Leverage Points

Design and Social Impact: A Cross-Sectoral Agenda for Design Education, Research, and Practice

This text summaries findings of the Social Impact Design Summit, held in New York on February 27, 2012. The event brought together participants from nonprofit and for-profit organizations, academic programs, government agencies, and non-governmental organizations. They represented several design disciplines: product design, graphic design, urban design, and architecture. The goal was to explore the state of an emerging design field known as “socially responsible design” or “social impact design” (8). The summit proceedings offer a snapshot of the state of the art in 2012, when this field was emerging. They outline challenges to developing impactful new forms of design, and these learnings may be transferrable to other emerging areas of design theory, like transition design. This text includes testimony and case studies from designers working in the Global South, and it identified how cultural biases can limit the emergence of new knowledge.

Smithsonian Institution Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and National Endowment for the Arts. 2013. “Design and Social Impact: A Cross-Sectoral Agenda for Design Education, Research, and Practice.” http://tinyurl.com/3r8ppy9m.

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Cameron Tonkinwise, Transition Design, Konstfack 2014

Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design at Carnegie Mellon, outlines the evolution of design from the Bauhaus era to the present, exploring how designers have been variously defined as form-givers, designers-in-service, and now as change agents. As the enablers of mass production, and therefore mass consumption, designers are the originators of the central problem of our time: the excesses of material proliferation and waste. The only way to solve the problem at the root of their very discipline is to change it from within. Movements in design, like participatory design, digital interaction design, and service design have shifted the discipline towards a human-centred activity rather than an object-oriented approach. Tonkinwise sees value in these movements and identifies an important shift from the designer as the solver of a given problem to a definer of problems themselves. Tonkinwise embraces Ezio Manzini’s theories as a critical “redesign of design”. Manzini argues that designers should lend their service design skills to laypeople embedded within the problem contexts they face. The designer makes solutions drawn from the grassroots easier and more sustainable and then spreads this good idea to the wider society. For Tonkinwise, design now occurs in support of change-making through the spectrum of service design, design for social innovation, and transition design. Designers make futures by adding things to the present that create futures, and new things create new habits and new practices: herein lies the problem and the hope for design.  

Konstfack, ID. “Cameron Tonkinwise, Transition Design, Konstfack 2014.” Vimeo, February 26, 2024. https://vimeo.com/113233445.

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Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System

In this paper, Meadows defines leverage points as “...places within a complex system ​(a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything” (1) Similar to Thinking in systems: A primer, this paper reviews the basic tenets of systems by explaining parameters, stocks, delays, flows, feedback loops, etc. Meadows then posits twelve ways to intervene in a system in order of effectiveness. Each of the twelve interventions are fully articulated and their level of effectiveness explained. While the list is tentative, and Meadows qualifies it by stating that each system is unique and that there are exceptions, this paper lays the groundwork for systems intervention and for the reader to understand different avenues for affecting change. 

Meadows, Donella H. 1999. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute.

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