I read a lot of articles about social design that emphatically declare design’s potential to change the world. Headlines state that design thinking is the key to innovation and that opportunities abound for creating positive social change. Amongst this ambitious rhetoric, it’s tempting to think we can tackle big, global problems all at once. If you want to change the world, go big or go home, right?
Well, reading about social design and practicing it are completely different. The social design process is messy and ambiguous. Once you identify a problem area to work in, narrowing in is crucial to creating change. Unfortunately, doing that is one of the most difficult parts of the process.
“What’s the problem?”
In a typical graphic design project, a client has already identified a problem, and the designer is brought in to create something for it (whether or not that is the “right” problem is another story). The social designer, on the other hand, must simultaneously look at the root cause of an issue as well as a possible entry point.
While researching ideas for my thesis, I discovered that an urban farming movement is sweeping Baltimore. These farms seek to address large societal issues: disparities of food access, food security, and ballooning obesity rates
for those at the bottom of Baltimore’s socio-economic ladder. The farms also productively use land from the city’s inventory of 30,000 abandoned properties and lots. Yet urban farms tend to be small—less than a quarter-acre, on average—and operate on a shoestring budget. Unfortunately, without financial success, urban farms will fail to achieve the lasting societal impacts
inherent in many of their missions.
I had narrowed the issue down enough to begin working with several stakeholders in Baltimore’s urban agriculture community, but not enough to know where to go with it. At one point I thought about creating a local food movement by connecting urbanites with their neighborhood farmers; then I changed course and decided to bring social enterprises to urban farms in order to create additional revenue channels. I was swimming in a sea of “too many options.”
Find the low-hanging fruit
My key breakthrough came from one of my key stakeholders: Maya Kosok, who manages the Farm Alliance
, a network of Baltimore growers. I presented her with my supposedly brilliant idea of social enterprise for urban farms, but it didn’t pique her interest. So I asked her to simply tell me what they needed help with in the short term. Her answer: find ways to help more families with food stamps take advantage of farmers markets.
EBT, FMNP and FVC are monthly government subsidies for low-income residents that can be used to purchase food (the latter two refer specifically to purchasing at farmers markets and farm stands). Additional grant funding provides matching dollar-for-dollar coupons, but only 35 percent of that funding was used last year. That translates to lost potential income for local farms and healthy foods gone uneaten by community members. Utilizing and maximizing these already allotted subsidies is a way to pump additional revenues into farms and address immediate issues of food access for low-income Baltimore residents.
I am still drawn to the broader issue of economic sustainability in urban farming, but when Maya told me about this very specific issue, I saw an opportunity to contribute in a tangible way—and begin building relationships with partners and stakeholders. I am a social designer, not a farmer; in order to develop strategies that can contribute in this area, I have to develop a basic understanding of the everyday, tangible challenges that face urban farms. Learning more about the urban farming ecosystem and the needs of its customers are key to understanding how it can thrive in the future.
I am now partnering with Whitelock Community Farm, which occupies a quarter-acre lot in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill. Whitelock had exactly seven EBT transactions last year despite having a large number of residents that qualify for the subsidy (FMNP and FVC funding was not available at farm stands last year; it starts this April). I’m working with their team to develop cost-effective design and marketing tactics specifically relating to raising awareness of the subsidies to their potential customers.
The ultimate value of picking the low-hanging fruit is that it allows you to address a real challenge and an immediate need that still relates directly to your ultimate area of interest. Looked at another way, by incorporating it into the process, you can use it as research to ultimately scale up your work and possibly create even wider impact. I found my piece of fruit in the food subsidy at local farm stands. Where can you find yours?