Specializing in design for social innovation and health care, Robert Fabricant lends his expertise to Frog Design’s initiatives with a global impact. Recently, he has led projects that use technology to combat HIV/AIDS and collaborated with UNICEF to improve maternal and infant health worldwide.
How does your work in social innovation influence your work with commercial clients?
Fortunately, we are seeing increased synergies between our social impact work and our commercial work. At Frog, we don’t have a separate social sector practice like some of our peers. Despite the wave of interest in social impact, I think you give up a lot of credibility when you label yourself a pure “social good” designer. One of the most effective roles that a designer can play is by working across both public and private sector activities. Public sector organizations are hungry to learn from the private sector models these days. Similarly, our commercial clients are beginning to recognize the value of social sector work as a way to strengthen their market reach and invigorate their innovation capacity. So a big part of my role is to identify opportunities in the social sector that continue to strengthen these synergies with key clients like GE and J&J.
Many of our customers are grappling with broad problems surrounding behavior change in areas like health and finance. They are attracted to firms, like Frog, that have made explicit commitments in these areas, as we have under our Mobile Mandate initiative. We can bring insights and learnings from markets that are outside a company’s reach but increasingly relevant to their business challenges. Initiatives like Project M (more below) or our mobile money research in Afghanistan demonstrate how health and financial ecosystems might look under different circumstances. These sorts of programs help us to shake up corporations’ assumptions about how their businesses might look in the future.
Our clients appreciate when we reach out to them within the context of our social impact work, so it can really strengthen long-term relationships and be a key differentiator for design (as opposed to marketing or business consulting). For example, we are collaborating with two long-standing partners, GE and UNICEF, on a mobile health initiative in Rwanda over the next two years. These initiatives give commercial firms the pretense to explore cross-sector partnerships and collaboration models that can be uncomfortable or impractical under normal business practice.
Finally, our social sector work helps to re-invigorate our talent as well as attract new talent, which benefits all of our commercial work.
You’re also working on another project around mobile health. Tell us about that.
Project Masiluleke (Project M) is a collection of mobile health interventions that target the HIV crisis in South Africa. It includes a messaging service that reaches 1 to 2 million low-income South Africans on a daily basis, providing them with life-saving information. Project M is a true cross-sector partnership involving a number of leading organizations in South Africa including iTeach, Praekelt Foundation, and MTN, the second largest mobile operator in South Africa–so we are just one small part of the effort. The partnership was initiated by PopTech as part of their Innovation Accelerator, but has since “graduated” from that program. As you can imagine, it was a tough sell within Frog initially, as we had little experience with HIV and South Africa, though we do have a small development team in Johannesburg. Frog really went out on a limb on this one and were very fortunate that it paid off. The initiative built credibility internally and externally for a broader commitment to social impact.
The key to the success of Project M continues to be the quality of the partners, who are some of the most fearless and disciplined creative thinkers I have worked with, even though they would never describe themselves as designers. It is important to recognize that the strongest creative leadership does not necessarily come from designers, particularly in the social sector. The project has been running for over five years and has been a huge learning experience for our organization regarding the rewards and challenges to achieving meaningful impact.
The design of the HIV self-test kit (one of our key areas of contribution) has gone through hundreds of iterations over the last three years and been tested hundreds of times within semi-literate urban and rural participants in KwaZulu Natal, leading up to a major study this coming spring–the first to look at self-testing in South Africa. In the meantime there is growing political support for a self-test solution in South Africa that has been designed and tested with widespread community participation. Through the work of Praekelt, innovations from Project M have been extended to more than seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa over the last five years, reaching millions of people.
When did you realize a focus of your career as a designer would be giving back?
My passion for social service started right after college. I was very fortunate to grow up as a creative kid in New York, so I had already spent some time dabbling in the design field at MOMA and Chermayeff & Geismar. At that early stage I was not seeing meaningful ways to connect my interest in social change to these sorts of practices. So, instead, I spent a couple of years doing community organizing and policy work for a funny little nonprofit, the Fund for Modern Courts. Along the way I learned a lot of really useful lessons about the not-very-glamorous ways that you engage communities, policy-makers, and fundraisers. These lessons still inform the work I do with social sector organizations. I think that many designers are pretty naive about social sector organizations, and unprepared for what really makes them work.
I believe that the phrase “giving back” is the wrong context for what I do. It is not driven by guilt. It is not about something I owe. I don’t think that mindset is a good foundation for creativity and collaboration in the social sector. And, as designers, we are far too small a community to “give back” in a meaningful way on major social issues. I see this work as a catalyst that feeds my design practice and challenges my assumptions about the role of design in a very, very healthy way.
What is the name of one up-and-coming social good designer we should be watching?
I recently traveled to Myanmar and had the privilege of visiting the design lab at Proximity Designs, a social enterprise that develops irrigation technologies to address rural poverty. They have set up an amazing design process in which most of the innovation that really counts happens in small increments through a deep understanding of manufacturing and deep engagement with their customers. For example, one of their products, a simple plastic water storage container, has been through hundreds of iterations over a three-year period. The military produces a similar storage container at scale for approximately $500. Proximity is getting it down to around $25.
That said I am extremely proud and excited about the work of two Frog colleagues, Rachel Regina and Roger Wong, who are currently embedded with social change organizations. Rachel is taking a sabbatical in South Africa with iTeach, our leading partner in Project M, and Roger is working with Matt Berg’s lab at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Who inspires you most with their generosity?
I can trace my direct engagement in social impact design to the 2006 Aspen Design summit, when I got the chance to work with Paul Polak, founder of and author of Out of Poverty. Paul has quietly ignited a revolution in the design world through his passion for design for the other 90% or D-Rev (an organization that he helped found that is under the stellar leadership of Krista Donaldson). Paul was instrumental in helping me to connect the dots between the essential skills of design–empathy, problem solving, and iteration–and social impact. He is an impassioned advocate for market-driven solutions to social problems and sees the rural farmers, whom he has worked with for most of his career, as some of the most demanding customers in the world. I agree. Paul helped me to see that simple, practical solutions and deep engagement with communities are sorely missing in the field of international development.
This is a lesson I am constantly reminded of in our engagement with individuals and communities around the world, whether frontline health workers in Zambia or kids with diabetes in the U.S. People in all situations have opinions, ideas – a perspective that is not often heard. Their experiences, more than any single individual, are what continue to influence and inspire my own work. Most people rarely have the opportunity to reshape the products and services around them in a meaningful way, to suit their needs. Once you open that door you create a sense of empowerment, a change in mindset. We’ve seen this after we created the Collective Action Toolkit to support this process.
One of the most powerful things a designer can do is to help create the space in which people–any and all people–have the permission to apply their experience in a creative manner, to generate new solutions together, constructively, and collaboratively.