When he’s not teaching Understanding Natural and Social Systems at DSI, Paul Lillehaugen works as an urban planning and strategy consultant. In his work at Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program–as well as in other private, public, and nonprofit sectors—he has helped cities across the U.S. and Canada develop long-term resilience strategies to address their critical social, economic, and environmental challenges.
What is design for social innovation?
For me, design for social innovation is the practice of taking a creative approach to solving today’s critical challenges. At its core, I feel it is a socially-oriented practice which leverages a design-based approach (rather than the other way around). Designing for social innovation means asking, “what are the problems around me that need a solution?” and then, “why are the current solutions not working? How can I reframe the question in a different way to find a more effective approach?”
What would you like to say to prospective students about the program & the course you teach?
My course—”Understanding Natural and Social Systems”—is really an opportunity to ground students’ practices in the historical and contemporary contexts in which social innovation occurs. Designers do not work in a vacuum, and social innovation builds upon the innovations of others before us. My goal in each class is to provide a chance for students to examine the work of other innovators, critique it, learn from it, and consider openly where they see themselves practicing. Whether their futures lead to the public, private, or non-profit sectors, I believe there are many lessons to be learned from the way social innovation occurs in each.
As an instructor, I aim to help my students think critically about the challenges they see and the solutions that have been proposed to date. Anything is open for question and I hope that my course can help students find a way to engage with the issues that matter to them, in a way they haven’t tried before.
Can you talk a little bit about your background and the work you do outside of DSI?
I am an urban planner by training, with substantial work in long-term resilience planning for cities around the U.S. and Canada, both working at the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program and in my own private practice. I’m interested in the unique challenges that each city and community faces and in finding creative, effective ways to address them. In some places, the urgent issues revolve around sea level rise, while in others, the critical concerns are around socioeconomic equity and in creating opportunity for all. I help cities assess their challenges and identify next steps to take to improve their community.
Can you talk in more detail about a project that you are working on?
Something I’m excited to be working on right now is the Moorhead Community Resilience Project, led by my undergraduate alma mater: Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. It is gratifying to see the global urban resilience movement I’ve been working on for the past few years start to take root back home and to see organizations outside of municipal government take the lead in building resilience in their communities.
My role on the project has been advising on resilience best practices, supporting community engagement planning, and serving as a connection for the team in Moorhead to the larger network of resilience practitioners around the country and around the world. I’m looking forward to continuing to support the analysis and planning process over the coming months, and to seeing the results build a more resilient community in Moorhead for years to come.
If you could give one piece of advice to students starting DSI, what would it be?
Grad school is an opportunity to try things you’ve never considered before. Take advantage of the time to push yourself in a new direction. Something I try to ask myself is, “what makes me uncomfortable?” and then I try to go do that. The grad school setting is a great place to start practicing that.