Austin Startup Week

Event Recap: Designing for Social Good, from Startups to Government

At Austin Startup Week this year, the City of Austin Innovation Office convened a panel of designers who are reshaping sustainability, government services, and public health.

Panelists included Melissa Chapman, Senior Designer at VA Center for Innovation; Jose Colucci, Director of R&D at Design Institute for Health, Dell Medical School; Roman Gonzalez, Founder of Gardenio; and Ben Guhin, Senior Advisor for the Design, Technology and Innovation Fellows Program at the City of Austin.

Moderated by Austin Center for Design’s director Ruby Ku, the panelists shared the projects they are tackling and the unique challenges they face from creating new ventures or initiatives within large organizations.

Designers as Facilitators

Designing for social good often means going beyond designing products and services, rather it requires developing a new culture for organizations and communities to think about problems and work together differently. In essence, designers take on the role of a facilitator.

“With big problems like homelessness, affordability, and democracy, there is no single product owner you can get your requirements from.” Guhin reflected on his journey on creating and leading the City of Austin’s Innovation Fellows program. “Designers must create a conversation and learn how to add people into the design process.”

“It becomes easier to facilitate if you don’t parade the word design around.” With her work with the Veteran Affair’s office, Chapman has to remember that stakeholder have different motivations and vocabulary. “The interests of the designers, users, and investors can vary widely, so designers must be ready to tell their story in different ways.”

While some panelists find using the word “design” hindering in their work, Colucci and his team take a different approach at the Design Institute for Health. “We try not to hide the word design. We try to convey the idea that everyone can be a designer in their work and teach methods of design, ideation, and not think of anything as final. Designing something is always an attempt to get better and improve.”

Don’t Forget The Bottom Line

As a relatively new space, most social impact projects operate in startup mode. That requires designers to simultaneously think like any business founder. This is true whether one is starting a new venture or a new initiative within a larger organization.

Gonzales is the founder of Gardenio, a platform that empowers people to grow their own food. Most questions he gets are around how his endeavor is going to be a viable business. “At the end of the day, [impact investors] are still investors and want some kind of return so we need to show that we have financial and social impact.”

The City of Austin started their Innovation Fellows program with almost no funding. Guhin and his team had to be creative on how they could prove value in the early days. They decided to start with a consulting model and partnered with departments on projects they were already working on. “That’s how we established our early brand last August. Now in our second year, the fellowship has more work than we can accomplish.”

Do the Work

The panel ended with advice for people who want to do this type of work. While Gonzales advocated for being your own boss, Colucci urged designers to consider whether their goals are better served by working in an existing organization and trying to improve them instead.

At the end of the day, all of them concluded that developing your chops as a designer is the most important thing. “Just do the work. My advice is choose a problem or website and do it better. Give yourself a project and also develop your philosophy on what kind of problems are worth solving. Doing the work is what helps you get better and develop your design muscles over time.” said Chapman.

To read the full transcript, please visit here.