Tag Archives: development

jeffrey sachs on design

There’s plenty o’ buzz about design having the potential to save to world, but not too many people can substantiate that claim. Jeffrey Sachs, in a well-scripted but good interview with Design 21, speaks on the subject, offering a few tidbits of observation and inspiration.

Sachs, an economist, environmentalist and all-around expert on development, takes a very pragmatic, goal-oriented view on design and development. With the basic belief that, “the world’s problems are man-made, therefore they can be solved by man,” Sachs advises designers, engineers, economists and anyone else interested in development to rally around the existing “shared global commitments.” By joining forces and working towards common goals (such as the UN’s Millennium Development Goals), we can create maximum impact, even if “our governments are woefully inadequate.”

When asked specifically what role designers play in development, Sachs responded:

“Designers are the key to showing how to mobilize cutting-edge technologies, new materials, and new approaches to older materials and technologies, in order to solve problems such as clean water, safe cook stoves, low-cost housing, internet connectivity for the poor, safe methods of delivery of medicines and vaccines (such as safe syringes), and much more. Design embodied in sustainable technologies provide the blueprint. Typically, path-breaking approaches can be found at low cost. Once these are proved, then they can be taken to scale through a combination of market incentives, development assistance and large-scale philanthropic efforts.”

Couldn’t agree more with all that Sachs has to say, but I’d love to see somebody start making these design opportunities more tangible. Speaking as a young designer interested in designing for social impact, I’d love to see more Architecture for Humanity or D-Lab type forums for designers, connecting problems with problem solvers. Can’t hold this against Sachs, though- he’s a bigger picture kinda guy. And it’s good to hear a bigger-picture kinda guy like Sachs acknowledging design’s role in devolopment.


design for social impact

Design for social impact. It’s a topic that’s always on my mind, and the more I talk about it, the more I realize I’m not alone. Most (if not all) designers want to make the world a better place with their work, but it’s hard to know how. Thousands of altruistic designers graduate every year, but with no clear path to a successful, impactful and meaningful career, most are forced to accept whatever design position they can find- regardless of the social implications. Designers and design firms alike have the same struggle: how to do meaningful work in a financially viable way.

The Design for Social Impact Workshop, hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation in their Bellagio, Italy estate, was a meeting of minds to discuss this very issue. With representatives from Continuum, Index, Design Observer, Jump Associates, Emerging Market Strategy, and a few other groups, the workshop facilitated 2 days of brainstorming ways to link the abilities of designers and design firms with the needs of the social sector. Although I was initially skeptical of the content (meeting at an Italian estate to discuss problems in the developing world seems somewhat dubious, doesn’t it?), the attendees came up with some interesting, albeit abstract, ideas for change. Here are some notes:

  • There is a huge information gap between the social sector and the design world, and it’s a two-sided problem. The social sector doesn’t yet understand the value of design thinking, and designers don’t understand the needs of the social sector. The workshop attendees came up with a Social Impact Operating System concept which would archive and make accessible relevant information for both sides of this equation and create a collective action network bridging the gap between design and the social sector.
  • Culturally relevant work is essential to designing for social impact, and the group proposed a network of in-the-field design labs, equipped with “advanced design tools” (ethnographic research and efficient prototyping, for example).
  • Clearly there are several sides to the problem, but perhaps the largest is the financial viability of designing for social impact. Historically, such work would have been pro-bono or close to it, but it’s clear that for such work to continue and grow, new business models must be explored for both the social sector and design firms.
  • Although this workshop focused on connecting design firms with the social sector, independent designers with altruistic intentions also need access to this kind of information sharing network. Having been thrown into the design world not too long ago, with years of idealistic and altruistic schooling behind me, I had little idea of what path would lead me to the most impactful work. (i guess I still don’t, but I’ll figure it out someday…) independent designers need more clearly defined paths to such opportunities.
  • This workshop focused, as I mentioned, on design firms and the social sector. I’m interested to see, though, what potential lies in embedding these altruistic intentions in the formation of private-sector businesses. Social Businesses, as Muhammad Yunus calls them, represent an ideal scenario in which financial incentives are in line with social and environmental benefits. I’d like to see some design thinking put into the development of social businesses…

Continuum’s summary can be found here.