Peace Without Boundaries

The real work of social innovation is to fix our broken human systems; the way to do that is by inviting real diversity into our lives; seeing and then removing the boundaries between us. It might look something like this.

Memories from the week before Thanksgiving include pink sunrise skies with clouds like bubbles on a strawberry milkshake; a gentle, high-ranking Californian prison official spinning the fiercely strong president of an African trauma counseling organization on an impromptu dance floor; a wealthy American heiress from the last century and her yellow villa on a hill; stories of fish nibbling on dead bodies floating down a river.

I spent the week in Bellagio, Italy, facilitating a conversation about how to bring peace and resilience to former prisoners and the communities to which they are returning in California and Rwanda. In California, due to overcrowded prison facilities, an unprecedented number of inmates are being released back into society; next year in Rwanda, thousands of genocidaires will be coming home to the villages where they committed their crimes. The gathering was organized, and led, by Jared Seide of the Center for Council and Dr. Laurie Leitch of Threshold Global Works.

The participants were male and female, young and not so very, soft-spoken and outspoken, African, Hispanic, Caucasian, each one remarkable and accomplished. Every individual was an entire universe of particular history, hard-won world view, intimate wounds and personal dreams of healing. Not merely because of culture and gender, but because of their wildly asynchronous lives, it is difficult to imagine a more diverse group of nineteen people; yet we were never only nineteen souls. Every person there brought other spirits into the room: all the people touched through their work; inside prisons, newly out of prison, adjusting to a former prisoner’s return; brothers and sisters and children and neighbors who were victims of genocide. For three days and three nights, within the gated and guarded Rockefeller estate, it was a world in which many worlds existed.

Boundaries are physical, geographical, cultural, tribal, hierarchical, economic, gender-based, generational. They are also psychic, emotional, instinctual, historical; formed by different ways of seeing, caused by blindness to what someone else sees. They can divide millions of people, or at the personalized scale of individual identity, they can separate person from person, one at a time.

Gary Younge writes about identity as boundary in his book, Who Are We. He says that identity is like fire, essential for warmth, yet dangerous:

“It is at the forefront of some of the most inspiring achievements in world political history, whether it be women’s suffrage, the end of apartheid or advances in gay rights. But it has also taken center stage in the most lurid moments of global affairs – the holocaust, and the wars in Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo”

Facilitation requires removing certain boundaries, and creating others. Participants arrive contained within their individual identities; in

order to create together, a common identity needs to be developed for the group that, at least for the time they are together and hopefully beyond, supercedes or permeates the walls they brought in with them. There are multiple ways to do this: exercises to warm people up and encourage them to be present and leave behind what they left behind; then, to guide the group to a common vision and shared sense of purpose for what can be accomplished together that none could do alone.

Facilitation necessitates the creation of boundaries, as well, in that a facilitator needs to be part observer, somewhat removed, feeling all that’s going on, but never getting lost in it. Facilitators empty themselves out a bit, learn to quiet their own opinions, to see and hear and leave room for whatever it is that emerges from the collective will of the group. There is a balance between maintaining forward momentum toward the goal; putting to use the tensions that emerge and energy that rises and falls; and conversely, imposing too much structure. Over facilitation constricts creativity, brittle direction gets in the way of the flow of ideas.

In contrast to our diverse group in Bellagio, I have facilitated many teams of executives from the same corporation or the same industry (or the same age or gender). It’s a challenge to make people comfortable enough to open up; difficult to get them to put aside what they think they already know in order to hear, or say, something new. They bring pre-formed attitudes about what the outcome should be, who will dominate, who will be heard; what will or won’t become of ideas hatched or decisions made. The truth can be a dangerous implement in a room of people you know well, and in a hierarchical organization, there is a lot to lose. What often emerges is new only within a predetermined context; which is still another boundary in itself.

In 2008, the Cooper Hewitt exhibit, “Design for the Other 90%” opened people’s eyes to a new possibilities for design, with a show of remarkable objects created to serve the majority of human beings around the world who live in poverty. There were elegant products for purifying water, cooking without toxic smoke, lighting homes and villages at night, growing cash crops during times without rain, delivering babies in remote villages without electricity.

The experience in Bellagio reminded me of that breakthrough exhibit, but as a portent of another boundary that design can help overcome: the shift from what we might make that will solve the problems of poverty, to how, and where, we need to listen in order to redesign the broken human systems that cause conflict and boundaries; those invisible forces of identity and relationships that drive unsustainable and unjust behavior at both massive and personal scale.

Peter Senge said that “All boundaries, national boundaries included, are arbitrary. We create them and then ironically, we find ourselves trapped within them”. Before our group came together in Italy, there was every type of boundary between us. On the shore of Lake Como, everyone put their day-job selves, and their natural boundaries, aside, coming together to help make peace where there was violence. The territory we were covering felt new and precious and whole because so many views into it were represented in the room. Each of us, I think, felt lucky to be in the presence of the others. We were together at Bellagio, and the boundaries between individuals were erased.

