Rethinking Design Thinking for the Other 50%
Self-interest, democracy, justice, and injustice

Socially responsible project failure and time

A Faceboook friend of mine, Dori Gliasson, sent me (and others) an email asking, "Why is it that socially responsible projects fail?" He blogged about it on his blog Nordic Dogs.

My response follows:

It has to do with the fact that designing ends at the prototype (whether it is an object, or a concept, or a "transformation") as such it often fails to fully engage with the complex processes and issues of implementation.

Socially responsible project "failures" that I have experienced have often had one of two sources: the failure to be implemented or the failure to scale the implementation in order to have measurable impact.

My health financial information project for Chicago Cook County Bureau of Health Services failed because the employees directly blocked its implementation through stonewalling. Why did they act that way? The project would have made more transparent their processes, which they wanted to keep private, so they sat on the warehouse of designed artifact systems and processes until I ran out of energy trying to both adapt the design to the bureaucratic culture, yet bring about change in the culture. As an anthropologist, the most challenging thing to do is to change institutional cultures.

Thinking of the Design for Democracy example, it is mired by the fact that it cannot scale to have national impact, although it has been approved by the Fed gov as the national standard for ballot design and polling place information and the templates to implement the system is widely available. AIGA, the sponsoring organization, does not have the resources (staff and money) to convince all 3,421 counties to adopt the standard. The Fed government cannot mandate the changes due to the Constitution. So even though it has been successfully implemented, it will lag in its ability to scale.

But failure is always a question of for whom and under what time frame. Is DforD a failure because it will take 10 years to have full acceptance instead of 2-3 years? If Cook County rolls out the design system because a new Lt. Government applies pressure, will it still be a failure?

Perhaps socially responsible projects "fail" because the temporal scale of change is longer than the temporal engagement of designers.



Hi Dori,

It's been a while since I commented, and not sure I used this same name, but have an idea here.

There's a book called Frame Reflection, written by Donald Schon and his long-time associate Martin Rein, with ideas that may be very apropos.

Try the third case study, where a housing crisis in Massachusetts was finally and quite successfully resolved.

These are deep ideas, and that case is detailed, but the whole is very worthwhile to read through, think I would promise.

It may take longer as it has for myself, to get one's head sufficiently around what is being discussed, but again, very worthwhile.

Best regards,

Dori Gislason

Thanks for response Dori.
We are going through an irritating phase on one of the projects here in Oslo, where the designers might be 'chickening' because of the complex political and entrepreneural situation ahead. They might think it safer to help locals create products with uncertain selling channels but they might look good at home in a design gallery

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