The Report

Design: a key strategy for large-scale social innovation?

Posting in Design

At the opening session of the 2012 Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting, luminaries from the design, diplomacy, and business worlds discussed how to use design to scale new ideas.

NEW YORK--"Designing for Impact" was the title of the opening plenary session at the Clinton Global Initiative's Annual Meeting, a gathering of more than 1,000 heads of state, C-level executives, celebrity philanthropists, and other international leaders and influencers. And the title was itself a statement bolstering the growing belief that design can be both a wise business solution and smart social innovation strategy that can work on a very large scale.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who founded CGI in 2005 as a community of leaders who are required to make financial and other commitments to humanitarian action, began the mid-day session on September 23 by discussing design's purpose in the context of the meeting--and beyond.

"This year, we're trying to change the program itself...we have a theme this year that embraces all the things to be discussed," Clinton said to the crowd gathered at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers. "Today we want to talk about how you can design your actions in advance to make it more likely that those efforts succeed." He added that participants at the meeting, held from September 23-25, would also highlight previous commitments made in past years in which design is a component.

To represent the design profession and its approaches, Linda Tischler, senior editor at FastCompany, and Tim Brown, president and CEO of design consultancy IDEO, took to the stage to frame the design focus of the meeting.

"Design tends to be a word that confuses people. When most people think about design, they think of fashion, cars, or chairs," Tischler said, admitting that some may think it an odd choice to feature two design-world insiders to kick off a meeting known for setting ambitious global diplomatic and economic goals.

"Design is about being intentional about what you want the outcome to be," Brown said, neatly defining the discipline in a wide, general sense that could be applied to many of the projects supported by CGI.

Some key thoughts from Tischler and Brown's on-stage conversation:

  • To engage in the design process means asking a lot of questions
  • It's necessary to increase the design capacity within resource-constrained areas of the world, rather than bring in established designers from more affluent nations, to create effective products and services in those communities challenged by limited resources
  • Constraints can be helpful in the design process, as they promote focus and inventive thinking
  • It's tempting to think of design as objects and services, but entire systems offer enormous opportunities for designers to tackle as well
  • Good design results from diving in as quickly as possible; it's important to create prototypes early to learn quickly from doing, not just from thinking and talking about solutions to challenges

After Tischler and Brown left the stage, they were followed by a panel of well-known corporate and global leaders: Michael T. Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart; Queen Rania of Jordan; Ban-Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations; and Jin Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group (pictured above, with Clinton).

Clinton and Duke discussed how design has affected the sustainability efforts of Wal-Mart. Clinton pointed to a powerful example of when the company redesigned its packaging, the move had the positive environmental effect of taking the equivalent of 200,000 trucks off the road.

Queen Rania talked about how she believes design can aid in applying new technologies and ideas to humanitarian projects.

"There is more technology reaching more people today than any time in history," she said. Design can help in discovering how "we [can] harness this technology abundance to address the world's fundamental deficiencies...technology isn't just for individuals. It's for humanity," she added.

Clinton then asked about using design-based strategy to scale the work of organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank.

"Sustainability will continue to be a top development...for at least a couple of decades," Ban-Ki Moon said, specifying an area where design might have an affect at the U.N. Then, he emphasized that the U.N. needs partnerships with corporations and other organizations to scale their efforts. He asked the crowd, essentially, to form new collaborations.

"Scale is different from a successful pilot project," Jin Yong Kim said.  "Designing for impact, I think, means taking seriously this issue of scale." Thinking about scale from the beginning is key, he added.

He also stated that the World Bank is currently working on moving beyond its typical strategy of sending out reports and toward becoming a "solutions bank" instead. He asked the CGI crowd, "can there be a science of execution" of social goals? In essence, he was speaking to applying design, in a broad sense, to the act of rethinking the organization's processes.

As the CGI meeting unfolds over the next couple of days--and likely for years after--the world will see how some of these high-level ideas around design as a large-scale innovation strategy will be prototyped, questioned, and, most important, executed.

Image: Clinton Global Initiative

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure