The Role of ‘Place’ in Human-Centered Design

By Erica Dorn and Shane Chase

Since starting the Good Work Institute in 2015, we’d been looking for educational tools to help shape the ‘Next Economy’. The Good Work Institute fellowship program supports entrepreneurs, placemakers, and community leaders to develop their work in building a regenerative and equitable Hudson Valley. We needed a resource that allowed leaders of enterprises of all shapes and sizes to create a merge revenue and impact models that will be most beneficial for their places.

Through one of those serendipitous and perfectly timed connections we discovered verynice out in L.A. and wanted to integrate their unique design thinking approach into our fellowship. Models of Impact is the precise tool we were looking for for educating social entrepreneurs and leaders — as a game-based methodology it is game-changing for the field. We finally had the chance to weave in the Models of Impact methodology into the core of our 5-month Hudson Valley Fellowship during a recent session we titled “Models of Good Work’.

Models of Impact is a dynamic educational tool developed by the folks at verynice, used for embedding positive social impact and organizational sustainability at the core of any idea, initiative, or venture. It encourages thinking inside the box by using constraints of making a positive impact and creating revenue/value streams to generate ideas for new social enterprises. And what we discovered is that it’s ripe for a place-based focus on design.

As with the truism, ‘Wherever you go, there you are’, whatever we design, there it is. With human-centered design, we can not focus on ‘you’ without also recognizing the importance of ‘there’. Place is possibly one of the most generative constraints that we have. Place is embedded with culture. It is abundant with unique resources. It is, quite literally, the common ground that supports community. At GWI and verynice, we’re interested in how to broaden the scope of human-centered design to account for place without losing focus of the people we design with.

So, in staying in true design thinking form, we recognized the need for crafting a ‘How might we’ statement. How might we define a placed-based approach to human-centered design? Put another way, by considering ‘place’ as a stakeholder, how can we better inform our designs and enterprises?

*Note: by considering ‘place’ as a stakeholder’ we mean, consider that place has a personality, a unique soul, and desire. What does your place want? Ask and listen…

At Good Work Institute and verynice we’re fortunate to partner with passionate individuals and teams that are looking to make a difference in their local community through the services and products that they offer. We’ve learned from the many wise models that use place to inspire their organizations, that we wanted to share some examples and best practices for a Place-based approach to Human-centered Design.

“The local community must understand itself finally as a community of interest — a common dependence on a common life and a common ground. And because a community is, by definition, placed, its success cannot be divided from the success of its place, its natural setting and surroundings: its soils, forests, grasslands, plants and animals, water, light, and air. The two economies, the natural and the human, support each other; each other’s hope of a durable and a livable life.”
- Wendell Berry

Guideposts for Place-Based Design

Below are 4 guideposts followed by an overarching theme, or meta-principle, tying them all together. Each guidepost includes an example organization or initiative, as well as its respective impact and revenue models.

1. A Place for All

Whereas user-centered design takes a focus on personas, user archetypes, behavioral segments and ‘target markets’, place-centered design considers everyone, all people, all parts of the ecosystem. Instead of optimizing for one group, start with a pro-social outlook of inclusivity that is centered around how the most people can benefit together, not separately. By starting with the community of a place at the core, the focus on design shifts from simple, reductive, one-to-one transactions to meaningful, integrative, many-to-many interactions among a diverse array of stakeholders.

This does not mean that HCD neglects individual stakeholder’s unique needs when designing. These needs are still very much the atomic unit of research necessary to inform design decisions. The difference is that by considering all within a place requires BOTH zooming in AND zooming out to recombine and reconfigure these units into a collective whole (as diagrammed with Carol Sandford’s Pentad Framework for stakeholders).

Example: An excellent representation of this principle is Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, a collection of 8 food producing and/or selling businesses all located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Describing what Zingerman’s is, however, does little justice in demonstrating how uniquely it operates. Zingerman’s creates a place for all through the culture it has built. With an all-inclusive and diverse hiring policy, open book management model, extensive community giving program, and triple bottom line approach, Zingerman’s excels on all levels of providing social, environmental and organizational impact. This is precisely because of, not despite of, the place they operate and all the people within that location.

Highlighted Impact Model: Worker-Owned Cooperative — Cooperatives represent a voluntary group of people who work together to share mutual benefits. Currently transitioning to this impact model, Zingerman’s is looking to distribute ownership and leadership amongst its 600-plus full-time and part-time employees. Another great example of a more recent enterprise that converted to worker-ownership is Earth Designs in Rosendale, NY. Founder Aja Hudson is a Good Work Institute fellow and is paving the way for other cooperative businesses in her place.

Highlighted Revenue Model: Retail Commerce — Retail Commerce is a revenue model leveraged for the sale of physical products in a physical setting. Quite simply, Zingerman’s sells food for money.

2. A place for Participation

In our take on design, it’s essential not just to honor all parts of the system in which you operate, as mentioned above, but also to include the voices, needs, and desires as participants in the design of your work. As has been increasingly understood in the international development world, we cannot build things for people, we have to build with the end-users. In most scenarios the user of any made object or process is essential to the design and successful outcome of the final product/service. And so, at every phase of the development of a social impact enterprise or initiative, engage your stakeholders in a democratic process of participation and you will empower them to co-evolve the change you are seeking.

Example: With a goal nothing short of equitable wealth creation at scale, Evergreen Cooperative is an organization that has gotten where it is through highly participatory efforts. Comprised of Cleveland-based institutions (including the Cleveland Foundation, the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, Case Western Reserve University, and the municipal government), the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative is creating living-wage jobs in six low-income neighborhoods, with a median household income below $18,500, in an area known as Greater University Circle. Such work would not be possible without encouraging participation from such a spectrum of community perspectives.

Highlighted Impact Model: Jobs for Transitional Communities — Products and/or services that are manufactured/offered in a manner that allows the business to employ a workforce that is in transition.

Highlighted Revenue Model: Donations — The giving of necessary funds, in-kind services, or goods to a non-profit organization or community cause in exchange for a charitable deduction receipt that is written off at the end of each tax year by an individual or company/collective.

3. A place for Collaboration and Shared Progress

Beyond getting more people to participate in design, it is essential to provide a place conducive to collectively defining what ‘good’ work is and how they do good work together. That is, collaboration cannot exist in a vacuum. It takes the right environment and setting. This does not only relate to physical space, but the work environment that we design through policies and organizational rules.

At GWI, our theory of change towards a regenerative and equitable future can only come to fruition through co-creating a shared vision of what that looks like and then collaborating to achieve it. Being able to find areas to overlap and amplify each group’s core competency is the best way to see how we can work together. At verynice, we’ve found that collaboration is especially effective in cross-sector blends of for-profit, nonprofit, and government. Rather than try to compete, side-step, or disregard the other, each sector has their own blind spots, as well as unique ways of contributing. Designing places and ways to build buy-in and foster collaboration among such groups is essential in leveraging each other’s success to realize shared progress.

Example: Since 2010 the O+ Festival has been fostering an inspiring collaboration at the intersection of art, health, and community. As they state on their website, “We build long-term relationships between creatives and health & wellness providers to help strengthen local communities. Our year-round efforts culminate in one-day and weekend-long celebrations, during which underinsured artists and musicians create and perform in exchange for a variety of services donated by doctors, dentists and complementary care providers.” These festivals create mutual benefits not only for the participants, but also the hosting cities which are able to boost their local economy through increased artistic and touristic activity.

Highlighted Impact Model: Sharing Economy — A collaborative economy that is built around the concept of sharing physical or intellectual resources between peers.

Highlighted Revenue Model: Sponsorship — An agreement between two organizations/businesses in which one of the organizations/businesses will sponsor/support the other via the donation of necessary good/services/cash in exchange for public recognition.

4. A Place for Seasonality

Considerations of where and when go hand in hand when designing. The way any design produces value over time is equally important as how any design adapts to the change in its environment. A place-based approach to HCD recognizes any context has its own dynamic of change. These changes can influence anything from preference to availability. So just as designers track the ups and downs of users’ experiences through exercises like journey mapping, so too can designers chart the changes of any place and our enterprises relationship to it throughout time. Another way to consider seasonality is to recognize the impermanence of our enterprises, to consider the natural changes and flexibility needed to grow like nature does.

Example: This concept might best be understood through how actual seasons affect design. The White Dog Cafe was a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, educating its customers back in 1980 that local means eating whatever the season’s harvest has to offer. White Dog Cafe continues to sources its seasonal ingredients from within a 50 mile radius. Through doing so, it not only shares an innate understanding of what and when the region has to offer, but it promotes local farmers and artisans by open sourcing her vendors to other restaurants. There is also another way to see how owner Judy Wick’s thought about nature and seasonality in her enterprise. After several years in business the White Dog Cafe became successful and had many offers to expand the business as a franchise. Instead Judy decided to grow more deeply in her place, to start initiatives and projects that allowed the White Dog Cafe to become like a mother tree in its place. With strong roots in her community, Judy was able to start ‘Sister Restaurant’ programs, offer paid vacation to all employees (including dishwashers), use entirely renewable energy, and start the Business Alliance for local Living Economies. All of this allowed her to grow like nature does, not with just the financial bottom line in mind, but with many forms of abundant capital composted and created.

Highlighted Impact Model: Farm to Table — A Model of Impact in the food industry, specifically leveraged by restaurants, in which the proprietor of an establishment will consciously direct his/her purchases toward local farmers in order to reduce footprint while simultaneously supporting the local economy. There are many other significant movements that seek to source more locally such as the fibershed movement, shirt-to-dirt movements, seed-to-soil, etc.

Highlighted Revenue Model: Retail Commerce — Retail Commerce is a revenue model leveraged for the sale of physical products in a physical setting.

*A place for Deep Scale (Meta principle)

What gets us most excited by the notion of placed-based HCD at both GWI and verynice is its ability to get to the heart of problems and generate lasting solutions. By looking beyond individual user needs to community goals, by getting out of our own silos and building a collaborative commons, and by acknowledging natural and varied cycles of change we can design at deep scale. This is best illustrated through Stewart Brand’s ‘Pace Layers’, which represent how intra-societal tiers, from Fashion to Nature, change more or less rapidly and yet the slower moving among them hold far more power.

We’re used to seeing innovation among the levels of Fashion, Commerce, and even Infrastructure. However, the real change can come from the stabilizing layers of Governance, Culture, and Nature. These layers represent how we work together, how we live together, and where we call home. This is the place for deep scale in design.

At GWI and verynice we know that design, whether human-centered, place-based, or otherwise, has always been about understanding context. We believe that place is a fundamental aspect of any context. Therefore, we’ll continue to follow the guideposts above and search for others as we define what place means for human-centered design.