Design for America's Dr. Elizabeth Gerber Shows How Human-Centered Design Can Change the World for Good

Recently, I asked the Founding Faculty member of Design for America (DFA) Dr. Elizabeth Gerber - a professor in the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University - about how to use design to change the world. Liz completed her doctoral degree & master's degree in Product Design at Stanford University. Prior to DFA, she taught business & design at Stanford's d.school. Dr. Liz Gerber and her students have presented 3 conference presentations and written 2 academic papers on design practices and innovation learning. Dr. Liz Gerber regularly speaks about Design for America during research talks at peer-institutions including but not limited to Stanford, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Dartmouth.

About Design for America: "Design for America (DFA) is an award-winning nationwide network of interdisciplinary student teams and community members using design to create local and social impact. DFA students learn how to apply human-centered design to local and social challenges as innovators through extra-curricular, university-based, student-led design studios. DFA currently tackles national challenges in Education, Health, Economy and Environment. In Design for America, we use human-centered design (HCD) to improve the lives of others. HCD is an approach to problem solving that emphasizes understanding people as a vital component to successful innovation. Drawing inspiration from traditional product development textbooks such as Eppinger's New Product Development, human-centered design toolkits from Stanford and IDEO, and a series of design thinking speakers, the Design for America process is organized in two general phases - Understand & Create."

Marquis Cabrera: Where did you get the idea for Design for America?

Dr. Elizabeth Gerber: When I was an engineering student, many of my professors assigned me to a team and asked us to solve such invented problems as how to propel a ball across a room using only cardboard and rubber bands or how to build the tallest structure out of toothpicks and marshmallows. Other professors asked us to design specific things, such as a laparoscopic suturing devices or fetal monitoring devices. But my favorite professors allowed me to choose my team and encourages us to find our own problems to work on. Those assignments were the ones that made me feel I was most helping others. As a designer, I wanted meaning - and I wanted to choose my team.

That was one source of inspiration for Design for America, or DFA. Here's another. In the fall of 2008, I had just started my job as a Northwestern University design professor. From the heart of the Midwest, I watched the Obama campaign with awe. Friends who had never been politically active were volunteering for the campaign, going door to door, handing out fliers, writing blogs, hosting dinners to talk about politics. Each found what was most meaningful to them and carried it out in their own way. I was inspired by the fact that the Obama campaign activated people to ask: What can I do for others?

I wondered how I could use that spirit to help my students be powered that meaningfully. What kind of community could I create to help students think that they were capable of helping others? What kind of process could I teach that helped students to think that they could collaboratively tackle the messiest and more daunting problems such as our obesity epidemic, failing schools, and polluted waters? As a professor, my job is to teach students how to reliably and creatively come up with answers to tough problems. Could I create an organization that, like the Obama campaign, would inspire students to carry out their mission - as they envisioned it - in their own creative ways?

Marquis Cabrera: What is Design for America? What pain point are you solving?

Dr. Elizabeth Gerber: When we think about social impact, we tend to focus on the outcome - maps for reporting violence, microblogging for flood victims, and crowdfunding for cancer research. But these innovations do not just appear. It's people who work day after day to come up with these ideas. These civic innovators actively identify and define meaningful problems, design and refine solutions, and implement technical challenges to improve and strengthen society. Yet few, if any, organizations are designed to train and support these much-needed civic innovators. I set out to change that.

Here's what I created: Design for America (DFA) is an organization that activates interdisciplinary teams of volunteer faculty, students, and community members to confront illiteracy, tackle obesity, beat poverty, and more. Rather than idling, hoping for civic innovation to occur, DFA helps communities to cultivate the innovators they need, giving people the competence, confidence, and resources to develop and deploy their ideas to resolve the most pressing challenges in their communities. In the course of working with an organization involving thousands of community members, I developed three core organizational design principles concerning the innovation process, community, and mentorship.

Marquis Cabrera: What impact are you hoping to create?

Dr. Elizabeth Gerber: I hope that someday we have created the social and technical infrastructure to allow people to share their skills, knowledge, and resources to attack and solve complex problems in their communities. All of these efforts collectively add up to big impact nationally, and globally.

Marquis Cabrera: What has been the general sentiment of your organization's work in the social innovation space?

Dr. Elizabeth Gerber: We are fortunate to work with wonderful colleagues and collaborators in the social innovation space, who enthusiastically cheer us on when we struggle with the pains of a rapidly growing organization, and push us to think bigger and bolder when we limit our own potential. We have fabulous collaborators in our ecosystem who make our organization better than it could ever be by itself.

Marquis Cabrera: How is DFA going to change the world 5 years from now?

Elizabeth Gerber: We are going to change the world by providing a thriving and sustainable infrastructure to foster collective innovation that I define as an innovation process that harnesses the diverse and untapped human, social, and economic capital from distributed networks to discover, evaluate, and implement new ideas. I am finding that open, ubiquitous, sociotechnical systems support collective innovation affording greater speed and deeper and broader participation than was imaginable even a decade ago. Design for America will be just one example of this new model of organization and technology.

Marquis Cabrera: It's also worthy to note: DFA students have secured 3 patents and started 3 companies currently in tech incubators. The organization has been featured in the New York Times, MIT Technology Review, and Forbes, and-- Design for America has received several awards; Dell Social Innovation, Chicago Ideas Awards, Bluhm Helfand Fellowship, Diabetes Mine, and Social Designer Challenge.

Marquis Cabrera: What advice would you give to a design student?

Dr. Elizabeth Gerber: Pursue social problems about which you are passionate. Choose project partners with different perspectives. Learning is a 24/7 experience - don't limit learning to your classes. Generate at least 100 solutions to any one problem. Through quantity comes quality.