Cheryl Heller


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

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.

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.

Slow Social Innovation

We needed the Slow Food movement to remind us that meals can heal us through their rituals of connectedness and their nourishing substance. We need the Slow Money movement to remind us that money should serve life and not the other way around.

I watch the accelerating popularity of social innovation with hope as well as concern. Far more people take an interest in it, but it’s being shrunk to fit American’s busy lives, and subjected to ill-fitting expectations for gratification.

My inbox erupts with invitations to meet ups, conversations, conferences, webinars and courses promising to provide the kind of wisdom it takes years to earn. The notion that you can have a “Meet up” and change the world is ludicrous. (Yes, people do talk like that.)  If the world were to change over a weekend, it would very likely not be good news.

Is our current social-media-fueled movement in danger of becoming the fast food of social change – substituting short-term satiety for long term benefit?

The real point here, as with food and money, is that it’s actually not about fast or slow at all. Time is not the right metric for anything but races and three-minute eggs, though we have allowed it to become the metronome of our modern lives: quarterly earnings, overnight successes, two day work weeks. We escalate, we are trapped in a culture and an economy that drive us to keep doing and wanting more. It is precisely this that slow movements want us to stop and think about, and this that we must let go of if any of our efforts in social innovation have a chance of succeeding.

Slow Social Innovation would measure progress rather than time. It would, like the Slow Food movement, connect us more deeply to the systems we touch, teach us to honor the rules of nature. It would make us aware of the resources we use, the quality of what we produce, and give us a healthy mistrust of short cuts and quick fixes.

I have been asked, not infrequently, to list the outcomes of the first year of our  new masters program in Design for Social Innovation. Students have already done remarkable things and we have seen enormous progress, but the only lasting outcome is that we began. We have begun what we hope will be the work of lifetimes and generations. Of new ways of seeing, and seeds of change.

There is already something called “Slow Design”, that is meant to imbue design with more thoughtful principles. All good. But the last thing I hope to accomplish here, of course, is to create another label in an already label-burdened vocabulary. I write this instead to avoid the need to fix something by not breaking it in the first place. Please let’s NOT need a slow social innovation movement. Let’s just slow down and not lose sight of the reason we’re doing this in the first place.

The poet Tess Gallagher said that “you can’t go deep until you slow down”. It’s going deep and finding the truth that matters.

Learning from the folks we love to hate.

One could argue that most of the problems we’re faced with solving at this moment in history have been either ignited or facilitated by advertising, through its promotion of greed, competition, instant gratification, insatiable consumption, unstoppable appetites for unhealthy food, fickleness and superficiality.

I would like to make the case that many of the skills and sensibilities that created this escalating need for too many things are the same ones we need to create a higher consciousness for humanity. This is not to suggest that marketing can be made to work in reverse or undo its damage – only that there is a methodology to advertising that has been proven to work for many of the challenges we’re busily trying to invent a way to solve – skills that are ignored – buried in the more obvious characteristics we detest about the profession.

It’s easy to hate advertising, and most of it deserves the disdain it induces. The creation of false needs and insecurities, blatant denial of the realities of global warming (you need a big car and should drive it fast through precious wetland ecosystems), collapse of seafood populations (tuna is the wonder food, eat all you can) over-consumption of everything, promotion of unhealthy eating habits (supersize that), pandering to the lowest common denominator of mean spirited humor, insulting portrayals of women dancing with their mops, a disposable product culture, insulting portrayal of men as moron couch-potatoes, fear-inducing germ paranoia leading to the consumption of toxic products, and let’s not even go there on Scott’s Lawn and Garden products.

I speak from experience. By far the three most painful years of my life, professionally speaking, were those I spent with a big glamorous title at a big glamorous New York advertising agency. The move from Boston to take the job was the first undeniable proof I’d offered myself that I was capable of making disastrous decisions. Each day that I worked toward the end of my contract was torture.

Over time, I have found that the experience and skills I suffered to acquire in advertising are  some of the most important for my work now, and in particular, relevant to the work in design for social innovation. If this news is shocking, try to think not of Einstein’s admonition that we can’t solve problems with the same level of thinking we used to create them, and instead, of needing some of the same tools to unscrew that we used to screw ourselves.

In a nutshell, advertising is the most efficient and effective way to identify the people who will influence others, understand their motivations and psyches, reach them where they “live”, and tell them something, in a few second’s time, that will inspire them to make one choice over another. It’s not so difficult to see, if you strip out insidious content, that those abilities could be very useful in helping us – say – shift men’s thinking about the way they treat women, encourage pregnant women to get pre-natal care, stop seeing other tribes or religions or countries as enemies, value nature more than money, and so forth.

