The Social Impact Design Summit was a great opportunity to bring to the surface the controversies and commonalities within our new field of practice. We had representatives approaching design from corporate and nonprofit organizations, along with representatives from academia, with a correspondingly broad array of ideas about what constitutes social impact. For example, one company was exploring a new low-cost heart defibrillator for populations in the Global South, while one nonprofit was interested in using design to challenge an oil pipeline in the Global North.

The controversy had to do with who the “client” was for these various designs: corporate or citizen client. Some of the designers at the summit wanted to discuss ways to build stronger conversations about social impact with their for-profit clients. Some organizations discussed using design to increase civic input in housing design or improving civic input in governance. Here the “client” is the civic body or humanity at large, versus having a civic goal triangulated through a corporate client. Due to design growing up as a research-and-development arm of the corporate sector, it is harder to decouple design from corporations and market-driven concerns. And for organizations trying to improve the lives of marginalized people and communities, design for social impact isn’t necessarily market-driven.

Our commonalities lay in our love for design practice. One of the most poignant moments I had during the summit was with Robert Fabricant from frog, who said, “You do what you do, and we do what we do. There’s a lot to be learned and gained from us both doing what we do.” He saw the value of every kind of practice represented at the summit. Where our controversies create divergence in thoughts and approaches, our love for design creates opportunities for convergence and possibly collaboration.

If we are to really move toward intensifying our commonalities and collaboration, it will take more support. Groups will need opportunities for more face time and play time. The contacts we made across organizations were a great start. Now the question is, ”Where do we go from here?”

Kenneth Bailey started the Design Studio for Social Intervention (ds4si) in 2007 with the support of Stone Circles Fellows and MIT’s Department of Urban Planning Community Fellows Program. Since its inception, ds4si has helped frame the need for design thinking and artistic research and development in the social-justice sector.

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