Designing for Good: The Path to Saving Our Future

Design is a powerful tool that can be used to reshape society for the better. But how do we do it? We may share a common ideal, but designers have very different strategies on effecting societal change.

Some theorists, like Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg, believe that social entrepreneurship is the way to improve society. They believe that social entrepreneurs have the inspiration, creativity, courage, and fortitude to pursue paradigm-shifting innovations in pursuit of correcting what they term suboptimal equilibria. What distinguishes the social entrepreneur from a run-of-the-mill entrepreneur? A focus, they claim, on social benefit.

“The social entrepreneur’s value proposition,” they write, “targets an underserved, neglected, or highly disadvantaged population that lacks the financial means or political clout to achieve the transformative benefit on its own.” This is a dubious distinction, most importantly because Martin and Osberg claim that neither entrepreneurs nor social entrepreneurs pursue their activities with profit in mind. “For the entrepreneur, the value proposition anticipates and is organized to serve markets that can comfortably afford the new product or service, and is thus designed to create financial profit,” they write. But the distinction “does not mean that social entrepreneurs as a hard-and-fast rule shun profitmaking value propositions.”

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Ethically speaking, this gets at the crux of the problem of designing for the poor. When you are designing in a market-oriented framework, somebody inevitably profits from the disadvantaged. Social businesses, as outlined by Muhammad Yunus, may improve the lives of the poor with the introduction of lower-priced products or specifically tailored services. But the tension between capitalist market expectations (i.e., shareholder value) and the desire to perform social good will always inevitably tip toward the former unless it is explicitly proscribed otherwise. Thus, new forms of business models, such as the one Grameen Bank attempted to forge with Norwegian telecommunications provider Telenor, are necessary. It is telling that this attempt, wherein business ownership would have been turned over to community members who use the serviceultimately failed. The profit-breaking model proved a bridge too far for Telenor’s shareholders.

Two further issues to consider when designing for social good are the scope of the project and your connection to the community that benefits. Thomas Hobbes demonstrates the harm that helicopter philanthropy can cause with his example of the PlayPump—an invention that seemed like such a good idea at the time. Kids would play on the pumps like they would any piece of playground equipment, and in the process, they would extract water from the ground for the community to use. But a lack of proper understanding of community dynamics and a lack of follow-through ensured that the pumps went mostly unused. In some cases, women were found to be working them stooped over in pairs; in others, children were paid to operate them. Nobody even asked the communities if they wanted the PlayPumps. This was, without a doubt, a design failure.

Emily Pilloton’s solution to this problem is to design locally, with the community that you belong to. This ensures that you can earn the trust of your partners and learn the complexities of the ecosystem. If you want to improve education, for example, you must consider how health care, wealth disparities, and other issues factor into the equation. “The power of working locally, for the long haul,” she writes, “comes down to this: In doing so, we cultivate ecosystems rather than plant single trees.”

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Victor Margolin talks about the difference between expansion and equilibrium economic models. Capitalist society, he notes, pursues the latter: a never-ending quest for more profits, more customers, more markets, more stuff. This leads to the exploitation of earth’s resources beyond what what the planet can tolerate. The beast cannot be slowed down, no matter the consequences, as is evident by the exponential accumulation of carbon in earth’s atmosphere. The world’s poorest communities, which do not have the resources to adapt to dangerous new weather extremes, will bear the significant brunt of this burden.

This comic strip demonstrates my attempt to synthesize these and other authors’ views on designing for the poor. These are issues that are important to the field of design, and they are issues that I treat very seriously. I hope to use design to move beyond market-oriented frameworks and truly develop with, not for, my community.

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