Design Thinking

Calling for a Triple Bottom Line Design Metric

A fledgling program trains designers to consider the ecological, economic, and social issues shaping the built environment.

Last weekend, a small cohort of activist architects bellied up to a conference table at Harvard University to chart the future of the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network, as they had done nearly eight years ago when it was established.

In theory, SEED is design’s take on the triple bottom line; it aspires to address the ecological, economic, and social issues shaping the built environment. SEED members nobly pledge to work with historically marginalized communities, engage as those populations as partners, and build local capacity.

The SEED acronym is a play on the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) prolific LEED program, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. LEED was launched in 2000 and adopted as a federal building standard in 2007.

SEED was the brainchild of architect Kimberly Dowdell, who coined it eight years ago while interning in the Office of the Chief Architect within the General Services Administration—the federal government agency that figured prominently into the adoption of LEED. “I realized these new environmental policies were missing language about social issues,” explains Dowdell. “I immediately jumped to the conclusion that there should be a LEED program for cultural considerations.”

Through LEED, industry stakeholders are accredited as green building professionals, while individual buildings and even entire neighborhoods are certified for their environmental performance. Nearly 200,000 professionals and 55,000 projects—representing more than 10 billion square feet of construction space—have been accredited or certified as part of the program. Individuals vying for the most basic LEED accreditation must pass a four-hour, 200-question exam, while evaluators judge buildings against a long checklist of criteria. By the time LEED concluded its seventh year, the USGBC had a staff of more than 50 people, an annual budget over $20 million, 70-plus chapters nationwide, and projects certified in all 50 states.

By contrast, SEED certification counts roughly 600 individual members among its ranks, and SEED has certified just one building—a public theater in Durham, N.C.—while 143 projects are reportedly under review. Individual candidates must sit through a two-day stream of lectures, culminating in a 20-question exam with very basic questions, such as “How much does it cost to join the SEED Network?”

Whereas LEED is institutionalized throughout the building sector, SEED is a slow-growing, grassroots initiative. Since its inception, SEED has been administered as a program of a small nonprofit based in Raleigh, N.C. called Design Corps. Founded by designer Bryan Bell in 1991, the organization’s corps program now consists of a single member whose primary responsibility is to promote and coordinate SEED trainings. The two-day SEED trainings are presented under what Design Corps calls its Public Interest Design Institute. The result is a confusing, often redundant mash-up of brands that would be difficult for an organization many times the size of Design Corps to maintain.

SEED needs a redesign if it is ever to reach beyond a small choir of do-gooder designers. To engage a critical mass of mainstream building-industry practitioners, actual users, and the public at large, SEED should partner with the USGBC and LEED.

To be sure, the USGBC and LEED have vocal critics of their associated costs and organizational biases, evidenced in The New Republic’s just-published report on the energy performance of the celebrated Bank of America Tower in New York. Yet they still provide the clearest possible vehicle to take the founding principles of SEED to scale.

Rather than remain a shoestring operation, SEED should leverage the USGBC’s vast network and resources. Both SEED and LEED would become stronger programs for it. Such a partnership—between the Congress for New Urbanism, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the USGBC—led to the development of the LEED for Neighborhood Development (or LEED-ND) standard, launched in 2009. It provides an environmental strategy for entire communities, while also addressing many of the economic and social elements espoused by SEED, albeit only at one particular scale.

Another crucial area for any certification program is its training curriculum. At present, SEED’s training program consists of two-day workshops at select universities across the country. At best, it suggests that designers can gain the know-how to serve historically marginalized communities in a two-day crash course, listening mostly to other designers. To date, the program has trained approximately 600 people, charging up to $450 per person. Taking a different approach—a hybrid of online and on-the-ground training— and Acumen’s inaugural “Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation” course has attracted upwards of 15,000 participants. This free, five-week introductory course keeps practitioners in the field and avoids travel costs, while building community and fostering peer learning by requiring that participants form local teams on the ground.

For all of SEED’s challenges, its moment has not passed. “It remained clear to the 25 of us at Harvard this weekend that the principles, the tools, and the network are as relevant and needed as they’ve ever been,” explains Jess Zimbabwe of the Urban Land Institute, who trains mayors across the country to be the chief designers of their cities. “We recommitted to moving the work forward into its next iteration.”

Those of us committed to SEED’s principles have reason to be hopeful. Dowdell, now a newly licensed architect and one of the few African-American women in the profession, has stepped in once again to steer a new and long-needed advisory council. The goal is to ensure greater shared governance of SEED to help achieve its potential.

