• How can we structure conversations to engender growth from every perspective?
• What are effective ways to engage with the global community and learn from others’ experiences?
• How can we foster collaboration and avoid reinventing the wheel in our initiatives?
• How do you navigate the power dynamics of social impact changemaking?
• What are better ways you can set your organization up to affect social change at a global scale?
In this episode, we talk to Robert Fabricant about making an impact at a local and global level through service design. Robert is Co-Founder and Partner of Dalberg Design, where he brings human-centered design and innovation services to clients looking for new, creative approaches to making breakthroughs in social impact and international development. We talk to him about how his years of experience in human-centered design has shaped his perspective on how we think about relationships when designing services for communities around the world, and how inclusion in service design means not only bringing communities aboard to participate in creating solutions, but also deeply examining how you can create space and opportunity for people and entire organizations to navigate existing power structures better.
PI: What has worked well when you want to set the stage for good conversations internally in your team, but also when you set conversations with your clients or those that you’re designing solutions for?
RF: First and foremost, we have become increasingly comfortable openly acknowledging and discussing the power dynamics, whether imagined or existent, right at the outset of our conversations. This practice has been a notable and valuable aspect of our professional development over the past eight years as a team. In previous experiences, such as working in design studios, these dynamics were often addressed sporadically rather than through a structured process. However, we have now incorporated this approach into our interactions.
RF: I find it frustrating to contemplate the vision and institutionalization of service design. It often seems to revolve around the notion that by carefully scripting touchpoints, especially the self-guided ones, and providing the right information at precisely the right moment, individuals will feel adequately supported throughout a process. However, I believe this is somewhat illusory. The crux lies in human dynamics, trust-building, and how people engage with one another rather than orchestrating intermittent touchpoints.
I’m also disillusioned by the idea of constructing systems expected to capture and pass along such information seamlessly. It’s frustrating to witness blueprints and designers attempting to distill relationships’ intricate, evolving nature into a rigid, repeatable recipe that anyone can execute at any time. It feels like an unattainable aspiration to tidy up the world.
Designers often strive to clean up the world excessively, but the world’s inherent messiness is what makes it fascinating. If it were entirely tidy, we’d need engineers and social scientists. This is where I find myself repeatedly grappling because I want my team to recognize the profound potential for design rather than viewing it as an ambiguous web of relationships. However, when I present a journey map or service blueprint, expecting it to bring about significant change, it often falls short, leaving me perplexed about what went wrong.
PI: So, you’re leading into the next question that I wanted to ask you is, you know, you, you’ve mentored and you mentor and coach so many people along your career. What is one piece of advice, that you just gave us some, but give us some more advice that you think has impacted some of the people you’ve mentored?
RF: You all are really delving into some profound questions here, which makes me reminisce about the wisdom that comes with age. When it comes to design, it often hinges on the approach, with some designers striving to rein in that control and perfection, finding the right moment to let go of that sense of meticulousness. It’s crucial to appreciate that a significant portion of what we do remains emergent and messy, and embracing that rather than trying to define everything rigidly is essential. This theme frequently arises in my line of work, as very few projects ever truly reach completion.
One of the significant challenges we face, and Fanny, you can certainly attest to this, is that many of our partners and clients don’t prioritize quality as much as we’d like them to. They often don’t want to invest the time and effort required to refine a design to the point where it functions and shines brilliantly. This can be frustrating and even lead to a desire for more control. However, timing is crucial in these situations. I find myself wondering how to approach this issue without disempowering others.
How can we create a space with a concrete foundation for collaboration, serving as an anchor to help people envision different possibilities and mindsets without becoming overly prescriptive about factors that are unrealistic or need to evolve with changing conditions and people’s lives? This is a significant concern.
In my work, I make a conscious effort to discourage the use of overly technical design jargon. Interestingly, as Ravi and I transitioned from Frog and began working in social impact more broadly, we observed that the same specialized language was prevalent internally and externally in corporate design teams.
We often find that people respond positively to our work, which, despite their initial perceptions, is rooted in common sense. Somewhere along the way, organizations like the World Bank started relying heavily on spreadsheets when interacting with people would have been far more effective. Designers aren’t solely bearers of these skills, but we’re not social scientists. We’re here to bring a different perspective, focusing on practical solutions rather than just publishing reports.
I do encounter some challenges within our team regarding emotional maturity and wisdom. Some of our designers are young and highly emotionally attuned and excel at connecting with people on an emotional level. However, some designers require time to mature in this aspect. The question is, how do we convey this message and create a comfortable environment for growth? When we initiated this practice, numerous mid-career designers were eager to embark on this type of work, approaching it from a different wealth of experience.
