In June of 2018, we led our second Designing for Social Systems (DSS) Workshop. Building on our August 2017 workshop, we once again brought together social sector leaders for an immersive program to learn and practice a design approach for social impact.

Applications for Dec 2018 DSS Workshop Now Open

Workshop dates: 9 Dec - 14 Dec 2018. Read more and apply.

When did it take place?

June 18 – June 23, 2018 at the Stanford

Who led the workshop?

The DSS teaching team: Thomas Both, Director of the DSS program, and Nadia Roumani, Senior Designer for DSS

We were also joined by eleven amazing coaches and apprentice coaches: Tom Maiorana, Vida Mia Garcia, Meenu Singh, Matt Rothe, Andrea Small, Susie Wise, Chris Rudd, Tania Anaissie, Tran Ha, David Janka, and Amie Thao.

Who Participated?

This year, we brought together 43 outstanding leaders from around the world. Participants traveled to the from eleven states across the United States and five countries including Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia.

Our accomplished group of participants this year came from foundations, nonprofits, academic settings, and government organizations. A complete list of participants organizations is listed at the end of the article.

What was the workshop structure?

Throughout the workshop, participants were tasked with going through the entire design process to tackle a real-world problem with a project partner. Learning through lectures, activities, and experiences, they moved between a systems lens and a human-centered lens several times, to create innovative and actionable solutions.

In addition, participants applied these skills to their own organizations, developing actionable plans and tools to use following the workshop.

Check out the schedule of the workshop below:

What was new since the prior DSS workshop?

A Framework for Human And Systems Integration

Building on our August of 2017 DSS workshop, we continued our work to integrate human-centered design, systems practice, and strategy.

We introduced a model to better visualize the relationship between human centered design and systems thinking. This four quadrant framework describes a design approach on two axes: Understand <> Create, and Abstract <> Concrete. An idealized project process would move clockwise from the lower-left quadrant to the lower-right, moving from understanding to creating, and from concrete to abstract and back to concrete.

Caption: A design process framework; adapted from Charles Owen’s model presented in Design, Advanced Planning and Product Development, 1998.

With this model we show how a human-centered view (represented in the inner circle) and a systems view (the outer sections) work in tandem in this approach.

The framework shown with questions to be answered in each quadrant, from the human and systems lenses.

By integrating these two methods, social sector leaders can use the creative, empathetic and needs-based tools of human centered design in conjunction with the wider-scale view of systems thinking to establish cohesive and effective ways to approach problems.

You an read more about the integration in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article

Building From Human-Centered Insights to a Wider Contextual View

One way we moved from the human-centered view to take a step back to the larger systems context, in practice during the workshop, was to have teams consider how their newly realized insights from fieldwork reveal or give more nuance to important “enablers” or “inhibitors” -- forces in the system that affect outcomes. Teams chose and focused on specific enablers and inhibitors and thought about the upstream causes and downstream effects of them. Looking upstream and downstream expanded the view beyond the initial point of research. This showed a connected chain of factors, and opened possibilities for the best areas to intervene.

Theory of Change Meets Change of Theory

During the last three  days of the workshop, we coached participants to understand how they could apply design, systems, and strategy tools to their own work and organizations. We introduced a “theory of change” framework. A theory of change, simply, is the logic that concludes interventions one creates will lead to desired outcomes. However, in addition to the common logic model we introduced a complementary view, a “change of theory.” The change of theory summarizes the results from design work that inform one’s theory of change, for example new understanding of forces affecting the goal, insights, opportunity framings, and intervention concepts. Our point is that the two connect: a theory of change is as strong as the understanding and experimentation behind it.

Designing for out-of-classroom learning in San Jose: Our workshop project

During this workshop, the DSS program partnered with the San Jose Public Libraries to explore ways the libraries and other government and private entities could make the city a place for learning. Focused on San Jose, participants took on the challenge to: Create ways for high school students from underserved communities to learn — outside the classroom — to gain the skills and access the pathways for thriving careers. In teams of four, participants dove into this project.  

Teams started with an systems exercise: How do you map the relationships between various stakeholders and entities in San Jose, and how do they connect to the youth, who are the target of intervention? By analyzing the system as a complex series of entities, participants were able to identify various touchpoints: individuals and entities with which youth had contact or may otherwise affect youth learning.

Through stakeholder mapping, participants saw a systems-level picture of learning for a student in San Jose. The next step was to approach a human-centered view on the project, by focusing on particular individuals and entities in the system. Participants traveled south to San Jose for a day, posting up at libraries to conduct interviews with individuals from the libraries, parks and recreation, the city government, and various other entities as well as with high school students and parents.

Following interviews, teams regrouped and worked to make sense of what they had heard and seen. After recounting the interviews with each other, the teams stretched their thinking to develop insights: direct and inferred critical findings about behaviors, beliefs, and structures (and interactions of these). For the sake of focusing and communicating, teams then summarized one important area of their findings by writing a point-of-view (POV) statement. For example, here’s one teams constructed POV around Jason, a passionate library volunteer:

By the end of the day, teams had moved from the systems lens, through stakeholder mapping, to the human-centered lens, through interviews and synthesis. At the same time, they moved from the concrete findings of the interviews to abstract insights and ideas that they could move forward with as they progressed in the project.