Dowdell and her team have their work cut out. The payoff, however, is potentially huge—focusing on the vital social aspect of design is a logical evolution for the greater green movement. More importantly, it’s a step toward creating more dignifying design that’s socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable.

“Once SEED articulates and delivers the value of joining, success would mean expanding the network to a truly diverse audience that goes beyond the design community,” envisions Dowdell. “It should include everyday people who want to be supplied with the resources and know-how to make their communities better by design.”

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  • BY Tom Aageson

    ON August 1, 2013 08:26 PM

    True sustainability, in our definition,  includes economic, social, environmental and CULTURAL impact.  What I mean by culture are the creative expressions of a community.  Does the investment stabilize or even better enhance the culture of the community, the expressions of food, celebration, music, dance, architecture, education,  that define a community?  Sustainability today is a four-legged stool, and one leg missing weakens the community.  You see the investment now in creative placemaking and cultural corridors nationally and internationally. 

  • BY David Witte

    ON August 4, 2013 07:09 PM

    First off, thank you for all your hard work! You continued sharing of social impact design has been much anticipated and appreciated. I find reading about these projects very inspiring during my Peace Corps service. Keep at it!

    After reading this article, and others that address the issues of metrics, I often wonder WHO is selected to set the limits. With such objective terms, how can a group set limits to what is a socially viable project? I am playing the devils advocate, because I agree with the need for a better monitoring and evaluation system; its just such a difficult thing to measure!

    And would the SEED system be confined to the states like the LEED system is? If not, the team of evaluators will need to be well versed in many different cultures to correctly evaluate a project in local context. This presents another challenge for the project managers; how to efficiently translate (cross-culturally) the SEED values. I think story-telling may be a viable solution. Videos and interviews are a great medium to demonstrate the value of a project to a community.

    Another issue with these types of projects is the duration of monitoring. How many years are we as designers required to monitor and evaluate the results? I think when a project is done correctly, the community counterpart should take on this role.

    I am looking forward to seeing the system developed!

  • Jess Zimbabwe's avatar

    BY Jess Zimbabwe

    ON August 5, 2013 12:14 PM

    Hi David:
    You raise some great questions, which we indeed explored last weekend about SEED (maybe your ears were burning). In particular, we discussed SEED’s applicability abroad, especially in Latin America. I encourage you to sign up for the SEED network to stay engaged and learn more. We’ll have more updates soon and we need good folks like you on the team. Best wishes in your Peace Corps service.

  • BY Ramsey Ford

    ON August 6, 2013 10:17 AM

    Just as the IDEO/ACUMEN workshops were not created without funding, a SEED redesign would require investment. From your perspective, would it be wise for the Autodesk Foundation—or similar—to invest in SEED to support an effort to scale?

  • BY John Cary

    ON August 7, 2013 01:00 PM

    Ramsey Ford: didn’t receive any funding from Acumen, nor from other funders, specifically to launch the “Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation” course. Utilizing the +Acumen infrastructure ( meant didn’t have to reinvent the wheel for everything from outreach to technology, which is a big part of what I’ve encouraged SEED to avoid by partnering with the USGBC.

    If I thought or had uncovered in my reporting that funding was the biggest challenge facing SEED, I would have written about that. The notes forwarded to me by multiple participants from the recent SEED Founders Meeting at Harvard cited funding just once.

    Communications, shared governance, and partnership-building are the most pressing challenges. That’s all well within SEED’s budget, which includes (or has recently included) up to six-figure grants from the AIA, Fetzer Institute, NEA, and Surdna Foundation, among others, as well as earned income from the Public Interest Design Institutes and other activities.

  • BY Ramsey Ford

    ON August 7, 2013 02:24 PM

    Thanks for the response and for exploring the relevance of management (communications, governance, partnerships, etc.) in this space. I am surprised that there was no funding for the IDEO/ACUMEN program. It would be great to see a case study on their partnership that explains both their change model and sustainability model. This case study could highlight the connections between good management (especially developing partnerships), funding and impact. Additionally, insight on their structure and process could be incredibly beneficial for the many young designers just entering the social enterprise and non-profit spaces.

  • BY Bryan Bell

    ON August 9, 2013 04:44 AM

    To address Tom and David’s points, SEED is very much about local solutions to local challenges. The SEED guiding principles are:
    Principle 1: Advocate with those who have a limited voice in public life.
    Principle 2: Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow communities to make decisions.
    Principle 3: Promote social equality through discourse that reflects a range of values and social identities.
    Principle 4: Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity.
    Principle 5: Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

    We believe that these allow for local culture and local knowledge to become a part of the design and evaluation process. This is not a top down metric but a structure for each community to define its social, economic and environmental challenges, define what success looks like and how it can be measured, and use design as one means to achieve this success.

