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Paved With Good Intentions – When Impact Design Goes Wrong

January 6, 2016


As part of our From Failure to Resolution series, we asked leading practitioners in the world of impact design to share a few choice cautionary tales and epic blunders from their own experience in the field. Perhaps too often we see only the highlight reels and hear only about the triumphs in working for positive change, but here’s an honest look at what happens when design for good goes bad. 


SU Photo By Stephen Sartori

Design Consultant + Writer

The project was noble: an affordable housing development that integrated shelter units, transitional units, and conventional apartments. The partners were a dream team: a non-profit focused on providing opportunities for prison re-entry populations, an innovative housing authority, and a design center focused on innovative design and better economic outcomes for legacy cities. Even the funding was in place. A grant from Enterprise Community Partners paid a curated list of engaged architecture firms to design housing that integrated very different populations in one building in a cost-efficient manner while promoting interaction, health, and opportunities for personal growth. The design process was collaborative and engaged city leadership, students, residents and community stakeholders. It doesn’t get any better than that in our field.

So what went wrong? After all was said and done the “at risk” developer financially responsible for completing the project on time ditched the process and the selected firm was a tried and true (read: boring and conventional) one. No more community-driven process. No more “design thinking.” No health and wellness opportunities wedded throughout the plan. So what did I learn? If we’re designing for impact the designer needs to be the at-risk party. The more “at-risk” we are, the more we will be able to accomplish. It is as hard, and as simple, as that.

Marc Norman is trained as an urban planner and has worked in the field of community development and finance for over 20 years. He consults with architects, planners, non-profit organizations, and others throughout the United States.


Care International

One of the biggest misconceptions in post-disaster shelter is the need is for clever technical solutions. The road to shelter is paved with failed inventions. In fact, such products tend to be too expensive and they take away people’s freedom to choose what they want to live in and how they want to build it. Supporting people to build their own shelters and houses while using local materials and methods almost always leads to better long-term outcomes. The key thing for NGOs like CARE to understand is the process that people use to achieve shelter and to subsequently support that process in helping people build more resilient and safer housing. Coming in with our own products inherently undermines that process and disenfranchises people.

Another version of the same mistake is when NGOs decide people don’t know what they need and that, therefore, they have a better idea of what type of houses people need. Thinking that building back better means building houses that won’t fall down in the next earthquake or storm or flood can be such a mistake. When you ask people what they think ‘better’ means, it’s usually very different.

To give some real examples, there’s a village in Gujurat called Vondh, which was destroyed in the Gujurat earthquake. It was decided that the best thing to do would be to relocate the village to a safer area and build it with strong, engineered houses. These houses are very good, strong, nicely laid out, and include gardens. They’re also completely unoccupied [For details please see the paper, Winners and Losers from the 2001 Gujurat Earthquake, Environment and Urbanization, 2008.]. Forgetting to consider things like culture, history, economy, markets, transportation, and services meant that the new village was left largely abandoned. Everyone moved back to the old village, re-built as before, and continued their lives.

In short, the biggest mistake you can make is underestimating the ability of people to control their own recovery and make their own choices about it. Sheltering is a process, not a product. If you can understand and support that process, then yes, there are a lot of solutions, including engineering solutions. The difficulty is that they are always different.

Tom Newby leads CARE International’s Emergency Shelter Team. He is a chartered structural engineer with significant private sector experience in both the United Kingdom and the United States and has worked in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. Read the original interview at Engineering For Change. Image courtesy of CARE International. 



CoFounder and Vice President, Designmatters at ArtCenter

Despite the wisdom in the design principle of “failing fast” and, my personal favorite, “failing better,” when we’re in pursuit of an innovation outcome, failure can be hard to experience and hard to accept. While we may embrace failure from a conceptual standpoint as a learning moment and as a primary driver of innovation (i.e. experimentation, ambiguity, tolerance and risk-taking as essential factors of a successful creative culture), when we engage in a project that has a social impact aspiration, or requires collaboration with organizations in the public and social sectors, failure can be particularly difficult to acknowledge for two reasons: The structural and organizational culture can make failure a taboo subject; and the consequences of failing are that much more consequential.

An important failure of mine many years ago was underestimating the importance of articulating and agreeing on a common purpose at the outset of a collaboration. The project was a design for an art park for teens in the city of Pasadena, with several community partner organizations and stakeholders on board. Because I failed to understand the material constraints and agendas of all parties involved, I failed to zero in on the ability of our students to contribute to and exert agency in the project. This failure prevented us from shepherding the project through implementation and impact, despite many attempts by all involved to recalibrate during the project and despite a great design vision for it.

The project remains a favorite of mine because of the learning that emerged from that key failure in the design of the partnership. Today, at the start of any collaborative process, I tend to mentally scan the checklist of the missteps I made at the time as a sobering reminder and resolution for what to do in order to fail better. It’s because of this experience that I now have a very fluid relationship with failure — I know that I have to embrace it, yet I remain watchful.

Mariana Amatullo, PhD, is CoFounder and Vice-President of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design and Scholar-in Residence, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. She serves as an Executive Board Member of Cumulus, the International Association of Universities and Colleges of Art, Design and Media.


Public Workshop 

In our work creating opportunities for participatory youth and community design at Public Workshop, communication is all-important because we are routinely redefining concepts, such as what is considered ‘safe’ in regards to play. I think we do an exceptional job of documenting and storytelling the experience of these projects for everyone in real time. But in this age of easy connectivity and readily shareable media, it’s easy to forget that the notion of ‘seeing is believing’ often isn’t enough.

One night, while designing and building a pop-up adventure playground a number of years ago, I received an irate email from a fantastic project manager with whom we were working because he couldn’t believe the risks that he thought the participants were taking in the project. His anger was particularly shocking because, although he had been unable to attend the major public design-build sessions for the playground, I went to great lengths to share photos, stories, participant reflections and lessons learned with him — both good and bad — via email and phone conversations at the end of each building day.

In trying to work through the situation with this normally easy-going and very supportive gentleman, it quickly became clear that these ’tools’ were inadequate for fully conveying things like a culture of safety and ownership. Even with supporting evidence and excellent narratives, we have a tendency to project our own prior experiences or cultural biases on things like photographs and videos. If we want someone to understand, embrace, and support a new behavior or process, it must be ‘felt’ and experienced firsthand.

A cheerleader of possibility, Alex Gilliam is the Founder of Public Workshop, an organization that help clients and community partners throughout the United States create uniquely engaging opportunities for youth and their communities to shape the design of their schools, neighborhoods and cities.



Consultant + Researcher

I used to work on technologies without analyzing market need or developing a plan for dissemination — I thought that these issues were not the responsibilities of engineers. People often get excited about new technologies and inventions because novelty has an appeal, even if there is no proven need or small-scale success. Donating technologies without understanding what the end user really needs or figuring out how to sustain the system in the long term is a commonly repeated mistake.

I’m learning that we have to think more broadly and work in interdisciplinary teams to figure out the system around a technology if there’s going to be any hope for success. What is the real need? Is technology the answer? What policies, education components, support systems, etc. need to be in place? What’s the implementation strategy or business plan for this holistic solution? Also, we have to be able to answer these kinds of questions together — the ability to work in interdisciplinary teams is so important because creativity and innovation thrive at the intersections of different perspectives and experiences.

Jessica Vechakul is a design consultant and public health professional who has designed products, services, and systems for low-income communities in the United States, Africa, North America, and Asia. She is currently a doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley, where she researches human-centered design for social impact. Read more about her work at Engineering For Change.



Professor of Environmental Engineering
University of Colorado Boulder

I am over the idea that NGOs can come in and make a difference in a one-off type application. It doesn’t matter what the technology is — if you don’t take the time to know a community, understand their needs in their unique setting, help develop local capacity and aspiration, provide support in follow-up, and create a self-funded maintenance plan, I think that money is going to be wasted. It’s donor-driven and it does not work.

I have personally seen that some communities, when approached with a chlorine-based solution to a water treatment problem, do not like the taste of the water and decide that they will just leave that part out when the implementer is no longer present. This is the result of not understanding the cultural and societal preferences of a community, or not implementing a robust enough behavior change program, which is obviously a major problem.

Karl Linden is a professor of environmental engineering and head of the Linden Research Group at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Read more about his work at Engineering For Change.


Barbara Brown Wlson 1

Design Futures

Failure is an under-appreciated part of the learning process. During my first year as a PhD student I served as a community liaison for a budding community/university partnerships in Austin, Texas. Our goal was to help residents reconceptualize their alleyways as opportunities for affordable infill housing and green infrastructure. As part of our engagement, we built an archway across the path in front of the community’s newest residence to define it as a streetscape. While there were many wonderful parts of this initiative, I still consider that archway to be a failure.

It was beautiful: an all-metal structure welded by a talented student volunteer. The design was loved enough by the community that they extended it along the rest of the fence line afterward, but it included a composting garden wall that we only partially filled, intending to empower the new resident to make it theirs. Despite a continued interest on the part of that resident to learn how the new fencing apparatus worked and the best efforts of myself and my colleagues, it never took hold. Over a decade later, I am still haunted by that pile of dead leaves trapped in her fence.

What I learned from this — in addition to the importance of weaving small, incremental physical improvements into any longer term community engaged design effort, and of trying to under-promise and over-deliver when you build something with a community partner — was that vision should never override relevance. We were trying to layer in an educational opportunity about permaculture, but it just made the fence less functional for the tenant. Because we didn’t know who might occupy the rental home at the time we did the work, we projected and privileged our own agendas over the goal of building trust through useful practice, leading ultimately to failure.

Barbara Brown Wilson is an Assistant Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia and co-founder of Design Futures: Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum.




When SOIL first began working in Port au Prince, Haiti we were so eager to demonstrate that poop can actually be a resource that we may have gone too far with our enthusiasm. It got to a point where people were coming to the compost site to watch the dumping and hopping up on the edges of the compost bin to get a closer look. When the cholera epidemic broke out in October 2010, we had to close down one of our compost sites because the community had become so comfortable with the process that people were no longer taking the appropriate precautions.

We are now much more cautious to present both the dangers and the potential benefits simultaneously so that people understand that in order to make human wastes safe they must first be transformed through a carefully controlled process. Poop is dangerous if not treated properly, but compost made from human wastes is an incredible resource — people have to be given credit for being able to understand the difference.

Dr. Sasha Kramer is executive director of SOIL, an organization devoted to tackling sanitation challenges in Haiti and helping others around the world to participate in the sanitation revolution. Read more about her work at Engineering For Change.

Thanks to our friends at Engineering For Change for working with us to source stories from Tom Newby, Jessica Vechakul, Sasha Kramer, and Karl Linden. 

Images courtesy of Jessica Vechakul, Stephen Sartori, SOIL, CARE International, University of Colorado Boulder, Alex Gilliam, and University of Texas at Austin.

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