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

Please Stop trying to change the world

I just finished Vivian Gornick’s wonderful book on how to write personal narrative, called The Situation and the Story. In it, Gornick explains how crafting personal stories with broad appeal—rather than boring personal anecdotes (the “I guess you had to be there” stories)—requires detachment. Only by putting some distance between ourselves and our own personal drama can we gain the perspective we need to tell our stories clearly.

It’s an interesting concept that applies far beyond the intimacy of the personal essay. For example, detachment (perspective) is what Israel and Hamas do not have right now. Or any country (including ours) that is busy bombing another. It’s what the sobbing Argentinians didn’t have at the World Cup final. It’s what we lack when we get an annoying email and succumb to the short-term satisfaction of a snotty answer rather than long-term understanding of the damage we might cause. In fact, detachment is what almost no one in power is able to sustain for fear of facing a reality too different from the one they portray.

We social innovators worship the power of stories. We tell stories of our origins, of our missions, of the people we want to help and the dynamics we want to change. And we have a tendency to sound as if we’re the first ones ever to try to make the world a better place.

We need some detachment.

I was talking to a young interaction designer recently who bemoaned the fact that every startup she encounters has the obligatory “we’re going to change the world” portion of its mission statement, whether the mission is to make potholders or a new app for parking or an innovation that ends poverty.

Saying that doesn’t help. It’s too generic a problem to solve, too lofty a goal to ever know is reached. It’s added fluff in a space already filled with hot air, where anybody can say anything and, by virtue of having said it, believe it to be true. It’s the polar opposite of the scientific process, in only things that can be tested are accepted as true.

But the scientific process is not solely responsible for human progress. Our advancement has been due in equal measure to dreamers who have the courage to say that something is coming when it has not yet, and the agency to make the things they say will happen come true. That requires detachment.

We are told to find our passion and follow our bliss. We’re told that commitment and intention are as important as experience. We’d be wise to remember as well that whatever we can think of, someone has likely thought of before. I am humbled by that, and by the difficulty of changing even one person’s life, let alone everyone’s.

It’s easy to see when others need detachment from the things that possess them, but a revelation when we see it in ourselves. I have spent my life struggling to accomplish things – only to misplace myself among the things I accomplished. I’m not trying to change the world, only to find a place to contribute in it.

Empathy begins with language

Lucy Kellaway writes funny commentaries on business in her podcasts for the Financial Times. On the 16th of June, in one called “Descent Into Drivel is a Sign of Apple’s Fall” she takes on the language of Apple’s recruiting ads as a sign of its impending demise.

Her point is well taken. Apple says they’re looking for a “thought leader” – an expression so overused we hardly notice it but as she says, “What IS that? I have trouble leading my own thoughts”. And, they have posted an ad that lists “22 bullet points for someone to design batteries”. Now, Lucy claims, Apple “has become at least as Kafkaesque as everyone else”.

For Steve Jobs, language was part and parcel impeccable design. He kept (or so we think) the corporate BS at bay. For large corporations, language is a big part of what customers or potential employees buy into. It’s character, trustworthiness, experience, values, consistency and likability all rolled into one.

On the other side of language as “let me tell you about myself while I pretend to be talking about you”, is language as a form of empathy. Oftentimes, as the place where empathy begins. Speaking in a way that includes “others” is the way to prove we want them to understand, to come along, to be a part of our world. It’s the way we demonstrate sensitivity to a different reality. It shows we’re capable of listening, that we care enough to learn to speak a language other than our own and really don’t want to be surrounded only by people like us, who think we’re smart and don’t mention when we have no clothes.

But what about in our world of social innovation? Shouldn’t our pure souls and lofty ideals be obvious to the like-minded people we want to understand us? And, certainly to those that we want to help?

The answer is no, of course. In truth, we’re as guilty as any group of lawyers or engineers (maybe more so) in our use of jargon and short hand codes that help us identify and evaluate each other’s place in the tribe. What is social innovation anyway? What’s impact investing? Human centered design? Changing the world? BOP? Mission-driven? Take any of those expressions out of context and it’s clear how unclear they are. 

Language can keep people out, creating barriers to understanding, support and collaboration. It can have exactly the opposite effect from the one that’s desired. Without knowing it, language can say, “We’re a special group, we use complex argot and if you don’t get it, you’re not one of us. Without meaning it, your way of speaking and writing can say, “You’re too poor”, “too uncool”, “too young”, “too old”, “you didn’t go to the right school”, or even, “you’re just too dumb to get what we’re talking about”.

Entrepreneurs with a mission tend to think of language principally as a way to explain themselves – to attract supporters, to stand out in a crowded funding frenzy. Or to get the attention of whatever key partners or team members they need to succeed. They’re right about that, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. Expressing ideas in a way that people hear and understand them is a skill that takes time and effort to master. Just ask a few dozen social entrepreneurs what they do and why it matters and listen to them fumble for words. 