Ads are based on some essential principles; the first is that time and attention are currency. Advertising sets very clear and measurable objectives, identifies the most powerful and relevant message, then distills it down to a few words without dulling its potency. Until you practice taking the 1,500 words you’d like someone to know about your cause and saying it in 10, you won’t move large numbers of people to understand or care about it. While brevity does not come naturally to scientists, engineers, academics, entrepreneurs or anyone else with a mission, this is a skill well-worth the effort to acquire. When you are communicating with someone, in person or through any medium, you are on stage. You must be brief, relevant, moving and appropriately entertaining. If you are, it’s far more likely they will be interested in the other 1,490 words.

Second, know your audience, deeply, and go beyond facts to motivation. Put yourself in their shoes, and socks and underwear. There is a story about a male account executive who wore a panty liner for a few days just to feel what it felt like for the women he was trying to sell it to. Extreme bordering on pathetic, yes, but there is no such thing as spending too much time thinking about every aspect of the audience’s lives. This is why, in advertising, there is no need to say “human centered” or “empathy research”. It’s a given, how would it be otherwise? Likewise, there is no reason to complicate the issue with nuanced expressions like stakeholder, funder, customer, partner, community member. When you are trying to move them, they are the audience.

Creativity is the product, and it rules. It is a muscle that gets exercised every single day in advertising, seen as the means for accomplishing objectives, the way to win. It has doers, directors, assisters, carriers, sellers – a whole cadre of people whose job it is to make the creative output more creative and focused. It is genuinely collaborative – with so many points of view incorporated that it sometimes feels like being pecked to death by ducks. However, despite the fact that input comes from a multitude of sources, there is no illusion that crowd-sourcing inevitably leads to brilliance. There is a structure, and gate keepers throughout the structure, whose job it is to question and make the work better. It is creativity with discipline, creativity with a very specific set of criteria for success. And the process for developing it (almost) inures the creator to criticism, which is also a good thing. When you present what you believe is your best work to the person charged with deciding if it’s good enough, and they say, “That’s the worst piece of shit I’ve ever seen” you realize after a while that creativity is more than self expression. You master the ability to create to a strategy, to forgo accepting your first effort as finished, and to acquire a kind of discipline that makes going deeper more accessible than you could have imagined possible.

It is a profession where laughter is divine, where entertainment value has been proven to win acceptance and loyalty for new ideas. Which is not to say that there is anything funny about the social problems we’re trying to address, but being funny gets you far, and it is a tool we do not use enough for helping people see themselves and their options in a new way.

Advertising loves generalists. Broad interests in culture, human nature, arts, science, technology, psychology, politics and news in general are required. Paying attention to the world outside your world is part of the job. It’s what we call understanding context, except that it still needs to be written into the brief for social innovators, whereas for advertising, like “human centered”, it goes without saying.

A profession with the ability to change massive numbers of people’s minds is a powerful one, and there is a very fine line between power used for good and used for ill. The Mattel campaign to sell Barbie dolls and the Greenpeace campaign to inspire people to boycott them shared many of the same techniques. We need to be unwavering in our values and our commitment to help the world instead of harming it. But we need to be open minded as to where we learn the best methods for doing that. If we could extract the science from the content of advertising, we might really have something.

Connected and Unconnected in New York

Last night I moderated a panel on “Design for the future connectivity of New York” at the new Arup headquarters in Manhattan – a “house warming” for their new digs and the first Penguin Pool1 in the US.

Given my life as a communication designer and Chair of the new MFA Program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, I came with great enthusiasm for the topic, as well as skepticism about panel discussions in general. But first, the topic itself.

Five panelists had five unique definitions of connectivity – from stories that connect characters to each other and to the neighborhoods where they live, to technology that connects from the bottom up as well as the top down, citizen art and design, food systems, and the connections that businesses make to cities and the people who live there. Each distinctive, yet every one connected to the others.

As cities are living organisms, these are the various kinds of connective tissue that define relationships and keep us all alive.

