Public Engagement for Social Impact

Contemporary corporations which approach users as “consumers” and degrade their complexity into statistical trends of financial return have done all but eliminate meaning from consumer culture.

Marketing for sustainability centers on a superficial facade of environmental return which does not speak to the public effectively; this causes “green” products to remain an underselling niche and the wider advertising industry to continue resorting to novelty tactics for attention. These mechanisms, which show exclusive interest in profit and product differentiation, are easily recognized for their exploitation, and in time they will come to be rejected in comparison to innovative service companies which seek to benefit users.

Marketing needs to center its focus on people, rather than on products; this is the only way brands will be able to engage their audiences and create real producer-consumer trust. To restore “green” or “sustainable” products to a more successful margin, the features that make products sustainable need to be framed in a way that contributes to their quality; this will make the products much more appealing and will normalize sustainability for many people.

Among the various benefits to sustainability are value-investment (a higher price point is compensated for longer-lasting products) and closer producer-user relationships, which encourage loyalty from users in exchange for sustainable shopping patterns. The latter can also besupplemented with new service offers of platforms to allow exchanges between designers, experts,
and the public, as well as opportunities for co- design. Doing so can activate the public to adopt sustainable change on an individual level, as well as foster engagement with the production process. Unlike creating products, behavioral change is catalyzed through a gradual process of enforcement, both from the top-down and the bottom-up.

Other opportunities for public engagement include more enhanced feedback mechanisms to make users aware of opportunities to lower their footprint, and gamification, which can make connecting with brands and helping the environment fun. For example, OPOWER, U.S. provides comparisons between neighbors on all utility bills, which encourages energy saving as a way of collaborating between neighbors.

Million Dollar Blocks is a project by Laura Kurgen communicating the levels of mass incarceration across the U.S. This map shows a projection of incarceration rates across Brooklyn, New York.

Recyclebank also engages its audiences through a variety of partnerships, digital media, and games, which can help to reach a wider audience. Integrating feedback into the physical environment — such as through green lighting that tacitly gives feedback — is another mechanism for engaging observers with sustainable behaviors.

Worldmapper designs global maps based on the dispersion of different patterns or characteristics; here, countries are sized according to the happiness of their populations.

All of these skills can be taught through the standard communication design education. Graphic design, oral and written communication skills, and audience engagement all relate to these new methods for public engagement, and arealready available in established programs. In many cases, only slight additions to the curriculum may be needed. Opportunities for dissemination can also allow emerging designers to facilitate their ideas through exhibition, online networks, guerrilla interventions, publications, conferences, and academic journals.

These efforts can all contribute to greater economic performance for brands as an effect of customer loyalty and corporate innovation; the integration of a service sector can also assist with decoupling, which allows for economic growth without pollution. The new relationship between producers and users can be mutually-beneficial, as brands experience a more loyal following that provides direct feedback and users can become aware of new resources. And in the end, designers will have a new opportunity to expand their influence beyond commercial boundaries, and they will be given greater autonomy to encourage the change they believe in.

Designer and writer integrating multimedia design with systemic change