    SEED’s mission is to advance the right of every person to live in a socially,
    economically and environmentally healthy community.  We believe this is a universal right.

  • BY Bryan Bell

    ON August 9, 2013 07:58 AM

    It’s a great question Ramsey. For the first five years, SEED was a grass roots initiative with a single $40,000 grant for administrative expenses. Even so, it was a productive time of collective action with volunteers and donated services holding free public meetings in many areas around the country. During this time, through a democratic process, the mission and principles were defined and the SEED Network was formed around them, (

    John is wrong in his representation of the funding for SEED. SEED has never received funding from the AIA. The only “six figure grant” was not to SEED but to four individuals (Roberta Feldman, David Perkes, Sergio Palleroni and myself) through the $100,000 Latrobe Prize of the College of Fellows of the AIA to research public interest design in architecture. In fact the four researchers were careful not to promote programs or organizations that we have been involved with to maintain objectivity. The full report is available here:  A recent related article is posted here:

    There is an effective strategic alliance (un-funded) with the national AIA office and local AIA chapters to partner with Design Corps to hold Public Interest Design Institutes. Since 2011 through this partnership, there have been fourteen institutes in fifteen states, training over 600 attendees on best practices in Public Interest Design ( The AIA sees a value in their members being trained in this emerging field. These Institutes present best practices through case studies and provide training in the SEED process. The average registration fee for the two-day sessions is $250.

    In 2010, the Surdna Foundation funded the first two staff for SEED. Since then, membership has increased 900%, projects submitted for evaluation have increased 400%, and the only on-line tool to measure the triple-bottom-line impact of design in communities has been developed and revised three times, ( Thanks to the Surdna funding, this instructive step-by-step tool with optional certification of projects has been free of charge to assure access to even the lowest resourced communities.

    While SEED remains a grass roots collective action through the work of many volunteers, other funders have supported specific SEED allied projects. The Fetzer Institute has funded The UpTake to produce documentaries on SEED projects ( and funded the 2012 SEED Awards for Excellence in Public Interest Design with the national conference where these were presented, ( The distinguished jury for these awards was all voluntary. A request for funding to Autodesk for the 2013 awards program ad conference was turned down.

  • BY John Cary

    ON August 12, 2013 08:28 AM

    Although not addressed in Bryan Bell’s response, the central premise of the article stands:

    “To engage a critical mass of mainstream building-industry practitioners, actual users, and the public at large, SEED should partner with the USGBC and LEED.”

  • BY Bryan Bell

    ON August 13, 2013 07:47 AM

    Collaborating with USGBC and GBCI were both items that were well discussed at the SEED Founders’ Day and plans are being made. Board members from USGBC and GBCI were in attendance and engaged in the positive conversation. It’s unfortunate that the author did not accept the invitation to attend the meeting he freely critiques, which would have helped him have much better and pertinent information. 

    It’s also not clear that this was the central premise of the article which is more of a wandering critique.  To address one more of the criticisms thrown into it, this is not a branding exercise. That is a simplistic and commercial view of social movements. Public Interest Design is not and never will be a brand belonging to anybody, unlike the brand “Public Architecture.” It is a field and category safely in the public domain, as it should be, and assured to be so by the US Patent and Trade Mark Office.

    Design Corps, SEED and the Public Interest Design Institute are more than brands. They are part of ecology of stakeholders, both organizations and individuals, who are collectively creating a social movement. Or as Barbara Brown Wilson described it in her presentation at the SEED Founders’ Day: “Social movements are constellations of groups and efforts all working towards one common set of goals- or a frame of collective action.” It is true that many of us are smaller non-profit organizations with limited resources and don’t have large for-profit backers (like Ideo has backed Never-the-less, Design Corps is proud to be a part of the positive progress being made and we are dedicated to the SEED goal that everyone should live in a socially economically and environmentally healthy community. Our training and tools show how design has an important role to play in achieving this goal.

  • BY John Cary

    ON August 13, 2013 09:20 AM

    I believe this piece provided a constructive critique and a viable path forward. I remain hopeful that the newly-established advisory committee will help SEED achieve its potential.