It is our work, now that we’re all back home, to live together in our own real worlds, continue to take the arbitrary boundaries down, and create healthy human systems.


Business and social innovation are not traditional bedmates, but have much to learn from one another as the thinking behind this rising class of design entrepreneurs positions them as true leaders.

“Big design”, as we know it, evolved to serve the needs of business. Everything about its hierarchical structure, project-based approach, revenue model, values and symbiotic pairings of designers and clients formed in response to the rhythms of free enterprise. It’s a relationship that’s worked well for a hundred years give or take, and its progeny have populated our industrialized civilization with billions of organizations and artifacts. All with the relatively uncomplicated purpose of selling products, delighting consumers, gaining market share and making money. It was fun while it lasted.

Then, the wake up call, which for many designers culminated in the 2011 Cooper Hewitt exhibit called Design for the Other 90% – with its stark revelation of the role design plays in creating a world that doesn’t work for the vast majority of people in it. And, more importantly, with its heart-opening glimpse of just how much opportunity exists to make design new again. The journey of discovery that designers embarked on since then has exposed us to realities vastly different from our own, and the chance to create changes in lives instead of only bank accounts. Simply put, it has expanded the purpose and purview of design to a level of true transformation and accountability.

For example, in business, communication evolved as a means to maintain status quo: The traditional top-down, command and control approach parsed information as privilege, keeping some in the know and some in the dark. But in the world of social impact, the design of communication carries responsibility for seeding new ideas and leading change. Communication turns people with good ideas into leaders, turns leaders into entrepreneurs and turns entrepreneurs into mature, stable businesses with the power to reshape the world. It expresses new ideas in ways that get inside people and start a fire there. Communication is the dark matter of human thoughts and interactions – the substance that connects, transfers, creates fields of energy around ideas and paths forward.

Design for social Innovation has now emerged as a practice, and as with all new ways of thinking (mental models), it has caused a bifurcation between the old world of guilt-free capitalism and a new, still mostly uncharted world which we are both discovering and creating as we go along. To generalize shamelessly, business doesn’t understand what social innovation has to do with business, and social innovators mostly blame business for screwing things up.

Yet, even at this early stage, it is clear that the changes design is undergoing in working on a social level can create the same renewed sense of possibility, energy and creativity for business that they have for design. If we can bring them back together.

Business has to change.

The complex, disruptive challenges confronting companies today aren’t solved with the traditional tactics that used to automatically prescribe growth. The “Disruptive Innovation” concept that Clay Christiansen placed on the tongue of every business person who reads HBR gave name to the dynamic (and the anxiety) with which corporate leaders live. Threats no longer come from known competitors and death does not come slowly enough to predict or avoid. The structural order that the industrial age founders of capitalism believed they could impose is a memory. None of the old tricks work like they used to – at least not long enough to matter. There are no silver bullets, as they used to say, design or otherwise.

Moreover, the seemingly unquestioned notion that businesses have a need (and a right) to continual growth bumps up against the reality that resources – energy and materials extracted from the earth – are increasingly more scarce and expensive as other nations catch up to the U.S. and its consumptive habits. Add to that the technological transformation that has given citizens everywhere a voice and real power; it is no longer possible, or frankly sane, for companies to plan their future without adjusting to the realities of our planet and the needs of its citizens.

The shift from a single-minded business focus on selling objects and services (extraction, consumer-based) to designing new models and systems for human interaction and impact (recalibrating our role as participants in the biosphere) is the only way forward if we look with open eyes at the state of the anthropocene. I am reminded not infrequently of David Orr’s statement that “As homo sapiens’s entry in any intergalactic design competition, industrial civilization would be tossed out at the qualifying round.”

Using the same tools to fix the broken system that made it won’t work. Businesses need to sustainably increase the adaptability, creativity and wisdom of the people who lead and serve them. 

And that is where “design for social innovation” comes in.

In the past five years or so, the number of people working in social innovation has grown exponentially. Paul Hawken has called it the “largest movement on earth”. Business schools adopt design thinking or “human-centered” design as their version of it, AIGA created a national program dedicated to it (Design for Good), IDEO formed to address it. Meet-ups for people wanting to understand how to use it to “change the world” take place everywhere all the time.

Wikipedia defines social innovation as: “… new strategies, concepts, ideas and organizations that meet social needs of all kinds — from working conditions and education to community development and health — that extend and strengthen civil society.

At DSI, we define design for social innovation as working on people instead of things; at a systems level, at large scales, with complex levels of engagement and on invisible as well as visible dynamics. In other words, it’s the design of those new strategies, concepts, ideas and organization that meet social needs of all kinds. But, and here’s the point of the article, we are finding that, ironically, social innovation design – and not the design that business created – is what business needs most right now. And that is works on people, not things, energizing cultures, shifting perspectives and igniting creative potential.

