Design Impact has been addressing complex social challenges through a design and innovation lens for about seven years now. This period of learning has taught us a lot about partnership development, outcome measurement, theories of practice, how to screw up and learn from it, when to get intricate and when to simplify, etc., etc., etc.
Sometimes those learnings are reinforced over time and become ‘rules of thumb’ in our practice, while other times what we think will happen based on past experience never does.
Through all that learning and trying and tweaking, we have come to realize that there are two values that no Design Impact project can live without: creativity and inclusivity.
Let’s take creativity. We don’t just apply creative approaches and weave them into our projects because creative stuff is fun. It IS fun, but that’s not why we think it matters. In the case of many complex social challenges – like Cincinnati’s economic disparity or low graduation rates among minorities – the metaphoric needle hasn’t moved much over time. If we want to change these outcomes, we can’t keep getting the same people in the same rooms to have the same conversations any longer. We have to think and act divergently.
Divergent thinking goes beyond creative approaches, though. In order to move the needle, solutions need to be inclusive. Regarding inclusivity – the practice of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized – we don’t just believe it is the right thing to do, but that we have to do it all the time if we’re serious about improving social outcomes.
We find that the most powerful part of our work happens when creative and inclusive approaches are combined. For example, we recently worked on a project that aims to improve mentorship programs for youth experiencing homelessness. Instead of assuming from the start that we knew what we should design, we decided to start by talking to kids experiencing homelessness.
Rather than asking for predictable answers around the programs they wanted, we changed the nature of the conversation by sharing a short lesson on ‘bucket lists.’ We then asked kids to write their own bucket lists and share them with us.
One student shared that his most important dream was to create a time machine. When we asked him why that was important, he shared that he wanted to travel back in time so he could help everyone fix their mistakes. He felt that the reason people were sad in the world is because of mistakes they had made; and by traveling back in time he could let people fix them and therefore everyone would be happy.
Through this conversation, and the other students’ voices that echoed similar experiences, we learned that the ability to forgive and reconcile the past is a key component that should inform any program we design. We decided to wrap those elements into the new program. These elements would not have been incorporated had we had not taken a creative approach to listening to the voices of students.
In short, through our projects we’ve learned we need to listen and learn from the experts — those community members that are deeply affected by social injustice but have so often been absent from the decision-making tables of philanthropy, government, and non-profit agencies. Design practice, when it is done right, should not be token feedback sessions or focus groups but instead be led by, and with, all who are affected by the issue at hand.