The next day we moved back to a systems lens. Considering their new insights, teams articulated the forces (enablers and inhibitors) that affect the challenge. They then examined additional forces that are causes (“upstream”) and consequences (“downstream”) of the initially identified force. For example, one team interviewed a high schooler at the libraries and realized that much of a high-school student’s relationship with libraries is based on their parents’ (or caretakers’) attitudes toward and use of the library. Parents who don’t use libraries lack an understanding of libraries as a place of accessible learning and opportunity, and this idea can be passed on through generations. Furthermore, San Jose libraries’ programming primary target specific adolescent age groups or adults, but not activities that would actively engage multiple generations in a family.

After examining these connected chains of related forces, centered on the human-based insights that were found, teams selected where they might intervene. They asked themselves what forces (in the chain) might they work to affect to have greatest leverage and impact. From these, they developed “How Might We” questions, which frame opportunity spaces and point to specific challenges that can be addressed. Participants used prompts, such as “question an assumption”, “amp up the good”, and “focus on an emotion” to rethink and reframe questions that could be useful prompts for ideation.

Teams moved toward the concrete by brainstorming solutions to their questions. After generating a wide range of solutions (product, service, space, programs, policy, etc.), the teams then narrowed in on specific solutions and created an “idea dashboard”, fleshing out what their solutions would look like.

From the dashboards teams creating low-resolution prototypes and tested them with high school students, San Jose Libraries staff, and Parks, Recreation, & Neighborhoods staff. Teams received valuable feedback and developed ideas about how they would change their solution in further iterations.   


The next day, teams presented their work to the library partners. They summarized their project work, presenting the opportunities that they identified and their potential solutions, as well as steps for moving forward with the projects. The teams created a wide scope of engaging and creative solutions, including a virtual reality experience in the library, an art wall engaging multicultural multigenerational families to connect with each other, and a youth-led “revolution lab” to create young leaders who engage in the issues they’re passionate about.

In addition to the initial solutions teams created, teams discovered and identified insights about the learning environment in San Jose as it relates to college and career readiness and the public library system. Some of them are shared below:

1. Group Actions

Teens roam in groups and act based on what their friends are doing. However, library programming is geared towards individuals, not groups. At the same time, programs have a hard time attracting teens to participate in them. Therefore there is an opportunity to promote and design programs for groups of high-school students, and leverage their relationships with one-another.

2. Learning Environments

Teens have a pre-existing bias as to where learning takes place: in the school, not outside of school. At the same time, however, programs find success when they take learning (specifically technology-based learning) to the teens. For example, while programs in video editing at the library may have gained little traction, there was success in bringing GoPro cameras to skateparks and letting teens use them (and learn video editing at the same time). How could we take advantage of times when learning aligns with the teen’s interest, contributing to one of their goals and in a space where they feel comfortable.

3. Criminals in the Library

One team discovered that library fines create a sense of criminality in the library, alienating San Jose residents that already feel culturally distant from the libraries. This contributes to a sense of distrust that already exists in some communities, spanning multiple generations. Perhaps the fine system could be rewritten, or programs could be in place, to reframe the way that residents see fines: not as a penalty or a crime but rather as a reminder and an incentive to return items when they are due.

4. Teens and Tech

Many efforts of the libraries and other organizations assume that teens have barriers to learning tech, and therefore work to help teens overcome these barriers. However, this may not be the case; perhaps a bigger factor is that youth feel deeply alienated from tech and tech culture. For many youth, tech culture can be associated with gentrification, inequality, and an increasing socioeconomic gap between the rich and the poor in the Bay Area. Youth feel alienated from this culture and therefore find ways to reject tech and technology-related learning. There may be opportunity in reframing programs surrounding tech; teens use tech every day in their lives yet feel alienated from the culture that creates that tech. By making tech approachable and relatable, more teens could potentially be reached.

Complete list of participant organizations:

  • Science and Technology Policy Institute;

  • Oxford Baptist Church;

  • ReSurge International;

  • The G4 Alliance;

  • Pulse Lab Jakarta,

  • Women’s World Banking,

  • Impact Hub Seattle;

  • University of Arizona;

  • Teach for Australia;


  • Jim Joseph Foundation;

  • Results Washington;

  • Alliance Community Initiatives;

  • New Zealand Qualifications Authority;

  • Cope Family Center;

  • Houston Food Bank;

  • ILM Foundation;


  • Napa County Health and Human Services;

  • OECD;

  • Nan Ives Consultancy;

  • University of Georgia;

  • Tamaki Regeneration Company;

  • Te Puni Kokiri - Ministry for Maori Development;

  • National Counterterrorism Center;

  • OneJustice;

  • Department of Education and Training Victoria;

  • Alliance for Integrated Approaches to Extreme Environmental Events;

  • WorkSafe Victoria;

  • Cities of Service;

  • Nonprofit Finance Fund;

  • Resilient Napa - Cope Family Center;

  • Harvard Chan School of Public Health;

  • National Center for PTSD Dissemination and Training Division;

  • Irvine New Leadership Network;

  • Youth Emergency Services & Shelter;

  • Children’s Institute;

  • Kaiser Permanente.


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