September 6: Course overview
Overview of structure and expectations for the course

Discussion about technologies that have been positively transformational for society and Media Lab’s approach to innovation, seeking impact on a billion or more people.


September 13: Developing a practice of productive critique
Discussion of readings (Shane Snow, Ethan Zuckerman)
We will review community-sourced case studies in technology for social change and explore how we assess the success or failure of an intervention. Through review of guiding questions we’ll explore how to balance informed criticism of technological interventions with optimism for the potential of technology.


  • Using a subset of the guiding questions for critique introduced in class, write a brief reflection (~500 words) on a project you have worked on in the past and post to the class blog.
  • Read for next week:

September 20:  [No class]

September 27: Levers of change
Discussion of readings (Lawrence Lessig, Ethan Zuckerman)
New technologies aren’t the only way to make social change – activists have a long history of using law, norms and markets to address problems, individually and in combination. After exploring the “four levers” framework for social change, we will break into teams and design solutions to a social problem using each of the four levers as a primary design inspiration.


  • What is your own personal theory of change? (1-2 paragraphs, post to class blog)
  • Identify 3 potential issues you may want to work on for the course project. For each one,  brainstorm how the 4 levers could be applied (independently or together) to address the issue. Come prepared to share what you came up with to find potential collaborators.
  • Read for next week:

October 4: Technology is inherently political
Guest speaker: Joy Buolamwini
Discussion of readings (Langdon Winner)
Based on the readings, we will discuss the differences between technical and sociotechnical systems, examine multiple ways of considering the politics of artifacts, and questions of engineers’ responsibility for the artifacts they create.

In groups, we will examine everyday artifacts, discuss affordances and limitations, then redesign with an alternative set of values.


  • Write a brief reflection on the in-class design exercise. What are the politics you identified in the artifact your group worked on as it currently exists? How was the experience of explicitly translating the viewpoint you chose into an object? Include photos of your designs.
  • Read for next week:
    • Design Justice in Action
      • Notes on Design Justice and Digital Technologies, Sasha Costanza-Chock
      • Our Communities Need More Than Good, Una Lee

Oct 11: Translating values into practice and process
Guest speaker: Sasha Costanza-Chock
Discussion of readings (Sasha Costanza-Chock, LaurenEllen Mcann)
Through reflection on readings and discussion with our guest speaker, we will explore concrete approaches to translating values and politics into participatory research and design work. In the second half of the class we will run a hands-on activity to generate a list of core values that drive our work and design an event that reflects the values we have identified.

Assignment (for October 25th):

Oct 18: [No class: Media Lab Member Meeting]

Oct 25: How to understand a field
Discussion of readings (Courtney Martin, LaurenEllen Mcann)

Deep understanding of a problem and the context that surrounds it requires years of experience and immersion in the communities and cultures most affected by it. We will explore a set of practices to better understand the ecosystem in which issues are embedded and the process of identifying potential partners.


  • Create a project folder here with your name(s). We’ll collect project related assignments here for the next several weeks.
  • Write 2-3 background paragraphs on the topic you plan to explore for the project
    • Why is this issue important?
    • Who does it impact?
    • What has been/is being done to address this issue?
  • Develop an initial ecosystem map for your issue, looking at who is directly and indirectly impacted, who is working on different aspects of the topic, what actors or elements might be barriers to change, and relationships/dynamics between actors. We encourage you to play with visual formats to represent your maps.

Nov 1: Project studio
Guest speaker: Dayna Cunningham
Visiting speaker Dayna Cunningham of MIT’s CoLab will share their approach to long-term collaborations and building on community resources. We will also dig into the ecosystem maps created in order to flesh out a deeper understanding of issue context.


  • Add in the next level of detail for the categories on your maps, including specific actors you can reach out to for informational interviews
  • Identify 10 people you’d be interested in talking with and interview at least 1 by next week
  • Interviewing resources:

Nov 8: Introduction to interviewing
Intentional, honest, and targeted conversations with stakeholders are a critical component of understanding the lived experiences of others and seeing below the surface of an issue. This class will introduce best practices and ethical considerations for interviewing as a design research method.


Nov 15: Overview of design philosophies
Conducting research with “end-users” is a powerful tool to help designers understand a problem space and brainstorm potential solutions. This class will provide an overview of different approaches to involving stakeholders in design and decision making processes.

Guest speaker: Adam Foss

Joined by guest speaker Adam Foss, we will also explore a new perspective on law as a lever for change and discuss the potential interplays between technology and law in rethinking approaches to criminal justice in the U.S.


  • Conduct an additional 3 interviews and begin to cluster some of your learnings into themes and insights. Write up these learnings in your Design Brief doc
  • Design and implement at least one of the additional methods introduced in class and write up observations in your Design Brief doc

Nov 22: [No class: Thanksgiving holiday] Office hours available

Nov 29: Designing for inclusion
Guest speaker: Ceasar McDowell
Creating spaces for inclusion and equity requires intentional decisions at all stages of the design process. Through discussion with our guest speaker we will explore common pitfalls in collaborative work and engage in a generative exercise to develop a repertoire of methods to hold ourselves more accountable to our goals and values.

Civic Design Principles, Civic Design Framework


  • Complete your write ups of key interview findings if you haven’t already.
  • Describe the 2-3 design principles you want to guide your project (drawing from Ceasar’s Civic Design cards or others) and describe concretely how they would inform where you go next with your project.
  • Draft a design challenge statement in the form of a “How might we” question.
    • Ensure your question doesn’t include a solution and allows for multiple different ways to solve the problem
    • Be specific when naming the people or communities impacted by the problem

Dec 6: Ideation
In this session we will work through refining design challenge statements and opening up paths for thinking through different possible interventions.


  • For 5 of your favorite intervention ideas generated in class,
    answer the following questions:

    • Who might you collaborate with?
    • How does change happen?
    • What are the steps necessary to get there?

  • Prepare final presentation of your design brief
    (5 mins presentation + 3 mins Q&A)

Dec 13: Final presentations and reflections

*This syllabus is subject to revision at any time. Readings will be made available online, linked to this document.

Questions about the course?
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