In June 2018, we led our second Designing for Social Systems (DSS) Workshop. We brought together social sector leaders for an immersive program to learn and practice a design approach for social impact.

when did it take place?

June 18 – June 23, 2018 at the Stanford

who led the workshop?

The DSS teaching team was led by: 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: Amie Thao, Andrea Small, Chris Rudd, David Janka, Matt Rothe, Meenu Singh, Susie Wise, Tania Anaissie, Tom Maiorana, Tran Ha, and Vida Mia Garcia.

who participated?

Forty three participants traveled to the from eleven states across the United States and five different countries.

Participants came from foundations, nonprofits, universities, and multinational organizations, and government bodies. A complete list of participants' organizations is listed at the end of the article.

what was the workshop structure?

During the first part of the workshop, participants engaged in a 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.

During the second half of the workshop, participants applied these skills to their own organizations, developing actionable plans and tools to use following the workshop.

Check out the workshop schedule below:

designing for out-of-classroom learning in San Jose: our workshop project

The DSS program partnered with the San Jose Public Libraries to explore ways the libraries and other government and private entities could improve learning for San Jose residents. The participants were tasked with creating ways for high school students from underserved communities to learn — outside the classroom — to gain the skills and access the pathways for thriving careers. 

Participants, grouped into teams of four, started with an systems exercise of stakeholder mapping: drawing out the relationships between various stakeholders and entities in San Jose and how they connect to the youth that they target. 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.

The next step was to apply 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 and community centers to conduct interviews with individuals from the libraries, parks and recreation, education focused nonprofits, city government representatives, as well as with high school students and parents.

Following the 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 articulate 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 is one teams constructed POV around Adi, a librarian and neighborhood local.

The next day we moved back to a systems lens. Considering their new insights, teams articulated the forces (enablers and inhibitors) that impact the challenge. They then examined additional forces that are upstream causes and downstream consequences of the initially identified force. Identifying these "causal connections" allowed teams to widen their systems view, identifying the logical chain of events that precede and follow that force. For example, one team interviewed a high schooler at the libraries and realized that a great deal 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 primarily targets specific adolescent age groups or specifics 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 where in the chain of forces might they intervene to have the 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 to rethink and reframe questions that could be useful for ideation; in turn, they were able to create specific questions to which actionable, concrete solutions could be developed.

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 their ideas. Ideas included 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.

From the dashboards,  teams created 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. In addition to the initial solutions, 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. Library Fines Create a Sense of Criminality

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.


Up next

DSS DEC 2018 Teaching + Home Team

Marna Romanoff

Read Article