Live From PopTech: Bringing Design to Social Innovators

Robert Fabricant will be reporting live this week from PopTech’s 2009 conference, America Reimagined.

Every year (at least for the last two) I have had the honor of serving as part of the core faculty of the PopTech Fellows Program. This means I’m involved in the planning stages for this five-day retreat. No matter how much time I spend preparing for the program, I’m always astounded when I finally meet the fellows. It’s difficult to comprehend the variety of innovations that this incredible group is driving, from virtual mobile phones and paper diagnostics to batteries made of common soil and building materials made of mushrooms. What’s even more astounding is the fact that the people driving these ideas are both incredibly special and shockingly ordinary.

poptech fellows

My role is to introduce them to the design process–to provide some tools to help them think through and challenge the assumptions they’re making about their interventions. As always, I’m struck by how open-minded and creative these social innovators are (otherwise they would not have achieved anything close to the outcomes they’ve already seen). Creativity is not something they chose as an identity or practice–it’s a means, not an end. They many not spend a great deal of time talking about design, but research, prototyping, and abductive reasoning are at the heart of their work.

One of their most refreshing qualities is their orientation towards technology. This struck me while listening to Deb Levine, a longtime innovator in the area of technology and sexual health. She has an unparalleled track record–in the past 15+ years–of using digital technologies to increase access to information. Yet to hear her talk you wouldn’t think technology is anything special–though she was one of the first people to offer sexual health info on the Web and mobile devices in the U.S. In her intro talk, she described a teen-focused project she initiated in 2006. The default assumption is that the info would be delivered via the Web. But Deb started hanging out in front of schools and watching all of the kids “doing that thing with their thumbs.” Her simple observation led to a very early health intervention using SMS.

poptech fellows

So what am I doing here? I don’t know much about the power grid in Namibia or low-cost diagnostics in Saudi Arabia. It’s interesting to be in a position of expertise with a group that has gone down roads and achieved things I don’t think I could achieve myself. My focus, as always, will be on behavior. I continue to see social impact largely through that lens. So we will be doing a deep dive into how you create the right conditions to drive changes in behavior. I will work with the group to help them answer the following questions:

  • How do you link a set of behaviors together to achieve the desired impact of your intervention?
  • How do you design prototypes and other interventions to test your assumptions around behavior and the underlying motivations that will support behavior change?
  • How do you look at the barriers to behavior change and use them to your advantage?

This last point is key. Most designers (and social innovators) look at prototyping as a way to test their ideas, to see what works from a functional perspective and what appeals from an attitudinal perspective. But the most useful dimension of prototyping, I find, is to think about it as a tool for understanding behavior. Think about each prototype not as an intervention, but as a set of conditions to better understand the behavior you are trying to drive. It’s an important distinction because it shifts your orientation from what you are prototyping to the impact you are trying to create.


I will be blogging from PopTech throughout the week. Next up, a deep dive into how you design for impact. Please stay tuned.

[Photos by Erik Hersman]

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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.


About the author

Robert Fabricant has been working at the forefront of user-friendly design for more than 25 years for organizations like Microsoft and Frog. He is the cofounder of Dalberg Design, a unique practice focused on social impact with design teams in London, Mumbai, Nairobi, and New York, and a finalist for Fast Company’s World-Changing Company of the Year