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Prototyping for Pluralism: Design as a Means for Social Change

Project Pluralist founder Hina Shahid takes us through her career and explains why now is best the time for designers to make a social impact.

Words by Stevie Watts, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Project Pluralist is an organization that seeks to remedy inequities in schools. They tackle “wicked” societal problems including racial and gender inequalities as well as exclusion and discrimination. They believe in participatory pedagogy as a means of creating lasting impact and cultivating tomorrow's citizens.

We sat down with Hina Shahid, Founder and Head of Design at Project Pluralist to discuss how by surfacing these issues earlier in a young person's life, we can maintain and encourage pluralism, inclusion, and fair thinking.

We also discuss the intricacies of working with policy makers, the nuances implementing change in an ecosystem, and how the evolution of human-centered business practices has given designers the opportunity to tackle these larger questions.

dscout: How did your experience in design inspire Project Pluralist or the work you're doing now?

Hina: I started my career as a designer who was focused on craft—developing products and special experiences. At the time, my role was all about functionality and aesthetics. But as design became a more integral part of business differentiation–my focus changed from functionality and aesthetics to solving a business problem. It was a shift from solving creative problems to solving business problems creatively.

As the role of design continues to broaden, businesses are accepting that there are more contexts for design to work on. When we talk about design now, it's not just about products and services. It's about interactions, our future, our societies, the entire structure. The role has become broader in terms of designing for our society.

Nowadays, I term my focus as “designing for society” and for the wicked problems within our society. “Wicked problems” are complex social problems which don’t have a silver bullet; there is no one way to solve them and there are many different ways to tackle these types of issues.

These are the kinds of problems where once you have an intervention, the problem changes instantly. Once an intervention happens, today’s popular mantra of making a difference is, move fast and break things—which is not a thing that you want to do when addressing social problems.

Instead, you have to think from different lenses and different perspectives because these solutions can drastically change people's lives. If you take a look at today's problems like climate change, racial inequalities, gender inequalities, exclusion or discrimination, all of these are what I would call wicked problems.

So I’ve gone from solving creative problems, to solving business problems creatively, to solving wicked problems creatively. In some ways, what I do is social entrepreneurship. This role isn’t just about knowing how to craft an experience or build a product that is going to solve the problem; it’s also about understanding the whole ecosystem. You need to understand how to communicate problems and solutions with a multitude of different stakeholders. You need a varied skill set and you need to be someone who can do multiple things at a time.

This whole evolution of designing products, UX, CX, research, all of them have been really important to the work that I do today at Project Pluralist.

What is it like to be a human-centered designer and thinker for policy and intervention?

If you think about a typical business setting, roles are very set. Everybody has a certain role and responsibilities, but overall in a company there’s a business agenda. Stakeholders may have different agendas internally, but the bigger context and the casing around it is really about business objectives/goals and you do your work within those parameters. Those parameters don't exist when we talk about social impact design.

In a social impact organization, you’re working with an ecosystem of stakeholders, not stakeholders within one organization. Each stakeholder may be coming from a different organization or agency and they all have their own agendas, motivations, and challenges because they each have stakeholders of their own.

Understanding the ecosystem you’re working in becomes as important as understanding the problems you’re trying to solve. You have to identify who in the ecosystem you are going to work with and how to align with them. Ideally, the whole ecosystem comes together and works harmoniously–but it doesn't always happen.

You may have to figure out which parts of the ecosystem are the most important to get started with and then start bringing people in. That’s what I feel like is really the difference for social impact design, the ecosystem is extremely important.

Comparing user research and social impact design, the big difference comes down to when you're thinking about designing a product or service. For user research, we tend to think of users as a direction to what needs to be built. During presentations you identify the user’s needs and the business’ needs and find the space where they align to set your direction.

When designing for social impact, the ecosystem plays a huge role because you need to understand the push and pull dynamics of individuals, institutions, and their various motivations and goals before you start designing solutions.

For instance, Project Pluralist is about creating an inclusive youth culture. To understand their present context, we ask questions like: Where are young people spending time? Who are they spending time with? What are their influences? Where do most of their interactions and connections with the broader world take place?

These questions help us understand the youth ecosystem and get a better picture of not only their world in particular, but also the bigger world that they’re situated in. Say they're spending a lot of their time with peers in a physical setting or in school. They may not spend as much time with their own families—so that means school is an important factor in their development.

