Design Thinking and Social Impact: Portland State University Summit

This June I was invited to speak on a panel at Portland State University’s annual social innovation conference: Elevating Impact Summit, on the subject of applying design thinking to enable community empowerment and change.

I was honoured to speak alongside such dedicated and talented people as Najia Hyder, Director of Global Field Programming at Mercy Corps, Dwayne Johnson, Founder & Executive Director at the Center for Inclusive Innovation and Jennifer H. Allen, Director of the Institute for Sustainable Solutions at Portland State University.

The event was uplifting in its optimism and brought the energy and determination of Portland’s social innovation community to the fore. Below is my statement that was published as part of framing up service design and design thinking as powerful catalysts in organizing community change

Image by Jessica Wallace

What is your source of personal motivation? 

My motivation is the opportunities afforded to me by the position I’m in. I would hope that the same is true for many people.

I feel truly privileged in my role as a Service Designer, at a time when the remit of design is broader than ever, and its principles are being applied to humanize the complex systems and services we navigate every day as citizens, consumers, patients, students, and employees.

In its purest definition, the designer is a betterist. We make stuff better. But this doesn’t just mean the products we buy and can hold – a handier can opener, a sturdier mobile phone case, a more desirable car, or an unfeasibly expensive white Italian chair that you wouldn’t let your kids anywhere near, but thinking about the experiences we have of the other 80% of the economy – the service economy. More accessible transport, more reassuring health interactions, more convenient financial services, less confusing legal services, more relevant educational opportunities.

Understanding how these services are navigated and experienced by the people who use them and the staff who provide them is key to providing services that are more useful, useful and desirable. And designing how they are organized and the touchpoints that constitute them – the website, branding and communications, staff roles, the flow of a space and signage – can make a huge difference. Spending a day shadowing a doctor, a housing applicant or assessing the capacities of a community to mobilize around health or urban regeneration can reveal multiple opportunities for innovation a service around the true, latent or unmet needs of people in a way that is relevant and attractive to them.

I would urge anyone looking to improve the connection between the people you are working with and the outcomes they are seeking to step back and be your own ‘Common Sense Police’. Empathize with each stakeholder, ask why over and over to get to the root issues and seek to elevate impact by stripping away operational efficiencies which get in the way of effectiveness and better experiences – it can transform communities and change lives.

Title Image credit: Flickr User psu_slc ‘Sustainability at Portland State University’

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