Neighbors Comic Series Landing Page
Part 1: Discomfort
Part 2: Distance
Part 3: Sympathy
Part 4: Empathy
I am distracted by yet another move; weather whiplash from summer to fall; and the despair-inducing state of our world. (I am thinking specifically about Jane Mayer's Dark Money.)
However, I did do a little with the help of my partner, we did listen to this OnBeing podcast with Alain de Botton talking about love, and it is quiet here where I am sitting today. I would like to remind myself that what we focus our attention and thoughts on...are a form of meditation.
So let's just get into it, shall we?
This week's chapter entitled "Empathy" is based on my experiences researching homelessness during design school. I have been thinking about the intersection of design + social impact for a long while, so in addition to telling you about some of the things we learned about homelessness in Austin, this blogpost will serve as a resource list of all the other places where I've written on this topic of whether+how design can/should be a tool to be used when tackling social issues of this nature. Work your way as deep into the rabbithole as you want (or not!). And if you have any questions, happy to chat more. Drop questions in the comments or shoot me an email!
Next week's chapter is about some personal experiences, so next week's blogpost should also be a lot less wonky than today's!
First some context about design and ac4d:
Grad school was at the Austin Center for Design. This is the synopsis from AC4D's website of what the program teaches you:
Most people don't associate design with social issues such as homelessness, but human-centered design is a process that can be applied to almost anything -- from food apps to flashy new shoes to wicked problems. The process involves stages of research, synthesis, iteration, prototyping, and implementation; rinse cycle repeat. I also like Christina Wodtke's writing about design. Here is a recent article she posted that presents a "unified theory for designing anything".
During our grad school year, our class all looked at the issue of homelessness with a shared starting point of a common community partner. The next year's class looked at food systems. Future year's classes chose their own topics.
The human-centered part of human-centered design points to the fact that we often fall into a default of making decisions based on the needs of systems vs. the needs of people. Design research is geared toward listening, identifying needs and opportunities, and gaining empathy for all of the people involved -- all of the 'stakeholders', aka anyone who will be using or building or funding or making decisions about or maintaining or who will be affected by your thing. Hopefully those people also get to know and begin a relationship with you the designer as well. And in the very best case scenarios there is continuity, so that this empathy and these relationships can grow over time. Oftentimes this is not the case, but maybe me still thinking and writing about these things 7 years after-the-fact is a testament to the profound impact of listening and getting to know people as, well, people.
1. What we learned in Austin
We started our grad program year working with the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH). I posted my class's learnings and links to some of our findings on my old design portfolio. While I think many of our insights are evergreen, please keep in mind that these findings were from 2010.
I think if you have ever worked in the non-profit world, you may find our insights familiar or even validating. One of the things I am still proud of from our work that year was that the director at ARCH invited us to give a presentation and facilitate a workshop of our findings to the entire staff because they found it resonant and powerful enough to spark some internal conversations about the work they were already doing.
2. So what did y'all do about homelessness in Austin?
Okay, so this is slightly complicated. Remember that this was/is a grad program that also aims to teach social entrepreneurship. So we as students took our findings and our identified opportunity areas and started brainstorming from there. Many of our final projects ended up pivoting around our solutions so that we could market it to a different audience where there was more financial viability.
- Patient Nudge (my project) started off trying to help case managers who worked with people experiencing homelessness...and pivoted into the medical industry. Patient Nudge ended after graduation because my partner moved to Australia and shortly thereafter I went on sabbatical to grieve (the story of which is basically the forthcoming "Slowingly" comic.)
- HourSchool (Ruby's and Alex's project which I eventually helped on after graduation) pivoted to a general market for skill sharing (right around the same time as Skillshare!) After the HourSchool platform was built, we eventually did partner with a permanent supportive housing community on a peer education program for their residents who had previously experienced homelessness.
- I gave a 15-minute talk at SXSWedu one year about lessons learned about "designing for peer learning" from that HourSchool project and others << If you are interested in activating more collaborative peer learning in classrooms or other educational settings.
I dunno, do these pivots sound familiar to people from other industries as well? Staying focused and strategic is really tough. Also, it tends to end up following the money instead of the needs -- or even the collective dreaming. Which is obviously problematic.
3. Could the work have been done any differently?
In contrast, if we had 1) been working from a more systemic point-of-view, 2) had a longer-term partnership to continue working with ARCH where each year could build off previous years' learnings, 2.5) and that partnership had funding, and/or 3) were in some kind of Social Lab situation collaborating with a bevy of community stakeholders, the portfolio of projects coming out of our year might have been more strategically oriented toward tackling the points of most leverage with a shoot-for-the-stars goal of eliminating homelessness (and other interconnected interwoven social issues) over decade(s).
^ Not that any of those are easy or the right process or even appropriate for a grad program that also has competing goals of: a) training students in a process from start-to-finish in a set amount of time, b) surviving financially as a business themselves, and c) being able to tell good stories of a good amount of 'successes' from year to year.
Almost exactly the same issues the Social Lab component of CCA's Master's IXD Program is facing in San Francisco. They are doing some of the above, and I see the same transition of working with a community partner to slipping out of that model, which AC4D went through over its years of iteration. I taught for a semester with the CCA grad program this past year, and I have yet to process and write up my thoughts about the potential and the challenges of setting up social labs within academic settings. I do have updated thinking, but the longer you think about a thing, the more complex your thinking becomes. But that also means it can become wonkier if you aren't able to make it sophisticated...
Mostly, there are newly-articulated tensions around how to tackle the social justice issues that are so interwoven within social impact work. And how do we acknowledge and disrupt the inherent privilege of a designer? (Other people are also asking how do we decolonise design.)
Maybe my venn diagram has shifted from design + social impact to design + social justice?
4. More rabbithole?
I did at least blog about my updated thinking after working for years at the design consultancy Daylight Design. My thoughts around systems and co-design are still pretty current with that particular blogpost.
Speaking of co-design, Jess Rimington and Joanna Ceas are doing some amazing work, and you should be following them. Here are some of my thoughts about co-design and social justice from when I heard them speak about it all early on in their research, and it has also evolved since then. They are working on a book called A ReCollective Way: A Way to Work the Future.
I am also encouraged to see a lot more designers moving toward social impact work. As evidenced by the design gigs for good job board, new academic design programs with a social impact bent, and so many civic design fellowships popping up within DC and local city governments.
The City of Austin now has a robust design fellowship program where designers partner with community orgs on longer-term innovation projects. Some AC4D alum work there. It's definitely the kind of thing that AC4D trains you for, and it's the kind of work that encompasses some of the things I mentioned in blog-section#3 above. Maybe that's where that work should live -- in the world instead of in an academic program. If you're interested, here's what some other AC4D alum are doing, and applications for the class of 2018-2019 are now open.
Okay, that's all for now. Phew. Bye!
EDIT: Because there are some of these design + social innovation / social lab-y things in the Bay Area, where Neighbors the story is set. And maybe these are the places I would look to see if they are working on any homelessness initiatives: