social innovation

What Jury Dury Taught Me About Government Innovation

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Photo of long voting line via NY Daily News

Originally posted on Medium. 

I left my California beach town vacation early to return to frozen New York for the democratic tradition and right of jury duty. For two days, I sat in a stale room with intermittent wifi with over 100 citizens from across socio-economic backgrounds. Unfortunately, what should’ve been a privileged and proud citizen experience turned out to be a futile, inefficient, and outdated process. I say this not to diminish the importance of diverse citizen juries, but to acknowledge the frustration I saw and heard from my fellow citizens in the room, and experienced myself. At the end of the second day, my peers and I cheered and sighed in relief as we heard that we are free from serving on a jury for the next several years. I was at once thrilled that I was done with what was a dreaded and annoying process, and saddened that most citizens would leave the court house with even less confidence or interest in their government.

“As a country, we haven’t invested in or changed the ways we engage with democracy; we’re interacting with 20th century institutions in the 21st century.”

A graduate student in public policy, I’ve been involved with government since high school. What struck me as I sat in the jury room is that while I’ve interacted with the government in many ways as an employee, student, and engaged citizen, for many in the room, this is one of the only times they’ll interact with the government this year, and they were left sorely disappointed in how it functions. (more…)

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We Can Design the Future of Wearables for Social Good

“The best way to predict the future is to design it.” – Buckminster Fuller

Image: keoni101/Flickr

There is a future for wearable technology beyond the Apple Watch, and it can be for social good. On March 31, 2015, nearly 40 participants came together for Technology Salon New York City where we discussed the future of wearables in international development.

Here are my two summaries of the thought-provoking discussion: 

We Can Design the Future of Wearables for Social Good, Huffington Post

Development, data, and ethical design for our wearable futures, Wait…What? [co-author with Linda Raftree]

As we wrote, “The rapid evolution of technology urges us to think about how technology affects our relationships with our body, family, community, and society. What do we want those relationships to look like in the future? We have an opportunity, as consumers, makers and planners of wearables for the international context to view ourselves as stakeholders in building the future opportunities of this space. Wearables today are where the Internet was during its first five mainstream years. Now is the perfect time to put our stake in the ground and create the future we wish to exist in.”

Cultivating Empathy and Internal Awareness for Social Change

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“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (into) and pathos (feeling)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?…Empathy isn’t just remembering to say that must really be hard—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination.”

— Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams

In what David Brooks deemed an “empathy craze” of the past decade, several bestsellers exalted the values of empathy, followed by a series of widely circulated opinion pieces questioning the limits of empathy. Schools and social entrepreneurs preach the value of teaching empathy. The core of trendy human-centered design is empathetic listening and design. I too, caught on to the hype—seeking to better understand empathy as it relates to my own work in social enterprise and social design. Here is what I’ve begun to understand.

Empathy has a critical role to play in creating positive social change; it will enable us to become more collaborative and respond more thoughtfully to social issues. We can cultivate and teach empathy—with intentionality, or willed effort, not diminishing its power—and we can encourage empathy without requiring action or agreement. But before empathy can achieve it’s full impact in our lives and in positive social change, we must cultivate internal awareness to understand our own context in the world.

Through my exploration of empathy, I remain with more questions than answers, and know that my opinion will evolve and change over time. I offer my thoughts here because this subject is important to the public discourse on social change and personal development, and I hope that others wiser than me will offer their own ideas and feedback in response. (more…)

Sontag on Sympathy

“So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent–if not an inappropriate–response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may–in ways we might prefer not to imagine–be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.”

– Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others 

The Empathy Exams

I recently read an incredible book–a series of non-fiction essays–called The Empathy Exams. Here’s an excerpt from the title essayMore thoughts on this book and empathy coming soon. 

“Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia—em (“into”) and pathos (“feeling”)—a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border-crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?

Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us—a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain—it’s also a choice we make: to pay attention, to extend ourselves. It’s made of exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse. Sometimes we care for another because we know we should, or because it’s asked for, but this doesn’t make our caring hollow. The act of choosing simply means we’ve committed ourselves to a set of behaviors greater than the sum of our individual inclinations: I will listen to his sadness, even when I’m deep in my own. To say “going through the motions”this isn’t reduction so much as acknowledgment of the effort—the labor, the motions, the dance—of getting inside another person’s state of heart or mind.

This confession of effort chafes against the notion that empathy should always arise unbidden, that genuine means the same thing as unwilled, that intentionality is the enemy of love. But I believe in intention and I believe in work. I believe in waking up in the middle of the night and packing our bags and leaving our worst selves for our better ones.”

Why Design for Social Innovation Matters

Have you heard the hype about design? It was popularized by IDEO and is well-known as design thinking or human-centered design. It now seems to be appearing everywhere, given the popularity of Acumen and IDEO.org’s now second-installment of their online Human-Centered Design course; examples like the Nike Foundation, which several years ago instituted a design division to better utilize design to develop their Girl Effect programs in Africa; groups like the Design Gym; and increased interest in design graduate programs (like where I work at MFA Design for Social Innovation); among other anecdotal evidence. After learning about design two years ago from the team at ThinkImpact, using the HCD process in India, and working with designers for the past nine months at MFA DSI, here are some thoughts on why design matters. 

I just call it design–design of everything, from micro-interactions, to products, services, and strategies, to systems. There are similar processes that overlap with the design ethos and tools in many ways–lean startup, Agile SCRUM, ethnography, participatory development, community organizing, among others. In fact, as this article explores, what we call design thinking is as ancient as Homer’s tale of the Iliad: “For what bigger co-creation of the solution to a public service problem could there be than stopping the Olympian gods spreading disease? Surely inventing the Trojan Horse was the world’s most famous episode of the techniques of prototyping, experimenting and testing that we will be hearing more about over the next few days.”

This Core77 article does a good job of explaining how the design process was used to explore the problem of over-fishing. It discusses not only using the design process for evaluating the problem and understanding the users, but also using it to design human interactions, and prototype a solution, whether that be a conversation or a new product, service, or system entirely.

Three main factors characterize why I believe design has great potential for creating solutions for social impact: identity, context, and making. (more…)

Getting Social Impact Advertising Right

You’ve seen this type of advertising so many times now that you’re desensitized to it. There’s a sad song playing in the background as you watch a slideshow of dehumanizing photos, while the narrator simplifies the issues and urges you to “make a difference.” You see it for charities supporting public health, orphanages, and even pets. You saw it in campaigns like KONY 2012. It’s known as “poverty porn.” There have been a number of clever video campaigns mimicking or combatting poverty porn.

But I haven’t come across anything as effective, funny, clever, or powerful as this 2012 ad from the Rainforest Alliance. It’s entertaining and relatable. What I love most though is that it has a strong and easy call to action at the end.

To learn more about storytelling for social impact that is not poverty porn, check out the work of the great team at Regarding Humanity.