When Good Intentions Aren’t Enough: Linking Intent to Impact

Over the last few weeks, we’ve introduced the idea of “design for equity” and described why it is an important framework for practitioners involved in community-engaged work. We have talked a lot about what it means to have a more equitable design process, from the words that we use to the power of communities in the process. With this essay, we’d like to add another element to that discussion: an outcomes-based approach to better linking the impact we seek to have with the impact that we actually have.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve introduced the idea of “design for equity” and described why it is an important framework for practitioners involved in community-engaged work. We have talked a lot about what it means to have a more equitable design process, from the words that we use to the power of communities in the process. With this essay, we’d like to add another element to that discussion: an outcomes-based approach to better linking the impact we seek to have with the impact that we actually have.

Design for equity means holding ourselves more accountable to the things that we create. To do that, it’s not enough for the output of our work to have good intentions and hopes for impact. It’s just as critical that we also evaluate the outcomes, or assessed impacts of the project, to see if those hopes were fulfilled. As earlier articles in this series have acknowledged, many of us entered this space with a desire to make a positive impact in communities in need. While this desire fuels our passion, how often do we take stock of the impacts of our work after the ribbon has been cut and the iconic photos have been taken? The unfortunate thing about many of our projects is not that they don’t often hit the mark, but that we don’t often know whether or not they have.

Our reasons for shying away from the spotlight of such an examination are understandable. Budgets are tight in many projects; and, to address outcomes often means engaging things that feel outside of our control. How do we influence what our client or end users do with a space after it’s in operation? How do we evaluate our impact on human – as opposed to just technical – systems? Luckily, there are some smart people thinking about how to bring accountability into design practices. For this essay, we talked with a few of them to offer guidance on impact evaluation in the built world.

Why do outcomes matter?

Outcomes-based frameworks have been mentioned often in recent years in a variety of disciplines, particularly health. Rupal Sanghvi, a public health expert and founder of HealthxDesign, says that while an outcomes-based framework is now part of the health lexicon, it wasn’t always so, particularly in medicine. Not long ago many doctors believed their primary role was at the patient-level and to provide treatment if needed, be it drugs or medical procedures. How their patients fared (compared to patients served by other doctors), and how their approach affected outcomes were not questions that were asked, even in such a scientific field. Over time, it became clear that drugs and procedures are merely tools. It is now increasingly common in medicine to not only consider the tool of intervention, but to also understand how those strategies affect the patient during and after treatment, how they intersect with the other realities of the patient’s life, and how these factors should influence future interventions and practices.

For designers, our tools for intervention can be the buildings, environments, and objects that we create. But like the doctors above, many of us think of those tools in a limited fashion. All too often we only think about the outputs rather than outcomes. Designing a grocery store to be built in a food desert has the potential to make an impact; but what happens if it’s too difficult for local residents to walk there because of the lack of sidewalks? Or if many of them can’t afford the produce because of their income level? We often think of societal issues such as health and poverty in terms of the access or services that our design must enable delivery of, rather than the human conditions that our work can help transform.

To fully embrace outcomes in our work, we must also acknowledge that it can’t just be tacked on at the end of the design process. We know we shouldn’t wait until the end of the design process to start thinking about how a building can be energy efficient or made of sustainable materials. Thinking about and planning for equity outcomes is no different and needs to be incorporated. Now let’s look at how to weave an outcomes-based framework into the design process.

It starts with specificity

Specificity is something that has come up consistently throughout this series. This is just as important when talking about outcomes, particularly since equity is a dynamic concept. Kiley Arroyo, executive director of the Cultural Strategies Council, believes that even figuring out what you’re going to measure requires an equitable process embedded with specifics. Identifying outcomes assumes you are trying to arrive at someplace better than where you start; yet we seldom ask whose voice is embedded in that vision of the future. This a critical point for outcome goals to be effective—they must be intentional and specific.

Kiley tells a story of visiting with a few design groups in Marseille, France who work with several different disenfranchised populations. Because there is no French word for “community” in the broad way we employ it, she couldn’t get away with generally defining the project or its goals as being “community-serving.” Instead, she had to be very specific about the groups the project was seeking to impact. Once she was specific that the project was to promote culture-driven economic development in a neighborhood populated by North African, Armenian, and Khmer families that had been historically ignored by national (or “legitimate”) cultural agencies, she could become more intentional as to how she engaged those groups, framed the project, and developed outcome goals to which she and the design groups could be held accountable.

Once it’s clear which group or groups a project is intended to impact, the next step in developing outcomes goals includes assessing two important, but often overlooked, factors: community capabilities and systemic inequities. By taking the time to understand a population’s existing capacities, partner institutions can be more responsive in designing an intervention that builds upon those assets in ways that can be leveraged by the community in the future. This can enable partner institutions to more meaningful engagement with the systems of inequity on more equal footing.

Forming partnerships with place-based or issue-focused groups like the Bronx River Alliance, highlighted in this previous article, can help use existing community actors to identify their group’s own social and environmental capabilities. Once partnerships are in place, a team can employ a developmental evaluation approach, wherein metrics evolve with a project as it is refined. This way the project team is empowered to iterate concepts for impact evaluation from the very beginning instead of being paralyzed by the notion of metrics at the end.

Projects should also aim to impact the root causes of inequities, not just slightly alter the environment in which systemic inequities are allowed to persist. For community-engaged design projects, this means that unless we’ve intentionally created a series of metrics linked to these more systemic outcomes, the major public benefit many projects can have on underserved communities will be limited at best. To develop a salient and authentically impactful intervention, the process requires forming strategic partnerships early on to bring in other disciplinary perspectives on how to identify and address systemic injustices.

Influencing the design

Through HealthxDesign, Rupal often works as one of these strategic partners who brings a different disciplinary perspective. Coming from public health, she is well versed on issues of equity and disparities, which are important concepts and metrics within the profession’s disciplinary framework. Creating a healthier society means not only addressing differences in poor health among populations, but also addressing the root causes of poor health among entire communities and populations.

As Rupal and her colleagues aim to address disparities, they know that in order to be effective, they need to target geographies where poverty is spatially concentrated. Although designers have seldom been involved in these conversations, Rupal believes there are significant opportunities for design to inform health and social justice strategies.

Design can also be transformed by consideration of these strategies and related outcomes. Rupal tells the story of a design competition that she worked on with Interface Studio Architects (ISA), an architecture firm with which she frequently collaborates. ISA was shortlisted for a supportive housing development in Syracuse for a resident population that included formerly homeless, formerly incarcerated, and low income populations.

Rupal and ISA realized that the challenging site and the multiple at-risk populations presented an opportunity for integrating social science knowledge around different risk factors with a program and housing experience tailored to specific population need. Clinically, the outcome goals are clearly defined for each of the populations, but the building is often not conceptualized as part of the intervention. How might the building be a part of a systemic and holistic intervention to reduce recidivism, prevent homelessness, and support social capital? How could the design shape experiences that are environmental factors or predictors (e.g., safety and social interaction) of these outcomes? This outcomes-based approach, linking design moves to “factors,” became a lens for assessing various options, prioritizing opportunities, and analyzing trade-offs.

Once outcomes are integrated into the design process, it’s easier to think about evaluating success against those outcomes. Evaluation can validate whether assumptions about how the project’s impact on these communities were correct. This method is about providing a mechanism by which to learn and provide accountability to communities. It allows everyone involved to refine and scale the successful elements, and to learn from and adapt the unsuccessful ones. And whatever the outcome, knowing what worked and what didn’t is critical to strengthening future practice.

Thinking about outcomes at scale

As practitioners are breaking new ground integrating outcomes into the design process, national funders and institutions are looking at how to scale those efforts. Enterprise Community Partners is working with both Kiley and Rupal, among others, to advance this work. Katie Swenson, Enterprise’s Vice President of Design Initiatives, believes this work is mission critical. The national organization is dedicated to resourcing local affordable housing projects while simultaneously seeking to impact policy that not only ensures access to housing but also to vibrant communities and opportunities. Realizing that achieving these outcomes heavily depends on addressing systemic inequities, Katie and her colleagues are working to develop a set of metrics that relate to indicators of equity for each of Enterprise’s focus areas. These metrics will go beyond measuring the number of housing units produced to measuring increases in wealth and improvements in health. Pair these comprehensive metrics with Kiley’s approach to target populations and Rupal’s understanding of systemic inequities and Enterprise has the opportunity to create a coherent design framework for community development projects across America.

Moving beyond good intentions

Too often design projects meant to improve communities only amount to good intentions. Worse, some also extract considerable goodwill, energy, time, and social capital from these underserved communities, but result in design products that are not impactful to the issues at hand. These communities are left with depreciating capacity to trust designers and increased reserves of well-earned angst. We doubt that’s an outcome that anyone desires.

If we truly want to design for equity, then we need to stop fearing accountability. Thoughtful understanding of the systemic issues that projects intend to address, along with specific metrics co-created between communities and design partners, can foster cultures of accountability and equitable levels of commitment on all sides. Strategic partnerships with other disciplines can contribute fresh approaches to developing outcomes and identifying new metrics that can potentially affect the systems perpetuating societal injustices. And being specific about intentions throughout the process can provide a roadmap to deeper impacts.

Outcomes-based design can be a catalyst for – not a barrier to – change. Let’s agree that the time has come for us to turn our own tools of intervention into opportunities for impact.

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Barbara Brown Wilson’s research and teaching focus on the ethics, theory, and practice of sustainable community design and development, and on the history of urban social movements. Wilson's current research projects include understanding how grassroots community networks reframe public infrastructure in more climate and culturally appropriate ways across the U.S. and helping to elevate the standards of evaluation for community-engaged design around notions of social and ecological justice. She is a member of the Equity Collective, whose work is featured in the Cooper Hewitt Museum's By the People: Designing a Better America Exhibition. She is a co-founder of the Design Futures Student Leadership Forum, a five-day student leadership training which convenes students and faculty from a consortium of universities with leading practitioners all working to elevate the educational realms of community-engaged design; and a co-founder of the Austin Community Design and Development Center (ACDDC), a nonprofit design center that provides high-quality green design and planning services to lower-income households and the organizations that serve them.  

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