Short Projects, Shallow Focus

The "old design"—the creation of artifacts for consumption—has traditionally been managed in the form of individual projects. This is most obvious when a consultant works with a client. The typical engagement works like this: A client—often a large corporation—identifies a problem that requires design skills. The client assigns a budget and a timeline for solving the problem. The consultant then receives the "project," which is a finite engagement with a beginning, middle, and end.

The project as a unit of engagement is so ubiquitous as to be nearly unquestioned, and because it is the common container in industry, it has become the common container in education as well. Most schools have integrated the accreditation-driven push towards assessment and learning outcomes, where formal criteria for success are established prior to learning and the student and faculty are judged against these criteria upon learning's completion.

Most design studio classes are focused on the "project," a finite course of study in which students work through the process of design to arrive at a solution to a real or simulated situation. Students conduct research, synthesis, ideation, evaluation, and reflection, and then the project is over. Typically, it's documented in a portfolio, and it allows the student to say, "I made this thing." It also becomes the core item that is assessed—somewhat objective measurements can be compared to the project outcome, and a design professor (or, more likely, an administrator) can say "85% of our students satisfactorily achieved objectives A, B, and C on the project."

Studio project-based learning is convenient. At the end of the semester, the student—and faculty—moves on to the next design problem just as a consultant moves on to the next project. The finiteness feature allows for evaluation. And project-based learning typically forces reflection-in-action, as it occurs in a studio environment with a teacher as informed guide and students supporting one another through critique, with all of the studio culture that designers reflect upon as critical for their training.

The Problems with Projects

But a project-based (and implicitly, short-term) approach to design is flawed for these reasons:

Designers fail to gain deep, tacit knowledge

Design, in any context, requires the acquisition of tacit knowledge—an understanding of the unstated, implicit qualities of the problem space. This knowledge often holds critical truths and assumptions about behavior, policies, norms, and values. Tacit knowledge is gained through experience, rather than through explicit instruction. It's considered to be one of the defining qualities of expertise, but because it isn't stated or written down, people are often unaware that they possess this knowledge. It may take weeks of observation to become aware of the intricacies of tacit knowledge in other people, which a short-term project-based approach to design doesn't provide.

Designers fail to gain meaningful trust and relationship with all stakeholders

In addition to understanding a given discipline, designers need to build trust with the stakeholders in a project. This trust comes through proven success—by achieving small and incremental gains with mutual and obvious benefit. Designers frequently bemoan the ignorance of project stakeholders with comments like "if only they would listen to me" or "I don't understand why they won't just do what I want"; these comments show the importance of mutual trust, which permits a designer to explore various design options.

Designers lack accountability after the project is over

The finiteness of the studio project, in academia and in professional services, abdicates responsibility to those being served. When the project is over, the designers disappear, often leaving the intended users frustrated, with a partial solution that may or may not have positive implications. This model isn't just socially irresponsible; in the educational context, it's the opposite thing we should be teaching students who want their careers to focus on social innovation. Project-based thinking reinforces the hands-off "not my fault/what can I do?" attitude that led us to the sustainability mess we've only begun to recognize. And it continues to drive a "design for" mentality in which designers conflate their expertise in design with expertise in a particular social problem and assume they know best.

Designers assume unrealistic expectations

Additionally, project-based learning reinforces the artificial idea that meaningful impact can occur in a short time frame—often as little as three or four weeks. Design students don't have the experience to doubt this, and when they encounter project after project that feature such time frames, they come to expect this as the norm. So they graduate without the patience for a longer engagement; they haven't learned how to stay the course.

Agencies that offer grants traditionally award them only to projects. And it does seem to make sound financial and investment sense to support these engagements with a finite time frame, a clear set of objectives, and measurable levels of impact. But that it isn't how real life works. So to attract grants, we must learn to craft a narrative that acts as though social impact is immediately measurable—as though poverty is an engineering problem.

If the "project" is a wicked problem, the solution is an extended engagement, one that allows users to become designers and designers to become empathetic. That means we need to find new frameworks for designers to operate within. This translates to entrepreneurship, where the focus is not on starting and finishing a project, but on forming a company.

