How might we capture the unique value designers bring to the emergent field of social innovation?
This is the central research question that has guided my inquiry through the Doctor of Management Program at Weatherhead. Given the interconnected nature and fast-evolving pace of the complex social and economic challenges we face as a 21st century society, understanding better “the return on design” (ROD) in the public and private sectors is a critical problem of practice with consequential implications for organizations of all kinds. This is a context that informs my practice on a daily basis: I am a design educator and the co-founder of Designmatters --an established design program that focuses on undergraduate and graduate level curricula in design for social innovation at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. For more than a decade I have experienced design for social innovation projects upfront through the work of the design teams I collaborate with here in the US and throughout the world. Design for social innovation remains an emergent domain—one defined by new ideas, artifacts, services, and models that simultaneously meet social needs and create new collaborations that are both good for society and enhance its capacity to act (The Young Foundation, 2012). Whether we are imagining new products, systems and services for water and sanitation solutions for dwellers of informal settlements in Chile, Colombia or Peru (the Safe Agua initiative), or helping teachers in Los Angeles' public schools engage teens in a conversation about gun violence through the Where’s Daryl? Campaign, the collaborative processes with partners and stakeholders that I advocate for in my program require a systems view and an empathic approach to negotiation that can make a big difference in the ultimate results of the projects we undertake.
My doctoral research has allowed me to delve deeper into the various human and organizational dynamics at play in the social innovation projects that I help conceive and manage. It has triggered the development of an expanded consciousness of sorts about the wicked problems that I am confronted with as a leading practitioner in my field. In this sense, my research and practice are closely intertwined, and in many ways epitomize a central tenet and strength of the DM program: creating a space to cultivate practitioner-scholars who represent “engaged scholarship” and are equally adept at studying complex problems, creating new knowledge and stepping back from their own investigation to build bridges between theory and practice—with the capability of translating research outcomes into actionable knowledge (Van de Ven, Engaged Scholarship, 2007).
I cannot underestimate how much this newly found confidence for reflective awareness has informed my work already. In subtle but significant ways, I find myself approaching problem formulation, experimentation, and learning with an entire new set of lenses.
At this writing, I am concluding the DM three-year lockstep program and about to embark in my final PhD year. Pausing to reflect on the journey behind me brings about a sense of profound personal accomplishment: it has been a privilege to study within the inspiring built environment of Frank Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis building, under the mentorship of management and design scholars who have long championed the power of design practices to create alternative futures, and in the company of a diverse cohort of accomplished individuals, several of whom will remain life-long friends.
John Dewey reminds us that it was an axiom of Aristotle that “only that which is already known can be learned, that growth in knowledge consists simply in bringing together a universal truth of reason and a particular truth of sense which had been previously noted separately.” (Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy,1920).
I believe that the Doctor of Management Program has catalyzed for me that kind of deep practice of knowledge—one filled with the boundless possibilities and actionable promise that only true learning affords us.
Mariana Amatullo is the Co-Founder and Vice President of Designmatters at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. She is a Doctor of Management Design Fellow as well as a Doctor of Management Non Profit Fellow in the Designing Sustainable Systems PhD track.