We then start to dig into what makes up the school system. If you consider every part of the ecosystem there’s the state government, the districts, each school within the district, principals, administrations, and of course the teachers. So when you start breaking into these spaces, there are a lot of unique stakeholders to consider. Unlike typical human-centered design, you can’t say you want to be “youth-focused” or “student-focused” solely, because designing for these problems doesn’t only impact the student, you need to look at the whole system that is surrounding them to enable change.

Have you found any methods that allow you to better capture the empathy of being a young person in school today?

One aspect is understanding how to engage with young people. When they're young, they're getting to know the world and they're testing their boundaries. Many “social exclusion” incidents happen because they're just copying adults around them or adults they are influenced by. But they don’t fully understand what's at stake when they behave like them.

It becomes a question of: How do you have those honest conversations to make them understand what is at stake when they exclude their own peers? Middle or high schoolers may be young adults, but they still haven’t fully matured.

It’s important to consider that at their age it's less about telling them what not to do, but actually explaining: What are the repercussions of this behavior? Why is this behavior not the right behavior? Being able to have those conversations no matter how sensitive they are and using them to create a way forward.

Telling somebody not to do something doesn't change the behavior. The whole point of creating solutions against exclusion is not just to stop exclusion, it's to create a new behavior, a pluralist behavior. It shows them that there's another way to interact and there's another way to think about and have conversations with people who are different from them.

And it's about showing what those desirable behaviors and interactions would be. That means doing projects that encourage students to share stories and build an understanding of different experiences. We do activities that help connect the dots between interpersonal behaviors that they hadn’t really thought about to how it may affect someone psychologically. And how discrimination may also unknowingly impact them.

When talking about social exclusion, we mean exclusion in terms of: gender, religion, ethnicity, race, or ability. Anything that may be considered as “different” from the perceived norm. So it’s really important to have those conversations and highlight what needs to be done in a way that really engages them.

Agency and empowerment becomes a big part of that and that means helping them identify opportunities to make their own classroom more inclusive. Asking them questions about exclusion and helping them figure out how they can come up with different solutions.

Creating activities and projects that keep them engaged where they're the ones actually doing the work, rather than just telling them to do certain things. That gives them the opportunity to start creating their own change and be a driver in bettering their surroundings.

Could you talk to us about your goal and mission with Project Pluralist?

In the last few years, there have been a lot of conversations around inclusive design and products. At Project Pluralism, we make design itself the vehicle for cultivating inclusion.

The premise of Project Pluralist, is that if we create a culture of equality and enable appreciation of our human differences at a young age, we will not have to put so much effort on unlearning and relearning things at a later age. From the very beginning, if people are used to this idea that there are different people with different perspectives and abilities and no one has supremacy over the other, we create more opportunities for inclusion and ultimately getting along.

Unfortunately today, youth see the differences between one another as a trigger to discrimination and it often leads to bullying in school. When we see or hear about bullying one might think, “Oh, it's not a big deal, it happens,” but it really is a big deal. Bullying continues to escalate into even more problematic incidents of intolerance and hate and it happens in schools more often than we think. And not just in the last four years, it’s a trend that has long been on the rise.

So, why does this happen? Kids do what they see the adults around them doing. They're connected with the outside world through all of these different apps and mediums and they can see every kind of thinking out there.

Positive behaviors often require someone to really think about, internalize, and ultimately act upon, it’s usually harder. Meanwhile it's very easy to continue with negative behaviors.

And what we at Project Pluralist mean by an inclusive or a pluralist classroom, is one where everybody is treated with equal dignity and respect. Ultimately, channeling that idea of treating others as you would like to be treated.

Do you have an example of an intervention, workshop, or moment in a classroom where you had a breakthrough with a student or group of students?

Changing a behavior is of course a long term thing. Most change doesn’t happen in a moment. But what does happen in a moment is that the students participate in an activity or workshop and they say, "I'm not sure how I can make this impact."

Then as they go through the motions, they’ll start to get excited and get into it. For some projects, they’ll come up with different solutions and discuss them. Or they're asked to do brainstorming exercises to show what their solutions could look like. You can see how engaged they are talking about their ideas on how they can make things better. I see this especially happen with middle schoolers.

Then all of a sudden for some students, it hits them and they're like, "Oh, I think things can change." They’ll maybe hear stories from others who, at one point, had been a part of certain intolerance or extremist groups, and they've changed so much to talk about their experiences. These kids will hear it and they're like, "Wow, this really happens, people can change. I can make an impact if I have a solution that works and it gets implemented in my school. I can actually help people."

