Making Models: R&D in the Social Sector

This is an edited excerpt from the book LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways for Design in Social Innovation, which was published by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design and available from DAP/Distributed Arts Publishers.

Renuka Kher and David Sherwin have collaborated on multiple initiatives between Tipping Point Community and global design and strategy firm frog, including T Lab. T Lab is a six-month long program that brings together nine Problem Solvers to design and test new solutions to help with pressing social issues in the Bay Area, such as access to child care, availability of early education, and support for people recently released from prison.

David Sherwin: You’ve had an unwavering vision around creating a model for research and development in the social sector that would serve as an equivalent to what we see in other industries such as technology, defense or medicine. Based on the experimentation that we’ve done with this approach over the past year, what would you say R&D should look like for nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations seeking to create new social services?

Renuka Kher: We are still very new at testing this approach, so it’s too early to answer that question with rigorous evidence. However, there are some observations worth noting.

First, and this may seem obvious, you have to give yourself and your entire organization permission to develop new products or services through building and testing rather than writing and planning. The current norms and practices in the social sector are to put together elaborate plans that include many assumptions and that will only be tested once the effort is fully funded or in some cases incrementally tested as some portion of it might be funded and efforts continue to raise money for the rest. Or to put it differently, an idea for a social service represents nothing more than a set of assumptions.

We place a premium on defining the problem or challenge first, and then incrementally building a potential solution while simultaneously learning about and mitigating key risks. What we’ve seen in applying this approach is that conducting small-scale experiments proves to be invaluable in helping shape the larger solution, making that upfront investment worthwhile.

DS: Let’s talk about what you’re looking to accomplish with design as part of Tipping Point Community. Why did you choose to create T Lab over other potential experiments you could conduct in the social sector, seeing that some of the Problem Solvers that have participated in the program have used it as a bridge from school or other career paths into working in social impact?

RK: T Lab serves as our initial pilot experiment, and we have several learning objectives that we hope will inform our overall approach. By talking with others who are also in this space, such as, we learned that finding and employing designers with the necessary backgrounds and skill-sets, as well as the right orientation to do this work is expensive, nascent and emerging.

We designed the T Lab structure to help us test a few things:

  1. How much “making and testing” can we do in six months as part of an R&D approach to social services for our grantees?
  2. Can we train, support and coach mid-career professionals to work in multidisciplinary teams and to apply the human-centered design process as its central framework?
  3. Can we build new knowledge in each challenge area from cohort to cohort that will help accelerate new insights and potential solutions?


DS: In looking at T Lab, there are multiple levels of experimentation. There is experimentation that is happening within T Lab regarding how to identify and validate potential new social service opportunities, which is within the community and in collaboration with your grantees. There is experimentation regarding how to develop a strong team of people that can collaborate with nonprofits or NGOs, in terms of building capability and capacity to do R&D across multiple domains. And there is also experimentation in influencing your grantees so they can, in the long term, utilize this approach to design and test experiments on their own. I think there’s major upside in taking this layered approach, where you are trying to create both meaningful solutions that help a community thrive and also organizations that can sustain their services. But if you want major return on investment, you need to find major risks, knowing that experimentation in the context of social services requires immense attention to the people you’re serving and how they participate throughout the human-centered design process.

RK: Tipping Point is committed to taking risks and helping our grantees do so as well. Our board seeded our first year of T Lab. The Problem Solvers also took a risk and devoted six months of their professional careers in testing something new and being comfortable with an approach that has emergent outcomes rather than those that are known or predefined. We need more funders to follow suit, and collectively we will be able to establish a new set of norms for how to take on risk in this way. It will require us to shift our mindsets from “funding known outcomes” to “investing to learn” so that we can create some space for solutions to emerge.

For example, during year one of T Lab, one of the teams tested whether converting a bus into a preschool classroom might facilitate access to early childhood education. They designed a prototype of a “preschool on a bus,” and tested the concept for six days to find out if children, parents, teachers and school leadership would consider this concept. The team was addressing a significant facilities challenge, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Tipping Point provided a $250,000 R&D investment to conduct a pilot program.

Until we see funding flow in this way, we won’t see an increase in demand for designers, engineers and other talent to come on board and play the role that they have played in the tech startup community.


DS: If we’re going to encourage funders to support these types of initiatives, we’ll have to demonstrate how the design process for social services can differ from other forms of R&D. Many projects we’ve participated in require working within the community to identify existing people, assets, and capacities rather than trying to bring in new assets or inventions. Designers aren’t always trained to work with motivated people from a local community to utilize what they already have in unique ways. Solutions emerging from the design process may not feel “new” to the designer, but they can be immensely needed by the community. One such outcome I saw this in last year’s T Lab came from a team working in West Oakland. They co-designed a second- and third-shift child-care service called GMA Village provided by grandmothers within the neighborhood. The designers used a people-first approach to identify what was needed for people living in that community, and then they formulated a systematic solution. The service was prototyped with the community, although it took substantial time for this concept to take form.

RK: Moving “fast” in this context/terrain is hard. The notion of rapid prototyping and experimentation is measured in weeks in a startup environment, but in a social service it can and does take several months to move from low-fidelity prototypes to an example that people are truly using. Rigorous participatory and co-design efforts require continuous collaboration with different groups of stakeholders, a lot of lead time and relationship-building, and educating everyone on the design process—all before the cycle of build-test-learn can happen.

DS: Not all nonprofits and NGOs are familiar with how to set up formal relationships to do this. And designers have to be prepared to spend multiple years of their life focused on a community issue or need, partnering with the right organizations that have made a similar commitment.

What is the role that a designer should have in this new type of construct, especially as they are figuring things out in their first few years out of school? What kind of commitment do you think a designer should make to working with a client or a community group?

RK: Designers will be tasked with using their skill set to build something new or to improve the efficacy of what might already be working. Designers play an essential role in leading this work and in helping organizations develop the muscle to deploy this approach across the entire organization. They will lead user research, build prototypes, and solicit feedback from several key stakeholders in the community. They will be responsible for sharing how the process is unfolding and serving as a translator.

DS: Human-centered design speaks to spending time with people and understanding their needs. Along with these skills, this R&D work requires in-depth collaboration and co-creation of solutions that you can test alongside different frameworks and/or business models they could live within. I see many designers come out of school realizing they have to become well versed in partnering with those who can take a prototype or concept created with community members and make them real. There may be skills that we want today’s students to borrow from the startup community and apply in the context of social services, such as the ability to prototype and build technology-based solutions that they can get into people’s hands for rapid feedback all the way through to a formally engineered and shipped product. But those skills shouldn’t be confused with or privileged over the empathy, compassion, humility, tenacity, critical thinking, communication and facilitation skills required to partner with other people and empower them to make concepts real. Along with these skills, are there others outside the realm of design that designers must conquer to successfully participate in social impact work?

RK: Yes. Project management, stakeholder management, change management, and so forth. I would argue that it’s not just about mastering these skills as a discrete set of things that you know how to perform but rather as a holistic set of skills that then you are able to toggle effectively between in any given context—which will rarely repeat itself.

Visit the book’s website for full information.

David Sherwin
David Sherwin
David Sherwin

David Sherwin is a Fellow at frog, co-founder of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and co-author with Mary Sherwin of Turning People into Teams: Rituals and Routines That Redesign How We Work (Berrett Koehler, 2018).

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