Making Sustainability a Human Imperative with a New MFA Program

colored pencilsBy Cheryl Heller, School of Visual Arts

Sustainability experts have had an enormous impact on global industry and infrastructure, developing innovations that reduce resources dramatically, eliminating toxic waste and bringing transparency (and therefore responsibility) to many human rights issues. The progress has been both remarkable and heartening.

Yet, outside of this group of experts and a relatively small part of the population, sustainability is an intellectual concept that, like the “environment,” has taken a place in our national consciousness as something outside of ourselves, rarely immersive or top of mind, and sadly disconnected from daily life. For reasons that brain scientists are trying to understand, the escalating future perils that we contribute to daily are not real enough for us to change our actions now. And, the triple bottom line (or double now, since the environment has been forgotten even here for many companies) is a conceit – one that doesn’t inform us as to how to behave to get there.

At MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA in New York, we’re working to make sustainability a human imperative by focusing on changing human systems instead of physical ones. We work on the invisible beliefs and potential within organizations, communities and individuals, exploding traditional definitions of design, and working at great scale. Our goal is not to create expert inventors or engineers, but leaders who can inspire new thinking, behavior and collaboration among large communities of people. There is evidence all around us that this is imperative for every corporation, and for civilization.

Before DSI welcomed its first class of students in 2012, there was no comprehensive MFA program to prepare graduates to use design for social innovation. While ours is far beyond the traditional definition of design, it is proving to be of interest to pioneering designers and non-designers alike who see the potential to use the design process and methodologies to engage people in co-creating their own new future.

Design can make a game-changing contribution to social innovation, but to do that, designers need a way to immerse themselves in the contexts where social innovation happens, acquire the skills they need to play a leading role, and a means to facilitate the process and foster collaboration. The big opportunity is to apply the creativity, skills, vision, and methods of design to the entire process of social innovation—to work from inside the system, helping people see the same things, connect the silos, and make sense of problems by making them imaginable and accessible.

Social designers require a set of skills beyond those needed for traditional design or by any social impact participant. At DSI, design is applied to behavior change, social movements, experiences, structures, technology platforms, social systems, business models and strategies. Social designers need to know how to map data and tell stories, prototype products and solutions, design communication systems, collaborate across cultures, immerse themselves in diverse communities, research user needs and be able to problem solve across disciplines. We emphasize all of these skills through DSI’s curriculum and student opportunities.


DSI students immerse themselves in complex systems, from food to poverty to the environment. First year classes include fundamentals of social innovation – change models, facilitation, ethnographic research – skills, principles and practices of a change agent within a community. Students study communication design, mapping and modeling. A course on systems exposes them to what theories look like out in the world – e.g. in solving issues around food systems, what are the types of organizations working to fix them, where do they overlap, where are the gaps, and what’s working. They also study game design – learning to use game theory and technology to shift awareness and behavior for social impact. Second year students, in addition to their theses, study entrepreneurship, leadership, metrics and data visualization.

Throughout the program, from the first semester, students work with client partners to gain firsthand exposure to real life opportunities and challenges in business, government and communities. Client partners have included Synergos, Ecovative, Runa, Plum Organics, L’Oreal, Local Orbit, dMASS, mFarm, DataKind, Banorte, Ford Foundation, and the city of Buffalo. Many students have already found jobs at large foundations, global companies and in the social sector.

Nothing is possible without the support of the earth, and our ability to survive on it for the long haul. We believe that by working on shifting our priorities and our behavior, we can help make a more hopeful future possible. For humans to be sustainable, we need a world filled with more people who are creative, visual, passionate, broadly curious, generalists, integrators, listeners, systems thinkers and doers, and people who know how to create lives filled with both success and purpose. It needs designers, and MFA Design for Social Innovation is educating this new movement of leaders.


Cheryl Heller designs change and growth for business leaders and social entrepreneurs. She is Founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA NYC. 

[image credit: Des Wass: Flickr cc]

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