What I've seen in those moments is their realization that they can improve their personal interactions and impact those around them. They think they know what to do, but as they go through the exercises, they have this realization that change is a real thing. It's not just something people say, it can actually happen.

I find that extremely interesting and really refreshing because that moment of realization is almost like a lightbulb switching on.

How has your time at Project Pluralist changed you as a designer or as a person who employs human centeredness as a way to solve problems and create community?

This work has taught me a lot about communication. As a designer, I always had a certain group of stakeholders that I presented to, so I usually knew the kinds of cases that needed to be built. Now, I have very different stakeholders. When I started there was a whole variety of people that I hadn’t worked with in that context.

Going into a stakeholder discussion as a designer is different from going in and saying, “We're going to build an inclusive culture for you,” and presenting the solutions. You're going in with a pitch. So from Project Pluralist I’ve learned how to communicate the same idea in different ways so that it resonates with a multitude of people.

That doesn't mean that any one explanation or definition of the idea is lesser, it just means that you know what the priority is in that moment. For example when I speak to parents, their priority may be making sure that their child is prepared for college or has the capabilities to succeed in today’s workforce. For teachers, their priority could be keeping students engaged in their classroom and how inclusive their classroom is. For principals and school districts, it is the preparedness of their students and the ultra preparedness for the unsavory incidents that could happen. They are prioritizing risk assessment and risk aversion, ensuring they have programs in place in case of extreme incidents.

We use the same tools for each need, but the key is communicating to different people based on their highest priorities. That's something that I think has been a big learning for me and I think it is for anybody who sits in an entrepreneurship seat. You have to look at a very big picture and figure out how to communicate that picture to different people.

What advice might you have for young designers looking to get into the social impact space?

When I was doing my MFA thesis for design management, I was looking at design lead approaches and interventions for extremism and hate. These were areas of design that I wanted to go into, but I didn’t actually move into the space until years later.

This type of work tends to be one of those things that you do on the side and then say, "Okay, I'm done, now I'm going to go do my day job. Maybe one day I’ll do this full time." My advice is that there's no one day that you have to take the leap. You have to decide that today is the day to put your ideas out there and say, "I'm just going to start putting this in the world and doing the work to start getting the results."

For any designers who want to get into social impact design, if you have ideas, start on a smaller scale, prototype, test, and reach out to people to begin implementing. That to me is the biggest difference between a designer who's doing the work versus big policymaker thinking.

So start small, start implementing things and test them like any other prototype. For me, my prototypes were workshops with students. Going into classes, doing activities, and sitting with teachers to build workshops with them. Then slowly morphing and scaling it up as the learning happened and as these prototypes became more and more scalable. It’s really about thinking like a designer and understanding that even though people have been talking about intolerance and organizations have been working on it, not much is being done in the classroom in terms of hate prevention.

If you have ideas to make change—just go for it. Start to prototype, start bringing in smaller groups of people, and then slowly start to scale them. You may think that there are a lot of people working on those problems, but there is a unique perspective that you as a designer will bring to the table–never under underestimate that perspective.

Hina Shahid
Founder and Head Designer, Project Pluralist

As a designer I saw that as an opportunity. In my research, I saw that most of the people who had radicalized over the years often began their journey to hate in their teenage years. That's when a lot of these ideas started to shape them. This is the most crucial time in their lives and yet, we do not see much happening in this space and we do not see many preventive strategies in place. This was a wide space for me to work on and start scaling things to eventually make it broader.

Ultimately I would say, if you have ideas to make change—just go for it. Start to prototype, start bringing in smaller groups of people, and then slowly start to scale them. You may think that there are a lot of people working on those problems, but there is a unique perspective that you as a designer will bring to the table–never under underestimate that perspective.

In design right now, we're talking a lot about human-centeredness, that it is perhaps not always good for the overall society. But I would say in the space that I work in, in terms of social exclusion, prejudice, intolerance, hate—human-centered is the thing that is going to make change because you're understanding, from a very human perspective, why do people do certain things? Why do they behave in certain ways? That enables you to think about how to ensure that they don't behave this way and how to ensure that there is a new way in front of them of doing things.

That could only happen when you're looking at it from the lens of human-centered rather than from the lens of traditional policy making.

Stevie Watts is the Brand Marketing Manager at dscout. She enjoys telling compelling (rhyme alert) user research stories, growing social channels, and exploring all things video production. As a newer Chicagoan, you'll likely find her at a concert or walking her corgi, but undoubtedly heads down looking at Google Maps.

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