Here is another in my series on SXSW events. I am pleased to be attending SXSW for the first time. I am grateful for Adobe Acrobat for enabling me to attend. I will be attending their all day Creative Camp Event on March 12, as well as some other Adobe sponsored sessions. As I do with other events I will be posting my notes from most of the sessions I attend. This is the session on Design for Social Innovation and Public Good led by Barbara Brown Wilson Dir UT Austin Center for Sustainable Development, Jess Zimbabwe Exec Dir ULI Daniel Rose Center For Public Leadership in Land Use, John Peterson Founder & Pres, Public Architecture, John Bielenberg Dir Project M, and Suzi Sosa Exec Dir Dell Challenge. Remember these notes are almost real tine so please excuse typos. Here is the session description.
“A new movement is gaining momentum in the design world— a movement to expand the applications of high design beyond its elitist client base to solve complex social problems. This panel will engage an array of leaders in the public interest design movement who use design thinking in various ways to address global challenges and engender social innovation at different scales. John Peterson will bring his experience developing the largest interactive matchmaking database for pro bono design services between top architecture firms and deserving nonprofits to the discussion; Jess Zimbabwe’s contribution will be informed by work empowering civic leaders to use design thinking to solve public problems; John Bielenberg will bring his perspective on the influence of graphic design campaigns to bring awareness to complex social problems; while Barbara Brown Wilson will draw from her work in higher education to discuss the role of active learning and interactive online project evaluation to empower students to become social innovators. Suzi Soza, from the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service’s Dell Social Innovation Competition, will moderate the panel.”
They are thinking about design as a process and not a technology or application. They are going to discuss how to use the design process for social good. John started off with Habitat for Humanity. There are opportunities and challenges. One challenge was the quality of the homes they were able to construct, They are the fourth largest home builder in US and are larger globally but they work with local affiliates. Design had not been a focus. Instead they look at issues like affordability, which of course is a consideration. They set up a program to get more architects involved with local affiliates. Four of seven were success and three were failures. Rigidity of the affiliates was one factor for failures and also designers were now working in new markets and new cultures. So there were mistakes on both sides. Also Habitat for Humanity as an organization that did not see design as important and wanted promo money to use their name even though they were getting much more in free design services.
Barbara went next to talk about SEED – Social Economic Environment Design (aka) green building. What the main components of SEED? We need to more beyond general checklists but take in the local situation, as well. The SEED network is an attempt to address this. It is still in evolution. They welcome contribution and the word social is used for this reason. It provides things to use to assess potential green building projects. It was asked how you assess social impact? There are guidelines for this. There are none in Texas because it is labor union driven where the unions want healthy green jobs with benefits. They want community involvement. She is most concerned when the term “green” is misused just to get grant money without community involvement.
Jess next talked about the challenges in getting community leaders and politicians to see the value of design. They need to see was being done as bringing new jobs. These people are good at determining public perception that can be useful. They have a program where they take public officials to see what other towns are doing. They also make it multi-disciplinary. The community leaders are good at reading what people want but also have a high fear of failure. An example of success is making public transit available to Google Maps. Portland was the first and there has been much benefit from this. She worries about the Tea Party fear of government as a source of public good. She sees government as a way to do what cannot be done otherwise and a means to get things started that get picked up then but by the private sector. We also need to make the citizen participation process simple so people do not get turned off by the complexity.
It was asked about the common themes in these examples? John said we have to careful about the language used. You also need to relate things back to concrete results. Do not use design community language. It was agreed that the design community talks to itself too much. Sometime the word “design” is not used in a program to get broader engagement.
What is the common skill set of designers? Taking a step back and take a longer look at an issue. Sounds like the last session on complexity. This is hard for government officials who spend their day outing out for fires and have short attention spans.
Barbara said translation is often a key issue. I experienced this myself working for the City of New York in the early 70s. We were working on citizen participation in urban renewal. We mainly taught community leaders how to translate their demands into the language of Federal officials without giving up on anything they actually wanted in order to get grant money. It was very successful because we were able to speak on a common language.
Now there is more community involvement rather than have larger organization like the World Bank telling people what to do. I agree completely I have found in any project there is a direct correlation between the amount of community or end user involvement.