  • BY Casius Pealer

    ON August 13, 2013 09:36 AM

    The central point of this article to me was the need (and the opportunity) to take SEED and the SEED principles to scale. Whether USGBC or GBCI are vehicles for that process, or whether they simply provide object lessons, this article is not a criticism of SEED but rather an argument for more. USGBC certainly made changes to LEED and has changed a great deal itself as an organization in the 13 years since LEED was first launched—including by creating GBCI as an entirely separate credentialing organization.

    Personally, I think SEED would benefit more by engaging a third party credentialing org like GBCI than from partnering with USGBC itself. But as someone who has closely followed and participated in SEED and the larger public interest design movement over the years (see disclosures below), the most critical discussion now is arguably how to commercialize something that has been proven to work at a small scale in the lab. Although I expect folks won’t like the word “commercialize” this effort won’t have a meaningful impact if it’s got to be a grant-funded effort or isn’t financially sustainable and even profitable in other ways over time. In that respect, communications, governance and partnership-building for SEED are at least as important as $$ grants awarded. It seems this was a big part of the discussion at the recent meeting, and it would be good to see this public discussion forum focus on those issues.

    Incidentally, I was invited to the recent meeting at Harvard that this article describes, and was truly sorry that I was unable to attend. I expect there were many other people in that same situation and I appreciate this article as a sort of report out. If there are other more official reports or summaries, someone should post a link in this thread here.

    Personal disclosures: Design Corps Board Member - 2006-09; participated in the second SEED meeting at Tulane University (2007 I believe); and worked on staff at USGBC as Director of Affordable Housing from 2008-2010. Also, I have done pro bono work for both Design Corps and for Public Architecture over the years, and I am severely biased in favor of the success of SEED in particular and the individuals involved in general.

  • BY Kimberly Dowdell

    ON August 14, 2013 07:19 AM

    Casius, I couldn’t agree with you more.  Jess Zimbabwe and I are pleased to co-chair the SEED Advisory Board, which is conducting a kick-off meeting via conference call later today.  The newly formed board includes 13 dedicated individuals who have committed to establish a new path forward, building upon what has been cultivated over the last 8 years. 

    Our first steps will involve the development of a new governance structure to facilitate heightened partnership-building, communications and funding support.  Eventually, SEED must be able to sustain itself financially and I think that we will explore a variety of scenarios that will bring this key objective to fruition.  I actually don’t mind the word “commercialize”, as long as we stay true to our mission and create a real impact.

    The SEED Advisory Board is represented by people who care deeply for the mission and principles of SEED and want to see all of our collective efforts improve lives and communities across the globe. Our board includes Bryan Bell, Maurice Cox, John Quale (USGBC Board Member), Jess, myself and others who are interested in collaborating to bring the best possible solutions to the table and eventually to the public.  Beyond the Advisory Board, we have an even larger body of leaders and supporters who will be important to SEED’s next steps.  This is an exciting time in SEED’s history and we look forward to sharing our progress with everyone.

  • BY John Cary

    ON August 14, 2013 08:50 AM

    This is very encouraging, Kim. It’s clear that SEED has enormous potential.

  • BY Bryan Bell

    ON August 15, 2013 07:07 AM

    The effectiveness of the Public Interest Design Institute is best judged by the evaluations completed by every one of the 691 attendees at all of the fifteen sessions. These are publicly available here:

    As one example, a session held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design shows the following results:

    Please evaluate how successfully the Public Interest Design Institute met your expectations for each of the following.
    ‘5’ is highly successfully
    ‘3’ is successfully
    ‘1’ is unsuccessfully
    Average Score/Learning Objective
    4.8 Maximizing a project’s positive impact on a community
    4.5 Moving beyond LEED to measure the social, economic, environmental impact on communities
    4.8 Understanding public interest design and how it is re-shaping the design professions
    4.5 Using a step-by-step process of working with a community as a design partner
    4.2 Identifying new fee sources
    4.4 Leveraging other partners and assets to address challenges
    4.6 Finding new clients and public interest design projects

    These learning objectives are based on the two years of research of the 2011 FAIA Latrobe Prize which identified educational obstacles to the successful practice of Public Interest Design.

    All of the trainers are recognized leaders in the field: The size of each training is limited to 80 so as to assure that each participant has the chance to engage in discussion and address personal interests and goals. This size is based on the Harvard Business School’s practice of the case study method of education.

    But the most important measure of success in Public Interest Design training is how many membes of the public will benefit as a result. 98% of those who attend the PID Institute state that they plan to complete a Public Interest Design project based on what they learned at the training.