As designers, this is work we’ve never done before. We are practitioners in a new practice, inspired by the need in front of us to help a different future emerge.

The new design is familiar, but different.

From designer as expert to designer as creative transformer.

Design has been defined thus far by individual creators – people with a singular vision and expertise. Raymond Loewy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bucky Fuller, Paul Rand, the Eames (two who worked as one) were designers with a vision for how things should be, and what the world needed.

This tradition in design parallels the role that experts play in other fields – engineers, scientists, academics, inventors like Henry Ford, Margaret Mead, E.O.Wilson and Steve Jobs, who opened up new worlds through their singular imaginations. But we have reached the point as a species where the power of individuals to solve the complex problems we face, regardless of how brilliant they are, is unrealistic.

Giving up the role of idiosyncratic expert will be difficult for many designers. We’ve worked so hard to earn the aura. But the change we need requires learning to co-create, to make others the geniuses and generators of their own future – helping them grow beyond the need for our help.

Design for Social Innovation applies the abilities of talented individuals to collective creativity and to the transformation of complex systems at great scale. In this new role, the designer’s practice takes place not in a private studio but inside an organization or community. It rearranges the invisible dynamics of individuals and their relationships with each other instead of material resources. Its method and value are in collective participation and creativity that engage organizations in finding solutions that work for them. 

From predictions to action that emerges from iteration.

A business plan, no longer necessitates the pretense that an entrepreneur, however prescient, can predict the conditions five years hence of an enterprise that doesn’t exist yet. Remarkably, that expectation has been the norm. To raise capital, an entrepreneur made these sorts of predictions in great detail and following a strict format. Only they weren’t much use once the capital was raised. In May last year, HBR ran an article called “Why the lean start-up changes everything”. According to the article, the Lean Startup “… favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development. Although the methodology is just a few years old, its concepts—such as “minimum viable product” and “pivoting”—have quickly taken root in the start-up world, and business schools have already begun adapting their curricula to teach them.” 

The lean start up looks a hell of a lot more like design than it does standard MBA practice where nothing that can’t be put in an Excel spread sheet is worth considering. Lean Startup IS the social design process applied to entrepreneurship – small bets, prototyping and iteration. The next step emerges when the results of the last steps provide a new reality to evaluate, observe and then act upon. The design process is based on learning, testing, noticing, refining. If entrepreneurs want perfect partners in their start up efforts – lean or otherwise– they need look no further than social innovation designers.

From designing artifacts to designing relationships

While relationships have always been important to business, (businesses are, in fact, nothing more than a series of relationships), the nature of these relationships has been both predictable and one-dimensional in terms of who the participants are, the value asked of them and the value they receive in return. Business leaders look for loyalty from customers, employees and shareholders that translates into a commitment to purchase, work hard or buy shares. These are the standard measures by which they are evaluated as leaders, and it’s how they measure the health of their firms.

But the complex, hairy, connected systems of our shrinking planet impose atypical relationships on all of us – with the myriad previously unheard voices that come through social media, with ecosystems we didn’t notice until we sent them into shock with our interference, with invisible forces that our lust for big data makes visible. These non-traditional relationships can’t be managed in the tried and true ways. They are impervious to the preordained values and rewards of business. 

Designers find their inspiration seeing these types of unexpected connections between things – noticing and creating unusual relationships that change the nature of the whole. And social design extends the designer’s purview to human and ecological relationships at a scale and complexity that impacts companies, countries, species and ecosystems.

From identity as brand to identity as destiny

Traditional corporate identity is brand equity and symbolic language. Logos are flags, icons of quality, distinction and (if earned) trust. When they work, they have a positive impact on recognition, consumer loyalty and buying behavior. Corporate brands are built from past experiences, projected onto an expectation of similar experiences in the future. 

Identity is our assumed context in the world – our self-image as we perceive it in relation to whatever society, company, world in which we include ourselves. Individuals have identities, as do corporations, cities, countries (and maybe planets for all we know). Identities are dialogs between the outside and the inside of us; they are self-fulfilling prophecies, conformity to societal expectations, and the belief we hold of what we can expect.

Identity plays a far more important role in life than brands do. Meg Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, tells us that all life organizes around a self. “Life’s first imperative is that it must be free to create itself.” Identity is our genesis, our past, present and future. It is our lens on the world and our place in it. Identity is the way we see ourselves, who we determine is “other”, the way we estimate the value of lives other than our own. It is the belief we hold of our place in the world, the tribes we belong to and the contribution we will make, or not make, to the common good. The full power of identity, used as a lever, is the most powerful way to start social change. 