The Problem with Scale

Scalability is the idea that a solution can be extended beyond a small, local group to serve a large, broad group. Typically, scale implies spread across geographic boundaries, often into new countries. And implicit in a push for scale is the idea that a solution can be generalized; the goal is often breadth of impact, but also streamlined production and distribution and a minimization of costs. The same forces that push business to scale are at play when discussing the scale of impact—the desire to leverage sunk costs, optimize infrastructure, and crank out as many units as possible for the same price.

The field of social entrepreneurship is relatively new, and its recent surge in popularity can be attributed to this practice of scaling, where a proven intervention model is replicated in other geographic areas to spread the impact. Organizations that invest in social entrepreneurs have driven scaling efforts.

Since Ashoka was founded in 1981, the nonprofit foundation's budget has increased from $50,000 to $30M. One of its largest initiatives is its Fellows program, which offers funding and support to people who drive social change. The Fellows have tackled problems ranging from energy to microenterprise to violence and abuse. In nearly all cases, the emphasis is on civil engagement, economic development, and education.Ashoka. Ashoka - About Us. n.d. (accessed November 14, 2011)

The mission of Skoll Foundation, founded in 1999 by Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay, is similar to Ashoka's. Skoll Foundation. About. n.d. (accessed November 14, 2011).

Founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus in 1997, Grameen Foundation funds microfinance institutions in developing countries, which in turn offer loans to poor people. These loans may then be used to build agriculture infrastructure, to buy supplies, or to expand a small business.Grameen Foundation. "Who We Are." n.d. (accessed November 14, 2011).

Ashoka, Skoll, and Grameen have had a demonstrable and positive impact on the developing world. Their grant recipients typically form NGOs or nonprofit companies to provide human services, education, or policy guidance to effect social change. These companies, at the urgency of the granting foundations, constantly focus on quantifying impact through metrics and statistics. This form of quantification helps compare investments and measure institutional performance, similar to manufacturing processes that attempt to identify and eliminate defects, and business measurements that quantify the average revenue per user. These efforts eliminate ambiguity and attempt to mechanize production to drive scale. In the case of the NGOs, "production" is the treatment of disease or the elimination of poverty, so scale of impact seems like a meaningful and important goal.

As social entrepreneurs identify a way of solving a problem—say, a new service to teach a culture about the transmission of AIDS, they attempt to codify the operations for this service and extract as much value out of it as possible. This demands scaling the solution to as many people as possible, while simultaneously reducing costs and increasing efficiencies.

The problem, though, is that scaling a solution makes it subject to a problem of mass production, or a template solution. To reap the benefits of the massive gain in efficiency requires the creation of a single, rigorous, homogenized solution. And this is precisely where large-scale social problems differ from the marketing-driven approaches that have fueled big consumer brands. Social problems are too complicated and they vary too much from place to place to benefit from templates.

A focus on scale method makes a great deal of sense for social impact that's strictly commodity-driven, and make no mistake: This impact is critical. For things like malaria vaccinations, where the solution is a mass-produced artifact, the ability to optimize production and distribution is the only way to make solutions available to billions of people in need. But this approach doesn't account for the solution's inherent human qualities such as training, cultural norms, value structure, religious rules, supply-chain relationships, and power dynamics. These emotional and subjective qualities are not "nice to haves" that can be applied at the end of a project to make stakeholders feel good. In both developing countries and in the U.S., these qualities are repeatedly referenced as the "make or break" defining characteristics of adoption. Understanding and respecting these qualities build trust and respect.

Consider, then, the implications and limitations of a pursuit of scale, with respect to these subjective qualities of culture. And funding sources and the social-entrepreneur community constantly push social-entrepreneurship activities to pursue scale. For example, a system to serve the homeless in Mumbai may have a lot in common—such as providing education, vaccination, and food and water—with such a system in Rio. But the details of implementation need to be wildly different. The service ecology, the relationships between people including between the genders, the food itself, the time of day the food is served, the way "vaccinations" are described, the relationship between men and woman, and the religious influences in the area, all must be different for the service to succeed.

A designerly approach to social entrepreneurship is one that celebrates depth of impact over breadth of scale. It is an approach that focuses on the mysterious "fuzzy front end" rather than the mechanization and mass dissemination of a solution, and one that recognizes cultural differences as being critical to success. This approach should operate alongside the great humanitarian programs described above that emphasize scale, but within the realization that metrics related to scale of impact are not sufficient for design-driven innovation.

Continue to the Next Chapter:
Ryan Hubbard, On Wicked Problems

Wicked Problems: Problems Worth Solving