5 x 5 - Service Design for Social Innovation, Sara Cantor Aye

Interview with Sara Cantor Aye, Co-founder & Executive Director of Greater Good Studio

by Thomas Brandenburg

“One of our most useful tools is the theory of positive deviance. It states that for every social problem, there are individuals out there who have solved this problem for themselves. It’s essentially having faith that someone has bucked the trend, defied the odds and is “living in the future,” so to speak.”

 

1. Within the social innovation landscape, what issues/problems do you find lend themselves best to using a service design approach?

I can’t say that one issue needs service design more than the rest. I’ve worked across issues such as housing and renters’ rights, health care and public health, early literacy and college access, and neighborhood planning and community development. Every social sector issue needs service design, because whether physical or digital, in the US all these programs are based around service delivery.  

 

 2. What are some of the biggest challenges you face applying service design for social innovation?

Behavioral prototyping of new services is a challenging concept in the social sector. It’s easy to have end users give you feedback on a visual or usable prototype (say, of a new patient conversation script, or a new website for accessing student writing). But once you ask people to use these prototypes in their real jobs, with actual [insert vulnerable end user here, e.g. patients/students/residents/clients/parents] professionals get concerned that we are “experimenting” with people’s lives, and that the risk of something not working is too great to take.

 

3.In developing social innovation, what some of the most useful activities and tools you have used, especially if you consider how you would engage stakeholders with diverse perspectives and backgrounds?

One of our most useful tools is the theory of positive deviance. It states that for every social problem, there are individuals out there who have solved this problem for themselves. It’s essentially having faith that someone has bucked the trend, defied the odds and is “living in the future,” so to speak. The key as social designers becomes identifying positive deviants, comparing their attitudes and behaviors to those of the more “typical” users, and translating their actions into tools that the rest of society can benefit from. This theory is particularly helpful in engaging diverse stakeholders, who are often accustomed to hearing only about problems, because it can unify them in the quest to identify and better understand their “bright spots."

 

4.What organizations come to mind when you think about social innovation?

IDEO.org and Design Impact are leaders in the consulting space. I also think of conferences such as the Skoll World Forum and Opportunity Collaboration, and publications such as Stanford Social Innovation Review. But mostly I’m blown away by the thousands of small, innovative nonprofits who are serving people in need in creative, sustainable ways. I’ll name a few of my recent favorites: Concordia Place with their economically-diverse childcare model; The Ihangane Project who prevents mother-to-child transmission of HIV alongside a family nutrition program; and Open Books, who operates a successful bookstore in order to run youth and adult literacy programs.

 

“I also believe social impact is about equity: making the world a more fair and just place for all people. Much of what we focus on is reducing gaps: the gaps in student achievement, wages, eviction rates and incarceration rates and recidivism rates and graduation rates.”

 

5.What are the most useful framework(s) for measuring social impact?

I believe social impact is about sustainability: of an organization, of a societal benefit, and ultimately of society itself. Measuring sustainability can come in many forms: balance sheets and fundraising goals, children reading at grade level and students persisting through college graduation, and even things like whether or not a neighborhood is growing, shrinking or staying the same size. I also believe social impact is about equity: making the world a more fair and just place for all people. Much of what we focus on is reducing gaps: the gaps in student achievement, wages, eviction rates and incarceration rates and recidivism rates and graduation rates. Gaps in infant mortality and life expectancy. Gaps in quality of life that exist for too many people in our modern world.

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