Creating design impact from your own backyard

Social Innovation is a great way of using design for the greater good. This post highlights organizations and projects that are creating significant impact around the world. Much of the work done on social innovation focuses on developing countries due to the significant needs that they face, but there are plenty of opportunities for assisting underserved communities in developed countries. Whether it is in remote locations or local communities, our connected society and cloud-based tools such as Autodesk Fusion 360, allow us to create positive impact without having to travel far, and to engage with an active community of designers and thinkers that use technology and their good hearts to make a better world.

The need for impact

Design for social innovation is gaining significant attention around the world and designers are showing more interest in getting involved in projects that benefit users that typically would not have access to effective design solutions. If done well, design for social innovation embodies the ideal approach to sustainability, by addressing three key areas: environmental impact, which reduces use of energy, water, and other natural resources in order to minimize carbon footprint; economic growth, which guarantees that solutions will be financially stable in the short and long term; and social awareness, which makes sure that people’s wellbeing is not compromised in the process of addressing environmental or economic issues.

Most of the great work in social innovation focuses on developing countries, and there are obvious reasons for this. According to the World Bank, the current poverty line sits at generating an individual income of US $1.90 per day. When estimating the percentage of the population that falls below the poverty line, we can see a range that goes from less than 20% in developed countries to a dramatic over 60% in some developing countries. Over the last decades, there has been an increased effort in addressing the needs of those people who fall below the poverty line, which is commonly known as design for the other 90%, implying that most manufactured goods in the world are catered towards the only 10% of the population who can afford them.


Graphic of population living below the poverty line.  By Bladesmulti - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Efforts around the world

There are a wide array of organizations that have been established under the umbrella of design for social impact. A good example is Catapult Design, a non-profit firm that develops products for markets with very limited income. Their vision is that every person, regardless of their economic situation, should have access to thoughtful, inspired goods and services. Catapult Design works with companies that are interested in social good and develops solutions that keep in mind the needs and realities of underserved markets. One of their projects for Off Grid Electric in Tanzania developed a system that provides solar-powered energy to households that currently only have access to kerosene lamps. 


Installation of solar cell, which powers household devices.  Image courtesy of Catapult Design.

Another interesting organization is Design That Matters, which works in the medical industry. One of their designs, Firefly, is a simple, yet effective device that allows hospitals with limited resources to treat infants that suffer from jaundice. This disease causes yellow skin, many times accompanied by conjunctivitis and dense mucous membranes. Firefly is fairly inexpensive and uses phototherapy to control jaundice, reducing cost and length of treatment, and in some cases even eliminating the need for secondary procedures. 


Firefly device for treating jaundice. Image by Design that Matters. 

In 2011, the world-renowned design firm IDEO also established a non-profit branch devoted solely to social problems. collaborates with foundations, organizations, NGO’s, and even governments, providing expertise and solutions for reducing global poverty. Along with their projects and strategies, they also offer kits, guides, and courses that help to define and develop projects around social innovation. These tools offer great insight into how to establish and run initiatives for social impact, providing a strong structure for anyone who wants to explore this type of work. 

Making a difference without traveling far

A common limitation whenever working on social impact is the ability to travel to distant locations. Whether for financial reasons, time commitment, or other logistics, it can be challenging to go to places in developing countries to address the needs of a given community. If going to those places in person is not an option, designers might face limitations and challenges because they don’t fully understand the context for which they are designing, making assumptions about a specific environment or community. As much as it is important to help out people around the world, most local communities also have essential needs and welcome all the help that they can get. If you start looking around your own community, it won’t take you long to find people and organizations that could use your help in a big way. 

Project H is a non-profit organization that develops activities and curriculum for children K-12, integrating design, architecture, and community engagement. Through hands-on projects that promote design interaction, tinkering, and application of arts and sciences, Project H educates new generations in STEAM related disciplines while providing solutions for local communities.  You can do one of their projects, building a chicken coop, through Autodesk Design Academy.  Camp-H is one of their initiatives that offers short-term camps to girls ages 9-13 where they learn practical skills such as welding, carpentry, and electronics’ repair, as well as the basics of disciplines such as architecture, design and engineering. The camp offers scholarships for girls who can’t afford to participate in the camps otherwise. Project H empowers girls in urban environments to take on relevant projects that might benefit their communities while also exposing them to career choices.

BillionBricks is a non-profit that develops solutions for homeless people around the world. They work with architects, builders, and NGO’s to develop low-cost, high-quality housing solutions that address specific needs for different locations. Public Lab is another non-profit that uses DIY projects to promote community integration and educate people on issues such as health and safety. As they work on projects with various communities, they are building a data repository and public forum that includes lesson plans, projects, techniques and knowledge bases.  You can try your hand at designing low-cost housing for people in need using this project

e-NABLE started as an effort to create a prosthetic hand for Liam, a 5-year old boy from South Africa who had lost his fingers in a woodworking accident. Instead of looking at traditional methods for prosthetic design, creator Ivan Owen envisioned a hand that could be 3D printed. Once the first hand was finished and Liam began to use it successfully, the idea of offering the design to the world as an open-source platform was born. This effort quickly caught the attention of the world and e-NABLE is today a global community of people ranging from teachers and students to medical professionals, parents, artists, engineers, makers, coders, etc. The e-NABLE community, which has been coordinated in great part by RIT professor Jon Schull, identifies volunteers that can provide knowledge and resources, who then are matched with people in need of prosthetic devices. Once the contact has been made, everyone works together in developing a device suited for the person’s specific needs. While someone far away might provide CAD expertise for adjusting a computer model, someone locally can 3D print the device, for example. This community takes advantage of connected technologies such as cloud-based CAD, 3D printing, and imaging software. Today e-NABLE consists of over 7,000 volunteers from over 45 countries and has produced over 2,000 prosthetic devices. A good example of these designs is the Raptor Reloaded hand, designed by Andreas Bastian in Autodesk Fusion 360. This effort is a perfect example of the power of communities when they use technology for the greater good, providing clever solutions for important issues and allowing people to share expertise and assistance in situations that could be just around the corner or on the opposite side of the world. 


e-NABLE’s Raptor Reloaded Hand by Andreas Bastian. Image by Autodesk Pier 9.

These are just a few examples of many organizations that are addressing some of the biggest needs in society. But it’s important to keep in mind that as much difference as these initiatives make, the scale of these problems is so large that a lot more people needs to get involved. For further examples, tools, stories and inspiration, make sure to check out Autodesk Foundation, an entity that supports people and organizations who use design and technology to enable social impact around the world.