“I’ve heard we shouldn’t cross over into West Savannah.” It was the first day of class, and already one of my students had heard that going into the neighborhoods we planned to visit for our project could lead to violent attacks against us. After living in the city for only six months, she had arrived at this conclusion without visiting the area herself. Our class of 12 Master’s students at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) would be spending the next ten weeks with the residents of these two communities, giving form to their vision of the future by helping facilitate conversations between them, the companies responsible for heavy industrial pollution in the vicinity, and an environmental justice organization as part of a social innovation and participatory design course. Over the years, I’ve heard similar expressions of concern from students on the first day of class, but by the end of the semester, their mindset is transformed. Instead, they express hope and empathy for these communities and a belief that inclusiveness has the power to foster empowerment, transformation, and community resilience.
Too often relegated to generating creative solutions in service to business, designers have recently found new freedom—and purpose—in using their creativity in direct service to society. The SCAD Master’s in Design for Sustainability provides a dynamic experience that balances systems thinking, design strategy, and leadership, and leverages insights into behavior change—of individuals, organizations, and society—in pursuit of a common future. Classes focus as much on social innovation and cross-sector collaboration as they do on technical innovation and business strategies for the 21st century.
In an effort to provide experiential learning opportunities within the social innovation sector, the program immerses students in real-world, multi-stakeholder situations, many of which have historically been hamstrung by an inability to locate and sustain an appreciation for common ground between would-be partners. By placing the students in the midst of a web of conflicting worldviews, the program nurtures a deeper and more rigorous form of empathy.
With 145,000 residents, the city of Savannah provides students with a manageable microcosm of the dynamic relationships within cities where various sectors of society grapple with entrenched social conditions. A growing dialogue, best articulated by researchers William Eggers and Paul Macmillan at Deloitte in their book The Solution Revolution, is focused on the solution economy, revealing the significant potential in cross-sector collaboration to address large-scale social challenges, which can become even more complex and oppressive in urban settings. In this context, the socially conscious designer provides an essential objective voice—informed by rigorous listening and enabled by visualization skills—that can guide the process of effective multi-stakeholder engagement to develop resilient cities around the world.
This living laboratory approach reveals three key insights that designers performing in the social innovation space must embrace to be effective in designing for a complex urban environment.
1) THE IDEA IS THE CLIENT
One of the hardest concepts for our class partners to accept is that SCAD students will not create solutions for them. Partners are told early on that they will be treated as equal partners, not traditional design clients. Instead of only focusing on predetermined demands, the class focuses on their organizational mission, their business values, or their agency goals to bring stakeholders to support the same ideas, not individual organizations. More specifically, the class aligns seemingly disparate objectives to serve a central, unifying idea, such as the value partners can deliver to society by reducing the gap between the wealthy and the underserved. Before the class can design a solution that provides benefits for all stakeholders, the group must together reach a deep-seated commitment to bridging perceived divides. Students enable this process by helping partners embrace unexpected commonalities, and then stewarding a process of leveraging these latent alignments.
Those designing for sustainability embrace the construct of collective impact because it champions the health of the entire system over of its component parts. Of the five conditions of collective impact recommended by the mission-driven consulting firm FSG (a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support) backbone support is the most essential. SCAD students learn to provide this critical underpinning, becoming guardians of the common agenda and determining when it’s appropriate for them to support the project by visualizing data or demonstrating the validity of potentially relevant innovations. Community partners are expected to keep their individual objectives in mind, but the students focus on the challenge of articulating—and frequently re-articulating—the value of the common agenda to each partner. By perpetually working in service to the mutually-agreed idea underpinning the project, designers ensure that all stakeholders remain empowered and engaged throughout the design process.
2) HEALTHY ADVERSITY BEGETS A WEALTH OF DIVERSITY
Close observation of healthy natural systems reveals how various energy flows counteract one another, keeping the larger system in check, even as they prosper from symbiotic relationships. Similarly, a diversity of voices in social systems ensures a healthy resistance to extremes. Ziad Hassan, in his book The Social Labs Revolution, promotes the creation of multiple forms of capital as a means of preventing systemic collapse. “Organizations designed to produce only one form of capital,” he observes, “are a dying breed.” Hassan promotes the creation of physical, social, human and intellectual capital as a vital supplement to the focus on financial capital at all costs, as evidenced by his work in initiatives such as the Sustainable Food Lab. The sole pursuit of financial capital, he argues, implies the destruction of other forms of capital (human, social, intellectual, and others), the very forms of wealth that generate abundance.