As I interviewed speakers in advance of the panel, common threads emerged:
The first was access, defined as the invisible walls that either include people in a community or conversation, or keep them on the outside of progress, art, health and innovation.
Reference to relationships, to built environments, governments, neighbors and our own bodies ran throughout.
Place – the hyper local as it meets the ultra global. Connections are all changed by where they happen.
The most interesting and unexpected thread for me was the role that time played in every panelists work. Noah Rosenberg wants to slow down time – and journalism – so that people come to know each other and the places where they live in a deeper and more meaningful way.  Scott Burnham defines city life in terms of “micro-moments”; he unlocks the idea that a city is “finished” and closed to participation from citizens, extending the time it takes to create environments through participatory design of public spaces. Anthony Townsend studies the way technology changes cities, speeding up life for some, making it more efficient, and leaving others out of time. And Ben Flanner changes people’s awareness of time by connecting them to the natural rhythms of nature.
Likewise, the nature of time is also the source of my skepticism towards panel discussions – there is simply never enough. As a moderator, I loved getting to know the panelists – and appreciate the opportunity to think about ideas that are so important to the future and to the way we live. But inevitably, the format of a panel overrides the opportunity to go off schedule, to dig deep when something amazing emerges, to linger in a real conversation and exchange of ideas over clipped sound bites, or, to the point of my writing here, when the questions that burn remain unanswered.
I am left without a satisfying answer to a question that troubles me about design: the talk now is of human-centered innovation, of empathy, of trust and access. These seem like the things that humans did naturally – and that nature does still – before we distanced ourselves from ourselves through stress and technology. My question is, has it now become design’s role to undo, or to fix the things that our society has unintentionally broken?
Thank you Arup, for the opportunity, and for a great party, but let’s keep talking.
Illustration curtesy of Youme Landowne

Forget poverty. Let’s talk about business.

In an article I just finished for How Magazine on the future of design, I used Paul Polak as an example of why generalists are so important to the world right now. I said, “For example, it would be easy to think of global development pioneer Paul Polak as an expert in alleviating poverty, but he has been successful at that because he’s also a shrink, an inventor, an entrepreneur, a writer, a researcher and a self-made engineer. Polak is a generalist of the highest order.”

For anyone in our world of social innovation who doesn’t know about Paul (which is acceptable only if you recently landed from Pluto), he is the founder of IDE, author of Out of Poverty, creator of “Design for the other 90%”, content provider to the course at Stanford on “Ruthless Affordability”, inspiration to social entrepreneurs and development people everywhere, hero to the over 3,000 poor people he has met and spent time with, and the root cause of 20 million people’s transition from poverty to the middle class.

I have known Paul for years, through the evolution of many of the above accomplishments. Which is why it surprised me to realize when we spent a few days together at the Unreasonable Institute recently that Paul has not been working on poverty for all these years at all. He’s just a business junkie who saw a big marketing opportunity where nobody else recognized it. He has a good businessman’s resourcefulness and relentless drive to make things profitable for everyone. And moreover, he just may be the world’s most practical man.

Lots of people come up with theories, write papers and books about them, build arguments in their defense to better attack other theories, and sometimes get celebrities to give their frameworks a lot of glitz, if not gravitas.

Others, like Paul, first act where they see a need, and make decisions based on what makes sense to them. Oftentimes, they are so busy acting that they don’t take the time to stop and figure out what new theory they have been acting out. Sometimes, they have to look back at where they’ve been to figure out where they’re going. This is to say that what’s now becoming clear to Paul, at the youthful age of 78, is what he’s been doing all along.

When you talk to Paul it takes about 15 seconds for him to dive into the pragmatic details of his six or so latest business ventures. It’s easy at first to be overwhelmed with detail, but if you stay with it, you realize that he has taken practicality and common sense to a blazing edge. In a very different context, it’s what I imagine it must have been like to talk to Sam Walton in the early days of Wal-Mart – someone for whom sweating the details and making every little thing work was the enormity of the idea. When Paul talks about poor people, he can floor you with self-evident truths so practical, and from a point of view so knowing, experienced and clear-eyed that it becomes a wholly new way of seeing. This is important because when your target audience is every one of the 2.6 billion people in the world who live on $2 a day, you have to keep your eyes open, and work, as they say in business, with very tight margins.

To recast Paul’s approach to ending poverty through the new lens of “Paul’s just a damn good businessman and here’s how he’s done business in places where there was none”, these are Paul’s theories, proven by a lifetime of action and results:

1. Marketing, 2.00
Typically, businesses don’t like poverty, they see nothing in it for them, and they’ve been right. From a business standpoint, poverty has been a lousy investment: trillions of dollars spent, a temporary dent made. Most of what has been tried hasn’t worked.

There is no question that selling products to people who make $2 a day is a hard way to make a buck. But Paul is setting out to prove that when you know what you’re doing, there’s a multi-trillion dollar marketplace1 waiting to be had – you just have to turn marketing on its head to see it.

