The Social Innovation Revolution

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Delve into how the entrepreneur shift has paved the way for a new chapter in social innovation design in Print magazine’s June 2014 issue, the Innovation & Entrepreneur Issue.

Business and social innovation aren’t typical bedmates. But as the rising class of altruistic entrepreneurs takes over, business as usual for designers is being redefined.

by Cheryl Heller

For what seemed like forever, business and design were joined at the hip. Then the social innovation movement happened, opening up new frontiers of possibility and purpose for designers. In a surprising revelation, design lessons learned from working on social problems instead of business ones is exactly what entrepreneurs, and the entire corporate world, need right now.

“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.

Cheryl Heller on the Social Innovation Revolution

Illustration by Jensine Eckwall;

Design has always been concentrated around urban areas—places where lots of people with money live and corporations operate. Social design has begun to break into new frontiers, working with people who are outside the “grid,” in what Paul Polak named “the other 90%.”

For many, this culminated in the 2011 Cooper Hewitt exhibit titled “Design for the Other 90%,” which highlighted the role design plays in creating a world that doesn’t work for the vast majority of people in it. More importantly, it unveiled just how much opportunity exists to make design new again in this frontier. By creating ideas and things that change lives instead of bank accounts, the purpose and purview of design has expanded 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 approach parsed information as privilege, keeping some in the know and some in the dark. 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. It transforms leaders into entrepreneurs. And it evolves entrepreneurs into mature, stable business minds with the power to reshape the world. New ideas get inside people and start a fire rooted in passion. Communication is the dark matter of human thoughts and interactions—the substance that connects, transfers and creates fields of energy around ideas and paths forward.

Design for social innovation has emerged now as a practice, and as with all new mental models, it has caused a bifurcation between the old world of guilt-free capitalism and a new, still mostly uncharted world that we’re 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’s clear that the same renewed sense of possibility, energy and creativity that is seen in design working on a social level can also be applied to business.

Why Business Must change

The complex, disruptive challenges confronting companies today aren’t solved with the traditional assignments and tactics that used to automatically prescribe growth. The “Disruptive Innovation” concept that Clay Christiansen placed on the tongue of every businessperson who reads Harvard Business Review gave name to the dynamic (and the anxiety) with which corporate leaders live. Threats no longer come from known competitors, and death doesn’t always 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 say, design or otherwise.

More than this, the seemingly unquestioned notion that businesses have a need to continually grow 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 around the world a voice and real power; it’s 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 to designing new models and systems for human interaction and impact is the only way forward if we look with open eyes at the state of the anthropocene. I’m frequently reminded 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.”

Fixing the broken system with the same tools that made it won’t cut it. Businesses need to increase the human adaptability, creativity and wisdom of the people who lead and serve them.

Enter The Design for Social Innovation Movement

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. Meetups for people wanting to “change the world” take place everywhere all the time.

At the MFA Design for Social Innovation Program at the School of Visual Arts, 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 core of this article) we’re finding that, ironically, social innovation design is exactly the kind of design that business needs most right now. And that’s because it creates the conditions, relationships, inspiration, engagement and access to wisdom to energize cultures and ignite creative potential—in people.

The work we’re doing in this sector is work we’ve never done before. We’re 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 it’s also different.

From Designer as Expert to 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 and 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 and inventors, like Henry Ford, Margaret Mead, E.O. Wilson and Steve Jobs, who opened up new worlds through their singular imaginations. But we’ve reached the point as a species where the power of individuals to solve the complex problems we face, regardless of how brilliant the individuals 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, generators and owners of their own future—helping them grow beyond the need for our help.

Design for social innovation as a whole 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 one another 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-Based Iteration

A business plan no longer necessitates the pretense that an entrepreneur, however prescient, can predict the conditions five years into the future of an enterprise that doesn’t exist yet. Remarkably, that expectation has been the norm. To raise capital, entrepreneurs 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 2013, Harvard Business Review ran an article called “Why the Lean Startup 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 startup world, and business schools have already begun adapting their curricula to teach them.”

The lean startup looks a hell of a lot more like design than it does a standard MBA practice. 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 you took give you a new reality to evaluate, observe and then act upon. The design process is based on learning, testing, noticing and refining. If entrepreneurs want perfect partners in their lean startup efforts, they need look no further than social innovation designers.

From Designing Artifacts to Redefining 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 the participants, the value given and the value received. Business leaders look for loyalty from customers, employees and shareholders—in their commitment to purchase, work hard or buy shares. That’s how they’re evaluated as leaders, and it’s how they measure the health of their firms.

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 don’t notice until we send them into shock with our unthinking interference, with invisible forces that our lust for big data makes visible. These nontraditional relationships can’t be managed in the tried-and-true ways. They’re impervious to the preordained value that business gives and receives.

Designers find their inspiration by seeing unexpected connections between things—noticing and creating unusual relationships that change the nature of the whole. Social design extends the designer’s purview to human and ecological relationships at a scale and complexity that impacts not only companies but countries, species and ecosystems.

From Identity as a Brand to Driver of Destiny

Traditional corporate identity is about 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 or world where we include ourselves. Individuals have identities, as do corporations, cities, countries. Identities are dialogues between the outside and the inside; they are self-fulfilling prophecies, conformity to societal expectations, and the belief we hold of what we can expect.

But identity plays a far more important role in life than brands do. Meg Wheatley, in Leadership and the New Science, explains this by saying, “life’s first imperative is that it must be free to create itself.” Identity is our genesis, our past, present and future. It’s our lens on the world and our place in it. Identity is the way we see ourselves and who we determine to be “others,” the way we estimate the value of lives other than our own. When the full power of identity is used as a lever, that’s the most powerful start to social change.

I wrote an article about a year ago inspired by trips to Nairobi, Detroit and Mexico City within six weeks of one another. 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; they have 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 back to them their worth.

Robert Fritz writes about structural change and the hidden assumptions within businesses that prevent them from 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 about the prescriptive power of identity: Spend less time worrying about whether your logo is cool, and more time defining the impact you want to have.

What’s Next for Business and Social Innovation

As we look forward, what is it really that needs 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. 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. Author Jonah Lehrer 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’s 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 and imperfect. The product is never something you can hold. It’s transitory, never finished. But these are the 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 he discussed 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 at SVA, 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, some day soon it may be fair to say that without Design for Social Innovation, there will be no business. ▪

Cheryl Heller designs change and growth for leaders and organizations around the world. In addition to her work with corporations, foundations and nonprofits, she’s the founding chair of SVA’s MFA program in Design for Social Innovation.