Power Dynamics in Social Impact Design

“Do-good” design can do more harm than good if we’re not cautious.

I spent about five months in 2016 conducting a design research project to understand and address economic inequality, together with Plot London. (If you want the full story of that work, you can check out the seven-episode podcast I made about our project, called At Your Service).

During that project, I reflected a lot on the nature of social impact design. I couldn’t help but obsess over some of the inherent dilemmas of privilege, power, and inequality that, maddeningly, crop up in the fight against those very things.

Who am I to design solutions for poverty? The questions of our research are fraught with problems of power dynamics, entrenched disempowerment, misplaced pity and paternalism. Our team is part of a long lineage of humanitarians attempting to help those whose life experience is very different from our own. There’s a correspondingly long lineage of the critique of such work (with roots in anthropology). I find these critiques of critical ethical importance.

Here is my rumination on the ethics and efficacy of design in social impact and equality. The text is excerpted from this paper which formed part of my MA thesis submission at Hyper Island.

Design: power to the people? Or to the powers that be?

Design is a tool. As such, it can be either helpful or hindering for progressive social change. “Helpful,” in my opinion, is anything that reverses entrenched or oppressive power structures — giving a voice to everyday people, equalizing the flow of information, resources and power in society. It follows that “hindering” is anything that deepens existing inequalities — giving more power to those who already have it, silencing or inhibiting the ability of everyday people to stand up, speak out, and exercise their right to self-definition, development and autonomy.

Anke Schittway’s 2014 article Designing Development does an excellent job of level-headedly collating a number of scholarly critiques on both sides of the debate around humanitarian design. (Designers tend to use the phrase “social impact” instead of “humanitarian,” perhaps because it sounds more contemporary.) She flags the alarming dichotomy between design’s self-styling as a loose process to stimulate creative innovation, versus its embrace by moneymaking operations of the capitalist market (Kimbell, cited in Schittway 2010).

On the “pro-design” side of this debate we have Latour (2008), who argues that “designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing or breaking with the past.” On the cynical side we have thinkers like Johnson and Nussbaum, who point out how design projects have sometimes served as a trojan horse for Western values. They look at case studies where design projects have been implanted in the developing world, “a form of soft cultural imperialism” (Johnson 2011:463, Nussbaum, as cited in Schittway 2014).

Pluralism: who defines “benefit”?

One way to guard against the potential “imperialist” harms that can be brought by design projects (whether abroad or domestic) is to be cautious about which stakeholders are defining the success criteria. Who decides whether a product or service is “beneficial”?

It is important that the meaning of “benefit” be defined by those being benefitted. In the words of Rittel and Weber (1973),

…in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the undisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first.

Oosterlaken (2009) notes the dangers of designers assuming that their values and preferences are shared by their users. She points out that in the context of social impact design, a more open, user-driven approach helps ensure that designers serve the people they are intended to serve (as opposed to serving designers’ own biased sense of what’s right or needed).

Organizing ideas for my final paper

Decentering your authority: not as easy as you’d think

It seems that no matter how hard we try to “decenter our authority” through user-driven approaches, designers’ worldviews and favored ways of framing will peskily, unfailingly “reassert [themselves] throughout the process” (Schittway, 2014).

Having specialist training (and not to mention full control over how a project is framed, delivered and planned) is no small power. As said by Suchman (2011:3), the work of design and in particular, innovation, posits a power dynamic of helper and helped, imagining the world as a lacking place that is “always in need of being brought up to date through the intercessions of those trained to shape it.”

Johnson notes that the work of “social impact design” can sometimes do more harm than good:

Do-good design performs the grassroots ideological work of neoliberalism by promoting market values and autoregulation. Within the humanitarian–corporate complexes, the global poor are construed as objects of elite benevolence and non-profit largesse, rather than as historical subjects possessing their own unique worldviews, interests and notions of progress.

My concern for our project is that we are at risk of replicating the very structures of inequality which we’re trying to eliminate.

Not because we’re secretly evil, but because it’s surprisingly easy to amplify patterns of oppression without meaning to, or even realizing it, because these patterns are so deeply ingrained in us.

Despite these troubling pitfalls, I still see potential in service design as a tool for disrupting power imbalances. Service design’s grassroots tools have the ability to throw a wrench in the works, to re-program relationships, to challenge the status quo.

Again, the tool itself is neutral. It is up to practitioners and project commissioners to decide who their work will serve.

Applying the language of business and design to social issues: helpful or hindering?

User-centered design: an overly individualistic framing?

User-centricity is the beating heart of design theory. User-centricity means putting the users of a product or service at the heart of the creative process. “User-centric” is an noteworthy turn of phrase, because it emphasizes the individual over the collective.

Critiques of this phrase in the design industry mostly address the impersonal feel of the word “user,” how it anonymizes and potentially dehumanizes the individual. I have yet to see a critique of this phrase addressing its lack of community focus.

Individualism is a core tenet of modern Western capitalism. If our goal is to subvert the dehumanizing effects of capitalism, perhaps we ought to question design’s worship of the individual user.

How about community- or collective- centered design, instead of individual-centered design?
A design team at work

The market mindset

We had no client on our project, which might seem like something that makes us immune from the profit-motivated forces of capitalism. But we were (and still are) looking for an eventual client to sponsor the next stage of this project. And we’re all active professionals far from retirement who will continue to seek employment in coming years. Therefore we can’t help but sympathize, even in the subtlest of ways, with profit-driven decision makers — even ones we haven’t yet met and don’t yet answer to — who hold the purse strings. We are catering to an imagined future funder.

