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In design, learning is omnipresent

Hands Brains, Zoom & Scope.

These are the primary tools.
There will always be someone who disagrees with how we use our tools.

Sometimes success. Sometimes failure.
No rights. No wrongs.


What does social impact mean?

            Social impact is inherently a problem of definition. Everything has an impact. Slavery did. As well as Adolf Hitler, Rosa Parks, Thomas Edison, Amelia Heirhart, Henry Ford, and Ruth Handler, the maker of Barbie. All of these people have influenced the way that we operate, think, and discern good and bad. “Doing good” has spread rampantly across pop culture and throughout the millennial generation. If something is slapped with a label of social impact it is generally revered as an honorable initiative. But what does it really mean? There are no metrics for it. There is no guide book for it (however, there are many), there is no framework to say you have completed your social impact initiative. There is such nuance when it comes to social change, much of which is implicit in our personal experiences as people. So how do we measure effectiveness? How do we know when we are done? These are essential questions that I seek to explore throughout this post with a lens of no right and no wrong. As an emerging designer interested in social impact (and for all designers really) these are questions that are at the crux of all of our decisions. What is being created by this design?  

A Paul Polak quote appeared on Social Impact Design’s Twitter account in February of 2017 that read:

“90% of the worlds designers spend all their time addressing the problems of the richest 10% – before I die, I want to turn that silly ratio on its head.”

 A noble statement that represents a sentiment that many millennials (and an increasing number of the population in general) would rejoice to hear. However, Dan Saffer, another renowned designer, rebuttled;

“Shaming people for working on products for the 10% is counter-productive. Probably what they’re working on will eventually affect everyone.”

 So, what do we do with these opposing viewpoints from 2 respected thought leaders in the design world? After all, a reported 1,800 children die globally every day due to water sanitation issues (Unicef, 2013). This seems like a problem we should be solving. A counter to that is the fact that we are seeing the beginning of a solar panel adoption across developing countries.

A solar panel on a roof in Bangladesh:

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I am not a solar panel expert but the invention was, undoubtedly, incepted in a well-funded research institution somewhere. How do we quantify or qualify which problem is more important? Saving the lives of children or harnessing the power of the sun to power our inventions that have the potential to solve other problems (like water sanitation)? The difficult part is that we are human. And there is an innate desire to fix a problem when we see other humans hurting. When you temporally zoom out, however, there is merit in passion and intent. The team that invented solar panels would have, most likely, been unfit for the job of solving water sanitation problems. All we can do is take the next most obvious step, the wisdom that informs this fateful step is ingrained in our experience. At an ethereal level, intention is all we really have. Execution follows intention and that is of course where everything gets exceedingly messy as well as the place that strategies for success are honed. If we take the second quote from Saffer as valid the choice is still not easy, the question then becomes ‘how do we bring our beneficial inventions to a global scale across race, culture, geographic location etc.?’ A tall, complicated order that is a design problem in and of itself.

I would like to offer a definition for Social Impact:

The act of seeing a social problem, absorbing the context of the social problem and implementing ideas that are steps in the direction of eliminating anywhere from one element to the entirety of the problem. 

Where does this leave us? It seems to be that to actualize social impact we need to have thought through our solution using a methodology called Theory of Change which is a mapping practice to associate how your decisions and designs will have impact over time.


What does it mean to “solve” problems?

Everything that gets made is trying to solve a problem.

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Think about it. You can’t bring anything to market unless it benefits a circumstance or streamlines a process whether that is implicitly or explicitly. Yet, as we see in the market, there are varying degrees of effectiveness. The questions that need to be rigorously explored are things like; How thoroughly have you defined the problem? Do you know it inside out? Upside down? Have you cultivated empathy with the people that are experiencing the problem you are “solving”? Where are you assuming and where are you truly aware? We all have grandiose ideas of what the world “could be” like according to our world view which has been crafted by every experience we have ever had. To put our individual grandiose ideas into perspective, we each are approximately 0.000000013513514% of the perspectives in the world. How do we integrate that into the increasing complexity and grueling reality of circumstance? An article titled “Stop trying to save the world” explores this issue beautifully. Michael Hobbes discusses multiple examples of international “social impact” developments. He outlines a project called PlayPump which utilizes a familiar playground structure to pump water out of the ground. Amazing idea!

