A Design Checklist for Social Innovations

Recently, I’ve been struck by some noticeable patterns that impactful social innovations share. While many successful consumer product and service designs are inherently complex (and the social kind is certainly no exception), there seem to be at least five apparent characteristics of effective social entrepreneurship:

  1. They are social. It might seem obvious but it’s worth noting that a design for a distinct society has to take hold in the community of people that it will serve and perhaps beyond. In that scenario community members purposefully transact the value of the design or certain properties of it. For Project Masiluleke (which means “lend a helping hand” in Zulu), frog designed a transaction that enabled widespread awareness of low-cost diagnostic HIV processes and tools for people in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa where infection rates are over 40%. A text message sent to people containing an 800 number starts an exchange of information that ultimately leads to a visit to a clinic where they can get a self-testing kit, and the message encourages healthy preventative behaviors even if they don’t.
  2. They are small. Remember those little yellow rubber wristbands that appeared on the scene 6 years ago? The Livestrong wristband is, on average, a two or three inch diameter piece of silicon that sells for a dollar each, or in packs of 10, 100, and 1,200. They quickly became a worldwide fashion statement and continue to raise loads of money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation in addition to influencing the fundraising efforts of many other charities (to date, they have hauled in over 500 million dollars for the LAF).
  3. They are simple. The Hippo Water Roller is a plastic barrel formed in two parts that can hold 22 gallons of water and was first used in Kgautswane, South Africa. The original model was recently redesigned by AC4D advisor Emily Pilloton’s firm Project H to reduce production and shipping costs. The idea itself is visually striking and dead-simple: instead of transporting 5 gallon buckets on their heads multiple times a day over rocky roads and through dense heat, poor, frail women can now push a bright blue barrel that carries significantly more water and cuts down on their trips, freeing them up to meet other needs.
  4. They are skillful. Mothers 2 Mothers is a counseling service in Africa that employs HIV positive “Women Mentors” to counsel HIV positive mothers. Nearly 2,000 mentors counsel about 20% of the HIV positive mothers on the continent, but the service wasn’t originally designed that way. Mitch Besser was working as a doctor at a clinic in South Africa and finding it hard to explain to affected mothers how they should begin treating their disease. So, he had some of his patients – also HIV infected mothers – do it for him. These women had the empathy, nuance, and communication skills to get through to women whom they shared a condition with and help them navigate the road to better health.
  5. They are scalable. A few years ago Dr. Peter Provonost of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine created a five-step checklist for doctors and nurses to follow when inserting intravenous lines. His advice was simple and included washing hands, using antiseptic at insertion points, and other straightforward instructions that were easy to follow and therefore easy to adopt. These educational, memorable, and actionable steps were put into practice by a lot of staff members: after 18 months of using Dr. Provonost’s checklist Michigan ICUs said they saved an estimated $175 million and about 1,500 lives.

Social, small, simple, skillful, and scalable. Consider this checklist when designing your next social innovation.

Strange Bedfellows: The social human factors of distance learners and the homeless, Part 1

“It is in social situations that most of the world’s work gets done.”Erving Goffman

I have an odd job. I watch what people do, ask what they think and how they feel and then try to make sense out of it to design a better situation for them. Recently, I found myself studying two different groups of people who share a condition – students who get their degree online, and the homeless; both are unable to gain access to communities they desperately need.

After completing research for a distance learning client at frog, our project team discovered that most of the student-participants are lonely and lacking confidence. They think they are the dumbest ones in their class and trudging behind everyone else and yet they don’t know who their classmates are or whether THEY are good or bad students because, well, they can’t see them! Lacking the social meter that actual classmates in a classroom provide keeps them from calibrating their own progress. We also found that low self-esteem was widespread among the diverse group of students we interviewed and it affected their motivation, confidence, and performance in their studies. As we prepared for our AC4D Design for Impact Boot Camp last Saturday, I was curious to see if there was a parallel between those students we talked to and the homeless people we would be studying because both seemed to be held in a captive and disheartened state by their circumstances.

Walking to work a few days later, I passed by some homeless men and women and wondered why many of them talk to themselves in public (and, presumably in private). Is it mostly drugs and mental illness or are there other social factors in play such as the loneliness that results from lack of companionship? Could it also be a reinforced rejection of social norms? Like, implicitly, “Fine – if you aren’t going to treat me like part of your society, then I’m not going to behave like I’m part of your society.” Although our day-long work session at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH) didn’t quite get to the bottom of this issue, it did show me that homeless people, similar to distance learners, take a hit to their sense of self because they lack a normal volume of everyday interactions that us social creatures need to stay emotionally stable, such as chance encounters with people we know, eye contact, ordinary talk and conversation, glances, and posturing. We take this “sense-data” for granted because it is usually transmitted to us through our own impressions of very subtle, everyday exchanges but it is deeply felt and directly informs our actions. For example, if I was having trouble understanding Professor Kolko’s lecture on design frameworks, I might look around the class to see if others appeared as perplexed as I was before raising my hand to ask a question. And, if I were waiting to cross the street on a nice day at lunch time I might make eye contact with the person standing right next to me and nod my head in order to graciously acknowledge his sharing of street corner space. Erving Goffman refers to this behavior as “the slightest of interpersonal rituals, yet one that constantly regulates the social intercourse of persons in our society.”

So, what social human factors, tactics, and technologies should we consider to help the homeless improve their bearing and relations with others? And, could these same methods also help those distance learners who are held captive and home alone? In my next post, I’ll talk about personal skills, engendering community, establishing “co-presence”, setting and meeting small milestones, the role of affirmations, and the importance of gradually building social capital. Stay tuned.