Design for Social Impact: Promoting Trust, Authenticity, and Innovation through Design Thinking

Design for Social Impact: Promoting Trust, Authenticity, and Innovation through Design Thinking

Designers have the expertise essential for driving social innovation.

As a researcher with Master’s in Design for Sustainability, “Design for Social Innovation” has always been a huge part of my personal and professional life. My work is inspired by field leaders like Victor Papanek and Victor Margolin. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an event “Learn. Leverage. Lead.” sponsored by Boston+Acumen. Thought leaders from different social impact fields shared their expertise around tackling poverty through solutions that involve mobilizing systems and investing in leaders.

Eleanor Murphy, Business Development Manager from Acumen, kicked off the event by presenting Acumen’s approach and grassroots efforts towards supporting and scaling early-stage companies who tackle poverty. She illustrated how Acumen invests in financial and human capital, technical assistance, and strategic guidance with platforms in different sectors, such as housing, energy, education, and healthcare. Acumen also provides education and leadership through online and fellowship programs. Such training is focused on developing moral imagination, operational, and financial skills. Since these skills are taught in the design thinking approach, designers are in a unique position to play a more significant role enacting social change.

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How Does Transit Shape a Citizen?

My mother has been transcribing a series of my great-grandfather’s letters he wrote while living in China in the early 1920s. Each is an incredible time capsule reminding us of how much has changed in the last century. In one passage, he summarizes the route he will need to take to get back to the US. It gets me thinking about the user experience of transit: how it affects our quality of life and how the design of transit affects our society overall.

December, 1921 in Tsingtao, China

“I have not made up my mind yet which way I want to go. Sometimes I cannot get home fast enough, and at other times I want to take my time and go by Suez. It was all Suez for me up to about six months ago, but as the time draws nearer I feel less like staying away from the U.S. for the extra time it would take. If I should go that way it would mean by the fastest boats, thirty four days from Hong Kong to London.”

If I were to make that trip today, the 34-day boat ride he describes would be replaced by a 12-hour flight. What incredible access we have gained! But what trade offs have we made in the name of speed and access?

As my great grandfather made the trip from Hong Kong to (eventually) Brooklyn, he experienced a multitude of other sights, smells and people between his two endpoints, but modern routes skip over those interstitial places. How does this change our understanding of a place? Was my grandfather introduced to more nuances and ways of life than I would be, plugged into my in-flight entertainment system? An urban planner friend of mine believes cities in the future will be centered around the airport. I wonder if we lose a sense of context when a sealed plane ride is our entre to a new place.

Cars on the other hand, though they sacrifice some speed, give us control and an ability to break away from the beaten path. You can glimpse the city skyline on the horizon and watch as it grows, enveloping you in its architectural feats. Looking at a few recent trends, cars seem to be less of a mere conduit and more of a state all its own. The opposite of air travel, these trends allow us to dwell perpetually in the interstitial, enjoying the journey more than the destination. Volvo’s tagline for its new wifi feature sums it up nicely: “You can disconnect from home and reconnect with the road.” Audis have their own shipping address, acknowledging that people are more often away from home. Cars have mastered a freedom of exploring.

But as the car experience becomes a more substantial part of our lives, what are we sacrificing? In a way, cars have become too user-centered when we consider how prioritizing the driver negatively impacts the city. Houston and LA are examples of sprawling cities based on roads and parking lots that drive air temperatures up, foster air pollution and do nothing to relieve traffic problems. I watch our own Seaport develop and feel the scales tip away from the pedestrian and towards cars. Each residential tower is marketed as its own world unto itself with all the amenities you need, complete with a built-in garage. This siloed approach discourages residents from walking between buildings, exploring the history of the area and meandering along the waterfront. Can we find a way to serve the traveler without sacrificing the environment and social fabric of a streetscape?  