    We value the quality of the education provided by of experienced trainers, and we value these measures of success from our participants (over one opinion of the author).  It was also premature for the author to praise the training program of Ideo since their first effort was not even completed yet. I for one will be curious to see how their method works. Is picking one of three issues provided by Ideo, designing a solution, and then “testing it on the community” an effective training method for working with communities to identify and then address what their greatest challenges are?

  • Gilad Meron's avatar

    BY Gilad Meron

    ON August 15, 2013 06:16 PM


    I’m glad you bring up the Public Interest Design Institute (PIDI), because I think it’s of even more importance than the prospect of partnering with USGBC/GBCI (and it appears from the comments above that SEED is already working towards that goal anyway). I believe that the future of the public interest design movement is inextricably tied to the education of the next generation of designers, and I want to call on SEED to take a more active role in fostering and facilitating their growth and development through the PIDI.

    I want to make clear that I am a supporter of SEED: I am a member of the network, a recent PIDI participant, and an advocate for everything the organization aims to accomplish. I recognize that I’m neither a SEED Advisory Board member, nor a seasoned professional, but I am a representative of a generation of designers who are looking to public interest design as a career path. As such, I want to contribute a few ideas about how the PIDI could increase its impact for us.

    To begin with, calling PIDI a training program is a misnomer; it’s an introduction to the practice of public interest design. It is a pioneer in that sense, and one of only a handful of programs serving that role, so it is critically important. That being said, from the perspective of a recent graduate looking to build a career in public interest design, the institute was very inspiring, but offered little actual training.

    My point is not to criticize the PIDI, but to call attention to the fact that if we reframe it as an introduction to the practice, rather than a training or certification program, it becomes more clear what its role should be and how it can be most effective in working towards the long-term goal of supporting and growing the public interest design movement. Given this reframing, I want to suggest two areas for potential growth that could help the institute become a more useful and impactful introduction for participants, specifically those looking to build careers in this emerging field.

    First, there needs to be a much more robust exploration of history incorporated into the first day of the institute. Currently, PIDI begins with a very brief overview of what has happened recently; a single slide citing just a few books and exhibitions. It fails to touch upon the 60+ years of community design that laid the groundwork for public interest design, and mentions nothing of the rich literature, theory and practice in the fields of planning and community development (among others) that public interest design practitioners build much of their practice from. For 20-somethings who want to build a career in public interest design, being informed about the past is crucial to moving forward.

    Clearly, there is not enough time in two days to explore all of that history, but there should be at the very least some time spent reviewing and actively discussing the major movements and developments of the past 50 years that have influenced public interest design. In addition, PIDI participants could be asked (and expected) to do background readings before attending to help frame what they will learn, as is the standard with the Harvard Case Study Method. At the very least, participants should be given a diverse list of readings or other educational resources so they can continue to learn about public interest design after the PIDI is over.

    This leads to my second point: currently, there is no venue for continuing education for PIDI participants. At minimum there should be resources to support self- and peer-education through the SEED Network. This could even start during the two days of the PIDI; what if participants were given a homework assignment on the night between the two days, which required them to meet in the evening and have group discussions about important points they heard during the day.

    There is no shortage of topics to discuss, and each could lead to a deeper educational experience for participants. For example, at the PIDI I attended, Bryan briefly discussed a three-pronged analogy: law is to justice, as medicine is to health, as design is to democracy. This is a fascinating and hugely important idea, which could have much greater impact on participants if they were given time to discuss amongst themselves what it means. To echo a quote given during the PIDI I attended, “Tell me, I will forget. Show me, I might remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” Why not apply this mentality to the institute itself? Involve participants more deeply in conversations and require they engage with one another more. The result will be a greater level of understanding about public interest design.

    Furthermore, these group discussions would not have to end after the two days; they could transform into monthly discussion groups for participants to reunite and advance the public interest design dialogue, thus promoting continued education. What if this concept was expanded to the entire SEED Network? What if SEED appointed representatives in cities across the country who organized weekly or monthly meet-ups, potlucks or discussion groups (which could be done easily with social media)? This would be a grassroots approach to building the movement, and would address the key gap that people my age feel; a lack of infrastructure to support students, recent grads and young professionals to meet one another, network, share resources, learn from one another and collaborate.

    This could grow into a true network, one that could build discourse and relationships, and would not only be filling a critical gap, but also be helping to build towards the long-term sustainability of the public interest design movement, and furthermore it would help position SEED as an even more critical leader within the constellation of groups, individuals, and organizations working towards the growth of public interest design.

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