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September 30, 2008

Design for social impact


I was critical, at the time it was announced, of a plan by the Rockerfeller Foundation to convene a meeting about Design for Development. Their starting point was “to bring together the world’s best designers with people and organizations that work on the world’s most important and complex problems” – an objective that struck me as being too designer-centric, and too uncritical of the notion of “development”.

A report of the meeting (at the Foundation's gorgeous-looking Bellagio Center) has now been published - and I have to say that my misgivings persist. The project has acquired a macho new title - “Design for Social Impact” - and there are repeated references to “the social sector” as if society, in all its complexity, is best understood as a market for design services. (The language used here reminds me of time I heard a senior person from Cisco talk about “the sustainability space”.) It is also assumed throughout the report that ‘the social sector’ contains only NGOs – whereas, for a lot of critics, NGOs are as much a part of the development problem as they will be part of any solution.

Most uncomfortable of all, for me, is that nowhere in the report can I find one single mention of the lessons design might learn from other cultures.

I'm going on about this because an eminent participant told me the meeting would "influence how hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money are spent." It's fine for designers to discuss these things, but candidly I don't think a single dollar should be spent helping designers make a "social impact" on places and cultures they know very little about.

Posted by John Thackara at September 30, 2008 05:44 PM


Excellent post and commentary. The tone of the meeting certainly seems to smack of hubris. At this point in the cratering of Western economies, maybe we should be RUSHING to learn from simpler cultures....

Corinne in Paris

Posted by: Corinne at September 30, 2008 09:54 PM

I am curious what prompted this convocation. The Bellagio Center has been operating as a public policy, science, and literary/artistic center for fifty years. Design is a new discourse there, and may emerge as a big part of their future, so I am curious what started the whole shift towards design.

Abbott Miller

Posted by: Abbott Miller at October 10, 2008 02:56 AM

Kate Andrews mentioned this post to me and I completely agree with you that the word "development" is often linked with arrogance and presumption on the part of "Westerners". Is there any other term that you use instead of "developing"?

We must accept that it is our culture and approach to life that has caused many of the greatest problems in the world, not least climate change, and the sooner we are able to learn from other cultures, especially with regard to social issues, the better.

Posted by: Ian Crawford at October 10, 2008 01:48 PM

Never let it be said that the Rockefeller Foundation doesn't THINK BIG. That don't mean they SEE STRAIGHT. In the US, Design for Social Impact is a well-known and revered Philadelphia studio. That aside, Rockefeller is very adept at throwing money at tried and true alternatives (i.e."privileged elites") in the development community. In this case, in spite of being latecomers, some designers probably stand to reap huge rewards. Just won't be anybody you'd want to drink palm wine with while discussing how design's gonna save the world.

Posted by: David Stairs at October 16, 2008 11:51 PM

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