I think it’s a great question. We’ve gone from a firm that focused a bit more output on outputs to one that focuses more on process and capacity building. So, people feel a little uncomfortable sometimes putting an idea or a solution out there and sketching it out, giving it shape and form, and pointing to it.
Designers excel at initiating this process and are skilled at putting ideas into action. It’s not about personal ownership, and offering feedback is welcome as it contributes to progress and creative thinking. So, part of our goal when working together is to ignite this creative process.
PI: So modeling and training, new ways of thinking and working, rather than actually just doing the work for them, is a way to make sure that there’s flexibility, long-term and sustainable impact.
PI: And what would you say is a really unexpected reaction that you’ve gotten in this process of trying to connect with the community, you know, trying to get a better understanding of kind of the background and the context that you really still think about to this day.
RF: You know, one of the things I often contemplate is the complexity of the healthcare system. I’ve had the opportunity to work briefly in Mexico within their healthcare system, and Dani, who leads this project, has Mexican-American roots and spent some of her formative years in Mexico City.
PI: Having that cultural or contextual understanding from the provider side is crucial to these health outcomes, especially for health interventions and all these different communities. And I think the most exciting thing is then how do you, how do you scale that understanding and those solutions when it comes to when those variables and factors are at play?
PI: Ensure that it functions properly. Address that specific query, as well as the others we had lined up. When you zoom out and contemplate various models, I wanted to share something. I’m involved with a group here in Montclair called the “Navegadores.” It’s a network of individuals fluent in Spanish and English who volunteer to assist immigrant families in settling here and navigating the education system, which can be pretty challenging for non-English speakers. The core concept is this: you have organizers, and then there are numerous volunteers, each responsible for one, two, or even three families, depending on their availability. Essentially, we help them navigate the healthcare system, guide them through the intricacies of the school system, and assist when they encounter housing-related issues. This involves connecting them with the appropriate resources, translating, or offering guidance. It’s proven remarkably effective, functioning like a supportive network with many branches reaching out to help.
Now, considering the importance of the issue you’re discussing and zooming out a bit, what aspects do you believe deserve more attention, discussion, or action in the realms of health, immigration, diverse cultures, and the various approaches to addressing these issues?
RF: I believe our primary focus in the work we’re engaged in is to assist individuals in navigating their challenges and gaining a clearer understanding of what truly matters to them. This entails improving their ability to express their needs effectively. A common issue we’ve observed is that many people feel they lack expertise in this area, leading to a sense of falling short. This feeling is often exacerbated by unclear or uncertain immigration statuses, which can be a significant hindrance.
We have found that clinicians need to enhance their questioning skills. We are striving to shift from a predominantly problem-solving approach, especially concerning topics like COVID-19, recognizing that people may be reluctant to discuss it. This aspect ties back to your previous question and wasn’t surprising to us, though it might have been for our county department colleagues. COVID-19 currently holds a very low priority in people’s lives, particularly in low-income communities. It’s almost negligible in terms of influencing their health-related decisions.
Interestingly, despite this, it remains a prominent concern within the healthcare system, with clinicians attempting to address it, especially with pregnant women. It presents a real challenge, and I believe it necessitates establishing trust first before engaging in such conversations. Building trust may require multiple visits and more than just a quick 20-minute conversation. This is a common issue in the field of healthcare.
PI: It sounds like it all comes back to core values and building trust in the communities and for clinicians. Then what would you say is a question you wish was asked more often?
PI: Brilliant — and when you were taking a step back to think about the company’s values and how that will take you forward, what advice would you give now after having gone through that process?
RF: Great question. We recently welcomed a partner into our team, and I’d like to share their perspective. According to their advice, to better address equity in our external work, we need to reevaluate our internal operations and power dynamics. I wholeheartedly agree with this viewpoint.
As for my recent activities, I manage a diverse global design team with a scrappy approach, spread across various locations, including Dakar, Nairobi, Mumbai, London, and New York. We’re also in the process of establishing a team in Mexico City this year. While we are part of a larger firm with an impressive footprint, we’ve been on an intriguing journey.
One major focus has been internal restructuring.
Last year, we dedicated significant time to aligning our values on equity with a new governance and leadership model. We drafted governing statutes and subsequently elected Equity Partners to lead our design teams in Africa and Mumbai, who now partner with Ravi and me. This has initiated a shift in leadership dynamics as we evolve into a slightly larger decision-making group. We are currently a team of about 30 individuals, representing diverse cultural backgrounds, and we’re exploring how this affects our operations.
