For many years now I’ve heard people—of all ages, cultures and interests—talk about “changing the world.” In the design cosmos where I live, it’s “designing a better world.” We theorize about the impact we want to have, what it will look like, what the levers will be and imagine the consequences of our interventions—both intended and unintended. We talk about shifting behavior and collective leadership towards common goals. And it’s highly likely we could agree on what those common goals are.

Do any of us know how we’re actually doing? Whether or not all the hard work and good intentions are paying off? Tweet This Quote

But, could we agree on how we’re doing or how we can know? Do any of us know how we’re actually doing? Whether or not all the hard work and good intentions are paying off? Are we keeping track?

For this New Year, 2015, I thought instead of making resolutions about what we will or won’t resolve to do in the coming year, it might be worthwhile to take stock of what we’ve done so far and where we’ve made a difference. (And of course you can always do both, so don’t let this post dissuade you from giving up booze or being nicer to your cat or losing five pounds or whatever you were going to do anyway.)

What if we could create a dashboard to keep track of social progress, and loss, so that we might know what to do more of, and what to leave behind? Identifying the right indicators, as everyone who works in M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation) knows, is not always obvious, but critical to get right. We may know what we’re aiming for, but how will we know if we’re succeeding?

What do you think it should include? Think bigger than your own efforts, or your organization, or the friends you know. If you could sit on another planet or galaxy and look at the earth with real objectivity to determine whether the millions of people working to change the world are moving it in the right direction, how would you know?

To get you started, this advice from Jaimie Cloud, Design for Social Innovation (DSI) faculty member and founder of The Cloud Institute for Sustainability Education: “There is a State of the World Report edited by Lester Brown and published every year, by Worldwatch Institute, they cover everything you can think of in terms of social, economic and ecological indicators—and there is a State of the Commons report generated online by the On the Commons folks.”

If you could sit on another planet or galaxy and look at the earth with real objectivity to determine whether the millions of people working to change the world are moving it in the right direction, how would you know? Tweet This Quote

I asked the students and faculty at DSI this question; some of their answers are below:

“I would measure the world’s progress by the number of programs that are being implemented (with or without inputs from social innovators) that empower members of communities to work together to create change from within. As people who are looking to make “changing the world” our career, we should be trying to work ourselves out of a job, by giving communities tools to become self sufficient.”

“I’d be interested the amount of bottled water that is purchased daily (in the States or internationally) as a small measurement of waste and how much people are aware of and/or care about their own impact.”

“Positive engagement with your community, positive engagement with your work, with your family, with your city and such like. The actual measure would then vary depending on where are we measuring positive engagement.”

“I think I would be interested to see how governments, corporations and financial institutions are improving their transparency and accountability measures, if and how much they are putting actual mechanisms in place to open up the way they do things and how decisions are made, to the public eye. The more these institutions and bodies are willing to submit themselves to public scrutiny and to accept public input, this would indicate to me that things are changing for the better.”

“I know this would be quite hard for us to measure, but I would like to measure how people are feeling about the current situation and future potential (ex. hopeless, hopeful, scared, inspired, etc.)”

“If we could measure diminishing inequity in the US and around the globe and link it to social innovation, that would be thrilling.”

The first thing that popped into my head, though, was a quote that a colleague of mine Kim Klein always reminds me of in our work: “Our job is to create a society in which it is easy to be good.”  Peter Maurin, co-founder with Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker.

Wouldn’t it be cool if we could measure that somehow? We could figure out if it is becoming easier to be good—less poverty, racism, structural inequity, etc. The list of things that make it more difficult to be good might be too long, but if we could define what that is, it could describe the world we’re trying to build. Some of the student answers:

  1. “Time spent participating and percent of income spent in local community.”
  2. “I would measure diversity and opportunities for inclusion within communities all across the world.”
  3. “There are two ways to slice it—the “stage of change” a place finds itself in—and the degrees of quality and comprehensiveness of the work itself.”
  4. “I would measure how cities are designed to be accessible to the most vulnerable peoples. For me, success would be measured if they did not hide in the shadows, get lost in the cracks of our system and experience low-level services.”
  5. “If I have to pick one, it would be the extent to which people are educating for sustainability.”
  6. “To me a smaller income gap between the rich and poor would indicate a better world.”
  7. “Track the number of free people in the world. Track the number of educated girls in the world.”
  8. “The time and attention we pay to stories of people who are not like us.”
  9. “In my opinion, one such indicator might be general health of individuals. Health is an objective trait: you are either healthy or you are not, and health in one country is the same as health in another. If we measure that most people are healthy, this would indicate that the world is doing well.”
  10. “In light of the recent news about mass animal deaths in the last decades, my metric is Biodiversity.”
  11. “How many different types of electronic devices (make and model) are made with conflict-free minerals? Or What minerals in the supply chain can we confirm are conflict free?”
  12. “Willingness won’t be passively discarded and positively hurt.”
  13. “For me, the indicator would be Gross National Happiness (GNH). It covers the needs of the body and of the soul, as well of the community.”
  14. “The first thing that came to my mind was wage disparity. Unpacking that a bit more, I think that “a better world” is synonymous with “a more level playing field.” That can mean many things, but I think it mostly comes down to security—in our human rights and ultimately our dignity as people, but first in our basic animal needs such as food, shelter, and medicine.”
  15. “Longevity/mortality is a possible measure, but I’m interested more in quality of life than in quantity of it.”
  16. “The amount of people walking their pets and the amount of time people share food with each other.”
  17. “I would measure how many design projects use a social metric to drive outcomes.”

Let’s hear from you. And Happy New Year.

Contributors: Martha Berry, Ivan Boscariol, Maggie Breslln, Anna Luiza Braga, Jaimie Cloud, Steve Daniels, Rachel Dixon, Emily Herrick, Lee-Sean Huang, Amer Jandal, Laura Kadamus, Meghan Lazier, Xintong Liu, Caroline McAndrews, Meryl Natow, Robin Newman, Kate Nicholson, Renzo Perez-Acosta, Swar Raisingham, Monica Snellings, Julie Steele, Liora Yuklea

Cheryl Heller

Author Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

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