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SciFly NYC // 113 // Speculation & Social Impact

Weekly Events 2/10 - 2/16

Hey SciFly Readers!

This week I want to quickly share some of my ponderings on how we can leverage speculative design to create more informed and thoughtful social impact. One reason for these ponderings is a class I taught this weekend, "Prototyping Social Impact" where I spoke to aspiring social impact entrepreneurs about how they can use Minimal Viable Prototypes (MVPs) and experimentation as one way to test assumptions and hypotheses around an idea for social impact.

Drawing from Lean Impact, I broke down the lesson into three types of MVPs, those for testing value hypotheses (do people want/desire this?), growth hypotheses (what would it take to scale this idea), and impact hypotheses (does this idea work? does it deliver social impact at scale?).

While we mostly focused on value hypotheses, given the stage many of the students are at in their idea for a social venture, I was really fascinated by some of the ideas laid out for how one can go about creating MVPs to better understand their Impact hypothesis, how they will create change in the world.

One suggestion from Lean Impact is to use a Theory of Change to figure out the causal linkages between how what you start doing today will eventually create the desired future impact at scale.
Simplified, you are back-mapping form the long-term impact you would like to have on the world (outcomes & impact) to what you need to do today to start making that impact (inputs, activities, outputs).

Between each stage is a causal link, rather how doing something will cause something to happen.

“If we do A, it will lead to B which will accomplish C and eventually lead to D impact.” A → B and B→ C and C → D  = Causal Linkages

Another way to think about it is that each causal linkage is an assumption that can then be turned into a question and validated.

For example, one Theory of Change could boil down to: "If we provide classes on CNC and 3D printing items, then more young people will make their own furniture. If more young people make their own furniture, it will reduce the amount of furniture they buy. At scale, if enough people stop buying furniture and make it locally instead, global manufacturing businesses will close and we will have more sustainable manufacturing." Our end impact being a future of more sustainable manufacturing due to a shift to local fabrication from massive global systems.

To validate this, first we will have to figure out a way to test the first causal linkage as an assumption. "We believe that providing classes on CNC & 3D printing items will cause more young people to make their own furniture."

Then we can use the design methodology of validating assumptions to figure out how to test it.

First, we turn it into a question, "Will providing classes on CNC & 3D printing items cause more young people to make their own furniture?"

Then we plan an experiment to test it, and a measure of success that will let us know if we have validated and can move on. "Experiment - Pop-up class on 3D printing a stool at local Fab Lab. If more than 50% of students come to Fab Lab's free open hours within 1 month of attending & make some type of furniture, we have validated our hypothesis."

This experiment will then let us dig deeper into different problems, factors, or underlying assumptions that might derail our idea. "Students are too busy to follow-up. Nervous about going on their own. Open hour times are inconvenient. Furniture doesn't look good or is faulty etc."

As I was putting together the class, I couldn't help think that this chain of causal linkages is well and good, but that in the time it can take to create, ideate, and scale a social venture, the world can change drastically, affecting how that impact can be delivered, or perhaps even making it unnecessary. In addition, I sometimes think that social impact entrepreneurs rarely do the necessary worldbuilding to imagine what the future will look like and how their solution and impact will fit within it.

I have already talked in the past about how I think world-building practices can help us to better understand the future we imagine, the big forces at play, and the hopes, dreams, fears, and pain points of a person in that future. But as I worked on my slides for the class, I also started to wonder if a singular Theory of Change can still accurately map out the causal linkages between the inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, and impact one wants to have in the future, given how rapidly technology and society are changing around us.

This isn't fully fleshed out yet, but I think that certain tools from speculative practice also might be able to provide a better, more nuanced way to think about how our theories of change can map to different potential futures.

If we imagine a Voros Futures Cone, with several potential possible, plausible, and preferable futures, each one of them represents a different environment one can find themselves within as they try to deliver their planned social impact in the future.

Perhaps what would work better is to understand how your TOC maps to different futures, or have different versions of your TOC grounded in how likely your desired impact is to happen given the current trajectory of events. Maybe the things you start with today could lead to a wildly unexpected future outcome.

Or perhaps we can think about a Trajectory-pushing Theory of Change where impact is situated in a plausible or even possible future, and the purpose of the TOC is to show how we can nudge our trajectory toward that future through delivering this impact (assumedly then we'd have to map out what else would need to happen outside of our venture to also get there).

Maybe we should even have a Dynamic Theory of Change that we keep revisiting at regular intervals, understanding how it might need to morph as the world transforms in different, and sometimes unexpected directions - where I am leaning right now.

But in this case, could we create a tool or platform to help us check-in regularly on how new developments change the trajectory of the future and what resulting tactics we will need to use as we adjust our TOC to this new reality?

As I said, the idea isn't fully fleshed out yet, but something I want to keep pushing on.

If one of the purposes of applied speculation is to help us better understand how the future might be, then I think there is a strong connection for speculative and foresight tools and methodologies to better imagine how we want the world to be, and back-map (theorize how change would have to happen) to the inputs and activities we will need to start with today in order to move ourselves in the right direction.

As always, happy to hear your thoughts and feedback!!!

Thanks again for listening and keep reading for great speculative events!

"The future is here, now let's distribute it." 

Doc Martens

SciFly is a design studio dedicated to leveraging speculative design and science fiction to imagine and prototype alternative futures enabled by today's emerging technology.


Monday | 2/10

Tuesday | 2/11

Wednesday | 2/12

Thursday | 2/13

Friday | 2/14

Saturday | 2/15

Sunday | 2/16

OnGoing [classes, exhibits, shows etc.]


What I'm Reading

Here is a quick snapshot of my favorite books, podcasts, and articles this week.

Blind Woman Sees With New Implant, Plays Video Game Sent Straight to Her Brain
by Jason Dorrier

The Weirdest, Wildest Ways We’re Using Drones—and What’s Ahead
by Vanessa Bates Ramirez

Man Wears Personal Plastic Tent on Flight to Avoid Deadly Virus
By Victor Tangermann

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