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Why Human-Centered Design Is Needed to Drive Systemic Change

The events of the last year have highlighted the need for a strong social sector that is able to address complex issues for vulnerable individuals and families in our communities. It is no longer enough for social-sector organizations to work individually to solve these complex issues. In order to truly achieve systems change, communities must work together to develop innovative solutions. Systems-change philanthropy aims to join the forces of individuals, organizations, and institutions to address the root causes of social problems.

A recent article by the Stanford Social Innovation Review discusses the power of a concept called human-centered design thinking in creating systems-change philanthropy. Human-centered design thinking is a methodology for creative problem solving that is used in the for-profit and social-sector space. Although there are many ways to describe human-centered design, SSIR focuses on three phases of problem-solving: inspiration, ideation, and implementation.

  1. Inspiration - In the inspiration stage, designers engage in research with the ultimate users of a new product or service (whether a business or community affected by the problem at hand) in order to surface insights about their needs, barriers, and aspirations.

  2. Ideation - During ideation stage, designers begin to develop concepts that respond to the needs uncovered during research and test them through various rounds of prototyping.

  3. Implementation - During the implementation stage, designers refine solutions that showed promise during testing and build the delivery model, technology, tools, and processes needed to ensure long-term success.

While businesses in the for-profit space have widely adopted human-centered design thinking in order to drive innovation in their products and services, the concept helps social-sector organizations create more integrated solutions to complex social problems and drive positive impact in their communities. Many of the major social problems our communities face today are grounded in systemic issues, such as income inequality and overstretched healthcare systems. According to SSIR, “Human-centered design has a role to play in shifting our communities towards a more equitable and regenerative future.” However, in order to create enduring change to systemic issues, communities must coordinate multiple interventions at a systemic level. It is no longer enough for organizations to work in silos.

Invest in the Infrastructure

In their article, SSIR discusses the importance of investing in infrastructure as part of the design for integrated solutions to complex social problems. While many social-impact efforts over the past decade have shown innovative thinking for tackling social challenges, far fewer have been able to demonstrate the impact of their interventions. This is where investing in infrastructure is critical. In order to truly achieve systemic change, all participating organizations must have a centralized technology platform that enables them to systematically collect and share data so they can demonstrate whether the solution has generated the desired outcomes. They must also be able to use the data insights to make course corrections as necessary.

Build Community Ownership

SSIR also stresses the importance of bringing the whole community together in order to successfully drive system-wide change. Human-centered design thinking brings together a wide range of individuals, from subject-matter experts, people with lived experience, frontline social sector professionals, and funders. SSIR highlighted a human-centered design initiative called Smart Start. Smart Start is a program that supports young women across Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Nigeria in making informed decisions about their reproductive health. The project, which launched in 2016, was formed by a transdisciplinary network of partners from public health and youth services. They also worked closely with young women and men from local communities throughout the process. The impact of the initiative exceeded expectations and convinced the Ethiopian health ministers to embed Smart Start in the country’s primary healthcare system.


In order to create the systemic change we seek in our communities, communities must work together to develop innovative, collaborative solutions. SureImpact is proud to support social-sector networks across the country in their efforts to improve outcomes and drive impact. To learn more about how SureImpact can provide the data-collection and sharing infrastructure for your social-sector network, contact us today.


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