Designing Change for Good

The following is the original text from my talk at TEDx Crenshaw that took place in Los Angeles on Saturday, October 24, 2015. The video of the talk is included below. Special thanks to my editor Crystal Clayter for helping me write this piece and prepare for the talk.


I want to share with you a couple of things about my way of thinking. I have always viewed the world as one large interconnected system, and I’ve always wanted to use that understanding to make a real difference. John Muir once said “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe” and Ice Cube once said “The worst thing you can do about a situation is nothing.” And you know what’s really cool? I think I might be the first TEDx speaker in history to quote John Muir and Ice Cube in the same sentence! So now that we’ve gotten that milestone out of the way, I want to tell you about something happening right here in South L.A. that illustrates these two ideas.

A few months ago I heard a story on NPR news about a project called “Green Alleys” in the neighborhood surrounding Avalon and 52nd Street. Alleys are important for pedestrian traffic in this neighborhood, but they’re ugly, full of trash, and unsafe. When it rains, they flood with water and people can’t use them. The Green Alleys Project is addressing all of these problems with a unified solution. Solar recharging lights are going to allow people to safely use the alleys at night. A new type of pavement will let water seep into the ground, preventing floods and naturally filtering out pollution. Drought tolerant plants will beautify the alleys and help control dust, and public art projects will foster appreciation of culture. Promoting safe use of the alleys helps people get to and from work, helps kids move between school and home, and is good for both the environment and economy.

This project is important because it doesn’t treat all of these problems as separate issues. It recognizes that they’re all connected. We can’t effectively deal with one problem without addressing all of them.

I believe that the challenges we face in our community, and the world, are so big and complex, that we can’t fix them without a holistic approach. I present to you a solution that has the power to bring about vast changes: something called Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is a collaborative method for problem-solving. You start by identifying the problem. You come up with and test many divergent ideas on how to address all facets of the problem. You bring together the ideas that work, and discard the ones that don’t. You repeat these steps, as necessary, refining your ideas on each go around. And finally, you execute a solution.

The three most important aspects of design thinking are:

  1. Empathy. That’s why it’s often called human-centered design.
  2. Collaboration. You don’t have to be a designer to take part, and diverse viewpoints are highly valuable.
  3. Empowerment. Design thinking is about enabling people to become active participants in their own destiny.

Design is not just the domain of the creative class sealed in their little bubble. I teach user experience design at a postgraduate college called General Assembly, and I believe that teaching people design is teaching people empowerment. My students come from a vast range of backgrounds, and I really believe that anyone can take part in design. We cannot predict the future, but together we can invent it.

In service of this idea, I recently organized a Design Hackathon at General Assembly in South LA. With teams of students and alumni from General Assembly and USC, we spent a day applying design thinking to the challenges facing our local community. The teams came up with amazing, inspirational ideas. Unfortunately I don’t have time to share all of them with you today, but I want to show you a couple of them so it’s clear what people can do in just a matter of hours, working together and using Design Thinking.



This is a smart phone app called “Urban Green”. As many of you know, South LA has over 3,000 empty lots, many of them used for nothing more than dumping trash. An organization called LA Open Acres has mapped all these sites, but the Urban Green App goes further. Using geolocation on your phone, you can see all the empty lots in your vicinity, who owns them and if they’re available to be reclaimed. You can also connect with others in your community to organize and work together. This app empowers people to turn trash dumps into parks, playgrounds, and public gardens, with positive impacts for the local economy, culture, public safety, and the environment.

This is Design Thinking.


Here is another smart phone app called “100 & Rising”. One of the challenges of local business is how to draw investments, in order to grow and withstand the pressures of gentrification. This app is designed to empower local minority-owned businesses to seek micro-investment from the community. It also helps local entrepreneurs to raise funds for starting new businesses. The benefits include sustainable job growth, community pride, and profits from locally-owned businesses stay in the community, rather than being exported to another state or off shore bank account. 100 & Rising allows local minority-owned businesses and entrepreneurs to be participants rather than spectators in the economy.

This is Design Thinking.

Earlier this year, in Ohio, an educator ran an experiment called Prototype Design Camp with students from both public and private high schools. In the camp the high schoolers were taught methods of design thinking, organized into teams, and then allowed to work on projects.

Now, you’d probably expect high schoolers to be interested in designing new smart phone games or meme generators. But that’s not what they did.

Instead, they designed new schools with better learning environments. They designed better classrooms. And they designed new ways to build social movements.

In other words, they wanted to think BIG. Just by teaching a new approach to thinking about and solving problems, high schoolers were more engaged, more proactive in their learning process, and they were thinking in systems. This potential exists in the young people in this community as well. It’s time we harness it.

The challenges facing our community and the world are big, complex, interconnected, and urgent. We need a new way of thinking to meet these challenges. We need to be teaching design thinking to young people, at least at the high school level, if not earlier.

In the words of Dr. King, we must embrace “the fierce urgency of Now…Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Now is the time to design our own future.

4 thoughts on “Designing Change for Good”

  1. Hi Julian,

    it is so good to read this article, simple as it looks, it starts at the right point: where there is a problem there are more, and, they are connected! No use to fly in the specialists at day one. Empathy and creative understanding sweeps the floor for new ways to deal with the situation. You always were a great collaborator in the arts, now you implement this method of open minded combined efforts into the ‘real’ world.

  2. Really enjoyed this talk, Julian! Thank you for empowering so many of us with useful tools to approach and solve complex problems. I’ve learn a lot from you (and continue to do so!), and I feel very fortunate to have had you as my UX design instructor!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! I learn so much from you and all my students and colleagues. Keep up your great work!

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