Radicalizing Innovation: Are activists the invisible designers?

The entire world knows about Martin Luther King Jr. He had the opportunity to develop the burgeoning grassroots Civil Rights movement into a national phenomenon, where he fought stagnantly against the issues of racial inequality for the world to see.

Less people, on the other hand, know about Bayard Rustin. A black gay man, he served as the genius organizer behind much of MLK’s civil rights movement. He helped to teach Martin Luther King about nonviolent protest, and organized its implementation into civil disobedience acts while organizing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Without Rustin, the world-famous march on Washington wouldn’t have ever happened. However, as a black, gay socialist, his sexuality was criticized as an ‘immoral influence’ by strong conservative influences in the civil rights movement.

I don’t mean to biography Mr. Bayard for no reason; many other manuscripts illustrate Bayard’s genius much better than I ever could. Instead, I offer his narrative to present a different lens: was he an innovator? From issues including but not limited to: civil rights, foreign policy, LGBT rights, refugee aid, his work required a deep understanding of the issues with the world. He offered his life towards figuring out how he could remake it. It would be interesting to hear how scholars of innovation might say about his ability to understand and remake the world.

However, this isn’t just about Mr. Rustin, it brings up an interesting question. Who in our society is allowed to be called an innovator, and receive the privileges of that title?

Why aren’t activists considered designers?

Recently, there is a large movement about designers becoming the next collection of activists. This isn’t a bad thing; more people who see the issues of society and are impassioned to address them might lead to more discernible change. We can learn from the lessons of the Arab Spring; a community working towards a shared vision can do much more than sole innovators working by themselves. In this way, if design thinking practice has opened certain floodgates of remaking our world, we say all the better for it.

However, we must remember that the idea of ‘designing’, isn’t an activity only available to those who call themselves ‘designers’. One might argue that those who do ‘design practice’ in many forms are afforded the time, energy, resources, and other types of privilege which gives them the space to grow into storied innovation careers. When Obama was in office, he was a prominent supporter of Silicon Valley-esque innovation: whether we look at his South By South Lawn festival at the White House, or his consistent meetings with Silicon Valley tech leaders even after he left office. In many ways, our society shines a light on these entrepreneurs as the futurists of society; this brand gives these designers the bona fides to speak about what issues to focus on.

Some authors make the point that current innovation discourse focuses too much on technology and too little on relationships between people and history. Moreover, they argue that the focus on end users as the main drivers of societal change distracts us from the institutionalized systemic issues of society. If we try to address, for instance, the lack housing crisis in the East Bay, why are the ‘innovators’ particularly primed to address the solutions in the ‘right’ way, and why do the solutions often seem to look like an app or poverty-based empowerment initiative?

Our friends over at EquityxDesign have made the point that racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic systems have been designed over centuries of institutionalized inequity. If we want to deeply change the housing crisis, we must remember how redlining, the highway system, gerrymandering, and many other initiatives got us here. By viewing problem spaces through these lens, we have more opportunities to design.

This brings us back to the responsibility of the equity-focused designer. How can we design with these issues in mind? To start, we have to rethink the values we espouse when we design. We can’t only learn how to empathize with the end user, or only learn how to ideate and synthesize pain points of society, or only learn how to make, test, and iterate our solutions until they are sustainable. While this approach to design might work for Silicon Valley, it will fall short when it comes to designing for equity. We must learn about the politics of environments- how history made the world we live in, where we learn how our identities inform how we innovate, and who else should be a part of the innovation conversation; in essence, designing to democratize innovation practice.

Now, that last part is critical. How would we spread innovation practice to communities who aren’t traditionally included? The best design thinking guidelines argue designer communities should be widely diverse, but designers…usually aren’t. One big reason: that designerly ‘expertise’ is a critical value in design work. For instance, Ezio Manzini, a foremost juggernaut in design praxis for decades, makes this point in his recent book, Design, when everyone designs, where he differentiates between the ‘diffuse’ designer, those who ‘innovate’ naturally, and the ‘experts’ who are trained to operate as professionals.

However, we can deeply problematize this construction of expertise. Many professional designers are considered as such because they have the portfolios, schooling, and references to back it up. I might ask: why were you let into those spaces to get those references? How did you get an opportunity to build your portfolio? What gave you the opportunity to attend your school, instead of another?

Another question we can ask of the ‘expert’ designer evangelists is the differential value of these ‘designerly’ skills. We do not claim that ‘designers’ don’t do novel, valued, and interesting work, and need exceptional experience to do so. Instead, we ask if the skills of a designer — sensemaking, imagination, and remaking the world we live in — are particularly unique to these ‘innovators’. Certain topics and skills, like algebra, biology, sociology, and medicine should definitely be taught and professionalized. But how much of the skills of a professional designer are ‘given’ from a teacher to a student, and how much are they cultivated from already existing skills available to all human-kind?

These questions, among a plethora of others, are ones we must ask ourselves about why other members of society are afforded the design moniker, and all the privileges it affords. Certainly, the average Bay Area innovator has a lot to learn about themselves if they aim to increase equity. One might ask, what can we learn from those who already design for equity- the activists.

Source: Wikipedia

What can the ‘innovator’ learn from the activist?

All of America has heard about Harriet Tubman. Her story as the main conductor for the Underground Railroad resonates through our annual Black History Month specials. However, more detailed stories about her life would give us more insight into her entrepreneurial nature.

We all know she helped to free many slaves, but few come to grips with the superhuman qualities it takes to go back into slave territory at least thirteen times.

Another retelling of Tubman we appreciate comes from the indefatigable Crissle West, where she illustrates her career as a spy for the Union army for the Civil War. As she says, “It was the first military operation that was executed and led by an American woman, and it was planned by a former slave who could not read or write.”

Moreover, the operators of Underground Railroad tours report, “”In winter in the mid-Atlantic, they had little or no food. If they were lucky they could seek refuge and food from the Quaker community. Sacks would be hidden in holes in trees with warm socks and hardtack biscuits.” The page recalls a story where, instead of being caught by a former overseer, “she quickly released one of the chickens she was carrying, and pretended to give chase, creating a comic kerfuffle that allowed her to slip away unnoticed, even though, ironically, everyone’s eyes were on her.”

Apparently, Tubman was also raised as a great cook by her mother, and she used to lace the bread with landanum to keep toddlers asleep so they wouldn’t attract undue attention.

How much ingenuity, experience, and vision did it require to think of and carry out these activities? As a poor, black, illiterate, woman slave, how much of what she did in her life is considered innovative? In some ways, one might consider though Tubman was a one in a lifetime hero and innovator. How can an innovator who starts from the bottom, like Tubman, imagine a better world?


If we as a community ask these radical questions, we might lead ourselves to answers which help upend how we see our world. If we followed through on them, we might also upend what our world looks like. It seems to me that the best people to learn from are those whose lives depend on upend society as it currently exists. These activists live today, and their work as unsung innovators live on.

In this, we hope to open the conversation about how multiple, valid, differing expertises about how to contribute to the world. In many instances, the true innovation happens at the margins of society. Many of these are activists, and we should work to learn from their lessons if we want to build on their successes.

What innovation lessons will you learn from those in the margins?