Can Design Improve Human Health? Design for Social Innovation Hosts the Measured Summit

Posted by on January 13th, 2017

A SOCAP Guest Post by Cheryl Heller

In the last decade, the centuries-old world of social innovation has been radically transformed by two forces. One is investment capital, which brought a legion of new participants, new models and ways of working, and new thinking about what impact is and how to measure it. The second (or first, depending on your point of view) is design.

Like money, design has proven its value to business –– in runaway products, killer apps, hot global brands, and in general, by creating the insatiable desire for beautiful new toys and services that keep free markets afloat.

Now, big money and pioneering organizations on the front lines of all the wicked issues we’re battling, from climate change to poverty to food insecurity, are placing major bets that design is the methodology that improves outcomes. But in this new territory, how does social innovation design work, really, and how do we know? We see evidence, but no one has undertaken a comprehensive effort to set standards for measuring it so that we can adapt it more broadly and scale it.

Five years ago I worked on creating a curriculum and establishing the first MFA graduate program in social design at the School of Visual Arts to address these intractable social problems. While at the two-year Design for Social Innovation (DSI) program, students examine issues related to food insecurity, healthcare, or poverty alleviation, and apply design principles to create a new solution or improve upon an existing product or methodology. And our alumni have gone on to create some powerful interventions: one student served meals in a dumpster as a means to educate diners about food waste (The Salvage Supperclub), another invented beautifully wrapped condoms to encourage women to take charge of their health (Lovability), and yet another designed a hospital management platform to reduce long patient waiting lines in India (The Good Guides).

Social design is the creation of healthy, mutually beneficial relationships between humans, with  technology, and between us and the earth. It requires diverse skills and experience, including systems design, critical thinking, strategy, game mechanics, innovation, and aesthetics to move people to think in new ways, behave differently, and become more resilient and resourceful themselves. To further examine this and celebrate the symbiosis between what we design and how it might improve the world around us, we created Design+Health.

On January 24th in New York City, we’re bringing together leaders in philanthropy, healthcare, business, NGOs and designers to begin the work of identifying and evaluating the impact of design on human health. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the lead sponsor, joined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Autodesk and Sappi.

An audience of two hundred or so will hear from creators of design-led programs, and engage in conversation about their success, and how they measure it.

If you’re interested in how the design of a hospital can improve the health of the entire community, you’ll want to hear Michael Murphy of Mass Design talk about his systemic approach to measuring the impact of a built environment.

If you want to know how mobile technology can connect millions of women in Africa to vital information and care during pregnancy, come hear Jonathan McKay from praekelt.org talk about MomConnect and its success.

If you think it’s time patients had more confidence and agency in making decisions about their own treatment, you’ll want to hear Maggie Breslin, co-founder of The Patient Revolution, talk about design based tools to improve patients’ ability to engage doctors in dialog about their care.

And if you want to hear how the largest foundation in the world is integrating human-centered design into their work, listen to Tracy Johnson, from the Gates Foundation, who will talk about what she’s seeing and has learned.

Like impact capital, social design represents a new way of thinking about how we use creativity and resources to solve the problems of the world. We think it’s worth understanding more deeply.

Come join us.

To learn more and reserve a seat, visit measured.design

Cheryl Heller is Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and a winner of the prestigious AIGA medal for her contribution to design. She advised Paul Polak and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian National Design Museum on the groundbreaking exhibit, “Design for the Other 90%,” and has been instrumental in building the PopTech community. She is a pioneering communication designer and business strategist and founder of CommonWise, working with leading brands like Seventh Generation, L’Oreal and Hachette Filipacci.