The market mindset affects many aspects of the design process. As observed by Schittway, in design projects for financial inclusion,

…the focus is on the needs and wants of the poor reimagined as clients, thereby individualizing what are often social, infrastructural problems. In the process, collective mobilization or resource redistribution are foregone for projects that put the onus on the poor to improve their lives.

Perhaps shifting the conversation from “user-centered” to “community-centered” design is one way we can offset the problem of untapped community potential. The issue of putting the onus on the poor is a theme that runs throughout the podcast, especially in episodes 3, 4 and 6.

I believe that many designers, charities, and nonprofit organizations are unwittingly doing more harm than good in their meddlings with “social good.” We must be vigilant, critical, and as Schittway says, cautious — constantly asking ourselves if our projects and products are serving our own egos and visions of “doing good,” or if there is truly a benefit for the people we intend to serve.

Interviewing users is an important part of the design process. But what about inviting them to join our teams?

My Key Learnings

Working together: Co-production

Co-production (discussed in episode 6) is about putting users in long-term decisionmaking positions rather than engaging them for a brief interview or workshop alone. The UK non-profit Think Local, Act Personal has a great trove of explanatory graphics, leaflets, and a concise history of co-production (the term was first coined by an economist, was later popular in public policy discourse, and had a recent revival in the disability movement).

Throughout this project, I felt a tension between the optimistic, action-oriented nature of the design disciplines, and the more cautious, wary nature of critique from the anticapitalist, activist and academic communities.

My academic origins are in the critical theoretical spaces of American Studies, which I studied at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Something that frustrated me about that scene was the lack of action, stemming from a sort of paralysis induced by too much awareness, too much critique.

That said, I haven’t completely left “that world” behind. I think there is a lot of wisdom and value in such critique. I think that the design world could be tempered with a bit of this context-awareness, and the critical world could be balanced with tools for action. Perhaps my career will unfold in the space between.

I have landed on co-production (in its true form, not watered-down as a buzzword) as a bridge between these worlds. It is one way for design to reach its highest ideal — the improvement of everyday life for everyday people.

Working at home: Studying ‘up’

Studying ‘up’ (discussed in episode 6) is a phrase referring to the less-common ethnographic practice of studying those at the top of the social hierarchy. Ethnographers and anthropologists tended to research almost exclusively indigenous tribes and cultures seen as “foreign,” until a moment called “the reflexive turn.” At that moment, the discipline “turned the lens around” and began studying developed, Western cultures in addition to “foreign” ones.

Our project indeed “studied down,” a strategy I’d reverse if I could do this all again. In the end, I felt like even the business owners I spoke to (who we presumed were in a position to help their communities in a financial sense) had very little resource to spare, and that I was sucking up their valuable time just by interviewing them.

I think social impact designers have a tendency to study “down.” I ask:

what wonders could our discipline produce if we were to “turn the lens around” as anthropologists have done, and start to design for “our own” systems and behaviors?

(by “our own,” I mean western, developed, of middle economic class or higher)

A common reaction to this suggestion is disgust and horror: “how dare we improve our own lives before tending to those people without water, food and shelter?” My answer to this indignant question is simple and perhaps hard to swallow. We in the developed world are responsible for the systems and structures that created such inequality in the first place. If we change our systems, behaviors and beliefs (less greed, more sharing, less unconscious bias, better distribution of resources) it would have an utterly transformative effect on the world. Not to mention, it’s logistically and ethically easier to work within one’s own culture, rather than meddling in unfamiliar cultures abroad or even domestically.

I am not advocating for the abolition of “studying down” in social impact work, but rather, a shift in the balance. We need more designers and humanitarians to “study up” in addition to those who are “studying down.”

Working inefficiently: Non-commercial tools

Efficiency, like individualism, is a core value of modern capitalism. Efficiency means maximizing outputs (items of value) while minimizing inputs (time and effort).

One of the “industry secrets” shared with us during the taught portion of the course at Hyper Island was IDEO’s research method. This was my favorite part of the whole course. Here’s the technique, much consolidated:

  • Identify themes in the brief
  • Identify 5 individuals who have extreme attitudes or behavior around a theme
  • Interview each individual for no more than 1 hour
  • “Download” the interview’s salient points in these categories: Observations, Needs, Problems, Opportunities, Quotes
  • Compare all five interviewee “downloads” in a team, noticing the patterns
  • Hold a synthesis session with all team members that crystallizes patterns into insights, and insights into opportunity areas

Something that fascinated me about this IDEO technique is how incredibly efficient it is. When I moved into the Plot studio, their more exploratory, open-ended way of carrying out this process seemed very inefficient in comparison.

As I tried to graft IDEO’s method onto our financial inclusion project, something didn’t feel right. My gut was telling me that I ought to be involving those interviewees in the project, giving them a seat at the decision-making table, rather than parachuting in, getting my hour interview, and running it down the conveyor belt of themes/patterns/insights/opportunities.

The IDEO method and other design tools like the double diamond indeed make sense for an industry context, where novelty and speed are key objectives for a commercial client. I wonder whether an efficiency mindset is appropriate for social impact projects.

We must question whether industry-built design methods (and mindsets) are really going to serve us in a social impact context.

The goals of any social impact project will be trust and participation. I almost want to add the word “family, ” because the degree of camaraderie necessary for high-integrity social impact work is indeed almost familial. The pace ought to be slow and sure.

From a commercial viewpoint, this way of working would be called inefficient. If that’s the case, I look forward to developing my own inefficient design tools throughout my career.

Thank you to Jeffrey Greger for tuning me in to a lot of these authors and inspiring much of these thoughts!


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