Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Disruption by Design

March 13th, 2012

DISRUPT by Paul Woot

Innovation, new thinking, and a change in consciousness can upset the way we see our world and the manner in which we relate to it. This disruption can happen by happenstance or intention encouraging us to consider ways to design change before forces outside our influence change us. 

disrupt |disˈrəpt|

verb [ with obj. ]

interrupt (an event, activity, or process) by causing a disturbance or problem: a rail strike that could disrupt both passenger and freight service.

• drastically alter or destroy the structure of (something): alcohol can disrupt the chromosomes of an unfertilized egg.


disrupter (also disruptor |-tər|)noun

Observing the city I live in, the media I consume, and the way I learn, I can’t help but be amazed at how much of my life has been disrupted over the past few years. I can access nearly everything I need to run my business and do my research from my handheld or a tablet computer. I can hand that tablet or handheld to someone else and allow them to interact with the content on it by using gestural movements, not a keyboard.

If I am engaged in health communications or scholarly research, I look to places like Twitter and blogs as much if not more than I do academic databases. Many of the journals I respect and publish content that counts in fields like public health, such as the Journal of Medical Internet Research, are open access and free to anyone who wants to read them. And these open access publications are becoming leaders in their fields, not just cheap versions of “real” journals. This makes the content of my academic work and that of my many colleagues accessible and much more likely to be used.

If you’re a graphic designer your work has never been more important. Whether websites, infographics, high-quality interpretations of traditional media (for a great example see the re-imagined journal article by my colleague Andrea Yip) the world has become more visual and the weight of good graphic design is heavier than ever. At the same time, tools like allow anyone to make an infographic, or WordPress for those who want websites (this one included), and even offers to do a $42 logo as reported in Creative Review.

Want to raise awareness of issues? Grab a film camera and put together a small film like Kony 2012, the most viral success story of any video to date.

Or write a book on an important, if somewhat arcane, topic like the meaning of making and get people from all over the world to invest in it on Kickstarter (that’s what Seung Chan Lim or Slim as he is known did and I invested in this venture with enthusiasm).

Or  charge a mere $5 like comedian Louis C.K. did for a high-quality copy of his recent comedy show filmed at the Beacon Theatre in New York and let your buyers download up to five copies at once for one price.

Or write a book and let your customers determine its price (including free!) like Jon Kolko and his AC4D colleagues have done with Wicked Problems.

This couldn’t have happened five years ago. The production costs were too high, the distribution channels too primitive, and the bandwidth too low. Now, it’s all different and the disruptions are no longer happenstance, but designed.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen coined the term ‘disruptive innovation‘ which  ”describes a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves ‘up market’, eventually displacing established competitors.”

Christensen adds:

An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.  Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include:  lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics.

Health promotion and public health are fields ripe for this kind of innovation, so is healthcare. Indeed, movements like those embodied in Patients Like Me, a social network portal aimed at supporting human empowerment in health care.

We are on the cusp of this taking place in health promotion and human services — whether they are governmental, non-profit or social enterprise based. Health promotion is largely about enabling individuals, groups and communities to better adapt to change, support themselves and gain greater control over the social determinants of health. At present, we teach students theory and research, but what about business dynamics or systems thinking or visual methods of presentation or social innovation? These are the tools and strategies that the abovementioned examples used. Many of them also used design.

The same challenge holds true for social work, psychology and education.

These are the fields that are key supports for promoting wellbeing in our community. It is perhaps not surprising that the concept of design is noticeably absent from all of these fields.

That doesn’t need to be the case.

This past week I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Scott Conti and his staff at the New Design High School in New York City. There I saw students working through everyday problems using design, building business ideas to support themselves and their communities, and applying their various creativities to making a difference in their lives using design as the lens. This environment was where social work, education, psychology and health promotion intersect. Scott — who delivers a great talk on his work as part of TEDX Dumbo — is a health promoter and social innovator. So are his teachers.

None of them were trained for what they do. They have adapted, modified, created and innovated. They disrupted their own patterns of work and learning so that they could better disrupt those around them, for good. They did this by design.

If we are to expect that the fields most connected to social action and the promotion of wellbeing are to contribute to our betterment in the future, they need to change. Disruptive design for programs, services and the ways we fund such things is what is necessary if these fields are to have benefit beyond themselves. Long past are the days when doing good was something that belonged to those with a title (e.g., doctor, health promoter, social worker) or that what we called ourselves (e.g., teacher) meant we did something else unequivocally (e.g., educate). Now we are all teachers, all health promoters, all designers, and all entrepreneurs if we want to be. Some will be better than others and some will be more effective than others, but by disrupting these ideas we can design a better future.


Filed under: design thinking, education & learning, innovation, social media Tagged: Andrea Yip, Clayton Christensen, design, disruptive innovation, education, graphic design, health, health promotion, human services, infographics, innovation, psychology, public health, social determinants of health, social innovation, social work, technology

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Categories: Andrea Yip, Clayton Christensen, design, design thinking, disruptive innovation, education, Education & Learning, graphic design, health, health promotion, human services, infographics, innovation, psychology, public health, social determinants of health, social innovation, Social media, social work, technology

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