The Blog

A call to contribution design

You social innovators,

You policy architects,

You ecosystem leaders,

You scientific inventors,

You community-centered organizers,

You impact funders who want your grants and investments to solve complex social and environmental systemic issues…

And me, too.

We are so well-read and nuanced, and we strive to see the complexity of systems.

We engage in relational, centered, history-acknowledging participatory methods with careful documentation, visually stimulating read-outs, and compelling renderings of our visionary collective future.

We move beyond recommendations to make, enact, tell, and iterate as we refine our actions through continuous dialogue with all the relevant stakeholders.

It is creatively rewarding and meaningfully enriching.

It’s not working, though.

And we know it.

[Insert provocation here: fear, uncertainty, doubt. Add a dash of volatility and threats of AI taking our jobs, the collapse of ESG and DEI, geopolitical discord, billionaire space travelers, bankrupting health systems, and a few telling and specifically terrifying vignettes of recent climate extinction events.]

This message is for you.

I have a simple theory for making sense of these turbulent times: Four things to do, one less than design thinking. Keep reading.

Once riding high on the wave of cheap money, which distorted growth, and an adrenaline-fueled race to survive and recover from the pandemic, we now want to be more deliberate and thoughtful about where we spend our time and contribute our energy. We might even be seeking a new role. The world’s weariness weighs heavily on our shoulders, prompting deep reflection.

We are questioning everything: the impact of our work, the sustainability of our sectors, and the legacy we are leaving behind. We see the consequences of volatile markets and fragile social systems with new eyes.

Yet, in this retreat state, there’s a spark, a growing realization that perhaps this isn’t the end but a pivotal inflection point. It is an opportunity to redefine our roles and contribute our skills and accumulated experience to the needs of a world in flux.

What We’re Up Against:

Innovation solutions are often mirages—shiny distractions obscuring the unyielding power structures controlled by those benefiting from the status quo. These solutions, shaped by the myopic views of a detached elite, prioritize fleeting profits and trivial concerns over authentic contributions. As we address complex challenges, we find ourselves locked in a struggle of priorities and paths, often without the necessary controls to effect meaningful change.

Icebergs and Mindsets: DALL-E failures

[Source a hideous DALL-E generated iceberg metaphor, levers of change, paradigm shifts, tipping point theory… maybe a rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic concept to fit with that iceberg. Fail to convince DALL-E that icebergs bob; they don’t sit there like a rock. Show all the failed images “created” in a process that burned the carbon equivalent of a car driving for ~0.0615 miles.]

 

I don’t think they are laughing at us when they invite us to stage plays of participatory plutocracy. “Oh, look at those adorable do-gooders trying to shift paradigms and melt mindsets which they believe to be at the bottom of icebergs with their little levers!” as they casually redirect the ship towards the next glacier as they photograph the design workshop for the community engagement report. There are the jaded, cynical staffers and subordinates of those in power who stage-manage the show. But some are allied to our cause, who took the job in the first place because they wanted to “be in the room” to contribute themselves.

 

 

Beckoning the Contribution Designers

Let’s invite those inside and outside the power structures to see themselves as Contribution Designers.

Contribution design begins with multiple stakeholders describing the risk and opportunity of change efforts through multiple perspectives, modeling, and narrative making. We shift our attention from objects to relationships. Contribution design process recognizes that all stakeholders, not just those with capital and access to resources, must see themselves contributing to and benefiting from great transitions. 

 

 

Contribution designers recognize that everyone can make decisions in the face of uncertainty. We have a ~97% consensus that climate change is real and person-made,9 but our models disagree on what to do next.


The moment is ripe to redesign the stakes within our change programs, missions, and innovation ecosystems. We must recognize that replacing one system with another overnight, whether through a democratic vote, revolutionary overthrow, or autocratic regime change, leaves the underlying structures vulnerable to capture by those who emerge victorious. Instead, we must focus on the pragmatic dreams of those figuring out how to mitigate, adapt, and envision a more meaningful response to our challenges and do everything possible to facilitate that change.


To the Contribution Designers, this is your call to action. Nap if you need to, get rest and journal. When you awake, move dynamically forward with understanding why silver bullet solutions have failed to address the problems they aimed to solve. Embrace this moment to shift your focus, harnessing your deep insights and inherent capabilities in service of something greater – maximizing the contribution we all aspire to give.


With a deeper understanding of Contribution Design, you will be better equipped to discern who benefits from new proposals and how we can actively change the stakes of the games that we play. This framework uses a roundtable metaphor to imagine how we might make decisions about contribution and allocation by understanding the stakes of change. We examine four key variables: (1) the designers of change plans, (2) the beneficiaries of change, (3) the activities of change, and (4) the nature and magnitude of the stakes involved.

Who gets to design? 

True change begins with determining who sits at the decision-making table. First, take stock of who has the power to greenlight new ideas. The perspectives, interests, and motivations of those who hold these decision roles significantly influence the selection and design of these activities. Who are the owners and influence peddlers hiding behind invisibility shields? What key assumptions from funders and other gatekeepers tell us who gets to play the role of dreamer, builder, and maker of change?

Who does what to whom?

Let’s look hard at how people participate and influence each other in any ecosystem. Forget the glossy vision boards and empty rhetoric. We need to confront the messy, flawed realities of human relationships head-on. Follow the money trail – who benefits from maintaining business as usual? They’ll resist any changes or limitations that threaten their interests. But it’s not just about financial gain. We must examine all the other ways people exert influence – peer pressure, virtue signaling, sharing or withholding knowledge, supporting or neglecting the community, volunteering or free-riding, and being advocates or obstacles. We don’t want everything to be for sale. These dynamics can strengthen or undermine collective intelligence and the self-determination of our communities.

What activities change?

Any change initiative involves reconfiguring materials, human involvement, and processes. Physics tells us that there are no static objects. Everything, and everybody, is in motion. We design certain aspects of our experience, but most of the world remains shaped by forces beyond human control. This approach invites multiple perspectives to counter the power of speculative financial thinking as the primary frame for decision-making. Through co-design approaches, we frame and re-frame the purpose of change efforts to tackle major challenges with a clearer vision and more critical analysis of the obstacles and resistance we face.

How do the stakes change?

Finally, we ask the question: How will the stakes be altered? Who stands to gain from the change? Does the pie grow to benefit everyone?  Where does surplus accumulate? Whose incomes rise, and whose diminish? Whose assets grow? Which organizations reap benefits? How is wealth redistributed within the local community? How does a proposed initiative reshape people’s identities, societal roles, employment, and dignity? And what shifts occur in the community and intergenerational wealth patterns? Such reflections offer clues to experiment with new assemblages of capital, organizational legitimacy, governance models, and ownership that can be flexibly and adaptively tailored to prioritize social and environmental well-being.

It’s Time for a Shift

Let’s prove the cynics and status quo wrong by designing a future where our contributions outweigh their doubts.


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Oliver, T. H., Heard, M. S., Isaac, N. J., Roy, D. B., Procter, D., Eigenbrod, F., … & Bullock, J. M. (2015). Biodiversity and resilience of ecosystem functions. Trends in ecology & evolution, 30(11), 673-684.

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