system and see how the short-term engagements of academic programs, fellowship years, and consultants affect the system dynamics and relationships of a particular community. Do all of these small things add up to some good in the world, do the benefits outweigh the harm, and are the shortterm consequences worth the outcome of having more people trained to think systemically and designerly? Is the training of people a good leverage point for overall impact? (Maybe so!)

I would probably sit back and also argue that we need to change the education/life system in which students feel pressured to treat their schooling as a step toward “getting a high-paying job in xyz.” But that’s a whole nother wicked problem, and admittedly I’m a curmudgeon who is still trying to figure out whether it’s better to work within or outside of systems.

Also, the perpetual question in all of these discussions is: Who’s paying for this work? How is it being funded? (I would probably sit back and argue that we need to change the…etc.)

Links and Resources

If you’re on this journey, too, I’d love to hear what you’re reading, or which thought leaders are influencing your point of view these days. Here are some of my starting points for diving into systems thinking, from a designer’s point of view:

Hugh Dubberly on Designers and Systems

Books on Systems + understanding Leverage Points

The most accessible I’ve read is Donella Meadows book Thinking in Systems. Part 3 in the book is all about leverage points and opportunity areas.

Systems Thinking for Social Change by David Stroh is more academic, but the second part is helpful because it talks more specifically and more practically about applying systems to social change initiatives.

A friend recommended ecologist Joanna Macy’s books; they are next on my reading list.

Additional Things to look up: 

  • Love this article from about the relationships and friendships at the heart of design research. The process is the product, the dharma is the path, the relationships are the change.
  • Kumu as a tool for systems mapping
  • Keep an eye on the ways The Omidyar Group is using systems thinking in their practices and in their strategic grantmaking. They are working with Rob Ricigliano on tools that will eventually also be available to the public. I think they are doing really exciting work in integrating systems thinking and design thinking into their work; plus, they’re working with Daylight on some of the projects, so there will also be a human-centered lens as a filter to some of it.
  • Danny Burns and participatory systems mapping
  •  A short overview of some different systems thinkers‘ philosophies

  • Zaid Hassan’s talk on complexity and need for Social Labs (social, experimental, systemic)

Other Social-Lab-y Stuff I was recommended to look into:

  • Dalberg Design (led by former frogs Robert Fabricant and Ravi Chhatpar)
  • Stanford ChangeLabs (led by Banny Banerjee. design + behavioral economics + systems thinking)