Open questions

There is a troubling disconnect between social innovation theory and practice. In response, GreenHouse is developing the first-ever casebook for social innovation practitioners – leveraging the pedagogy currently used by universities to train professionals in law, medicine and business. We’re drawing on the best aspects of this tradition but making a crucial change: the problems we’re tackling will not be closed cases, but open questions facing society.

The casebook will be predicated on the social norms approach to social innovation, and will include in-depth exploration of innovation related to 15 social challenges, including mental health, childhood obesity, sexual assault, animal maltreatment, decarceration, foster care, refugees, disaster preparedness, homelessness, social isolation, and access to the legal system.

The casebook will be introduced at the University of Southern California, in the nation’s first doctorate in social innovation.

Human infrastructure

greenhouse-fellowship-photoAsk any struggling city about the best way to reclaim its former glory and you’re likely to hear about new roads, a refurbished downtown or tax breaks for big, new employers. But these cities rarely consider investments in human infrastructure, in the next generation of residents who will lead the cities’ various institutions and community groups.

That was the big idea behind the GreenHouse Fellowship, which we developed and piloted in East Chicago, Indiana — the archetypal struggling, Rust Belt community. With the Foundations of East Chicago, we recruited a handful of new graduates from the local high school – students described by their teachers and peers as savvy, popular and influential – and gave them a year of intensive training, in community organizing, civic innovation and hands-on community service.

In GOOD Magazine, Andrew Benedict-Nelson laid out the core concept of the program, imagining it as a “third path out of high school”:

“Using community-organizing techniques, a trained staff would help the young people answer the question, ‘How would we make this town different if we were in charge?’ The students would then spend the rest of the year designing and implementing a major initiative to make that change happen. …

“When young people turn 18 in this country, they’re told to head to college and build a life for themselves. But many of them would be well-served by an option that lets them first spend some time building something in their own communities.”

Our engagement with East Chicago initially grew out of School Is Not School, another effort to question the social norms of the American education system.

Scale for impact

In the 20th century, the signs of an influential organization were obvious: more offices, more members, more dollars, more everything. But in our times, some of the most influential organizations are those that make the biggest impact with the smallest number of people – be it a digital startup or a terror cell.

This idea is called “scale for impact.” It animated a discussion Andrew Benedict-Nelson chaired at the Ashoka Future Forum. Flipping the usual format, he asked the assembled social entrepreneurs what decisions they had made to increase their impact without growing in size.

“The ability to generate demand for your mission is key to successful scaling, and generating demand requires new structures, new thinking and new networks,” Ashoka’s Avani Patel reported in Forbes after the event. “In a world where everyone can—and must—be a changemaker, we must be willing to constantly adapt our models, avoid repetition, and find partners in unlikely places.”

This wasn’t the only time we took on this problem with Ashoka; we also worked with their team to ask how we might scale up empathy in schools.


Gillian Walnes, MBE, was a founder of the Anne Frank Trust U.K. As the Trust’s first executive director, Walnes developed and launched Anne Frank Children to Children Appeal for Bosnia, the Anne Frank Awards for Moral Courage, and the Anne Frank Declaration signed by world leaders and tens of thousands of young people.

Walnes said of us, “GreenHouse is a hothouse and flowering of ideas – created out of the desire to make the world less difficult to live in for its inhabitants, whoever and wherever. They show us how effecting real change comes from asking the right questions. I love collaborating with them.”

We have worked with Ms. Walnes on multiple efforts advising government and philanthropic leaders in the U.K. and U.S.

Slavery norms

Nearly all efforts to stop human trafficking are formal: economic interventions, laws and enforcement, or enlightened corporate policy. But slavery is kept alive by a complex web of social norms.

Untangling those norms and developing strategies to reverse them is our role on an international team convened by Julia Ormond, founder and president of ASSET, and Dr. Annalisa Enrile, of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. The team includes advocates, economists, and corporate strategists from around the world.

The team was among hundreds that applied for the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change grant. From the application: “Together, we will develop solutions that use our economic and technological connectedness to expose slavery, raising markets to a new level of transparency. Then we will work to distribute the best tactics and tools for eliminating trafficking throughout global supply chains, creating a market economy to end slavery and ensuring that economic growth never comes at the cost of human freedom.”

Greater impact

John Petrie, MBE, is chief executive of Searle Court and a trustee of the National Holocaust Museum in the U.K. He was previously director of programs for the Aegis Trust working in Rwanda, and chief of legal operations at the International War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone.

Petrie said of our work, “The approach by GreenHouse in creating positive social change is unique and has greater impact than anything else I have seen. They are able to break down an issue or problem to its component parts; analyze, explore, and improve each part then rebuild it as a coherent and comprehensive whole that significantly enhances the social benefit of the project. They deliver positive action and effective change in some of the most challenging environments.”

We worked closely with Mr. Petrie on the ground in Rwanda, through our UX for Good initiative to make genocide museums more effective.

Now you can

51w3rlo0jlNo big idea – no matter how elegant, inspiring or right – can come to life by itself. Execution of big ideas requires strategy, which has become in recent years such a fuzzy, imprecise terms that most ideas are never animated.

We’ve tried to solve this problem, one that arises over and over again in our collaborations, by simply explaining what strategy is. Howell Malham Jr. wrote and illustrated our first book, I Have a Strategy (No You Don’t): The Illustrated Guide to Strategy, to make it crystal and entertainingly clear for anybody charged with implementing a big idea.

“There are worse crimes than using a word incorrectly, but not many,” Malham writes. “For me, there is nothing more important than understanding the words we use to communicate the thoughts and ideas we have – especially when we’re communicating with each other. It’s how civilization became, well, civilized.”

“One person may say tom-a-to, the other may say tom-ah-to – but woe if one of those people believe tomato means shoehorn. Or worse.”

Movement makers

Today, the relationship between design and social good is old hat. There are ever-increasing numbers of social impact design agencies, conferences and even college degrees.

But we – GreenHouse and Jason Ulaszek – helped launch that movement, when we kicked off UX for Good, the first to marry user experience design and social problem-solving. At the time, it was somewhat heretical; the first piece written about us suggested we were “bullshit” and suggested we stick to solving more conventional problems.

The first challenge was staged in Chicago, where we convened 50 designers from around the country to tackle problems like homelessness, urban violence and mental health. Later challenges took us to New Orleans, where we addressed musicians’ quality of life; Vancouver, where we took on mindfulness education; and Rwanda, where we took on the effectiveness of genocide museums.

The initiative was honored by the user experience industry and has inspired several similar initiatives in the U.S., Europe and Asia.