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Breaking the Cycle of Poverty in San Francisco

The San Francisco Bay Area is notorious for the wealth of Silicon Valley, yet at least 1 in 5 Bay Area residents live in poverty. With housing prices rising 18% since last year, more of the population is struggling to survive than before. Poverty in the Bay Area is getting worse, not better.

Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco Bay Area grant-making organization, screens nonprofits rigorously to find, fund and partner with the most effective groups helping low-income people achieve self-sufficiency. They focus their funding in four key areas: Education, Employment, Wellness, and Housing. Last year, Tipping Point created a new initiative called T Lab, a program to explore and encourage rapid iteration and re-framing of potential solutions in the areas of prisoner re-entry, affordable childcare and pre-K for the 1.3 million people living in poverty in the Bay Area.

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Tipping Point asked frog, headquartered in San Francisco, to partner with them in the second year of the T Lab program. Through learning module workshops and frequent design reviews, we will mentor and guide T Lab’s cohort of nine “Problem Solvers”. The Problem Solvers will focus on three core issues that Tipping Point believes contribute to the cycle of poverty: lack of childcare, access to early childhood education, and support during the first 72 hours of prisoner re-entry.

Design briefs, inspired by insights from T Lab’s first cohort, state the challenge, key facts and a focus area as a the starting point for each team. From there, Problem Solvers will conduct participatory research, then co-create and prototype service solutions with the community for a six-month period. This format gives the Problem Solvers an opportunity to develop powerful new ideas to fight poverty that will result in live pilots and expand the domain knowledge of each particular community.

It’s a wild bet, and we are testing whether this form of R&D can help accelerate the generation and testing of new ideas. The three-year pilot will include nine teams over three years with the goal of one or two successful pilots as outcomes. And the seven or eight “dead ends” that don’t result in successful pilots are equally important. It’s this combination that we hope will reveal additional areas to focus within each of the larger challenge areas.

Tracking and Mapping Knowledge for Future Problem Solvers

In the current model of “disruption,” the goal is to make a hit with a singular point solution – a product, an app, a service that itself goes big in some way. In this model, valuable knowledge is most often left behind and discarded. In the world of social impact, however, the problems are big and multi-layered. Point solutions won’t often make much of a dent in the system, and lost knowledge is too high a price to pay.

Instead, what’s needed for social impact is both a constellation of successful point solutions plus a living document of accumulated knowledge illustrating all parts and players of the ecosystem. Knowing what solutions work, what solutions don’t work, what branches of inquiry were explored, and which weren’t could be invaluable in the long effort to solve intractable problems. To account for this long-term view, frog is working with T Lab to create new methods of tracking and mapping the knowledge base the Problem Solvers are creating this year to make sure what they’ve worked on is passed along to the next round of T Lab Problem Solvers. This is no small task.

With this experimental framework, T Lab isn’t simply training their Problem Solvers to be individual design thinkers, nor are they hoping for singular solutions. Because T Lab is set to run over three years with each new set of Problem Solvers standing on the shoulders of the last cohort, they are attempting to build an entire ecosystem of knowledge, prototypes, pilots and paths forward that map the challenge and the domains in a way that hasn’t been done before.

Why does collecting all this knowledge matter? There are several reasons. First, it’s important T Lab Problem Solvers aren’t starting from scratch with their ideas, performing redundant research or going down prototype paths that have already been tried. Second, building knowledge in and about the communities at need and the organizations working to help them means that those very community members and organizations will ideally be able to build relationships of trust with the Problem Solvers over time, and more rapidly benefit from the what was learned and what ideas were explored. Third, mapping the system means that donors and other funders can better understand the landscape, and where and how their money is making a real difference. It may even open up new ways of understanding how to “design for impact” at early stages and measure impact during the pilot stage.

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A key part of T Lab’s model stems from building solutions that incorporate methods of participatory design and co-design – ensuring the communities at need are part of creating their own solutions. In fact, Denise Gershbein, executive creative director at frog, believes we’re now in a phase that’s beyond co-design, and into the realm of “design for spread and scale.”

The field of design and especially design for social impact has followed the trajectory of human-centered design (HCD), then participatory design, now co-design… but with the complexity and scale of the world’s biggest problems, there simply aren’t enough “experts” to go around. “It’s important to not only train generations of human centered designers and social entrepreneurs, but also to activate entire communities through knowledge, action and the buildup of solutions and iterations over time. This is what we call “design for spread and scale.”

Renuka Kher, the Director of T Lab, envisions “While virtually every other sector (tech, pharma, the government) relies on R&D, the social sector does not. We started T Lab as our first concerted effort along this path. As we continue to fine-tune our own methodology, it is our hope that we will become more informed about what mix of capital, tools, talent and methods will make R&D efforts effective in the social sector.”

Join us on a journey with the second year of T Lab Problem Solvers. Participate with us on social media by following the #tlabfrog hashtag. Together, we hope to make an impact on poverty in the Bay Area.

Denise Gershbein

Denise develops client relationships and works with clients to uncover and roadmap long-term product vision and strategy.

Stephanie Meier Lewis

Stephanie is a designer and researcher who has a passion for designing services for social good. She is interested in service design, education, social impact, and making things real.

Diny Huang

Diny is a program manager, client services advocate, design researcher, and workshop facilitator. Also an urban adventurer, social impact activist, and an occasional novice trapezist / flashmobber.

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