Paul is a marketer of the most creative kind, commissioning Bollywood films to screen on the sides of trucks, going door-to-door with demos showing people the bacteria in their own drinking water – scaring them into buying pure water. And not least, understanding that an aspirational brand – part of every one of his businesses – plays the same role with poor people that it does with the fashionistas of the world.

2. Go for the market disruptors – in poverty as in business.
When looking to create systemic transformation, identify the keystone, transformational products or services. They have a cascading effect, creating ripples of change and growth in other areas. For example, the chain reaction of Paul’s torrefaction business:  Raise $10k to put up a torrefaction plant in a village, which creates products worth $600 a day, $180k a year. The plant represents jobs for four people, small-acre farmers who have money where there was none before. There are jobs as well for the people who pull, chop and pile the mesquite that’s burned, dry and deliver it to the plant – 7 jobs for every village. This creates a wealthy enterprise, and prestige for the town, which attracts more business. The torrefaction plant makes energy cheaper, helps all the businesses that use it to reduce costs, raise profits and positively impacts climate change. All that transformation for a $10 k investment.

3. Even when you’re off the map, it’s location location location.
Everyone who sells anything knows that you need to put yourself where your customers are. Sometimes that’s on a high-traffic street or mall, sometimes it’s a place that’s easy to find on the internet.

To do business where Paul is doing it, the principle is equally inviolate, but the locations are wild. For example, for SpringHealth, the water purification business now rolling out in India, kirana shops double as purification centers, adding clean water to the toothpaste, biscuits and candy they typically sell. These humble kiosks in rural villages don’t look like prime real estate for a big new product launch, but they are centrally located, and they add up; there are anywhere from 6 to 9 million of them.

And it goes further, not just to the last mile, but the last 500 feet. Deliverymen go door to door with water on the back of motorcycles, and additional products are being developed to take advantage of that prime location on the back of the bike.

Never take your eye off the bottom line.
Whether you’re dealing with millions or pennies, the discipline is the same, the numbers have to add up, the model has to make sense. There are no exceptions. Even though the numbers are small, it doesn’t mean there aren’t places to find efficiencies and make a profit.

Again in the torrefaction business, by shortening the collection radius of biomass from 50 kilometers to 4 kilometers and switching from big machines to carts or tractors, a 40% reduction in cost is the basis of what can become a huge business.

It scales well beyond the village. When people move from $2 a day to $3 or 4, they become consumers; that makes a huge impact on the global economy.
They start to pay taxes, they have smaller families. Raising the income level of farmers has been proven to raise the economies of entire countries, like China, South Korea and Taiwan.

5. Think huge, and don’t be a victim of your emotions
Paul’s rule is that a business has to have the potential to reach 100 million people and generate at least $10 billion in sales in order to be worthwhile. Seeing that potential will make it real.

While passion and empathy draw people to help others they are anything but the secret to success. Hard-headed business strategy will go much further to change lives. Caring deeply about helping people should spur pragmatism, not romanticism.

There are practical lessons here for all involved: Don’t fall in love with your altruism when you don’t have a sustainable solution to poverty, and don’t fall in love with your new business idea unless it can really impact the world.

Education Redesign: the defining opportunity of our time.

What follows is the original article submitted to FastCompany.

Never before has a generation needed or had access to more tools to take on the real work that needs to be done in our societies. New leaders are emerging, less willing to define themselves with a job title than their ability to create value wherever they are. In response, hundreds of new higher educational programs have emerged that focus on creativity and preparing students to solve the world’s big problems.

This is because education is shifting from what works for teachers to what students need to succeed and thrive. Businesses learned this long ago, with the emergence of the “consumer-driven” paradigm – a self-evident revelation that’s easier to agree with than to execute. When education serves students, many of the old beliefs become obsolete; schools that considered themselves competitors become partners by sharing content, faculty and facilities, combining strengths, offering more customized learning, and making life more interesting for all involved.

In order to serve the future leaders of our society, we need to look at the existing failures of contemporary higher education, and the innovations taking place to improve them:

Inside some of the highest rated business schools in the country, MBA students prepare themselves for secure jobs in management at healthy corporations with plenty of opportunities for growth. Or jobs on Wall Street where fast money can be made. They are preparing for a world that for many of them will never exist. Instead, we should look to the schools teaching creativity and design as part of business, like the Rotman School in Toronto, preparing students to create their own opportunities wherever they are. And schools like Babson, where the skills of entrepreneurship are required learning for every student who wants to work in business.

Tenured faculty live in inward facing worlds of glacial bureaucracy and politics, respected and rewarded for new thinking but unable to act on new ideas because they are frozen in place by administrative processes that take years to evolve. Agility is a requisite for survival in our escalating speed of change. Educational institutions share the same need for agility and fast decision making – to stay relevant and prepare students to meet the demands they will face. Many schools are addressing this challenge by adding affiliated labs or institutions outside the purview of their institutional procedure that can move more quickly to adapt to the changing world outside.

More than anything, education is still a world of silos – where people are taught that becoming a specialist has prestige, meaning and built-in-job-magnetism. Expertise in a vertical area is important in the mix of required talent, but we need more visionaries with broad experience and curiosity. Breakthrough ideas inevitably come from people who see the relationships between the complex and interrelated systems that connect every single aspect of modern life. Some of the most innovative solutions here have come from students themselves, through programs they develop to bring diversity and cross-disciplinary thinking into their communities. The Social Innovation Bootcamp at Columbia, NYU and  SVA in New York is a good example of students taking learning into their own hands.

The only way to succeed in creating something new is to define the desired end at the beginning. We need business to become more adaptive to the realities of our planetary limitations and more responsible. We need a sustainable economy that supports mission-based organizations. We need to create the kind of jobs that will build a resilient future and not simply more of our unsustainable past. Our goal, as a species, has got to be to address the challenges we have created – to invent new solutions using fewer precious resources, to increase our understanding of the impact we have, and to change our behavior accordingly.

Education is learning how to teach us to do that.

Think bigger than design thinking

The title of a June 7th article in the Wall Street Journal tells us to: “Forget B-School, D-School is Hot”.

Which is quite the opposite of what the article actually conveys. The real news in the story, and it’s good news, is that companies are hungry to integrate design (the D) into their business practices (the B) – not to replace one with the other. They are looking for fresh, creative ways to solve their challenges, more participatory than the typical client of outside talent role, more integral than the services agencies traditionally provide. They are choosing to work creatively to envision and realize a new future for themselves. In short, they want to become creative business people.

This is a giant step forward. Business has not always recognized the value of design. For this alone we should be deeply grateful to IDEO, the D School at Stanford, and to Hasso Plattner. Thank you.

But the comparison of D school to B school is a tired one by now. It worked initially to illuminate the option of an alternative; but now it is time to harness the full potential of the integration of business and design  rather than continuing to fuel a competition.

“Design Thinking” seems to have become the tool of choice for “problem solving”. Great beginning, but problem solving is only one dimension of design. Just as making is another dimension of design. To continue isolating these parts of the system of design methodology is to miss the potential for the whole of what design can accomplish. It’s time to think bigger than that.

Most of our understanding of the critical issues we face comes from silos of expertise – from voices deep in complex, nuanced fields that are impenetrable to most people, and that often contradict each other, either by choice or by the ignorance of disconnection. This leads us to define systemic issues narrowly: Poverty is about money, women’s rights are about laws, health care is about access. Design is about thinking. And we wonder why our efforts don’t work.

What is missing is a systemic view – a view that includes but transcends the silos, that makes relationships visible and information accessible, that creates not only the tools to change dynamics but the desire to engage with them.

Design is thinking (duh), strategy, mapping, modeling, creating tools to compare and evaluate, playing, craft, engineering, implementing, aligning communities around a shared vision, making artifacts that become part of people’s daily lives, creating identities for people, companies, cities, countries that help them see themselves in new contexts, and with new possibilities. Design is social. It is public, engaging people in ideas. It works at scales, and with ideas the affect multitudes of people through theater, exhibits, public platforms and programs. Design inspires people, wakes them up, and invites them to discover things about themselves and the world that they might otherwise not have known or seen. And as with any system, it is more than the sum of its parts.

In Creation, E.O. Wilson says that if scientists could focus on the problem to be solved instead of their own prescribed and specialized approach to it, we would be a lot further along in our ability to find answers. Of course they can’t, because it is not the nature of the scientific process.

But it is the nature of design: a process for seeing unconnected things in new relationships to each other, for visualizing a desired end-state that can be shared, for getting from A to B when you are not quite sure what B is. At its best, design is the creative expression of ideas that inspire new thinking and behavior, new ways of participating.

At the School of Visual Arts in New York we have developed a program that integrates design with business, science, nature and enterprise. We do not reduce design to sound bytes, nor separate it from the contexts or purpose where it has the greatest impact. We believe design has the potential to engage all of us in creating a more resilient world, and that it will take all of design to do that.