I wrote a post about a year ago inspired by trips to Nairobi, Detroit and Mexico City within six weeks of each other. The difference in the way young people in each place see themselves is remarkable. In Nairobi, a sense of expectation; young technologists in what has been called the “Silicon Valley of Africa” are on fire with their own potential. In Detroit, anger for the opportunities lost to them by others; confidence in their own abilities but frustration with the infertile ground around them. In Mexico, talented artists who can’t see how remarkable their skills are because the outside world has never reflected their worth back to them.

Robert Fritz writes about structural change and the hidden assumptions within businesses that prevent them from fully moving forward. Identity is key among them. Leveraging and shifting identity as a means to open possibilities and remove structural barriers is the purview of the new design. 

There’s a lesson in this for entrepreneurs on the prescriptive power of identity: spend less time worrying about whether your logo is cool enough and more time defining the character and impact you want to have in the world.

From beauty as seduction to beauty as power

Design has always had the power to create lust, whether it’s a handbag that women kill for, a building people travel the world to see, or a technological cynosure so ergonomic it becomes a human appendage. The corporate world rewards this power handsomely, because of its financial return. In social innovation, beauty inspires people to consider, and care about the things that money can’t buy and humans are powerless to replace. 

What follows are a few examples of entrepreneurs and innovative organizations that are putting the methods of design for social innovation into practice. 

DataKind, the science of seeing and making relationships 

DataKind is a new company, founded by the wunderkind data scientist Jake Porway. It’s a community of the best practitioners in the world who bring together their superhuman skills to solve the world’s problems. The DataKind community works with relationships in a number of ways. First, their own: the organization is held together by shared values and passion for using their oversized brains to do good. They have day jobs as revered data scientists in large corporations but work together in their free time to help mission-based organizations be more effective. Second, their genius lies in uncovering previously hidden relationships between data sets – slicing and reconnecting facts and forces in ways that illuminate new insights. Here’s a brief synopsis of just the latest in their efforts: On the first weekend in January 2104, “more than 150 data scientists, developers, and designers showed up to put their skills to use for the greater good at our DataDive in NYC. Volunteers dove into datasets alongside representatives from Amnesty International, Crisis Text Line, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and the UN MyWorld Survey team to help them make better use of their data. The Amnesty International team dove into thirty years of Urgent Action Alerts– the calls to action that spur Amnesty International activists to send messages on behalf of political prisoners, refugees and victims of human rights abuse.” What emerged was “a dashboard to visualize Urgent Action Alerts in real time., a visualization of alert hotspots across the globe over time, an entire backend data flow that will reduce future human error, and a complete redesign of the way Urgent Action Alerts are presented. All in 48 hours.” See what I mean? 

A new identity for a rust belt city.

You can buy a tee shirt in a certain town that says, “Buffalo, City of No Illusions”.  Buffalonians will tell you themselves that they live in a place with “a chip on its shoulder”. Whether because they haven’t won a Super Bowl or that the Friendship Bridge to Canada has never been completed, or perhaps the constant jokes about Buffalo’s weather depends on who you’re talking to, but there is a consensus. Buffalo is third behind Detroit for the worst unemployment, has a downtown that has lost its population to the safer suburbs and a host of other problems facing many formerly illustrious cities in America. 

The history of Buffalo is a justifiable source of pride; once the home of more millionaires than any other in the country, it’s the birthplace of electricity and other industrial age inventions, filled with architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Eliel and Eero Saarinen and a necklace of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

It stands to reason that the way to begin if you want to turn Buffalo around  is to change the city’s own view of itself as a place that forgot how to win. And a remarkable man is doing just that.

Matt Enstice, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) is using unorthodox thinking to jumpstart change, starting a movement by bringing religious and neighborhood leaders together with hospital administrators, scientists, university provosts, community college teachers, realtors, entrepreneurs, activists and the established elite. He gained momentum by engaging local, state and federal government, multinational corporations, local and national foundations, global experts and native talent. He works at a systems level on every dimension of what makes a city healthy – energy, health, education, housing, employment, entrepreneurship, transportation, the arts. The most important thing that Matt Enstice has done, and maybe the hardest, was to change what people thought possible; to create a new identity for Buffalo as a city on its way to being truly great again. The name for this new identity is MutualCity – a city built on mutuality and the participation of all who live there. 

Concern Worldwide Innovations, helping solutions to maternal and child mortality emerge from the communities most in need of them. 

