Inquiry Magazine Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy

Fall 2016

Matt Easterday and Liz Gerber
Lisa Beth Anderson
Faculty members Matt Easterday (far left) and Elizabeth Gerber (far right) brainstorm with Northwestern students on a civic innovation project.

Digital Studios for Social Innovation


By Rebekah Snyder
Matt Easterday and Liz Gerber

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia 15 years ago, Matt Easterday worked on an array of public health issues, among them nutrition. The population at the time was shifting from rural to city centers, and a lack of refrigeration made dairy, a staple of the Mongolian diet, difficult to transport. Easterday and his colleagues began in an unusual place—the schools.

They discovered that dairy producers lacked capital to install refrigeration and create distribution channels. In the schools, they taught business skills such as how to write a business plan, so that producers could secure the capital they needed. “I realized then,” remembers Easterday, “that creating social change or solving a social problem always ends up being an education problem.”

Recalling the lesson from his Peace Corps days, Easterday now works with his Northwestern colleagues on training innovators and designers to go into local communities to solve social problems. “It’s not enough to just build a system or a technology,” says Easterday , a learning sciences assistant professor. “You have to work with the people in an organization, train them to change their practices and incorporate technology to make a social impact.” Easterday and his collaborators are bringing people and technology together to understand how best to do that.

Teaching real-world problem solving

“To solve real-world issues, students need to go out into the real world,” says Easterday. “The problem is that in working with real-world clients, students are trying to solve problems the teacher doesn’t know how to answer. You’re asking the teacher to be the curriculum designer, small business manager and personal coach, and that is impossible for 30 to 40 students.” So how can we help educators teach in this effective, yet complicated way?

SESP faculty member Liz Gerber, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, has been studying how to teach social innovation for several years. In 2009, she founded Design for America (DFA). Based at Northwestern, DFA is a national network of interdisciplinary undergraduate teams trained to go into a community, identify a social problem, and design and implement solutions. DFA provides tools, models and coaching “to teach the students to become the teachers.” In just seven years, DFA has expanded to 38 campuses, hosting approximately 200 design teams supported by more than 1,200 volunteers and a network of 9,000 supporters.

One of DFA’s first social innovation projects looked at hospital-acquired infections. After studying hospital design and practices, the team found that providers did not wash their hands enough, in part because sinks were not located near patients. The DFA team designed the SwipeSense system, a portable hand sanitation device clipped to the provider’s clothing for easy access. The system is also networked, allowing hygiene to be digitally monitored across the hospital in real time. Hand hygiene increased 64 percent when SwipeSense was used. Today, SwipeSense has attracted millions in funding and has more than 6,000 users.

While DFA projects like SwipeSense have been successful, they are also extremely labor- and resource-intensive. One team, Easterday notes, received help from more than 100 professors, mentors and volunteers. “That is way more help and coaching than one teacher can give,” he observes, “so how can we help educators and the community work together to provide the teaching and feedback that students need?”

Online platform for social innovation

Easterday and Gerber have collaborated to develop the Digital Loft, a social technology system that seeks to scale up the impact of programs like Design for America. To support independence, “the Digital Loft provides the tools and resources for the community to help teach, coach and mentor design teams” so that the teacher becomes a learning community facilitator, Easterday notes.

“Digital Loft is about supporting learning, collaboration and coordination in an online space to complement the offline interactions,” Gerber adds. Developed with support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, the Digital Loft supports each phase of social innovation projects: goal setting, learning, planning, monitoring and feedback.

The platform provides a space for group goal setting, guides on topics such as how to create prototypes and conduct user tests, and project management tools to help students plan their work in teams. “Tools and agile project management techniques help teams discuss challenges quickly so they can help each other or so that the coach can step in quickly if the team is at an impasse,” explains Easterday.

When students turn in a project, it is linked to the network so they can learn from each other. “Trainings and guides are both crowd-authored and crowd-sourced,” Easterday says, “once again off-loading the work of the individual teacher onto the community.” Finally, since feedback is a critical component of successful design teams, Digital Loft provides a Facebook-like peer critiquing system.

Next step: Scaling up for national and global impact

Designing the complicated technical software is the easy part, observes Gerber. “The more challenging question is, how do you build this approach into people’s thinking and organizational practices in a way that promotes learning while delivering immediate value and impact?” A second NSF grant was recently awarded to help Easterday and Gerber scale up the Digital Loft to do just that. Their bold goal is to fundamentally improve and expand ways of learning about social innovation.

Gerber reflected on the importance of combining an organization like Design for America with the NSF support. “Often the research funding is there, but you don’t have the organization to work with, or you have the organization but not the technology or the funding. This has been a perfect intersection of organization, technology and funding coming together to impact real-world problems.”

As Gerber and Easterday continue to scale up the impact of the Digital Loft, a third NSF grant is on the horizon. If successful, that final round of funding would take the system national and potentially global. “Design for China, Design for India,” Gerber muses. “We could go deeper, we could go broader, but for now our challenge is to make sure we have a solid system and approach that really works, across all conditions.”