Why social design is a north star for entrepreneurs

Why this $600 million business isn't about money.

Cheryl Heller: Design thinking is a process for developing multiple ideas with a particular user in mind and new ways to solve problems based on the creative design process. There's nothing inherent in design thinking that has benefit or no benefit to society. Social design is looking at ways to affect entire communities or organizations And social design inevitably has a moonshot objective, a north star that defines a vision that's an ultimate condition that people want to create.

Typically the way we solve problems and the kind of problem solving that humans are really good at are technical problems. We know how to make the next app, we know how to make a driverless car whatever it is. When it's very concretely defined and it's linear we excel at that. The thing that we have not succeeded at is solving the big complicated social problems we have. Social design is an approach that works at a systems level that brings cross-disciplinary teams together so that everyone who has a hand or who has responsibility for making something happen is a participant from the beginning.

The sequential steps of research and engineering and iteration and designing are collapsed and in the social design process we talk about making to learn. And so as a part of research there are prototypes developed at every stage, there is a kind of testing that goes on at every stage with the people that are intended to use it and that feedback becomes information for the next step. So instead of following along strategic plan people are, in real time, observing the reaction to what's happening and adapting whatever they're developing as it happens.

We find that the biggest changes happen in the people who participate in it and so in developing this capacity for reframing problems and for developing ideas and for prototyping and for navigating ambiguity that capacity resides in people and they take it on to other things and it changes cultures.

Jeffrey Brown, who is a remarkable grocer, he's a fourth generation grocer and he's built something like a $600 million grocery store empire in Philadelphia, but he sells high-quality suburban quality food like super markets in food deserts, which means in the poorest neighborhoods of Philadelphia. And he's able to do that essentially because his vision is not to have a grocery store empire, his vision is to use his business to address issues of poverty and poor health in these vulnerable neighborhoods. And that's one of the hallmarks of anyone who is a brilliant social designer is that it begins with an ultimate vision not I want to have a successful business, not I want to launch a website, it's the real understanding of a purpose that creates energy and that aligns everyone around the same goal and that provides enough of a magnet towards this north star that people can pivot as necessary and experiment as necessary in how to get there.

Jeffrey Brown is constantly experimenting with how to accomplish what he wants to accomplish. He experiments with whether, he calls it flame broiled chicken will be as popular as fried chicken because it's healthier for people; he experiments with well if I put this skim milk where the whole milk usually is will people automatically grab that for fewer calories? He experiments teaching people how to cook; he experiments giving classes or tors of the store helping people read food labels; he experimented with one of his customers because Jeffrey is always talking to the people in the neighborhoods, he comes to them and tells them what he's thinking about and get their advice. And one woman said, "You know, a lot of people in these neighborhoods don't have jobs because they've been in prison and as long as they don't have jobs they won't be able to shop in your store. Why don't you do something about that?" And so Jeffrey Brown founded a nonprofit called Uplift that trains people who have been in prison and guarantees them a job in his store. So a third of his workforce is now people who have been as they say touched by the justice system.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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