“PlayPumps were going to harness the energy of children to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages.”(Hobbes, 2014)

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“…to provide fresh water to sub-Saharan African villages. They didn’t.”(Hobbes, 2014)

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 I say this is beautiful not because it proves my point, which it does, but because it is such a widely-used example of how international development initiatives can veer away from the intention. It was ineffective in its intent, but as a design community and broader network, we are learning from the assumptions that PlayPump made. It makes us think critically and strategically about similar ‘great’ ideas. It was a novel idea that addressed a very relevant problem, yet, because there was no immersion in the problem, critical thought about the longevity of the project, or strategies for integration into the existing culture, their solution did not have lasting impact. This brings up the humanness factor again. This time talking about the outcome of acting on the desire to help people that are hurting, Akhila Kolisetty calls it “the desire to feel warm and fuzzy inside” which she is correlating with the desire to do good. Her full statement which appeared on Richard Andersons Blog post “Reflections on Gratitude” reads:

“We cannot donate or volunteer just to feel good about ourselves. Social justice will only come if we … give up any desire to feel warm and fuzzy inside…”

 This brings up a few provocative perspectives to look at the social impact space through. First I want to compliment her statement by talking about business plan and social impact competitions. In the article “Rethinking business plans” by Michael Gordon and Daniela Papi-Thornton they discuss the nature of short format competitive creation for social impact.

“Social business plan competitions typically honor the first trend while overlooking the second. There is an opportunity to rethink these contests and use them to help students identify a range of ways to create social value, beyond just starting a business. Most importantly, these contests need to foster genuine understanding of problems before asking students to design solutions.”

This segment illustrates the surface level to which these competitions commonly dive. When I say surface level I mean they have not considered the layers of complexity and integration past initial impact, they are in a competitive environment which advocates for speed at the expense of detail, and they commonly have close to no true understanding of the gestalt of the problem let alone the nuances that will overthrow or prove a “solution”. This approach to thinking about social impact and innovation makes us feel “warm and fuzzy” but takes no true steps towards actionable understanding.

Does social justice require selfless altruism? I don’t know if that question is answerable. Though my sense says that if we continue to take a masturbatory approach to social impact it will become an increasingly diluted topic that is hard to find value in speaking about. We have the potential of destroying the verbiage that represents beautiful endeavors and intentions across the globe. To build a solid foundation from which healthy products and services grow that invokes thrival and prosperity is a slog of epically rewarding proportions. What really creates foundation? (Product) Red is a revolutionary initiative that leverages consumer habits partnered with the human desire to do good and “feel warm and fuzzy”. It skims the top off of the profits of other companies with the (Product) Red brand on it. This money gets donated to HIV and AIDS relief. Abstractly, let’s think about how it does this. There is no visceral contact with the population (Product) Red is supporting. The money gets donated to not-for-profit organizations that are the “facilitators of impact”. Now we get into the confusing conversation of resource allocation and sustainability. What happens if (Product) Red goes under? Do the communities that it was indirectly serving get their support cut off? Now we are in the complexity of responsibility. In the last paragraph, we have layered multiple pieces of the “equation” for effective social impact on top of each other. This illustrates the magnitude of rigorous thought that it takes to hone a project that will work in congruency with the intention behind it. They are called problems because they are hard to solve. Not just hard to solve, but hard to even get your mind around the multiplicity of factors that affect any one piece of subject matter. Yet, (Product) Red is generating large amounts of funding for these social impact organizations which would not be generated if we were not leveraging the desire to do “good” and “feel warm and fuzzy”.

Let’s enjoy an abstract metaphor:

If you know your horse is thirsty, and you lead him to water. Even if he is truly thirsty, that’s potentially not the problem that needs solving first. He’s tired and stressed from riding so long. He doesn’t even think of water as the problem. All he can do is romanticize about the time when he gets to stop riding.

This begs the question, are we solving the right problem? The Highline “linear park” in New York City represents an interesting example of this. This project turned an elevated railway on Manhattan’s West Side into a high design “linear park”. In an article titled “The Highline’s Next Balancing Act” written by Laura Bliss, she quotes Robert Hammond, the creator of the park;

“Instead of asking what the design should look like, I wish we’d asked, ‘What can we do for you?’ People have bigger problems than design.”

Monetarily the park is a wild success beyond all projections, however Bliss explores Hammond’s reasoning for the above statement;

“Locals aren’t the ones overloading the park, nor are locals all benefiting from its economic windfall.”

“anyone who’s ever strolled among the High Line’s native plants and cold-brew vendors knows its foot traffic is, as a recent City University of New York study found, “overwhelmingly white.” And most visitors are tourists, not locals.” (Bliss, 2017)

We cannot know precisely what the outcomes of our designs will evoke, however, setting out with no definitive social intention, which Hammond admits, means that anything you come to is the “right answer”.

“During the High Line’s planning stages, Hammond and David set up offices inside a local community agency in order to make themselves accessible to public housing tenants, and solicit their opinions on design. But the questions they asked at their “input meetings” were essentially binary: Blue paint, or green paint? Stairs on the left or the right? They rarely got to the heart of what really mattered.” (Bliss, 2017)

Participatory design and co-creation should be respected. The sentiment behind it is potent because it effectively removes assumption (at least that is the intention) and the way that Hammond and David used it is a disrespect to the power it can hold and their outcome proves the difference. However, how much co-creation or user participation is too much?