We have an opportunity to consider what design principles we want to use as we reinvest in Boston’s transit system. Speed, contextual understanding, ability to get “off the beaten path,” connecting with nature, social interaction, and safety are some that immediately come to mind. Frustrations with the MBTA is fresh in our minds from this past winter. On May 8th and 9th, the City of Boston is hosting a Visioning Lab to shape the vision for the transportation system of 2030. While we set new goals, put new leadership in place and jostle for Olympics funding, let’s be intentional and design. How does transit shape a citizen? How does it shape society?

Reflecting on the Connected Things Forum

Reflecting on the Connected Things Forum

Thought leaders from healthcare, retail, security, cleantech, automotive and industrial sectors gathered for Connected Things 2015, a half-day forum hosted by the MIT Enterprise Forum at the Media Lab. The first keynote speaker, Dr. Alan Messer, VP of Advanced Software Technologies at Samsung Technologies, set the tone of the afternoon by exposing all that is encompassed in the phrase “the internet of things” (IoT) and highlighting the real complexities of integrating connected solutions. Instead of adding to the IoT hype with romanticized visions of a simplified future, Messer dove straight into large technological challenges we face with connectivity, security, interoperability, and scalability.

In the breakout sessions, the barriers to finding a heterogeneous and adaptable platform for all “connected things,” became more tangible when using healthcare IoT as a lens. Connected devices in healthcare are even more complicated than in other industries due to regulation and privacy concerns, yet there exists a potential for widespread systemic change. Funding in the digital health space has more than doubled in 2014 and new startups are popping up daily, creating a buzz around mhealth, connected health, and telehealth. The success of connected solutions rides on an ability to understand the patients’ needs and provide targeted information. This focused personalization is what will improve patient outcomes and increases medical service efficiency.

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Meeting our Essentials ft. Edbert Wang

Meeting our Essentials ft. Edbert Wang

On a laid-back Friday afternoon in the Essential design studio, I chose to conduct a conversational interview with the somewhat recent addition to our team, Edbert Wang.  “Ed” or “Bert,” as he’s offered for choice, indulged in a drink with me while recalling his earliest introduction to design that would eventually land him his position on the Digital Experience team here.

Raised in West Roxbury to parents who are both chemists, Edbert remembers being really impressed back in 1st or 2nd grade when his grandfather, an architect in China, introduced him to perspective drawings. He followed this with a series of memories of a fondness of drawing graffiti in middle school and a knack for making “random things” during his early years in high school.

But it wouldn’t be until his sophomore year at Latin High, when a brief mention from his guidance counselor about a summer design program, that Edbert would make the first true connect. Youth Design is a Boston-based program that hand selects high school students for a summer internship opportunity to work amongst the creative processes of a design firm. Edbert thought it “sounded very interesting” and decided to apply for the program. As a part of the admissions process, Edbert presented his very own designed messenger bag made of floppy disks along with a Facebook album of all his unique creations. Despite being nervous, he remembers the program administrators being very impressed. Needless to say, he was offered the chance to work at Proteus Design (now known as Motiv) in Cambridge.

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Everyday Design- My Bike Project

Everyday Design- My Bike Project

My name is Taehak Kwon and I am an Industrial Designer at Essential. This past April, I left South Korea, my close friends, and family to pursue my design career in the U.S. with Essential. Designing and making is a passion of mine that extends beyond the workplace, and since moving to Boston I have picked up creative hobbies that challenge and push me to learn new skills. Here’s some insight into how design is present in all aspects of my life, shaping the way I spend my time outside of the office.

 A few months ago, a friend of mine bestowed me with her old Schwinn cruiser bike before moving back to Korea. The bike was in a poor condition; rust covered the frame and the bike desperately needed serious safety and appearance tuning (see image above).

Although I never owned a bike before and knew very little about fixing bikes, I had a very clear vision for the bike’s design and I was up for the challenge of bringing that vision to life. I found inspiration from bikes around the city, giving me a more clear design vision of the details, shape and fabrics used.

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