Sierra Leone, Malawi and Orissa, India have in common some of the most alarming statistics for women and infants who die during or shortly after childbirth. Conditions are seemingly intractable – inadequate pre and post natal care, not enough clinics, no roads or infrastructure to get to the clinics that do exist, social pressure on women to stay home, keep working and take care of their other children, and ingrained practices of using local midwives whose skills vary wildly. Concern Worldwide, through their Innovations program, has been working for the last 4 to 5 years with the people in these communities to facilitate an innovation process that will solve these complex problems. Over the course of this initiative, design methodologies – from problem framing to ideation, prototyping, testing and implementation have been practiced with people in these communities. The ideas currently being tested are innovations that could only have emerged through this collective design process; ideas for training midwives, giving them status and a respected role, makers labs to create equipment in rural areas, networks for healthcare workers to support them and share best practices. 

Grange 27, taking aim at the dairy industry with a perfect ball of cheese.

Lourdes Smith knows a thing or two about the powerful seduction of beauty. Formerly a pastry chef at Le Cirque in New York she’s in Boston now using hand-made cheese as the lever to save the dairy industry, partnering with local small dairy farmers and a network of stellar Boston chefs. Her cheese makes people swoon, mozzarella fresh every day, burrata with figs, with lavender and honey, with za-atar. Her dream is to prevent local dairy farmers from succumbing to what they call the last crop – asphalt – because they can’t afford to compete with industrial agriculture. Lourdes is infectiously indefatigable, and the connection she is making for people between the intense perfection of what they eat and the struggles of the people who provide it to them is inspiring.

So what next?

As we look forward, what is it really that we need to change? What are the big things, the intractable things, the things that are so vast and awful and obvious that we miss them as we lose ourselves in daily life? The poet Ellen Bass, in “What Did I Love” says, “I loved the truth. Even in just this one thing: looking straight at the terrible, one-sided accord we make with the living of this world”. As we look straight at our truths, what are the things that most need redesigning? It is this, for one, the way we treat nature. For another it’s the way we treat each other. David Denby, in the New Yorker, mentioned a recent study that suggests that “hard-heartedness – as a social sentiment – goes up, not down in times of inequality”. That could use some redesigning. And last perhaps, our human inability to censor ourselves, to change, to evolve as a whole species – from war and greed and short term advantage-grabbing – to a higher form of existence together. Jonah Lehrer, discredited author who still deserves to be read, talks about the flaw in our human brains that prevents us from feeling future threats as real. What if we could redesign that?

In truth, all lines blur. There is no difference between business and life, and neither business nor life will ever be as neat as we want it.

Where traditional design provided the same illusion of control that corporate hierarchies and protocols did, social innovation design is messy, illusive, imperfect. The product is never something you can hold. It will never be suited to hanging on a gallery wall or reprinting in an award book. It is transitory, with no terminus. But these are things that designers know well, and love.

In an interview, Francis Bacon spoke about the moment when religion stopped being the inspiration for art; how one day, artists woke up and had to invent purpose for their work. And the challenge of that, the need to not only invent purpose but to rethink the criteria for what was good and what was rubbish. It seems to me that design has an opportunity to go the other way. That we can make our religion, in Paul Tillich’s sense of the ultimate concern, using design to solve human issues. We no longer have to wake up and convince ourselves that using design to sell products or services is enough to get us through the day.

Right now business and social innovation are reluctant to embrace each other. The growing number of young people who have committed themselves to social innovation, including those in our graduate program, come with firm anti-business prejudices. It’s not hard to understand why that is, nor why it needs to change. On the other hand, big business does not yet recognize social innovation as something that has any relevance to what’s real and important. They have yet to figure out how to measure or count its value.

Yet. And. But.

Some day soon it may be fair to say that without Design for Social Innovation, there will be no business.

Where Ideas Really Come From (We Are All Bird Brains)

What’s called “big data” is the staggering number of bits and bytes in the trails that we all leave in our everyday computerized lives (think every phone call you make, every time you swipe your credit card, email a friend, tweet, download a song, open a web page, drive through an automated toll machine – times the 2.5 billion people in the world who use the internet or the 6.8 billion have cell phones). Big Data has, for the first time, made it possible for scientists to study the human species in the same way that scientists study tagged bears or birds or lions in their natural environments. This is a somewhat ironic “turning of the tables” – of the trackers being tracked.

Data scientists are now studying our collective movement, information exchange and social patterns at unprecedented scale and precision. It is the kind of objectivity for which the scientific community has longed – enough data to prove hypothesis and transform sweeping generalities into defendable arguments. 

The nature of the data collected is such that scientists can not only see what we do and where we do it, they can see how and where we learn. In other words, they can see where the ideas for what we do come from. The mathematical rules of behavior emerging from these observations has been named “social physics”; the understanding of how ideas and information flow from one person to another.

Here’s the interesting thing. What began as the study of how individuals make their own decisions is providing us with proof that humans are not the freethinking individuals we believe ourselves to be. 

It seems that social learning – those things we observe in our peers and communities – are equal in importance in determining our health, income and behavior to our genes or IQ. In an issue of New Scientist last spring, Alex Pentland wrote that “…over time, we develop a shared set of habits for how to act and respond in many different situations, and these largely automatic habits of action account for the vast majority or our daily behavior.”