Cities, generally speaking, are astonishingly rich in diversity. Initiatives designed to nurture and leverage that diversity often do so by amplifying alternative voices in order to counteract the overbearing and potentially destructive influence of dominant voices on the fabric of the city. Yet, the task of amplifying the voice of marginalized communities is not achieved through a singular focus on serving those communities directly, as much as on weaving the appropriate elements of the greater forces at play closer together with their needs and aspirations. Design for Sustainability students at SCAD spend as much time working with and learning from representatives of various municipal agencies that influence city functions as they do with members of their community of focus. Firsthand knowledge of nonprofits committed to the central topic at hand (whether it be food justice, equitable housing, or economic empowerment) is as essential as relationships with city authorities and local thought leaders who possess a wealth of insights. Through sensitive interaction with all of these actors within a city’s vibrant network, the students can discover and leverage overlooked opportunities and underutilized resources.
By discovering existing overlaps or unexpected linkages, students uncover the most promising opportunities. These opportunities exist less as gaps in infrastructure than as previously undiscovered bridges that can connect existing infrastructure to more of itself. This process unlocks social, human, and intellectual capital which, like nutrient cycles in complex natural systems, can feed one another in symbiotic fashion. As objective stewards of the core aim—a prosperous, equitable and sustainable cityscape—the design students remain focused on the health of the overall system, so that individual actors can remain focused on their own resilience.
3) TO ACHIEVE URBAN EQUITY, ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING
If cities have any hope of addressing the significant challenges they face, it exists within the willingness of citizens to transcend their ingrained worldviews for the sake of a future of shared prosperity. My fearful graduate student was not one to cling to misperceptions, and she quickly recognized her uninformed impression was a symptom of a larger social condition. As a member of a team dedicated to building bridges between conflicting worldviews, and realizing she was unwitting perpetuating the very dynamic we intended to overturn, she identified her own assumptions as a target behavior she needed to address.
Too often, leaders let the swirl of yesterday’s ineffective initiatives frame the strategy for what is possible tomorrow. Fear of repeating past failures can stifle the enthusiasm needed to unlock a community’s imagination and reveal its collective aspiration. Yet, succumbing to such common tendencies fails to acknowledge the basic reality that the persistence of change, when harnessed correctly, has the potential to expose significant breakthroughs. Turbulent eddies of counter-flows are not the primary force in life; it is the constancy and the force of forward flowing water that is preeminent, yet the appropriate form and direction of energy to release conversations from the turbulence is often misunderstood or overlooked.
New ideas are often dismissed as being impractical or out of touch. Design puts new ideas into concrete form as a way of demonstrating their value. In this way design opens the door to an emerging future. Otto Scharmer, founder of the Presencing Insitute, calls for the creation of collective sensing organs which, “use the power of shared seeing and dialog to tap into an unused resource of collective sensing and thinking together.” Leaders at the Presencing Insitute teach group dialogue skills for ‘letting go…then letting come,’ to help collaborators across divides discover a deeper connectivity. The ‘letting come’ is the first step toward concretely bringing into the world an entirely different form of working together, which can only be achieved once those involved let go of habitual ways of thinking. Design thinking tools such as contextual inquiry, prototyping, role playing, visualization, and demonstration of new values through the creation of artifacts have all been effectively used to successfully generate new visions for the future. Rather than focusing on which gadget can attract the most consumers, Design for Sustainability students apply these tools to solicit participation in dialogue around how a just and sustainable world can burst forth. Design, when practiced with humility and a holistic vision, can help steward well-intentioned groups toward a shared future, facilitating new conversations and injecting old relationships with a renewed sense of partnership.
In an era of dynamic change, when belief systems, social habits, and global relations are all under pressure, nurturing a shared vision for a common future is difficult but essential. Within rapidly growing cities, which are presently home to approximately half the world’s population, people live closer and closer to one another, all the while feeling more and more isolated. The traditional disciplinary pipelines of public policy and systems management can only do so much to counteract this trend.
Yet, the conversations needed to advance progress easily become mired in social dynamics that spiral downward rather than upward. Too often, this deterioration is driven by erroneously negative perceptions among disparate groups that unwittingly reinforce socio-economic divides. A new generation of individuals committed to stewarding future-driven dialogues is desperately needed to insure a more equitable society. Greater empathy among those who would facilitate that emergence is the first step in the journey toward a more equitable society. As a practice grounded in human-centered research, the field of design holds great promise for increasing the likelihood of thriving cities that are inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.