Business of doing good: Hybrids bring new ways of tackling big questions

SITU is a design, research and fabrication company in Brooklyn, NY. Founded by four architects in 2005, the practice is an LLC focused on interdisciplinary work, with three branches. SITU Fabrication makes complicated digital designs into 3D objects; SITU Studio is a design office; and SITU Research applies spatial analysis, visualization, technology and design to contribute to questions of at the nexus of social justice, science and innovation.

I first came to know SITU through the Research branch (they’re a grantee of the Open Society Foundations) where they demonstrated the power of spatial visualization and analysis to make complex sets of information more understandable. The methods they apply can help us understand what happened, where, in the space, and in what time. SITU creates powerful tools to support courtroom arguments and in investigations. There’s lots to say about the potential for their research work; but right now, I want to concentrate on the hybrid nature of what they do, and what that means for the business of doing good.

Hybrid businesses combine profit and non-profit (or low-profit) arms under one roof. They do this for a number of reasons: to attract and retain talent; to differentiate the business in a crowded field; to cycle in new skills and experiment with tactics, tools, and skillsets that may end up contributing to the core business. Good hybrids become great partners in the ecosystem of doing good. They can focus expensive, rarified skills on the problems that require those talents. And they can feed the enterprise by bringing additional benefits to the business’ bottom line.

To support its hybridity, SITU has created distinct streams for core profitability and a lower margin for social enterprise. SITU Research receives philanthropic money to fund the staff time and development of its project work on Spatial Analysis for Evidence and Advocacy [PDF}. This branch operates at-cost; grants essentially cover payroll, including the time of one of SITU’s partners to run it.

The motivation of any business to do that kind of subsidy of time, effort, studio space, operational back end, and bookkeeping to maintain such a thing is about leadership, differentiation, and staff. If the founders and partners were motivated to start down this path, hybridity means the business case for doing good is about talent and client attraction. SITU Research sets SITU apart. When clients are looking for design firms, the research elements demonstrate that the studio isn’t just saying it’s multidisciplinary and can draw on unexpected expertise for solutions; it really is. This gives confidence to clients seeking out problem solvers. Similarly, when talented potential employees are looking for work, they can tell at a glance that at SITU their whole brain will be engaged, and their work will have additional meaning in some kind of social good. And there’s an additional bonus: SITU can afford to have on staff a full-time coder, because there will be a steady stream of work for that person through research projects. That in return helps the design and fabrication divisions.

I said earlier that hybrids can be great partners for civil society and social enterprise in highly challenging environments. Think about it in terms of equality of arms: social problems are going up against governments and businesses with outsized budgets to litigate, statisticians and data scientists galore, and time and money on their side. But if you’re offering some seriously specialized skills to a community of activists, nobody will have the skills to verify, challenge, or audit your work without very deliberate effort on your part. SITU’s got to check its work, and it does so with some key forces in mind.

  • The reputation of the business is at stake. There’s some risk that, if SITU Research produces unrefined or incorrect research, then the practice as a whole will suffer.
  • Research maintains an advisory group of collaborators and experts that operate outside of business aims.
  • SITU Research is an active participant in the ecosystem of groups it works with. So Research shows up to some unusual gatherings for a design studio: human rights conferences, art exhibitions, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • SITU raises funds from philanthropy. Donor education is hard, but SITU Research raises the level of knowledge with its partners. SITU can do more with less by taking advantage of the larger infrastructure, and punch above its weight.
  • SITU Research deepens and broadens its skills with each engagement. Rather than saying “that’s not my job” to help NGOs learn about technology, SITU looks for ways to let nonprofits make meaningful contributions to projects as partners, as well as recipients, of expertise. They use existing knowledge and data already produced by social justice work to contribute to the output, and they produce tools that are reusable and can be redeployed. SITU grows each time, and so does the sum total of sophisticated technology directed at pressing social problems.

SITU Research taps into highly specialized expertise to use sophisticated knowledge and technology for social good. It likely wouldn’t be possible outside of this hybrid model to do what it does. Not only for the cost factor, but because specialized industries move at a fast pace. NGOs can be constrained from experimentation by fundraising, lower salaries, and staff needing to wear many more hats. NGO culture can also be more risk averse, and NGOs aren’t usually set up with the right funding and structure to sustain innovation. Mobilizing the administration and the intelligence of the design studio makes research possible, and keeps it abreast of advances brought on by the commercial space and market at large. But SITU Research isn’t the only beneficiary. The business case for Research inside SITU is seen in the flow of tools, processes, and knowledge generated by the nontraditional problem sets brought on by civil society and pressing social questions. Those make their way into the wheelhouse of the business, and enhance its outflow. As long as that makes sense, hybridity makes sense.