systems thinking

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what should’ve been a privileged and proud citizen experience turned out to be a futile, inefficient, and outdated process.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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Why I Chose an MPA Program

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Columbia University

“The path is made by walking,” writes poet Antonio Machado. My path has certainly been a winding one–leading from Capitol Hill to a military analysis think tank, from ed-tech in India to a design school in New York. Two weeks ago, I began my newest endeavor–graduate school. A Master in Public Administration degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but after accounting for my experiences and interests over the years, it now seems like it was inevitable.

I’ve been interested in public service and international affairs since childhood, but as I made a shift towards the world of social entrepreneurship after college (which I explained in this essay two years ago) I became determined to pursue an MBA. Business school has become the graduate school of choice for those working in social enterprise. The good and bad (and expensive) reasons to attend any graduate school aside, the thinking goes that a strong understanding of business will enable better business models and management for social change initiatives. As you’ll see on this blog and others, there is a lot of truth to that notion, and many smart, impactful social entrepreneurs with an MBA.

But while working with social businesses in India and New York, I was continually struck by my own lack of knowledge about socioeconomics, despite a BA in Political Science. And I saw how business and its tools–without a dedication to iterating on theories of social change and understanding socioeconomic dynamics–cannot alone solve the complex problems we face. As I explain in this Huffington Post article, “a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon.” Furthermore, after seeing social enterprises in action, I realized that policy and social justice, and integration of social initiatives with policy change, is more important than ever. (more…)

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…)

Think Holistically–CSR and Change Depend on It

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We think about the parts instead of the whole, and it needs to change. Thinking about the parts translates into laws and policies that don’t solve problems because they aren’t addressing the issue holistically, and departments in organizations that don’t achieve their purpose because they were never given the mandate to do so. For example, when I hear that the marketing team is handling an organization’s social responsibility initiatives, I see it as a red flag that the organization isn’t prioritizing the work or thinking about social change as core to its mission.

As Cheryl Heller explains in her latest piece for Unreasonable.is, this problem may stem from our industrial mindset, and our tendency to work in silos:

“The industrial age taught us to solve problems by breaking things down into manageable parts, assigning specialists to work on them, then reassembling them into a workable whole. This seemed like a great step forward (Thanks, Henry Ford.), but it’s now an entrenched habit that limits us in both business and life. Compartmentalization might speed things up on an assembly line, but it forces us into silos. And silos destroy creativity, context, and perspective—all things we need to thrive in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a classic example of this. At too many companies, CSR is a department (read: silo) rather than a process. And being able to point to the existence of a CSR department as evidence of commitment ends up being far more important than actually giving that department the authority to carry out real change.”

A must-read article from Pacific Standard, which explores the lack of cultural factors in social science research, shows that psychologically, industrial nations tend to have this siloed psyche.  (more…)

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…)

We are the problem, and we create the change

What follows are very incomplete thoughts and reflections on some recent readings. I would love to hear your ideas and feedback. 

The world is a system made of systems, all inherently living–what Donella Meadows defines as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time.”

As I’ve come to better understand systems thinking and social change at a cursory level, I’m realizing that change starts within each of us. As we are part of systems, we are part of the problem, and therefore we are also part of the change. That change begins when each of us realize that we create both sides of the equation.  (more…)

Reading about systems and empathy

In the past few months I’ve moved to a new city and started a new job exploring design for social innovation. Writing has fallen by the wayside. But I recently read three fantastic books that I hope to write more about soon. Check them out!

Note: If you are unfamiliar with systems thinking, I recommend reading them in this order as I did. 

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future

The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society