It turns out that our individual ideas are those shared by our community, and not our own.  Who we talk to is more important than our character or intelligence. “Instead of individual rationality, our society appears to be governed by a collective intelligence that comes from the surrounding flow of ideas and examples…”

Switching sides to look at the more traditional “trackees”, there is a concomitant burst of study taking place on species other than our own; on the degree to which they are capable of rational decisions  and conscious thought. Through it, we have learned, for one thing, that the term “bird-brained” should no longer be an insult. Crows, for example, make their own tools, recognize human faces and remember those who have offended, intentionally lie to each other, buy their peanuts at vending machines and have learned to use cars at a red light to crack them.

Flock mentality has always been used pejoratively when applied to humans, but that is now up for reconsideration as well. In a remarkable essay called “Other Selves”, the late naturalist John A. Livingston ponders the difference between individual self and collective self. He makes the point that the human addiction to the idea of free will and individualism comes with a high cost for our awareness of the collective self that is nature. He describes flocks of sandpipers and their “speed and extraordinary maneuverability”, the “marvelous synchrony of their movements”. And of our human way of trying to comprehend it: “Steadfast in subservience to our individualistic meta-physics, we ask how the instructions are communicated. How does each and every single bird know what it is supposed to do? By what means are the necessary commands (the political assumption of a “leader” is ineradicable) transmitted and received? And how can an individual bird act on them so swiftly?”  The answer, according to Livingstone, is that a flock of birds is a super-organism, with discrete parts that flow from “one awareness, one consciousness, one self”. 

He goes on to suggest that this super-organism, which integrates individual selves, is a more evolved form of consciousness than the one we humans live in daily, and that we do not need to learn it, only to retrieve it from what we already know. Which means trying to erase the ideas we currently hold.

If this is beginning to remind you of eastern philosophies and other more spiritual than scientific views of the world that have been around for thousands of years but are now becoming the purview of science, that’s a good thing. If it makes you rethink our connection to and “superior” position within nature, bravo. If it makes you reconsider who you hang out with and where your ideas come from, that’s a great reason for hope.

Our own flock mentality is such that in the collective we have come to believe that reading should be short. there is, therefore, no time or space on a blog post to go deep into any of these ideas. I highly recommend it though; below are some things to assist with the dive.

Things to read: “Rooted in the Land”, Wes Jackson and William Vitik; “A field Guide to Getting Lost”, Rebecca Solnit, “Mind of the Raven”, Bernd Heinrich; New Scientist, “The Death of Individuality”.

Written for


As the crow flies  is not necessarily the shortest distance between two points. It is the route that, taking advantage of wind and air currents, is the most efficient. That’s a lovely lesson about paying attention to what’s available around us instead of adhering to hard and fast rules.

Images here are before and after, as we finished the building and began adding back to the land bit by bit the native trees, shrubs and berries that birds and butterflies love. Apples, pears, peaches, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, elderberries, raspberries are only the ones we like to eat as well. Along with the birds and butterflies that show up daily in greater numbers and diversity come bears, coyote, wild turkeys, porcupines, foxes, ground hogs, chipmunks, squirrels and deer. It’s an interesting balance with all of us inhabiting the same space.

Crowflies has become a sanctuary for work as well as nature. Quiet nights of moon-baths through the window, peaceful days interjected with energetic meetings and meals with clients and friends. The house, an old knitting factory, sits on a parcel of 107 acres in Norfolk, Connecticut, mostly unbroken second growth forest with roughly 30 acres of wetlands.


How To Make Conflict A Tool For Social Change

Why we should relish difficult conversations and be grateful for the conflict in our lives.

Do you avoid confrontation? Do you side-step a subject when you have something difficult to say? Do you keep quiet when your convictions don’t align with events taking place around you? When you simply want something or want something to happen, do you ask?

Does it matter?

Paul Hawkin wrote a book called “Blessed Unrest” – naming what he calls “the largest movement on earth” – the people everywhere who act on their passion to change injustice and the unsustainable aspects of our human-made world.

To be passionate about change requires unconquerable optimism, fed by a vision of the better thing ahead.

But change, at any scale and in any context, has its corollary rough side. It requires us to face reality and confront it – to ask things of other people they may not want to give. It requires assuming power and leadership that others may think they own. It requires that we be masterful communicators and always, it requires that we face the differences of opinion and emotion and agendas among the equally passionate people who have visions different from our own. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be change and if it’s not change, then why are we wasting time on it?

To be passionate about change requires unconquerable optimism, fed by a vision of the better thing ahead.  Tweet This Quote

If we see these conflicts as precious moments of new thinking and realignment on the way to real change, we can be grateful for them. And when we separate them from emotion, we can master the skills to work through them.

