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Ideas Come From The Inside, Not The Top

Social design requires remembering that it’s simply not possible to understand what it’s like to be another person, to have that person’s challenges, or to know how to solve those challenges, unless we ask.

Solutions come from within the communities looking to change. This doesn’t mean that you can sit down with a group of high school students, if they are the community, for example, and expect them to know how to end violence in their school or neighborhood. It means that they know why the violence happens, where, and when, and what it would likely take to stop it. That will be far more reliable information than talking to experts who have worked somewhere else. The perspective and insights required to address any challenge involving communities of people can’t be found in a conference room, a corner office in a high-rise, or the halls of an academic or government institution. They won’t come from anywhere that excludes the people who are most directly affected by whatever it is that needs to change. This applies to managers designing new programs for employee engagement, entrepreneurs launching new enterprises, and global development experts working on solutions for extreme poverty in an ultra-rural part of the world.

This first principle is foundational to all others, and it requires vigilance. As obvious as it sounds, it’s easy to forget, and it’s often inconvenient to put into practice. It’s comfortable and comforting to talk to people who already agree with us and who come from the same world we do. It’s easy to think we know best when we come with an outsider’s “objective” perspective that allows us to see issues more clearly than those who are caught up in them, or when we have spent a lifetime becoming expert in our field. We may have seen a hundred similar challenges before and think we already know the audience well. Perhaps we simply consider ourselves particularly observant or creative. In the short term, it can seem more efficient to decide what people need rather than take the time to talk with them about it, particularly if they’re not fluent in the same language of culture, country, or industry. Social design requires remembering that it’s simply not possible to understand what it’s like to be another person, to have that person’s challenges, or to know how to solve those challenges, unless we ask.

Any changes that are not transactional – those requiring the willing participation of the people expected to change – succeed only when designed with them, not for them. The best evidence of this logic can be found in the gap between the billions of dollars spent on employee engagement programs and the dismal state of employee engagement(1) and in the comparable amount spent on innovations for poor and unhealthy populations that have little effect on their poverty or health.(2)

This principle keeps us, and our work, alive and generative even after years of practice. Staying curious about cultural dynamics and realities that are new to us, learning other ways to see, feel, and know, avoids the calcification of “echo chambers,” where people who look and sound a lot like we do reinforce habitual ways of thinking. It’s an antidote to narrow expert status, an invitation to wisdom different from our own. And it’s exciting because people who are not like us have ideas we’ve never imagined.

  1. Jacob
    Morgan, “Why the Millions We Spend on Employee Engagement Buy Us So
    Little,” Harvard Business Review, March 10, 2017,
    https://hbr.org/2017/03/why-the- millions-we-spend-on-employee-engagement-buy-us-so-little.
  2. William
    Easterly, The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the
    Forgotten Rights of the Poor
    (New York: Basic Books, 2014).

This extract, adapted from The Intergalactic Design Guide: Harnessing The Creative Potential Of Social Design by Cheryl Heller. Copyright © 2018 Cheryl Heller. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, DC.  https://islandpress.org/book/the-intergalactic-design-guide 

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