8 Lessons for Creating Social Impact

World Economic Forum

Have "design thinking" and "social innovation" become permanently intertwined? You'd have to think so based on Tim Brown's book and the prevailing discourse at any major design/innovation conference (SXSW, PICNIC, GEL, GAIN, LIFT). There seems to be a firm belief that you can't establish any cred as a designer these days if you haven't applied design thinking to a major social issue of some sort (health, energy, education...). Similarly, it would seem that social innovation (or social entrepreneurship) is hopeless without a designer at your side.

So I find myself in an odd spot as I board the 18-hour flight to Tanzania for the World Economic Forum on Africa. While I am committed to using my skills as a designer to engage in social issues, particularly health care, I am finding the discussions at many design conferences to be repetitive and naive. Yes, design can help. But can designers?

Unfortunately, designers tend to fall prey to ideas that are too attractive and we don't generally have the patience for the lengthy process to see initiatives through to the point of meaningful results (particularly if those results run counter to our attractive ideas). I recently gave a talk in NYC (as part of Liz Danzico's wonderful dot dot dot series for SVA) to communicate some of the challenges I see designers facing as they work in this area. I highlighted eight lessons I have learned from my experience on Project Masiluleke and other social impact partnerships over the last couple of years. Here they are in brief:

1. Undervalue Your Own Ideas. They may seem pretty clever to you, but chances are that they won't work the way that you are imagining. Trust me on this one.

2. Don't Pursue Perfection. Keep close to the messy realities on the ground. And test your ideas while they are rough (they will likely stay that way for a long time).

3. You Are Not the Only Creative in the Room. Social entrepreneurs are not only creative, they are fearless. You may find yourself struggling to keep up.

4. Your Perspective Is Not Automatically Unique. Research and empathy are critical to inform and inspire the design process. But it takes time to develop a viable perspective. You won't walk in with one.

5. Learn From Your Elders. There are a number of creative professions, such as urban planning, that have been engaged with social issues for some time. Yet they are rarely represented in current discussions. You would think that this generation of designers are the first to take on social impact.

6. The Web Will Not Save You. While the Internet and mobile technologies are important points of leverage, you need to resist the temptation to assume that communities will miraculously adopt and value these tools just because we thought them up.

7. You Better Be In It for the Long Haul. Ideation is just the beginning. Ideas are cheap. The determination and stubbornness to see them through is critical. Don't underestimate the time it will take.

8. Don't Celebrate Too Early. The design world has hurt its credibility with many social impact organizations by celebrating the wrong thing: Clever ideas that capture our imagination (like the Lifestraw or the Hippo Roller) but have major challenges in the field.

So, with that in mind, I am escaping...well sort of. This year I have looked outside the typical design and innovation venues, attending the Social Enterprise Conference at Harvard Business School in February, visiting the Earth Institute and now the WEF. I want to place myself in environments in which designers are in the distinct minority to see if I can gain a different perspective. I will be blogging from the conference for the rest of this week. So please stay tuned for more updates and follow my tweets at @fabtweet.

Read Robert Fabricant's Design4Impact blog
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Robert Fabricant is a leader of frog's health-care expert group, a cross-disciplinary global team that works collectively to share best practices and build frog's health-care capabilities. An expert in design for social innovation, Robert recently led Project Masiluleke, an initiative that harnesses the power of mobile technology to combat the world's worst HIV and AIDS epidemic in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Robert is an adjunct professor at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts where he teaches a foundation course in Interaction Design. In 2009, he joined the faculty of the School of Visual Arts in New York and is a faculty member of the Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellowship Program. A regular speaker at conferences and events, Robert recently gave a keynote speech at the 2009 IxDA Interaction Conference. He is a frequent contributor to a wide variety of publications, including I.D. Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.

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1 Comments

  • Kate Storey

    Thanks for this article Robert. I'm a social VC at www.RenewalFunds.com . We invest in socially and environmentally responsible companies. Your design and your impact is incredibly important in helping to create a consumer shift in how we live on this planet. The sector is growing quickly and we're seeing more support and funding for companies who have higher purpose mandates. Social entrepreneurs looking for funding (with +$1M in Revenues) please get in touch. kate at renewalfunds dot com