Change agents: 4 programs making a difference through impact design

Discover four educational programs making a difference through impact design, preparing the next generation of designers to do right by the world.

impact design

Jeff Walsh

April 7, 2016

min read

Designers everywhere are increasingly interested in leaving the world better than they found it. To provide forward-looking design students with the expertise to effect positive change, many schools are beginning to offer programs in impact design.

Impact design is a cross-disciplinary methodology that promotes positive environmental, social, and economic change through design and engineering. Many colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad are now offering programs that focus on the specific skills and project experience needed to deliver these positive impacts around the globe. Here are four of the most promising programs.

Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship students partner with communities in developing countries to create sustainable businesses that solve social and economic problems. Image courtesy of Olin College of Engineering.

Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship at Olin College of Engineering

The mission of Olin’s Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE) offerings in Needham, Massachusetts, is to educate students to become leaders who use design and entrepreneurship to address the well-being of people living in low-income and resource-poor situations.

The projects are one or two semesters long with site visits and internship opportunities on worthy subjects such as generating income for women in Ghana, reducing food insecurity in Massachusetts, promoting youth self-empowerment in Mississippi, facilitating hands-on education for K–12 students in India, and working toward climate-change resiliency in Tanzania.

“Our students are passionate about making a difference in the world and engaging to improve the lives of people living in poverty, but they don’t necessarily have the skills to do that,” says Benjamin Linder, professor of design and mechanical engineering at Olin. “The ADE program makes it possible for them to both have the experience to understand what poverty is all about and to really appreciate what it means to create social ventures and to work in contexts where delivering products and services is very difficult, but also just different than what they have experienced in their lives.”

Blum Center for Developing Economies at University of California, Berkeley

The Blum Center enables interdisciplinary problem solving aimed at poverty alleviation and social impact, “operating on the notion that a world-class public university must be a force for tackling society’s most urgent and important problems.” Since its founding in 2006, the Blum Center’s mission has been to train people, support ideas, and enable solutions.

impact design
The Blum Center supports We Care Solar, whose Solar Suitcase equips off-grid medical clinics with solar power for urgent medical care. Image courtesy of Blum Center for Developing Economies.

“Today’s greatest challenges require the expertise and collaboration of every possible field,” says Maryanne McCormick, executive director of the Blum Center. “A key ingredient of success is impact design, enabling more innovative, scalable, and measurable solutions.”

The Blum Center is using a grant from the Autodesk Foundation to launch a “Hardware for Good” challenge as part of its Big Ideas@Berkeley student innovation competition, as well as to initiate a new project-learning track for students in its Development Engineering program.

Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design

Designmatters—an educational department at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California—brings “a dynamic, entrepreneurial, and experiential approach to design education.” The program serves as a hub for strategic, innovative collaborations with students and public and private organizations that are working toward a better future for all.

impact design
Blum Center students work on CellScope, a mobile-based device that captures images of patient samples and wirelessly transmits the data to clinical centers. Image courtesy of Blum Center for Developing Economies.

The Designmatters department does not grant degrees but administers elective courses, a fellowship program, an undergraduate concentration, and more. Designmatters’ four thematic pillars are social entrepreneurship, public policy, global health, and sustainable development.

“Designmatters allows us to look at the world as a classroom with an eye toward changing it for the better,” says Designmatters Department Vice President Dr. Mariana Amatullo. “We aspire to redefine and expand the role of the artist and designer into one who is a catalyst for social change and innovation.”

Impact Edge at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology

Srishti is India’s largest design school in terms of enrollment. Located in Bangalore, India, the school is organized as a “community of learners” that brings together industry-experienced faculty to share knowledge with its students.

Designmatters students designed innovative interactive environments for  pediatric healing in Santiago
Designmatters students designed innovative interactive environments for pediatric healing in Santiago, Chile. Image courtesy of Designmatters.

Its Impact Edge program works at the confluence of business strategy, design thinking, technology, and capital to solve “wicked problems” with design-driven solutions. It is also shaping the curriculum and methodologies behind the school’s Creative Manufacturing program.

Jacob Mathew, a design principal at Srishti, says this move toward impact design reflects the new way people need to look at learning: “As university systems begin to look at the lifetime value of learners rather than the traditional hierarchy of undergraduate, graduate, and PhD student consumers, the boundaries between design disciplines and between students and working professionals will dissolve, leading to integrative learning systems.

“Through this combination of business knowledge and interdisciplinary flexibility, designers will find themselves in a unique position to facilitate and build self-managing organizations in an entrepreneurial way,” Mathew continues. “But they will need to be trained to do so in the context of a quadruple bottom line: social equity, cultural capital, environmental sustainability, and economic viability.”

Impact Edge students work with local artisans Haryana India.
Impact Edge students work with local artisans in Haryana, India. Image courtesy of Impact Edge at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

All of these examples show that powerful results can be achieved by effectively fusing design and social good, which is why the Autodesk Foundation wants to keep empowering the next generation of designers through grants to these programs and others.

“If we want more people using the power of design to address today’s epic challenges,” says Joe Speicher, executive director of the Autodesk Foundation, “we need to equip future designers and engineers with the skills, knowledge, and tools to do so.”

Jeff Walsh

About Jeff Walsh

Jeff Walsh enjoys putting the right words together in the best possible order when he’s not at a Broadway show or working on his novel.

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