Can Design for Social Innovation Help Change Business?

Born out of a collaboration between Net Impact and the School for Visual Art's new Design for Social Innovation MFA program, the world’s first Designathon for Corporate Social Responsibility was held this weekend. As a demonstration of the program’s curriculum of bringing students together with business and social ventures to solve real world problems, the designathon paired faculty from the program with 6 companies who submitted their challenges for engaging their communities in corporate social responsibility and sustainable practices.

As someone who is completely new to the world of design, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was unsure if it would be possible to innovate around something as potentially loaded as “Corporate Social Responsibility”. Would the participating companies be truly open about their challenges and to the idea of making changes in the ways they operate in just 24 hours?

Facilitating the process of designing for social innovation is a form of alchemy well mastered by this weekend’s organizers and faculty. By the end of the challenge companies had designed high and low tech feedback loops to engage their users around volunteering, a new lobbying university to help members advocate for their issues, a partnership to unite social entrepreneurs with the resources they need to thrive, and figured out how to connect people to the place that they’re in to encourage them to live more sustainably.

Here are three valuable lessons I will take away from the weekend on how social innovation can help business change the world.

Give people a blank slate, and watch them innovate.
By giving participants a blank slate to imagine solutions, facilitators managed to tap into the endless possibility of what can happen when a group of committed people unite determined to work together to solve common challenges. Crucial to this process is envisioning where you want to be instead of being stymied by what has come before. The weekend’s mentors and facilitators designed a process for empowering stakeholders to innovate their own solutions from within their organizations that started by helping them believe that they can be change makers. Many of the solutions that came out of the weekend were challenges to engage employees in the process of designing for sustainability and social good. Imagine how business would change if instead of simply being companies, they were a collection of individuals united for sustainability within their fields.

Focus less on the problem and more on what’s possible.
To paraphrase a participant, design is less about problems and more about possibilities. In order to innovate, we must ask ourselves how we want to live and how do we want to live together. In order to leave a problem behind, we have to recognize that something new is forming that has no reference to the old.

Many of us, whether we are program managers, community organizers, public sector employees, or education advocates, face the challenge of trying to improve deeply seated systems from within those systems. It often feels like an impossible task mired by the ghosts of failures past or the constraints of what is. But what I learned this weekend is that the simple process of asking “What is?, What if?, What wows?, and What works?” can help people transform their notion of what’s possible, and oddly enough, see solutions that were right in front of them.

Designers have long been known for their power to influence how we consume, interact, and live. The importance of the rise of programs like DSI is the challenge to use design’s power for innovating social good. Our unsustainable consumption patters have already proven how powerful design is – imagine what could happen if the full power of design were unleashed to create more sustainable ways of living and to power grassroots movements. We often have people tasked with identifying problems, but imagine if every business, every organization, and every city has an office of innovation guided by design principles to empower people to work towards creating solutions based on what’s possible.

Money does not create innovation. Inspired people do.  
Designathons are totally shareable. Beyond the cost of food and art supplies, no money was spent this weekend. In a society and business culture based on the idea that money is what makes innovation possible, this weekend was a stunning argument to the contrary. More and more, I am convinced that the ways in which we’re going to take on the complex challenges of our time will not be created with money. While it’s nice to have, I think we’ve proven that money often serves to hamper innovation. The process for navigating our collective uncertain future will come from using our human capital to source our collective wisdom to reimagine and recreate what’s possible. 

Companies, organizations, and governments alike can learn a thing or two from how successful designathons and hackathons are. Empowering employees by challenging them to innovate solutions to problems will ultimately yield better results and create more stakeholders than creating a top down or outside in approach. 

Mary Anne Petrillo from Cisco Systems demonstrating a new way to use networks to connect people for social good in health and education. Credit: Eli Marias

By the end of the weekend, cross sector partnerships were formed and participants left with concrete solutions THEY created that would have cost them thousands of dollars in consultant hours. More importantly, I get the sense people’s perceptions of the role they play, the change they are capable of making, and the threshold of what’s possible fundamentally shifted. The weekend served as proof that design, when applied and facilitated, can help guide individuals, communities, organizations, and cities through the process of creating a more sustainable, engaged, and shareable world.

For more on the Designathon and SVA’s Design for Social Innovation MFA visit their site, here.

And for more on Designing for Social Innovation, check out our interview with Program Chair Cheryl Heller.

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