The first step in working through conflict is to recognize it, and the second is to practice every day. If you think you surely have the cohones to confront it but are saving them for the big important issues that matter, don’t. We lose ground in the thousands of small moments and small daily decisions that prevent us from getting to the big transitional ones. Being “pecked to death by ducks” kills our ideals, our ideas and our chance to have a voice. So practice disarming the small conflicts without avoiding them so that you can be there and ready when the big ones come.

If it’s not change, then why are we wasting time on it?  Tweet This Quote

For example, you’ve probably worked with people who say yes to everyone because they want to be liked by all. They agree with the last or loudest person they speak to and create a culture where no one quite knows where they stand. Or when you’re counting on people to be real with you but they’d rather be superficial. Compare this to the satisfaction and productivity of “getting to the bottom of things” in a good conversation or “speaking truth to power” as they say. Or the confidence of knowing where you really stand with a team or a community without politics or unspoken agendas to drain energy and get in the way.

Confronting issues doesn’t mean being aggressive, or unkind or pushy. It doesn’t mean fighting for what we believe and it most definitely doesn’t mean winning – in fact the point of dealing with the truth as it emerges is so that we can disarm the tension around it.

The first step in working through conflict is to recognize it, and the second is to practice every day.  Tweet This Quote

Animals set an excellent example. They have signals, a protocol for establishing turf that allows for perfect understanding of agendas and leaves room for stepping down. We’ve all seen it. It ranges from butt sniffing in dogs to direct eye contact and barred teeth in primates. I remember once seeing an elderly couple on the street, clearly after many decades of marriage. With no idea of context, all I heard in passing was “I’m getting mad at you.” I thought, what a great pressure-letting statement. “Hey, cut it out, I’m giving you warning of what’s to come if you don’t.”

In design, critiques are one of the most effective ways to make work better. Colleagues give generously of their time and attention and suggest how what you’ve done can be improved. They’re not personal – it’s not about the worth or talent of the person being critiqued, but a shared goal to improve the quality of what’s being created. It takes a little practice toughening up your skin (and not falling in love with your ideas), but it’s the true transition between amateur and master change agent.

Here are a few things to think about and try as you encounter the blessed conflicts in your life.

  • Pay attention, recognize them. Your emotions will be the first clue – discomfort with a situation or conversation can alert you that something needs to be named and spoken in a way that it can be addressed.
  • Avoid the urge to please other people. It’s usually short term rather than lasting. Speak directly, find the shared objectives in the group instead of the differences, and find a way to express your truth with kindness.
  • Communicate, don’t stew. Conflicts escalate when people let things brood and assume what others are thinking and feeling. Diffuse your emotions when they arise, it’s the best way to diffuse those of others.
  • Look for the big unsaid issues. Practice saying what’s going on….look, we would both like to be first, or lead this (or have that last piece of pie). What can we do?
  • Feel what others are feeling.
  • Come to love the truth, however challenging. There is no other way to change it.
  • Develop not only a nose for bullshit but also the skills to sweep it away with grace.

This article originally appeared on

Cheryl Heller Awarded AIGA Medal

Cheryl Heller, Chair of the MFA Design for Social Innovation Department at the School of Visual Arts, has been awarded the prestigious AIGA Medal, the highest honor of the design profession.

Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA and founder of CommonWise. She has taught creativity to leaders and organizations around the world, helped grow businesses from small regional enterprises to multi-billion global market leaders, launched category-redefining divisions and products, reinvigorated moribund cultures, and designed strategies for dozens of successful entrepreneurs.

The AIGA Medal has been awarded since 1920 to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements, service and contributions to the field of communication design. AIGA, a network of 25,000 members, is celebrating its centennial this year, and awarding the medal to a special class of 24 leaders in the design profession. Cheryl Heller is joined by three other SVA faculty members in receiving the medal this year.

“I thought I kept moving around and changing too much for anyone to notice that I deserved an award. It’s a true honor,” says Heller.

The 2014 AIGA Medal will be presented on April 25 at “The AIGA Centennial Gala” in New York City. “The AIGA Centennial is a time to reflect upon our accomplishments as a profession and to honor this special group of design educators, practitioners and leaders,” said AIGA Executive Director Richard Grefé. “We’re honored to have been able to count them as members, colleagues and dear friends.” Information about “The AIGA Centennial Gala,” including slideshows of the Medalists’ work, is available at

To apply to the MFA in Design for Social Innovation that Heller founded, visit

For further information, please contact:

Hila Mehr, Director of Operations MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA,

Jennifer Bender, Director of Communications and Marketing at AIGA,

Putting It All On The Table: Art As A Force For Social Change

Of all the forms that social innovation and social enterprise take around the world, we rarely think of art as one of them. But maybe we should. Art has the power to transform – perhaps far greater than the stuff we’ve been trying.

