Howdy! Have a browse. Of my latest reflections and provocations. What does it mean to prompt social good? How can we do better?

Add your thoughts & critique to the mix: hello@sarahschulman.com

January 6 / Rehears’n 2014

“We’re rehears’n the new year,” Texas country singer Dale Watson announced 3 days before the big night. It’s a darn good metaphor for the year to come. If 2013 was like a contemplative country song, 2014 is fix’n to be more like an upbeat rock song. Out of all the contemplation came a better understanding of the gaps that exist between my words and my practice, and between my practice and my values. Plus a recognition that all of the work I do – whether with young people, older people, families, bureaucrats, or politicians – is about closing gaps. Between where folks are and where they want to be.  Over the next year, myself and the team @ InWithForward will be trying out a new methodology to identify & close gaps. Starting with our own. Read what we’ll try. And add your two-cents.

November 22 / Not Ordinary

Roberto Mangaberia Unger gave a supreme court style argument. At last week’s global gathering of social innovation researchers, Social Frontiers. Unger urged us to take a maximalist stance. And work towards larger, less ordinary lives in every sector of society. I look at the gap between our social innovation rhetoric and the practice of leading larger, less ordinary lives. Along the way, I introduce you to Jeltje, a not so ordinary 84-year old. And explore what research might look like if Jeltje were a researcher, not just a subject or a user or a patient or a client.

November 10 / Progressive social innovation

Bill de Blasio’s mayoral win in New York City inspires me. Not just because his family seems so cool. But because he’s explicit about his value set. I contrast innovation that starts with an explicit progressive value set with innovation that starts with an implicit pragmatic value set. I take homelessness in NYC as a concrete case study.

October 13 / Seeding movements

On the heels of  a trip to Canada – and the World Social Enterprise Forum – I ask whether our increasing focus on scale actually stands in the way of real systems change. Rather than package up and monetize our new products and services, what if we spread the approach used to develop our new products and services? This is the thinking behind Collective Impact. I describe how we’re drawing on Collective Impact in our new methodology at InWithForward.

September 6 / Means and ends

All the ‘cool kids’ were in the room at MindLab’s How Public Design? session in Copenhagen. We talked a lot about the potential of design in both policymaking and service delivery. We talked a whole lot less about the politics and values underpinning design. So I offer up my critical questions & observations here.

August 6 / Craft quality

A re-read of Robert Pirsig’s classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, got me thinking about the difference between a craft and a vocation. So often in our rush to reform our systems and improve our practices, we neglect to re-examine what is quality. We end up changing the means, but not the ends. I tell the story of the Bureau of Youth Care in Amsterdam, and wonder aloud, what it would look like to treat innovation as a craft. Indeed, that’s the goal of my latest venture: InWithForward.

May 16 / That moral feeling

How do we expose our own biases and prejudices – and redefine what behaviors we think are good versus bad? In this piece, I argue that ‘radical’ innovation resets our moral standards. Only when we rethink big ideas like ‘safety’ and ‘justice’ will we develop fundamentally different social systems and services.

May 5 / A few good days

What are your reference points for a good city, a good school, a good public service, a good democracy? We use a lot of fancy words to talk about our ideals – participatory, vibrant, inclusive, collaborative, thriving – but is my version of these things, yours? These are some of the questions I’m left with after Lab2. A 2-day event which brought together folks who run experimental, lab-like spaces in 15 countries. We got beneath a number of other words – words to describe our methods and processes – but we didn’t quite excavate our values and principles. It’s darn hard to do.

April 13 / Good systems, for whom?

We talk a lot about our ‘bad’ institutions and systems. But we don’t talk nearly enough about what a ‘good’ institution or systems is, and for whom. I tell the story of Katie, Tom, their 10 kids, and their 10+ social workers. A good outcome for Katie and Tom isn’t always how the system defines a good outcome. Questions of what is good, for whom, are the domain of ethics. How do we take an ethical, not just a technocratic approach, to innovation?

March 18 / Re-inventing the wheel

What separates an invention from an innovation? An innovation creates the system(s) within which the invention can thrive. By this definition, I’ve rarely innovated. The co-design and prototyping methods I’ve used place most of the focus on the invention, not on the surrounding systems. How do we help systems let their guard down, reset their feedback loops, adopt a new way of thinking, of doing? Should the emphasis be on re-inventing, rather than on the invention?

March 5 / The Feedback intervention

What do Scouts, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Weight Watchers have in common? All three use feedback & evaluation as a mechanism for change, and not simply as a mechanism for accountability. But not all feedback interventions are effective. Goals, tasks, and emotions all determine whether feedback prompts our motivation to act. How could we design welfare systems & social services to increase our capacity to constructively act? Not just as individuals, but as collective systems?

February 20 / Case #1: Me

Are my standards too high? I explore what’s shaped my notion of good work and good relationships, in what’s the start of a personal case study. I’ll use case studies of mums, dads, kids, community leaders, and policymakers to argue that the lack of feedback – of knowing what is good – prevents positive change. These cases will form the central narrative for my book project: The Good, The Bad, and the Feedback.

February 12 / Triple feedback loops

We’re constantly getting feedback from our environment – so how can we use it as a tool for more intentional behavior change? There’s plenty of tech gadgets based on the premise that information will help us to change our behavior. But information isn’t the same as feedback. Feedback operates in the space between where we are and where we want to be. How can we use feedback to not just change our behavior, but change our goals?

February 5 / The nasty questions

Am I part of the problem? Does my work obscure the real issues?  These are what Neil Postman, an education reformer, calls the ‘nasty questions.’ They lead me to ask: How can we figure out if we are doing more good than bad?

January 15 / Good enough

Social change isn’t value neutral. There are winners and there are losers. Are Susie and Frank – two older people I got to know in Australia – worse off because of our interventions? Despite our best efforts, are we actually increasing inequality? What ethical frameworks can we use to intentionally act?