Social innovation is all around us. From Paul Hawkins observation in Blessed Unrest that grassroots organizations make up “the largest movement on earth,” to c-suite executives who have expressed renewed interest in intra-preneurship, to the millions of startup social entrepreneurs being supported by forward-looking foundations, and the venture capitalists who are prefacing the word investing with impact—some days it seems that there is no one left in the world who does not want to change it.
It’s as if we have woken up all at once—not just to the scariness of the challenges we face, but to the realization that we are not powerless to fix social problems and that deep satisfaction and well-being comes from working for good instead of just working. Take this year’s fellows at PopTech, the annual ideas and innovation conference in Camden, Maine. There was Michael Murphy, who has re-imagined the practice of architecture to heal whole communities, and Rose Goslinga, who has designed a way to insure 22,000 small-acre farmers in Kenya against crop failure.
But because social innovation is everywhere, it’s also all over the place. New silos of experts crop up all the time, each slightly restating the jargon. Added to the confusion of similar words, conflicting methods complicate and make simple truths obscure. The race to impact and scale often ignore business fundamentals; and there is not enough focus on unintended consequences. We are accelerating, incubating, and funding on the fly—before we know what works. Talk of collaboration is constant, but talk is still cheap and we continue to struggle within the organizational boundaries of the industrial age we’re trying to shake.
Now add design: the ability to create what’s new, and lead diverse teams through the creative process; to connect, integrate, see systems; to simplify, identify, and convey meaning; to tell stories; to visualize the unimaginable; to build and introduce order through beauty and elegance. Design allows an outsider to be “stupid” in all the right ways—by listening and observing. And that’s just the invisible part, before designers create artifacts that speak to mass audiences and create movements.
So far, though, while the d.school at Stanford and Amy Smith’s D-Lab at MIT have pioneered interdisciplinary programs that teach design thinking, there has not been a comprehensive MFA program to prepare visual designers to enter the world of social innovation—no learning path to a fully integrated role. Design has been for the most part just one more siloed discipline, a “nice to have” input after the technology and business strategy are in place.
Design can make a game-changing contribution to social innovation, but to do that, designers need a way to immerse themselves in the contexts where social innovation happens, acquire the skills they need to play a leading role, and a means to facilitate the process and foster collaboration. The big opportunity is to apply the creativity, skills, vision, and methods of design to the entire process of social innovation—to work from inside the system, helping people see the same things, connect the silos, and make sense of problems by making them imaginable and accessible. Design helps define a path forward. It untangles the complicated processes and players, helping us map what’s working and where.
Design for social innovation includes the design of everything: from conversations, communication campaigns, experiences, structures, technology platforms, systems, products, business models, strategies, art, and culture. It incorporates all traditional and new design disciplines and mediums— identity, interactive, film, product, movement, and game design. It has the potential to be the single integrating force we need to take on the challenges we face—systemically and sustainably.
We’re launching the MFA Program in Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City for the most practical reason of all: we see a tremendous need, and no other way to get there. If social innovation is our relationship with purpose, design is the means and the method to make that purpose manifest. That’s what we plan for our graduates to do, from inside corporations, communities, governments, entrepreneurial enterprises, and nonprofits.
Author and thinker Daniel Pink said that MFA is the new MBA. We believe that the goal is not to replace one degree with the other, or to further divide those that earn them, but to see that creativity and visual thinking are equally important and vital to successful endeavors.
Social innovation needs practitioners who are creative, visual, passionate, broadly curious, generalists, integrators, listeners, systems thinkers and doers, and people who know how to create lives filled with both success and purpose. It needs designers.