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THE SOCIAL INNOVATION REVOLUTION

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 IDEO.org 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.