It may be entertaining to poke fun at something as seemingly unimportant as a recruiting ad from Apple, but Lucy is right, it can signal the beginning of downfall. Obtuse, bureaucratic language may result in Apple’s no longer hiring brilliant iconoclasts – the mavericks who don’t fit the mold. Without people who “think different”, Apple will be just like any other company. It will lose what made it great.

The lesson here is for all of us. As Social Innovation and Social Design mature, as we develop more short-hand language to communicate with each other, we risk making outcasts of those who are not like us; the diverse people we need to recruit if we are to be successful, and of those we hope to help.

Design for Social Innovation, Moving Past the Assembly Line

The most pressing challenge businesses face isn’t finding new opportunities for growth and market share; it’s changing the way they approach their challenges in the first place. And there’s no better way to change that approach than through design for social innovation.

The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces both people and processes into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world. 

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change. 

 I’ve seen this same pattern at every type of company I’ve worked with. Want to reboot your culture and re-engage your employees? Hire an outside consultant. Need to innovate? Create an innovation lab. These efforts won’t produce long-term results any more than ordering salad for one lunch will improve your overall health. Without deep, systemic change, things revert to the way they were. One way to identify the symptoms of this is to count the number of committees and task forces a company has – or the commensurate number of outside consultants. A task force for employee engagement means the employees aren’t engaged. A task force on innovation is proof that there is none. Ditto the committees devoted to better communication, sustainability, or inter-departmental collaboration.

 That’s the goal of design for social innovation—a human-first approach centered on large-scale systemic change and complex levels of engagement that help companies keep pace with the social and environmental forces surrounding them. One of the most exciting examples of this is Medtronic, the world’s largest manufacturer of medical devices, and a darling of Wallstreet for decades. They saw millions of people in India who could not affort to be tested for heart conditions let alone afford a pacemaker, and made it central to their growth strategy to develop an affordable test, and an affordable product. This is design for social innovation – in the process of helping millions of underserved people lead healthier lives, they open up huge new markets and develop a breakthrough product at a pricepoint that will enable them to expand to other underserved markets around the world. This kind of transformation is not done by setting up a committee with no authority to create change, it is done by making it key to what the entire company stands for.

Design for social innovation works from the inside out, which is the only way that real change ever happens. And the result is people who see uncertainty as a stream of opportunities rather than a barrage of disruptions.

Of course, design for social innovation is messy, imperfect, and difficult to measure, since it’s concerned more with mindset and approach than quantifiable output. That makes it scary for established businesses. (The closed-mindedness can work both ways. Too many social-innovation experts, including many of the exciting young people entering the field, are so set in their biases against traditional business that they risk creating their own social-innovation silo and, thus, changing nothing.) Still, I think the onus is on business executives to accept that change is inevitable and that they can either be agents of it or victims of it.

 You may have seen the following quote passed around on social media: “CFO asks his CEO, ‘What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave the company?’ CEO answers, ‘What happens if we don’t, and they stay?’” Design for social innovation is the answer to that dilemma. 

truck with grass

You Gotta Get Out More

Why being humbled by nature will make you a better social innovator (and a better human).

I was knocked out by the responses to my recent post on “Creating our Way to Well-Being”, particularly by the number of people who shared their relationships with nature. And, I was saddened by the stories of glorious times in nature relegated to childhood, of the common realization that being in nature does calm and heal – yet the assumption that being in nature is rare, not real life, but a diversion from real life.

One question, from Connor Driscoll, made me wonder with him again:

“Thanks for posting! I think this applies to everyone who desires to truly live and not just go through the motions each day…Cheryl, why is it that appreciation of nature is so overlooked?”

The short answer to that all-important question is, I don’t know. It makes no sense and is likely to be our fatal flaw as a species. The longer answer is, maybe because people haven’t experienced it, because modern life leaves no time for it, or maybe that something inside us knows but has forgotten, in the way that we’ve forgotten how to be empathetic and need to be taught again. Humans seem to think we’ve conquered nature (been there, done that), used it for our own needs and that it’s not as relevant today as keeping up with friends on facebook or twitter.

Thanks to Connor, and a trip I just took to the Andes mountains and the Amazon Jungle in Peru, I’m back with a request for you all to get involved.

Nature is amazing wherever you see it, from the dandelions that find purchase in the cracks of a city sidewalk, demonstrating a will to live and adaptability that inspires awe, to the trees on our streets that suffer the indignation of a thousand dogs lifting their legs on them, or the exotic flowering bushes from foreign lands that neighbors plant in their yards to make them special, without understanding that it’s native vegetation that supports our local ecosystems, not the stuff that comes from WalMart.

Nature found in national parks is breathtaking – so exciting, in fact, that we are usually forced to see it in the company of hoards of other tourists. It makes nature like a freak show – something so out of the ordinary that it’s a once-in-a-lifetime check off (Yes! I visited Yellowstone!! I have the tee shirt!!!). Stare at the buffalo from your car, don’t feed the bears, look at the strangeness and rarity of it all.

Then there is nature “in a box”, like at the California Academy of Sciences, where natural environments and their citizens are carefully recreated for millions of visitors to see. Wonderful as a learning opportunity and as an introduction, but heartbreaking if it substitutes for the real deal and is the only exposure to nature that visitors get. It’s nature controlled, tamed, put on exhibit as an amusement and diversion for city folks. It is my darkest fear that that will be the only wild nature left to us one day.

Most of what I suspect young Americans have seen is the nature that humans have manicured, restructured, contained. It’s nature at a scale that will make everything else you worry about small.

Nature in Peru is life changing. The Andes mountains take your breath away (literally) with their beauty and altitude. The Amazon is the largest contiguous rain forest left on earth, called the lungs of the planet because it’s so important to our survival. Until you have stood in the jungle looking up at trees as tall as many urban buildings, filled with the sounds and sights of birds so colorful and rare they could be cartoon characters, with snakes and wild animals all around you watching with eyes you cannot see. Lagoons populated by electric eels, caimens (alligatorid crocodylians of course) and prehistoric stinky birds with claws on their wings. No app, no virtual reality, no game, no sci fi movie, nothing viewed on any screen that humans have or could ever invent comes close to the thrill of being among these creatures. 

You should go and see them because they are disappearing, killed by human ignorance and greed. This is my request. Do not miss the trees on your walk to school. But do not mistake them for the majesty of which nature is capable. Get out. See it. (Be a responsible guest of nature when you’re there.) Fight with all your might to protect it. Answer Collin’s question for yourself. Start there. 

We can’t change the world (except to harm it) when we don’t know it. And we can’t serve a purpose greater than ourselves if we are not humble in the face of greatness.

Unreasonable Challenges that are actually quite reasonable:

Some things to think about, to do and to read.

Our guide for the Peru trip was an extraordinary woman of Incan descent named Doris Valencia, founder of Habitats Peru. Get a group of friends together and call her to organize a tour.

On Peru, a fact or two to put this amazing place in context. There have been remarkable civilizations in Peru from at least 3,000 BC – before the Egyptians were building pyramids. There were cities that flourished peacefully for more than 1,200 years (compare this to modern life where we can’t stop having wars for even a few years). The Incas peaked around 1,400 AD, a few hundred years before Shakespeare wrote his plays. These civilizations built cities, made art and left us extraordinary monuments to their accomplishments. Sure, we have cool stuff that they didn’t have but what did they know that we need to learn again?

Be good to Mama.

Pachamama is a goddess revered by the indigenous people of the Andes. She is also known as the earth/time mother. She is also seen as nature itself. Thus, problems arise when people take too much from nature because they are taking too much from Pachamama.

And next time you need a reminder of how little we know about the world around us, read this.

Sappi Design Partners Awarded Top Honors in Design Industry

This year AIGA, the professional association for design, is recognizing 24 design leaders, among them Cheryl Heller and Dana Arnett, who have been vital to shaping the Sappi brand over the past two decades. Patti Groh, who has been with Sappi for 21 years—first at SD Warren, then Potlatch—has worked closely with both of them, and she reflects on how they have each contributed to Sappi’s success and growth through innovation and design.  

The Start of Sappi’s Ideas that Matter: Cheryl Heller


In 1999, Sappi received a suggestion that we start a cause-related program for designers and end-users. The goal of the program was to recognize design on paper that benefited worthy causes.

Not only would this new program help bring attention to the power of design and communication on paper, but it would also reinforce Sappi’s commitment to designers by supporting their choice of causes in their own communities. And, ultimately, the program would help raise top-of-mind awareness and funds for important social issues.

We still have that original proposal. And, while some of the ideas in it have now grown much larger, looking back to 1999—before anyone else was involved in cause-related marketing—it remains a forward-thinking and ground-breaking idea.

Cheryl Heller was the visionary who led the charge and presented this idea to Sappi. Her concept became the Sappi Ideas that Matter grant for designers who create and implement communication projects for nonprofit organizations in North America. The program has now been running for 15 years and we’ve provided grants to important causes totaling to more than $12 million dollars. Wow.

Cheryl has gone on to create and chair the MFA Design for Social Innovation Program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and is a partner at CommonWise, among other design initiatives. This month she receives the highest honor in the graphic design field, the 2014 AIGA Medal, in recognition of her exceptional achievements, service and contribution to the field of communication design. Here at Sappi, it is our highest honor to say that Cheryl was truly the “first inspiration behind Ideas that Matter.”

Cheryl really did have an idea that mattered and continues to matter to the design community, to nonprofits across the country and to all of us here at Sappi. We’re proud to still be running the program, we’re proud of what the grant winners have done, and we’re proud of Cheryl Heller and her accomplishments. We’ve just opened the call for entries for the 15th year of this program.

Do you have an Idea that Matters?

2014 Sappi Ideas that Matter Call for Entries are open until July 11. For more information on the grant program, please visit our website:

Grants range from $5000-$50,000. You can also download a PDF application form directly from our website to submit your entry.