Can design transform social impact?

In a 2013 Wired interview, Melinda Gates was asked a simple question:

What innovation do you think is changing the most lives in the developing world?”

She replied:

“Human-centered design. Meeting people where they are and really taking their needs and feedback into account. When you let people participate in the design process, you find that they often have ingenious ideas about what would really help them. And it’s not a onetime thing; it’s an iterative process.”

According to IDEO, a leading global design firm that has pioneered the approach, there are three core tenets of human-centred design:

In other words, human-centred design isn’t about just making nice, pretty things for people. It’s creatively solving a problem in a way that is feasible (is it possible to create?), viable (is it financially sustainable?), and desirable (do people actually want it?).

So, is Melinda Gates right? Can human-centred design transform the way we create social change? I think it can. The clarity of this approach is simple and refreshing, but I think that the social sector (not to mention other sectors, too, but we won’t go there) fails to put it into practice as often as it should.

Here are four reasons why I think that human-centred design can make such a big impact:

  1. It leads to sustainable and regenerative solutions

Let’s take a look at two of the most well-known socially-conscious businesses: Warby Parker and TOMS Shoes. In terms of the buy-one-give-one model, what’s the difference between these two companies? Isn’t there philanthropic approach essentially the same?

TOMS Shoes original model — one they are now trying to distance themselves from — was to give away a pair of shoes for every pair that was sold. The criticisms of this model were widespread and incisive, asserting that TOMS did nothing to address the root causes of poverty, and instead provided a temporary solution that contributed to a culture of dependency in the developing world.

When Warby Parker was founded four years later, they took a different approach to social impact, one that I would argue is rooted in the principles of human-centred design. For every pair that they sell, Warby Parker doesn’t give away a pair of glasses for free to someone in need. Instead, they actually donate them to an experienced, effective non-profit partner like VisionSpring, which trains people in developing countries to administer eye exams and sell glasses to their communities at affordable prices. Instead of disrupting local markets by providing a band-aid solution, Warby Parker helps foster entrepreneurship and provide a sustainable income for those in developing countries.

Human-centred design has not only helped Warby Parker differentiate itself in the crowded, competitive eyewear industry, but it has also enabled it to make a lasting, sustainable social impact, guiding the way for the next generation of post-TOMS social entrepreneurs.

2. It involves the people you’re trying to help

Asili is a social enterprise zone in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that provides a variety of affordable, vital services to local communities, like clean water, health care, and a farming co-op. When creating Asili, (IDEO’s non-profit arm) and the American Refugee Committee (ARC) involved a number of local Congolese people in deciding everything from the design of the social enterprise as a whole, down to the logo, and anything in between. Local people were deeply involved in the project from day one, which has played a major role in helping Asili succeed.

When we solve problems this way, it takes us out of the office and into the world — we actually talk to the people we are trying to help and work with them to find a solution that’s contributive, sustainable, and scalable. Asili, for its part, has proven that its model works. As said in its latest impact report:

Asili is on a path to scale. ARC plans to open four zones (clinic, agriculture, water) by 2017 serving a community of 40,000 Congolese. And its ambitions are borderless. Asili’s plug-and-play service model has potential to work across sub-Saharan Africa.”

3. It knows when to use technology, and when not to

Software may be eating the world, but when it comes to addressing wicked, complex problems like poverty or malnutrition, software plays just one role as part of a larger solution. For impact organizations, it’s tempting to want to leverage new technologies at every turn — see UNICEF’s foray into virtual reality as a recent example — and it’s hard to know what trends will stick and what won’t.

Technology shouldn’t be used for its own sake — it should serve as a means to accomplish the end goal: solving the problem you set out to solve. When you take a human-centred design approach, and focus on the people whose lives you are seeking to improve, that helps you keep things in perspective.

For example, worked with U.S. non-profit, Moneythink, on a digital app to build good financial habits among low-income Chicago teens. But the app alone is not meant to accomplish this — it’s powerful because its used to augment Moneythink’s in-person classroom learning and entrepreneurship competitions, and because its design was highly usable as it was inspired by the numerous social apps that students already used. The app is now being used by 1,315 students in 40 schools.

4. It focuses on impact, not itself

In a recent article titled Are Non-Profits Getting in the Way of Social Change?, David Wertheimer, deputy director for the Pacific North West Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said:

“One of the reasons that I left being a nonprofit executive director was that I realized that I was consistently putting the needs of my organization above the interests and the needs of the clients we were serving”

By contrast, design is experimental, interdisciplinary, and problem-focused by nature, so design organizations in the social sector aren’t bound to the traditional approaches to philanthropy, and don’t assume they know what the solution is without talking to the people who they’re trying to help.

By focusing on impact, mission-driven design organizations can bridge divides and build partnerships with progessive non-profits, NGO’s, governments, social enterprises, corporations, and any other organizations that can help them achieve a viable, feasible, and desirable solution to whatever problem they face.

What next?

The principles of human-centred design are starting to take root across the social sector, and it’s for good reason — by focusing on creating solutions that are desirable, feasible, and viable, we can look past traditional approaches to philanthropy, blur the line between profit and purpose, and make a real impact on people across the world. I think that design is poised for a breakthrough throughout the social sector in 2016, and it’s time for all of us to get on board.