What are the 10 big design challenges in the social sector?

August 12, 2008

It is great to see more application of design thinking in the social sector. Organizations such as Tim Prestero’s Design That Matters and Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity are encouraging designers to engage with social issues. At the same time we are seeing foundations such as Rockefeller funding projects that include design thinking. My concern though is, just like the social sector in general; we may be diffusing a small amount of capacity across a very broad range of problems. I worry that we only see incremental progress rather than major breakthroughs because we are spreading efforts too thinly. There are some exceptions to this. Designers Accord, the non-profit sustainability coalition, has created significant momentum and now has more than 100,000 members. Even so, it is bewildering to see the number of NGO’s working across the social sector. In his recent book Blessed Unrest Paul Hawken makes a brave attempt to list them all. While the sum total of this effort is no doubt admirable the diffusion of resources and ideas is quite extreme. We have relatively few design thinkers operating in the world. What would happen if instead of that capacity working randomly on problems it was focused on a small number of big issues? Could we use new mechanisms like open source or prizes to motivate larger numbers of creative people to collaborate? Could we create categories where creative competition causes us to build on the ideas of others to create the breakthrough ideas many areas of society need? I think we could.

The first step is to generate the list of big design problems in the social sector. I want to take a stab at starting that conversation here. One place to start is the list of Millennium Development Goals published by the UN. What do you think? Is this the right list? What about social issues in the developed world like obesity or crime? What kind of metrics should we use to determine the potential impact of tackling any given challenge? Should we use a return on investment approach like Bjorn Lomborg? How do we go from these general categories to more specific design challenges? I would love your thoughts and ideas.

UN Millennium Development Goals: Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger Achieve universal primary education Promote gender equality and empower women Reduce child mortality Improve maternal health Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases Ensure environmental sustainability Develop a global partnership for development