Five Intelligent Coalitions: Design and Social Impact panelists were invited to expand on the Design and Social Impact white paper recommendations. Each had participated in the 2012 Social Impact Design Summit, which the “Design and Social Impact: A cross-sectoral agenda for design education, research and practice” white paper chronicles.

Bryan Bell, Co-Founder of the SEED Network and Executive Director of Design Corps, answers questions about the summit recommendation creating a culture of evaluation and how it relates to his current work.

Project PLUG (Portable Laboratory on Uncommon Ground) is a mobile bio-medical laboratory / dwelling for veterinarians and bio-medical scientists studying chimpanzee health in the Mahale Mountains National Park of Tanzania; designed by a multi-disciplinary team of students and faculty from Virginia Tech.

One consistent theme during the Social Impact Design Summit discussions was the need for a set of evaluation tools that could demonstrate the long-term impact of design projects and initiatives. You addressed this idea of building a culture of evaluation for this area of social impact design. Could you explain why this type of data can help valuation, funding and provide necessary feedback?
As designers and architects we need to prove to communities what the value of design is to them. This can’t be promises made. It has to be by evidence that is rigorously documented.

Most often now, the work of the architect is considered over when the building opens. We take our photo and are done. The result is that we are neither given appropriate credit or appropriate blame for what happens inside the building from then on, besides leaks. We need to get credit for the positive actions that the building facilitates, orchestrates, and supports. Of course we share this credit with the service providers and many other team members.

How do we collect this proof? Through evaluation. Evaluation involves the process of determining whether goals have been achieved with an explanation of a program’s success or failure. Evaluation answers critical questions about a project: How were goals defined and accomplished? What was done well and what wasn’t? Did appropriate project-planning cause the intended effects? What proof of accomplishment demonstrates that goals were met as anticipated in the project?

One of the summit short-term recommendations was: research existing metric systems and work toward an international system of metrics that evaluates social impact design. Would you consider the SEED Evaluator and SEED Certification as one of these metric systems for evaluating design? Can you explain what it is and how it works? Is the Evaluator limited to architecture and urban design?
The SEED Evaluator has been developed over the last eight years exactly for this purpose – to evaluate the success or failure of public interest design projects. The Evaluator provides guidelines for a design process that directs participatory research practices and tools to document the goals, process and results of a project. It works equally well for all the design disciplines. Our first version allowed for a choice between disciplines, but in our third version we have now come up with a common language that works for any design project. And as important is that we use language that works for the general public as well.

The Evaluator does not just measure social impact, but also economic and environmental impacts – a triple bottom line. This is done through performance measures. Since every community has a unique set of challenges, they decide what their priorities are for meeting these, determines what success looks like, and how it can be measured. These then become the goals for the design project. The creativity of designers can shape solutions that address more than just one issue. Essentially this is doing more with the same resources. Designers’ highest creative ability could well be solving how one project can meet multiple community challenges.

How does the Evaluator work? It is a free online tool ( that is broken down into understandable and manageable steps to provide a platform that can be shared to assist collaboration and consensus building. Completion of the three phases of the SEED Evaluator can lead to SEED Certification, which can add validity and needed “proof” of a project’s successes, from design concept through implementation. Progress and challenges can be documented with evidence through each project phase. Certified SEED projects provide evidence of the public value of design.

We can look to other public interest professions, such as public interest law and public health, which have established protocols that protect the public by providing clear ethical standards. We need to establish professional standards for public interest work as well that will establish public trust and communicate the ethical expectations that should be met in public interest design. Evaluation and measurement are one way to bring this to design by providing accountability and transparency in the design process.

From my perspective there are three critical factors needed for this area of design to grow: 1) address critical issues that communities face; 2) provide evidence that design addressed these issues; 3) establish ethical standards and professional standards that the public can expect. Together they can demonstrate to both the public and social sectors design’s value.

Can you give us an example of a design project or initiative that used the SEED Evaluator and how it addressed the triple-bottom line of social, economic and environmental issues?
Not every project addresses all three, but the most interesting projects address more than one. And what is most exciting is when a project introduces an entirely new and unusual combination. For example, the PLUG Laboratory designed by N. King, M. Lutz, D. Clark, T. Kaur addresses wildlife preservation of a chimpanzee population and jobs provided through tourism in the Mahle Mountains National Park, Tanzania. The Lab allows staff to analyze the chimpanzees’ blood samples in the field to make sure that the tourists are not bringing diseases to endanger the wildlife.

