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The Symposium, 2017, New York City

The Symposium, 2017, New York City

Design Health

In 2017, we launched an initiative to measure the influence of the design process on human health. More specifically, we wanted to understand and quantify how design affects outcomes when it is integrated into initiatives aimed at improving human health and wellbeing. As part of this effort, we organized a symposium in New York City to convene leaders in healthcare, philanthropy, design and the corporate world; held strategy sessions with a small group of advisors; and continued our learning journey of conversations, research and observation.

Now, with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we have begun the second phase of our initiative, to build a resource for anyone wanting to understand, apply, measure and scale the effectiveness of social design in order to strengthen society and create the conditions for equitable human health.

The definition of design is “the creation of something according to a plan.” In traditional contexts, that “something” has been a product, service, building, information system, infrastructure or assembly line intended to serve a specific purpose.

Social design is the creation of new social conditions, in cities, corporate cultures, communities or teams. The intended outcome is inevitably some combination of deeper civic or cultural engagement, increased creativity and resilience, equity, social justice and human health. Along the way to these new social conditions, products and services are often developed, but they are the means to an end, part of a larger system that includes invisible social dynamics as well as artifacts.

Whereas traditional design rearranges physical resources or digital bits and bytes, social design is the design of relationships: with each other, with the technology that has become such an intrinsic part of our lives, and with the earth. It is design intend- ed to strengthen culture, or society itself.

There is enormous interest and investment in social design as a way to solve human problems, from poverty to food insecurity, environmental degradation, lack of education, justice and equity. Foundations, global NGOs, governments, cities, universities and corporations are integrating its principles to varying degrees. The Gates Foundation is investing in a significant effort to embed its principles (which they call Human Centered Design) throughout the work of the foundation. The City of New York is building capacity within its Office of Economic Opportunities to offer and teach the process to other city departments and all the con- tractors with which they work. Similarly, UNICEF has formed an Innovations Group to inculcate the practice throughout the glob- al organization. Consultancies, like Point B Design + Training in Myanmar are attracting the attention of governments and NGOs.

Second, there is no consistent definition of the practice, or terminology to describe it. It follows, not surprisingly, that there has been no widespread or consistent effort to measure the effectiveness of social design so that it can be improved upon and scaled. We view this moment in the development of social design as pivotal, when we have the opportunity to accumulate learn- ing and apply rigor to the practice, or risk its dissipation because it was never codified or fully understood.

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Advisory Board
Joan Barlow, RWJF; Zoe Bezpalko, Autodesk Foundation; Maggie Breslin, The Patient Revolution; Heather Fleming, Catapult Design; Rosanne Haggerty, Community Solutions; Nancye Green, The Medicines Company; Caroline McAndrews, The Measured Lab; Jonathan McKay, Praekelt; Michael Murphy, Mass Design Group; Kyle Reis, TechSoup Global; Michelle Risinger, PACT; Evan Thomas, Portland State University; Katie Wehr, RWJF

Advisory meeting, New York City

Advisory meeting, New York City