social movements + innovation lab


Before generating new and creative ways to solve problems, it is essential to start with a clearly defined problem. Without which, beautiful solutions could get designed that don’t address the core problem. Identifying what should and should not be solved for helps prioritize issues and creating a clear problem statement can provide a team with a clearly shared and agreed-upon starting point before idea generation can begin.

What This Means for Social Justice Activists & Designers

Social Justice Activists Social justice activists can sometimes define problems too broadly or too narrowly. When a problem is defined too broadly it’s not clear who or what needs to change. When it’s too narrow, it can lead to only one answer. For example, an overly broad problem statement in relationship to increasing homelessness can be “there is not enough housing,” and a too narrow definition is that “there aren’t enough tiny houses to house the homeless.” A better problem statement identifies a specific constituency and puts some boundaries on the scope of the problem, while still opening up creative possibilities. For example, a clearer problem statement could be, “During COVID, rates of homelessness have increased for young people, especially LGBTQIA youth.” Starting from this statement, activist can begin exploring the multiple causes of homelessness for LGBTQIA young people, causes that are different than homelessness amongst veterans or domestic violence survivors. By unpacking the causes of the problem for a specific group, activists can develop more tailored and creative approaches that address the specific, intersecting, and underlying needs of their core constituency.
Designers While designers have many tools to generate creative and innovative ideas, but they often lack a deeper understanding of the root causes of systemic and complex issues. A lack of understanding of the sociohistorical context around an issue, can lead to a product-oriented solution, like tiny houses for homeless people, without considering ways to prevent homelessness in the first place or address it at a systemic level. The process of clearly defining problems and unpacking some of the systemic and intersecting issues involved can help designers understand the wider context of their issue and not default to stereotypes or implicit bias. Like social justice activists, designers also need to clearly define a problem statement that identifies a specific social constituency and explore the underlying and sociohistorical dynamics at play. Having a better understanding of the systems that contribute to the problem provides social designers with the knowledge needed to create systems-level and social change.


View All Exercises