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DSI / Social Design
About DSI

Why DSI? Mari Nakano. That’s Why.

Head shot of Mari looking up toward camera. Wearing a black blazer white shirt and a pale white necklace with one green bead.

This year, our amazing group of thesis advisors has been led by Mari Nakano, who joined the DSI team in 2018.

What is design for social innovation to you?

For me, design for social innovation means using design tools and strategies for the purposes of creating a resilient planet, where all people can share power and create sustainable and diversity-sensitive economies and communities. 

What would you like to say to prospective students about the program & the course you teach?

I am a faculty thesis advisor, and I define my role to be that of one who goes on a journey alongside the student to provide perspective and considerations to students’ design processes and interventions. For those of you who are curious about this program, I would say that this program helps you practice and hone navigating through ambiguity and non-linear ways of thinking. If you apply yourself in these two years of practice, you will come away with understanding the complexities of engaging with and centering the communities you are designing with, and a deeper grasp of what design tools and skills are required to address those complexities. 

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

Community activism and organizing, media design, graphic design, Asian-American Studies, a brief dip into political science, basketball jones, being a single mom, my obsessive problem-solving process-oriented nature, and my background and experience as a second generation Japanese-American Nikkei Nisei whose family endured living in WWII incarceration camps all converge into the energy ball that drives my life’s work.

By day, I am the Design Director at the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity’s Service Design Studio. The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) is an office of about 60+ team members versed in research, evaluation, program design and development, product design, technology and engineering, data science, policy, finance, strategic planning, program administration, and service design. Phew! The Service Design Studio, an internal team within NYC Opportunity, works with City agencies, service delivery staff, community partners and residents to make public services more effective and accessible for all New Yorkers. Leveraging traditional design, human-centered design and service design methods, the Studio helps the City further engage with residents and those who deliver services so that their insights can shape new and existing programs and policies.

My job is partially to use design strategies to support the way our office communicates and collaborates, partially about advocating that all things that the City designs should intentionally incorporate the feedback and endorsement of the communities that these things are being designed for, and partially about finding opportunities to infuse design strategies for the purposes of increasing equity, tackling poverty, advancing social justice, and dismantling the racism that is so ingrained in our systems. 

I don’t think this will be the last stop in my career. I do hope that I can continue to work in spaces that aspire to design experiences and opportunities that enable people to access the things they need to thrive and elevate themselves. 

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

Something I’m really excited about is Designed by Community, a fellowship and funding program that aims to support community leaders and organizers in poverty-affected and marginalized communities to design and develop hyper-localized solutions that tackle problems that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. We are co-designing the program in partnership with TakeRoot Justice, a community organization that partners with grassroots and community-based groups and provides legal, participatory research and policy support to dismantle racial, economic and social oppression. 

Recognizing that the City’s COVID-19 response and recovery programs must acknowledge how historical and current inequities fostered disproportionate health and economic outcomes of the pandemic, this fellowship aims to respond to the community by providing leadership development support and putting money in the hands of community leaders who already have deep relationships and connections with their communities.   

This is the first time we’ve designed a program with a community organization, and we’re learning a lot about what it really takes to develop a partnership in a way where power is shared and transparency is the norm. Our inaugural cohort will start in mid-April so we are both nervous and excited to see this program take flight. Emily Herrick, another faculty, was also a crucial part of developing this program. Bigs up to her! 

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

If you’re not already, get yourself involved in the community as soon as you can. To be a social designer requires you to do the social part as much as you’re doing the design part. The sooner you start to establish trusted relationships in the community, the sooner you can focus on research and ideating solutions. Volunteer, attend events, get to know people in the community. Make yourself visible in the communities you want to work with. Learn through immersing yourself where you can so that you can be a better vehicle for the communities you will ultimately choose to serve. 

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