Rockefeller Foundation’s Push Toward Design and Innovation

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Recently, I wrote a story about the Aspen Design Summit, a small event at which big name designers and philanthropists got together to talk about ways to apply the techniques of design thinking to social problems such as poverty, hunger or healthcare. As a part of my reporting, I spoke to Antony Bugg-Levine (left), managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, which in 2008 gave a $1.5 million grant to the Winterhouse Institute, the design group organizing the event.

Bugg-Levine leads the Accelerating Innovation for Developmentinitiative that Rockefeller launched in late 2007, and he had a lot to say about the world in which we live, about the place of design within innovation, and about the promise of private sector influence on the nonprofit world. His words didn’t fit into the final piece, but what he said has really resonated with me in the weeks since we published, so here (and after the jump) is an edited transcript of our conversation.

What’s Rockefeller’s interest in supporting design-driven innovation?
For us as a foundation it’s part of an evaluation of how to be an effective force in the 21st century. The complexity of the problems we address necessitate new approaches. Frankly the problems the world faces are accelerating faster than we can solve with traditional approaches. So we look for partners whose approach will allow us to harness creativity. Clearly the design community and people engaged in innovation have a lot to say.

What’s the focus and format of the Accelerating Innovation for Development initiative?

It’s an initiative with two main components. One is a set of grants which seek to demonstrate that innovation processes can be applied to solve social problems. The second is to increase the application of those processes. So we’re working with [innovation consultancies such as] IDEO, Innocentive and others to enable them to work on social problems so we can show this [concept] is powerful. Then we’re looking to increase take-up in three areas: crowdsourcing; user-driven innovation and human-centered design. The Aspen conference fits into the human-centered design piece.

In Aspen, there was talk among the attendees of the challenges of for-profit consultancies working on philanthropic projects. There’s a lot of enthusiasm for social initiatives, but a less than clear business model. What’s the solution?
The business models of most design firms were built to serve commercial clients, so it’s difficult for them to work on the issues of poor people who can’t afford to pay on any kind of scale. There’s no lack of enthusiasm and excitement for working in this area, but it’s forced to be occasional pro bono work rather than there being a systematic approach. Then you have top private sector firms interfacing with nonprofits or social enterprise firms and there’s a square peg in a round hole problem. We need to build a better way for them to interface. So our first meeting in June 2008 basically tackled the question of what it would take for companies to develop business models that wold allow them to apply skills and expertise to the problems of poor people more often, more effectively and more expansively. Aspen is a part of building a process to allow us to implement some of these ideas.

Source: Business Week (link opens in a new window)