Moreover, across our portfolio, we’re actively seeking opportunities to enhance and deepen community-based partnerships, which are central to our work. While some projects naturally lend themselves to this approach, others may not. Last year, some team members outlined a vision for our equity and community-centered design approach. We are now identifying projects where we can integrate these principles and develop partnerships that allow for meaningful engagement. This year, we aim to assess whether this approach provides a more fulfilling experience for our designers and aligns with their ambitions.
Additionally, we’ve introduced an outside firm into the equation to guide our internal equity development processes. This firm, which we continue to work closely with, brings an external perspective, which has been valuable. The challenge has been in translating these ideas across different cultural contexts. While the firm primarily dealt with equity issues in the US, our team members bring unique perspectives rooted in post-colonialism, caste systems, and other deep-seated inequities.
In summary, our team’s journey has revolved around internal transformation and the importance of grounding ourselves before extending our equity-focused approach to the community. Personally, I’m constantly questioning my understanding of power dynamics and how they manifest. I’ve learned that while we can’t eliminate power dynamics entirely, we can place equity at the core of our firm. This journey has led me to seek self-awareness and transparency regarding my own role in these dynamics.
For example, as we’ve promoted team members to partner level, I’ve observed how their backgrounds influence power dynamics within the team. I am the most senior member in the firm which comes with its own dynamics. In conclusion, it’s vital to establish equity internally before promoting it externally. This is the essence of our team’s story. Additionally, I aim to find new ways to discuss and address power dynamics, seeking advice from peers to understand better and manage them. These are the guiding principles in my mind.
PI: I find your approach truly fascinating, especially your ability to generate unique solutions tailored to specific problems and audiences. As you look ahead, what lies on the horizon for both you and Dalberg design? What kind of challenges are you eager to take on next? Are there particular issues you’re keen to address, and how do you envision starting this new chapter? I recall you mentioning internal restructuring; could you please elaborate on your future plans?
We’re embarking on a journey that builds upon some earlier discussions and delves deeper into certain topics I’ve already touched upon. Let’s begin with an illustrative example that you brought to mind. While this isn’t something we frequently engage in, we are currently investing our time in a local partnership here in New York with an organization dedicated to providing support and services to unaccompanied migrant children held in federal government facilities, awaiting decisions regarding their potential deportation. It’s important to note that these children do not have access to legal counsel as a fundamental right. Moreover, many of them are quite young, ranging from five to twelve to fifteen years old.
Our partnership entails supporting this organization as they enter these facilities to educate these children about their rights, conduct one-on-one consultations, and help position them optimally on their journey, whether that means returning to their home countries or being placed here in the United States.
We are collaborating closely with this organization to scrutinize the overall experience and to improve their ability to establish trust, communicate effectively, and provide better services. We are exploring various tools and approaches to achieve these goals. I highlight this as one example because it exemplifies our broader objective, which is to determine the extent of our impact if each of our studios, for instance, were to partner with a local community-based organization that we support continuously. We aim to explore the potential for mutual learning and to contribute to shaping the future of the programs and projects we wish to be involved in.
We consider it a two-way street, understanding that we can learn just as much from these community-based partners as they can learn from us. This is a significant area of focus for us. In one instance, in Colombia, we appear to be nearing a point where there is funding to sustain such a partnership, although we are actively seeking ways to engage before that challenge funding is entirely resolved. Our belief is that if we are engaged in meaningful work together, learning from each other, and addressing important issues, we will find a way to ensure its sustainability.
For us, this represents an opportunity to shift power dynamics and redefine how we collaborate with our clients. We aim to take our team on a unique journey, one in which they feel a genuine sense of ownership and accountability towards these organizations, not because they are clients or paychecks but because we share a common mission. This is a key focus for us in the short term, and it aligns with our ongoing internal efforts to promote equity and extend its reach externally.
Our goal is to uncover how these experiences in vastly different geographic locations, working with partners in diverse contexts, can continue to enrich our understanding and ultimately evolve our practice.
PI: “What’s a good way to find out more about what you’re working on and to connect with you?
RF: We may not be as proactive as we should be in sharing our ongoing projects, but we do make efforts to regularly publish updates on Dalberg Design’s website and occasionally on Dalberg.com and LinkedIn. Please feel free to contact me personally or reach out to our operations team at [email protected] . You can also find me on Twitter and LinkedIn if you’d like to chat!
I am keenly interested in learning about initiatives worldwide and recognizing that we’re not reinventing the wheel here. So, I’d love to connect with anyone interested in learning more about our work.