Putting matters in the hands, brains and context of the people

           People need to make decisions for themselves. I think most people would agree with this statement. Of course, I will offer a counter. Drastic examples prove points more explicitly, so, imagine a heroin addict who is eating little and injecting a lot. Should this person be making decisions for themselves or do they need assistance and guidance in figuring out what they truly need? Aneel Karnani discusses a similar notion in “Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: A Mirage”;

“Hammond and Prahalad (2004) cite the example of a poor sweeper woman who expressed pride in being able to use a fashion product, Fair & Lovely, a skin cream marketed by Unilever. “She has a choice and feels empowered.””

This Fair & Lovely whitening cream, marketed to low-income populations in India, is directly reacting to the desires of the user. There is a pop culture of lighter skin being more beautiful. This is the interesting difference between reactive design and responsive design. But, whats missing? Karnani goes on;

“Indian society, like many others, unfortunately suffers from racist and sexist prejudices. This leads many women to use skin lightening products, sometimes with negative health side-effects (Browne, 2004). Hammond and Prahalad (2004) argue that the poor woman “has a choice and feels empowered because of an affordable consumer product formulated for her needs.” This is no empowerment! At best, it is an illusion; at worst, it serves to entrench her disempowerment.”

This design problem requires empathy. An empathetic perspective would inform response rather than reaction. If you read into the nuance of this issue it is an issue of feeling. The women that use the Fair and Lovely product feel like they should have whiter skin because of the projections from the world. Of course, the reactive, money minded approach is to give them what they’re asking for. A responsive solution may hold principles of self confidence in character, willingness to explore why light skin is valued, a motivation to spend money on things that truly develop them as people etc. So continues the conundrum of good design and solid intention. I am reminded of a piece by John Dewey titled “The Need of a Theory of Experience”;

“Does this form of growth create conditions for further growth, or does it set up conditions that shut out the person who has grown in this particular direction from the occasions, stimuli, and opportunities for continuing growth in new directions?”

I will allow you to ponder and will say that a design only has true social impact if the outcome being aimed at is intentional and intentionally open ended, providing a foundation for further growth, freedom and interpretation.


Design is constantly clashing with duality

           We live in a dualistic world. It seems there will always be someone who disagrees with your choices and perspective. This is the reason for critique, to see what other ways your creations can be viewed that your singular perspective couldn’t dream up. There will always be a critical voice and always be an advocate. We need all of it to make a robust, well rounded design. Design what the world needs and see if it works. Either it is a successful product or service or it was a successful learning opportunity. Let’s prioritize learning over shaming. Shame perpetuates competition, which is inherently a cultivator of messiness.

Sprinkled throughout this piece of exploration I discuss the power of pure intention, the merit that social impact has regardless of its success, and the fact that learning is constant and every failed attempt teaches so many other people how to think about the given situation next time. WE need to start using our observing mind to step back and see that we are all shooting at similar targets. When someone writes an article that is in controversy to a previous writing, they are interested in the same thing and are learning from their analysis of the “failure”. Therefore, is failure a true failure? “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Sometimes this simple quote spans across generations. Revolutions are short lived. Evolution doesn’t stop.

“I want to make sure other people don’t make the mistakes we did, and learn how to deal with these issues,” says Hammond. “We certainly don’t have all the answers.”

Testing the hypothesis

In class, during the presentation of this material, I sent out a GoogleForm to my classmates and professor with a set of questions associated with the examples of products, services and initiatives that were outlined and discussed in the articles we read over the past week and a half.

The questions were structured to explore perspectives on the organizations intention, design decisions and how much we learned from analyzing the examples:

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This idea came from a desire to tangibly test my synthesis about the variance in the perspectives of designers. Our perspectives are a make up of every experience we have ever had so the set of values placed on design decisions and levels of intention will differ. My hypothesis was that this would be true, and also we can all agree that these examples of “failure” or “success” can be ubiquitously learned from.

As a class, we explored many products, services and initiatives. I purposefully pulled out a diverse set of these ideas. Diverse in the variance of pure intentions and design decisions.

The 5 that were tested:

  • PlayPump – A water pump that operates like the familiar playground turnstile. (sub-Saharan Africa)
  • Fair and Lovely – Skin whitening cream marketed to low-income populations.(India)
  • Highline “Linear Park” – Revamping a raised railway in West Manhattan. (New York City)
  • Lyft – The decision to donate $1m to the American Civil Liberties union after Trump’s immigration ban. (USA)
  • New Story Charity – Leveraging local laborers, resources and networks to fund and build houses as post disaster relief. (Haiti)

The answers to the first 2 questions regarding design decisions and purity of intention were relatively strewn across the board.

The answer to the last question about learning, in every case, was either a 4 or 5 with one exception of a 3. Primarily 5’s.

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WE are a design community. Im starting to feel like I have merit to be able to say “we”. We really need to learn to make it a definitive WE. Lets learn from each other and be able to own our shortcomings so that others can throughly learn from our mistakes.