Last Friday, a gallery exhibit opened in New York for the express purpose of inspiring people to think differently about food, it’s safety and our relationship to it. The artists were the 25 first year students in the MFA Design for Social Innovation program at SVA in New York. Each student was given a wooden table (and chairs if they wanted them). Without changing the size or shape of the table, the assignment was to create a three-dimensional sculpture that represents food and a social issue of importance to them.

The work reflected the international perspectives of the artists who come from 12 different countries. And most of it had a wonderful sense of humor: A shrine to the “cronut” made a point of mocking our worship of fads and our fast food culture, a table turned into a faux foosball game illustrated the seemingly un-winnable mismatch between small farmers and big agriculture. Two pieces dealt with weight problems in obvious and subtle ways: one by literally making the table and chair “fat”, the other by weighing each person who sat down as a reminder of what it’s like to have anorexia. Another table illustrated the bureaucracy and red tape in India that keeps rice out of the mouths of the poor people who need it. And one Japanese student made her own small gallery of “last meals” as an eerie reminder of the death penalty. Not to mention a table grown from mushrooms (thank you Ecovative) and a customized Halal truck.

Food is a primary concern for everything that lives, regardless of where one is on the food chain. Food systems and food safety are central to social innovation – essential to solving issues of poverty, health, economics, justice and environment. “Putting it all on the table” is an expression that means to be completely transparent and forthright – in communication, it’s not holding back on the real issues.

And art, as has been proven since the first caveperson picked up a Windsor and Newton sable-tooth tiger haired brush, has the power to transform – perhaps far greater than the stuff we’re trying now.

Unreasonable request:

Shut up and make art for a moment, see if it works.

The show is up until January 31st at the SVA Gramercy Gallery

Originally post on

Are you a generalist who dreams of being an expert? Read this.

Have you ever heard the advice “pick one thing and stick to it”? Many entrepreneurs have a very hard time specializing in just one thing. Take comfort in these wise and inspiring words, because a world full of specialists is a sad and unforgiving place.  This was written for

In February of 2008, in the midst of election fever, Jim Giles wrote an article in the New Scientist in support of growing evidence that political leanings are biological. ”According to an emerging idea, political positions are substantially determined by biology and can be stubbornly resistant to reason. ‘These views are deep-seated and built into our brains. Trying to persuade someone not to be liberal is like trying to persuade someone not to have brown eyes. We have to rethink persuasion,’ says John Alford, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas.”

With far less fanfare, in an interview with Daniel Epstein, the born liberal founder of Unreasonable, I questioned whether the same is true for generalists and specialists. The point I was making was twofold; first that social innovation needs generalists – natural systems thinkers who thrive on diversity, don’t always need know where they’re going in order to get there, don’t mind not knowing what they’re talking about, see patterns and connections everywhere and solve problems across boundaries. And second, that I don’t think we have a choice about whether we think like that or are drawn to the scientific approach which was described to me at a gathering at the National Academies of Science as diving very very deep in an extremely narrow subject area and never offering opinions outside your narrow expertise in case you are wrong.

I stand by my point of view. As a generalist, I get hives just thinking about narrow areas of expertise. But there’s a price to be paid for that, in addition to being considered a dilettante – or worse, being ignored.

Next, I’m going to make a few outlandish statements to 1) see if anyone is reading this and 2) see if anybody cares.

Specialists make more money.  Expert – let’s face it – is a word that people like. It connotes value and value is what businesses pay for. Experts are sought after and cherished for what they can do. When was the last time you heard anyone say, “Find me a generalist!”?

Specialists get famous faster. As someone who wanted desperately to be an artist (but maybe am too much of a generalist to specialize), I have spent a lot of time thinking about artistic fame. And it does come faster to people with a recognizable style or unique approach. The fact that Joseph Albers could wake up every day and paint another colored square is why people ALWAYS  know a Joseph Albers painting when they see one.

We trust specialists more. They have credentials that back up what they say. They don’t speak from their gut and if they do it doesn’t show because they always have facts at their disposal.

Specialists have better titles. They can explain what they do to everyone from young children to their grandparents in Idaho. That saves them an enormous amount of time during introductions.

Specialists have more sex. Because have better titles, have more time and are more confident

HAVING said all that, it is also true that a good deal of the trouble we’re in as a species is that we have too many experts in the world who work deep in silos and think they have the answer to big things when they only have the answer to small things.

That is why we need more generalists. Or maybe we have plenty of born generalists but due to the expert facts I have clearly presented above, they are afraid to admit to being generalists. Maybe we need to ask the CLOSET GENERALISTS to come out, because we need you now to help us look at the big picture and help clean up the mess we’ve made. Somebody, get us a generalist!

Unreasonable challenge:
And somebody please think of a better name and title than generalist.