Flip Labs CEO Hosts Mini-Course on Designing for Systems Change

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All of our social and environmental problems today are the result of human systems producing bad outcomes, whether that’s by design to reinforce existing power structures, or unintentionally due to unforeseen dynamics or consequences. In order to better understand how design process can be used to change the world, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design approached Cheryl Dahle, CEO of Flip Labs, to put on a mini-course for students and members of Pittsburgh foundations.

The two-day interactive mini-course used case examples from Dahle’s professional work with reinventing global fisheries, increasing childhood literacy rates by re-designing book publishing, and using finance as a design tool for change in any system. The course also featured several guest speakers and offered students a chance to learn a framework for diagnosing problems and finding patterns in systems; see how design process applies to tangled, complex problems, analyze the systems they live within that are ripe for change.

“Systems pose challenges for design because they are so interconnected,” said Simon King, Director of the CMU Design Center. “It’s not that approaching them through design has been rejected or is new, it’s that traditional client/service structures make addressing the complexity of a system difficult. 

“Individual organizations are deep within a system so they have trouble affecting all the pieces they are connected to,” he added. “Design consultants are outside the systems so they can identify the in-between spaces but don’t have agency or longevity to make change.

“Cheryl is trying to find a balance between those two and get more people to try this approach.”

The decision to approach Dahle to host this mini-course was an easy one to make.

“We’ve been in conversation with Cheryl since she spoke in the Design the Future lecture series at the School of Design in April of 2015,” said King.  “Her approach to design is unique because she treats her ‘client’ as an entire system, not any single organization.

“Her unique approach to convening entrepreneurs from different parts of an system allows her to tackle complexity in a way that seems to really be moving the needle.”

Another notable difference about the way Dahle approaches a systems problem has been attributed to her history of sticking with a system. 

“She doesn’t uncover some opportunity areas and walk away, she invests in them over years to grapple with the challenges that emerge through execution,” added King.

The mini-course was divided into two sessions.  On Friday, 4/28, representatives from local Pittsburgh funding and grant-making communities took part in a presentation and group working session to learn how the design process could be utilized to meet their organizations’ goals.

Cynthia Ference-Kelly, Grants & Program Officer of the Fine Foundation, found a model aligned with nonprofit values.

“With the benefit of the School of Design and Cheryl Dahle’s presentation, now there is another methodology to recommend to nonprofits—a coherent, creative process that incorporates observation, empathy, collaboration, experimentation, and refinement of ideas in problem solving,” said Ference-Kelly.

Ference-Kelly went on to say that she continues to be interested in finding new ways for nonprofits like the Fine Foundation, which funds impactful projects that make a difference in people’s lives, to tell their story. She went on to say that Dahle’s approach to design “has the potential to transform how nonprofits (and for-profits) seek solutions to complex problems.”

“I was particularly intrigued by three elements she discussed—1) using anthropological methods to dig deeper into the history, context and people surrounding an issue; 2) curating a conversation among intentionally selected stakeholders who can then become a brainstorming team; and 3) using the process of ‘build, test, rebuild, test, rebuild’ as often as necessary to find the best solution,” added Ference-Kelly.

“This multi-disciplinary approach is likely to yield new kinds of ideas." 

For Shani Lasin of the FISA Foundation, there was an appreciation for Dahle’s belief that change is possible.

“I was not particularly knowledgeable about design thinking, and Cheryl’s presentation was exciting because it provided a new lens and potentially new tools to move the needle on some very entrenched social issues relevant to the populations that FISA supports,” said Lasin.

Lasin went on to say that the issues with which FISA is concerned could benefit from a design thinking approach, from preventing domestic and sexual violence to increasing employment opportunities for people with disabilities to addressing the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects girls of color.

“Because of its iterative process, design thinking can help one glean new insights into long-standing problems—sometimes revealing that the issues are just a symptom of a much larger problem or inextricably connected to another issue,” Lasin added.

After the session with the Pittsburgh foundations, a weekend workshop was held for an interdisciplinary group of students from all over Carnegie Mellon University, including representatives from Engineering, Design, Human Computer Interaction, Business, Psychology, Writing, and Chemistry.

“It was great to see this diverse group work together to understand the case studies that Cheryl brought to the class and develop design concepts for how to improve a system,” said King. “Design is becoming more transdisciplinary, so it was great to be able to explore this topic with such a broad mix of CMU students. 

“It’s a testament to the universal nature of this kind of design, a way of shaping possibilities and ideas, not just things.” 

The case studies the students worked through were the Criterion Institute, who use finance as a tool to impact gender issues, and FirstBook who provide disadvantaged children with reading books. These are organizations that need to take a broad ecosystem view to achieve their goals, from working with churches to the Coast Guard respectively to gain access to the people or resources that can make a difference.

“Design thinking is a universal meta-skill that all students should be familiar with because it’s a human and holistic way of approaching a problem,” continued King. “It’s flexible enough to provide value to a any situation, employing empathy, prototyping, iteration, and a humble attitude to let solutions emerge from the system itself instead of being imposed from outside.

“Design thinking is clearly not the only approach to making a difference, but it’s a valuable addition for any student to add to their toolkit.”

“The interdisciplinary nature of this event was definitely a highlight,” said Jonathan Dyer, a mechanical engineering student. “I feel that it simulated the working world rather nicely because it forced people from different disciplines to solve a goal and we each added what we thought were the products of our experiences.“

“Design in this sense isn't just about pretty illustrations - it's about the thought process behind a human audience and this extends to people of all disciplines,” added Daniel See, a Bachelor of Humanities and Arts student.

The Flip Labs Micro-Course synchronizes with the greater research aims of Design for Social Innovation as well as Transition Design, which is a term that was introduced by the School of Design.

“The School of Design is a top ranked design school with a long history of pushing the field of design into new territory,” concluded King. “Today, designing for whole systems is an example of where design is heading so working with someone like Cheryl is a way for the school to continue that evolution.” 

Check out all of the pictures from the Flip Labs Micro-Course:

Mini-Course with Cheryl Dahle

Date Published: 
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
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