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DSI Sara Cornish, ’14, on Taking What She Learned from DSI to Her New Job at Microsoft

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MFA Design for
Social Innovation

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136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
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(212) 592–2205

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Patricia Dandonoli. That’s why.
Among other things, Pat Dandonoli has worked as both a senior executive and advisor on behalf of a range of mission-focused for-profit and not-for-profit organizations for over 25 years. And she teaches Understanding Natural and Social Systems at DSI.

DSI: What is design for social innovation?

To me, it’s a methodology, approach or philosophy that puts users or clients at the center of problem solving. It’s a problem solving method, but one that starts with what the people themselves care about and what matters to them.

DSI: What would you like to say to prospective students about the program?

I think the community of students and faculty here is among the most interesting and creative that I’ve met in the many years working within, and around social enterprises and social mission organizations. You have cultural diversity, international perspectives, and people from a lot of different walks of life and so it’s a very eclectic, stimulating community.

DSI: Can you talk a little bit about your background and the work you do?

My background is not a design background, but rather as a practitioner in social mission organizations as somebody who has managed programs and worked with communities in a range of organizations from small community-based groups to international non-profits in the arts, education, media, public health, domestic U.S. projects, and international projects.

I have a lot of experience in the traditional space of social enterprise, both non-profit and for profit. But what I am attracted to here, and what has added to my own practice and ability, is this perspective of design thinking. I work mostly with leaders of organizations, either board members or senior executives, to help them make their organizations more effective. That’s what I’m mostly doing now as both an advisor and a consultant. I think the insights from design thinking have been extremely helpful to me. Systems and design thinking have brought new perspectives on the work that I’ve done for a long time. It’s helped to refresh that.

DSI: Can you talk in more detail about a project that you are working on?

The two most recent projects that I’ve worked on include a project to discover and to evaluate innovation in maternal, newborn and child health policies and practices globally. We used a variety of techniques to source these ideas — from national contests in Sierra Leone and Malawi to have people contribute their ideas, to brainstorming and ideation workshops in India, and a variety of other techniques to these ideas. In that project, we intentionally employed design thinking and approaches to tackle longstanding, intractable problems.

And another project that I’ve just wrapped up is to help create a global strategy for an organization in public health that works in about 15 or 20 countries. Their challenge was to align their programs, their strategy, their evaluation systems, and their business model to integrate and harmonize across their global organization. I design and facilitate a process, guiding the thinking and eliciting insights and then document and codify these directions. I feel like I hold up a mirror that enables an organization to see itself in new ways, and give them a narrative around which they can plan new work.

DSI: What are some challenges and lessons you’ve learned working in these big organizations and systems?

Well, I think many organizations, even very large organizations, end up with pressure from donors and become risk averse, thus innovation becomes much more difficult. You have to have a very intentional process by which you continually refresh your approaches so you don’t become fossilized. In large organizations, that’s a challenge, keeping them current and bringing in new ideas.

I think at the opposite end, working with small organizations or start ups, sometimes there’s a lack of support systems, context, and infrastructure around them to support the launch of these new ideas. But I enjoy both. They represent different challenges. Sometimes having worked with more mature organizations, and understanding their challenges, helps to work with start-ups to avoid taking steps that would lead to those problems in the longer term.

DSI: How is systems thinking and design thinking integrated in the field of social innovation?

Every social problem, by definition, is complex. So there are many different people affected by and who affect social issues. This is true in every field. And I think “systems thinking” and the tools and the techniques used to think about complexity and how the elements interact and what leverage points in those systems are very helpful analytic tools. Initially this lens helps you understand the elements and interactions in a system. Then this leads you to consider where there may be so-called leverage points, or places where an intervention or a program or an action would have an significant effect.

I also link these approaches with another, called “theory of change,” which is also related to both systems thinking and design thinking. “Theory of change” is a term that comes from evaluation research but is actually a very simple, yet essential concept. It asks you to be explicit about the change you are trying to achieve, and then to work backwards from that outcome to design steps and actions that need to be taken to achieve that outcome. When you try to think in that “backwards” way, you make your assumptions explicit about what you think are the important steps to take to achieve your goal.

DSI: How do you measure impact?

Impact is a really important thing for us to think about, and it is different from direct outcomes or even “outputs” of a program, which is what often occupies us. We count how many people who participate, how many widgets we make. But it is much harder to try to measure what these do to make real change in the world, in people’s lives. I applaud the growing push for greater rigor in social mission work. For a long time it lacked this discipline. But on the other hand, you can develop “metrics mania.” You can measure too many things. You can measure things that are easy to measure, but may not really be at the core of what change you’re trying to achieve. So you need to be selective and only measure what is important and only if you will USE that information. I think metrics are part of a learning process and should feed into your own process, as much as they are about accountability to your external audiences.

DSI: Can you tell us about the course you teach?

The course I teach is kind of landscape of the field social innovation. I try to bring the perspective I’ve gained from working with such a range of organizations, and some historical perspective, to help students understand this emerging field. I want students to know about how corporations, nonprofits, government, and civil society entities all contribute to this movement. At the same time, I hope to convey certain principles about working on social issues and how this differs from other types of work.

DSI: If you could give one piece of advice to students starting DSI, what would it be?

I think it’s a precious time. You have two years where you can explore and make connections and meet interesting people. I would say take advantage of every opportunity that comes along and to learn as much as you can about the people who come through this program, because they are amazing and doing incredible work. Be very active. Be out there. Put yourself out there and be the designer of your own learning.

136 W 21st St,
5th Fl.
New York, NY 10011
(212) 592–2205

SUBSCRIBE