Social Impact Design: From Idea to Implementation

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Social Impact Design Summit in New York with a group of renowned designers and architects who have dedicated their careers to solving our world’s toughest challenges. At the Summit, there were many important discussions about ideas, but what struck me most were the passionate conversations around implementation. I believe design at its very nature is best poised to take on the challenges of implementation in challenging situations. Indeed, only when our solutions are consistently working over time will design have its proper place in how we approach problems like poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Yet, design in the social sector has been criticized for being too focused on new ideas, rather than on creating meaningful, on-the-ground change. It seems we all agree that more emphasis needs to be placed on long-term impact and implementation, yet we still primarily reward new concepts and ideas. How can we begin to place more emphasis on implementation? I was inspired by one simple suggestion raised at the Social Impact Design Summit that would start to shift norms: Change social impact design competitions. The question was posed, “What if our competitions awarded designs that have successfully been in the market for 5-10 years, instead of those that have just been conceptualized?” This would be an important change in the way our profession communicates its values around sustained impact in the social sector. In my own experience, designers are adept at navigating complexity, thrive under constraints, and have deep empathy for the unique motivations of individuals. And while I’m not naïve about the difficulties of implementation in the developing world, I do believe that creativity, inclusion, and flexibility—the natural traits of design—will be the skills that help get us to lasting change. At the Social Impact Design Summit, there was a consistent call to action for design to show impact through meaningful, on-the-ground change. My hope is that solutions like IDEO.org’s new HCD Connect platform will enable problem-solvers around the world to keep end-users’ needs in the center of design solutions and successfully implement ideas together. We invite anyone who’s working to address challenges in low-income communities to join the HCD Connect community here.

Patrice Martin is the co-lead and creative director of IDEO.org. Before founding IDEO.org, Patrice’s work has focused on addressing large-scale social change in the private, public, and social sectors, and her expertise is in connecting people’s needs with compelling design solutions. Since coming to IDEO in 2004 from SonicRim, Patrice has led projects and project teams in healthcare, financial services, hospitality, and education, with clients including Nike, Mayo Clinic, The American Red Cross, Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, and Marriott International. Patrice holds a BFA in industrial design from the University of Michigan. IDEO.org has recently launched a new resource to connect and support designers working on some of the challenges around lasting change and successful implementation of ideas. The platform, called HCD Connect, enables human-centered designers to hear directly from individuals working on the ground to get solutions out into the world. Now, designers can share stories about specific challenges, find inspiration in solutions that work, and learn from others’ insights and experiences. The platform was launched with support from the Agricultural Development Initiative at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.