In social change work, metaphors from building and construction are frequently used.  We build alliances, construct interventions, and design campaigns.  Yet, for someone trained as an architect, the analogy doesn’t go far enough; by stopping short of cultivating generative design skills for social change, we are missing opportunities to deepen our analysis, recognize repeating patterns and reinvent organizational cultures and practices. Most significantly, we may be missing opportunities to use design thinking1 to imagine viable alternatives and identify strategic interventions to move us towards an alternative future in which the well being of all people is top priority.

In the ‘Design’ section, we use of design theory and skills to explore the potential of approaching constraints as opportunities for innovation in the context of social change.  First we define concepts and tools that architects use to articulate the form of a site or context and the relationships between constituent parts.  We then explore applying these analytic tools and concepts to understand the structure of inherited social arrangements. Finally, using design principles, we explore implications for structural transformation. Our purpose is to strengthen our ability to think about how we can redesign the structures that shape our lives even when the precise contours of the perfect alternative policy or practice elude us.

Why Design?

The fundamental task of the architect is to design intentional relationships among the spaces we inhabit. Through a series of decisions to connect or separate spaces and to what degree, the architect creates places and relationships previously unimagined. These decisions are based on an evaluation of precedent, existing site conditions and adjacent structures, landscape features on or near the site, and the needs of the people associated with the project—users, owners, neighbors, regulators, and so on—all of which exert demands on the project.

Like social change makers, the architect rarely, if ever, works on a project devoid of a context. The success, or failure, of any given design intervention hinges on how well the design responds to that total context, enhancing what already works and transforming that which does not. The designs that powerfully respond to their contexts catalyze further transformation. Designers, and architects in particular, are trained to create spaces that have not yet been imagined or built.

To do this well, architects spend considerable time analyzing and understanding existing circumstances, to which they respond with concrete interventions designed to enhance the range of human experiences in a given place. One could easily argue that the practitioner of social change has a similar charge: to create opportunities and pathways to opportunity that have not yet been created or imagined, and respond to existing circumstances with concrete interventions that improve our collective capacity to fulfill our human potential. In both cases, working in complex environments with histories, assumptions, and expectations that explicitly and implicitly inform our decisions, we are challenged to create resources and relationships that were previously absent, and transform those preexisting relationships and resources that no longer meet our present needs.

Explorations are divided into three areas: Form, Structure and Transform.

Form includes an introduction to form and design concepts.

Structure explores how this ‘formal’ understanding of a context helps to reveal the underlying structures and priorities not only in the built environment but also in our policy environment.

Transform includes explorations and exercises designed to strengthen our ability to apply design thinking to develop innovative conceptual frameworks and interventions.



  1. Dunne, David and Roger Martin, Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion. Academy of Management, Learning & Education, 2006, Vol 5, No. 4, 512-523