One of the most amazing projects that we have seen so far is the Bancroft School Project in the Manheim Park Neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri, a 2012 SEED Award winner. Imagine one project that addresses all these issues: Community Revitalization, Housing, Unemployment, Health, Energy Efficiency, and Crime and Historic Preservation. When I saw their application I did not believe one design could be this comprehensive, but then I looked at the floor plans and saw where these would happen. Then I looked at the team, which included BNIM Architecture + Planning, Straub Construction, Make it Right Foundation, Green Impact Zone, Historic Manheim Park Association, JE Dunn Construction, Truman Medical Group, and Neighborhood Housing Services and realized they had both resources and the necessary experience. Most importantly, the community had been heavily involved in establishing that these were their priorities. This project, when completed, could set a new standard for making a positive impact.

On the other end of the scale, my organization Design Corps addresses hunger among farmworkers in North Carolina by building simple chicken coops. We can increase the protein for a family of four by 40% by building one coop with an investment of just $300 and a weekend of volunteer labor. If we meet our goal and do what we said we were going to do, this is a legitimate public interest design project also.

One new issue we are tracking is Restorative Justice, currently being explored by Deanna Van Buren. This alternative to incarceration and punishment is to seek a resolution and possibly understanding between the victim and perpetrator with the goal that there is more healing for the victim and understanding of the negative impact by the perpetrator. While this doesn’t work for all crimes, when used where appropriate it could make a difference for the billion dollar prison industry and begin to put some of those public funds to a better use. The design itself has not emerged, but she has started the process of working with stakeholders who are advancing this approach and they are defining design parameters that would aid this approach.

The Durham Performing Arts Center, a 2,800-seat Broadway-style theater, opened in 2008 fostering a dramatic transformation
of Durham, North Carolina’s southern warehouse district; Architect: Szostak Design Inc.

How many projects or initiatives have been evaluated? How many have received SEED certification? Where are they located? Are there any international projects?
There are over 120 currently going through the SEED Evaluation process. This year alone we had sixty-five that were submitted to the SEED Awards for Excellence in Public Interest Design. We are currently mapping the location of all this activity, but about half are domestic and half are international.

Certification of a project only happens after the project is occupied or implemented, and enough time has passed that the goals can be met and measured. This time period varies depending on what is being documented. In our chicken coops, we can track egg production in one year and know if we met the goals. In other projects, where the issue may be reducing crime by 25%, the time period can be years after the project is completed. Most of the projects submitted are near the beginning of the design process. In fact, it is very hard to certify a project if it did not go through the process from an early stage because we require evidence of community participation. In a few cases we have been able to verify this afterwards because there was an appropriate public process. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), designed by Szostak Architects, operated by Nederlander/PFM and owned by the City of Durham, is one such example. There were monthly city council meetings that covered decisions as detailed as how much leg room there would be for the seats.

Here’s how the results of DPAC have been measured. This project has certainly met the goal of providing cultural life to the depressed downtown. It has sold-out 68 shows in 2012 with a total attendance of 414,056. This is the fourth most tickets sold for any theater in the U.S. – success well beyond their goals. It has also provided great social, economic and environmental benefits.

Socially, the project provided the following during construction: 30 % of construction subcontractors and suppliers were from the City and County of Durham.

20% of sub-contractors were minority and 10% owned by women. There was also work force development, with 8 at-risk youth hired and trained during construction.

The projected quantifiable economic results have been collected by the city:
• Local direct spending: $6.1 million from visiting performers and crew, out-of-town theater patrons, and locals induced to spend locally.
• New wages and salaries: $612,000 generated from 15 full-time-equivalent jobs at the new Center.
• Direct purchases: $600,000 annually as a result of ongoing theater operations.
• Indirect spending: $3.7 million as a result of theater operations.
• Durham lodging market: 15,000 additional room-nights from the new Center activities.
The site was a brownfield that has now been remediated and turned into an asset. The building exceeds American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) standards by 30%.

One long-term summit proposal suggests instituting processes for long-term evaluations (as long as 30 years). What is the value of assessing impact over several decades? How would the SEED Evaluator fit with this type of long term evaluation?
It won’t take as long as that to collect the convincing evidence needed!


Image credits: Project Plug image courtesy of Nathan King and The Durham Performing Arts Center: © 2009, Tom Arban Photography.

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