Sparks, Thinking, Ideas

We are continually expanding and deepening our thinking, writing about what inspires us, challenges us, and how we are continually learning.

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What we draw on. Our foundation.

Every project is different and so must be the process by which we come to understand it, design for it, and adapt it. The frameworks, influences and methodologies we use vary project by project.

Our work is decidedly interdisciplinary, weaving together ideas and finding inspiration in many places. Here are a few of the big ideas we draw on.


Taking action on one’s own behalf is a powerful statement and requires a particular mindset. How to engage people in discovering and using their own agency is a fundamental question of our work.

More about agency

Paolo Freire is noted for his belief and trust in each person’s capacity “to deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” Flowing from his work are methods such as the Reflect Curriculum, Training for Transformation and even using evaluation as a way to transform critical power dynamics. inspiration in this area includes:

  • Paolo Freire
  • Training for Transformation
  • Internal Learning System
  • Positive Deviance
  • Transformative Evaluation

Social and Behavior Change

Programs, systems and interactions can be designed to take advantage of the ways in which we are wired and optimize our specific capacities to create the change we seek.

More about behavior change

How does change happen, specifically behavioral change? Psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience are adding to this body of knowledge rapidly, increasing our understanding of what drives change, and giving practical application and nuance to the transtheoretical model and the diffusion of innovation theory. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • Daniel Kahnemann: Thinking fast and slow
  • Dan Pink: Drive
  • Diffusion of Innovation
  • Transtheoretical model
  • Thaler & Sunstein: Nudge


A community can take many shapes, but is held together by commonality and has great capacity for action. Acknowledging the expertise of communities and accessing their power is key for realizing positive impact.

More about community and development

Supporting and mobilizing communities is a rich area of practice with a long history. Some of the ideas we draw from include taking an assets-based approach, using information for building social capital, and participating in the community in their own development. We all do better when we all do betterPaul Wellstone. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • Assets-Based Community Development
  • The Movement of Community-led Development
  • The Settlement House Movement
  • Community-based Participatory Planning


Design imagines a world that could be, and creates a way to get there. Design thinking continues to evolve as a human centered and participatory practice that considers contest, utility, and impact, as well as function and form.

More about design

Like Buckminster Fuller, we believe design thinking can help us solve the complex problems that we face today. Design is not just about making the world beautiful but rather about visualizing what is and shaping what can be. We draw broadly from the design professions–engineering, visual design, architecture, interaction design, and emerging fields of experience and service design. We also gain inspiration and find kindred ideas in participatory design and design research. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • The Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design movement
  • Thomas Fisher: Designing our Way to a Better World
  • Buckminster Fuller
  • John Kolko: Exposing the Magic of Design
  • Design anthropology and the study of being “designerly”


Using a complexity lens and systems thinking can be incredibly useful for shedding light on phenomena big and small; strategic planning, programs, organizational leadership, evaluation, and international development.

More about being complexity-aware

The rate of change in our world seems to be increasing, and the complexity of it can be overwhelming or even just tempting to simplify into a more black and white palette. We use critical thinking and adaptive action to help us navigate the nuanced and constantly shifting social landscape in which we design. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • Adaptive Action
  • Adaptive Programming
  • Theory of Change and Logic Models
  • Henry Mintzberg
  • Michael Quinn Patton: Developmental Evaluation
  • Systems Thinking
  • Human Scale Development


Games and play are not just light entertainment, or a distraction from the work of life, they are the way we find new solutions, motivate ourselves to take on big challenges, and learn how to navigate complex social interaction

More about games, play and joy

Play can be improvisation, humor, experimentation; play is spontaneous, imaginative and can show us new possibilities. Games are rule-bound and involve strategy, problem-solving, and challenge. We harness the power of play and games to engage people, explore new ideas, dig deeper, and motivate change. Incorporating the principles of games and play into our designs can be a powerful and joyful proposition. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • Jane Mc Gonigal: Reality is Broken
  • Stuart Brown
  • Improv
  • InterPlay
  • Gamification


We are social animals, wired to learn from one another and thrive off of interaction. Collaborative work, group therapy, classroom learning, even social communities are all places we learn together and support each other.

More about the magic of groups

Groups are a great structure and platform for creating ideas and solutions that are bigger than any individual. When we design these interactions, we pull from experiential learning, social work theory, interpersonal skills in evaluation, and even community organizing principles. It’s a wide field that we find useful. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • Learner-centered Curriculum
  • Dialog Education
  • Group Work Theory (social work)
  • Interactive Evaluation
  • Training for Change


How, when and why we participate in social activities each influences its outcome and how we are individually changed by our own participation.

More about participation

This is why so many fields, from engineering and urban planning to evaluation to policy and advocacy, have a practice of encouraging and designing for participation. Practicing meaningful participation with deep engagement, authentic contributions, and a willingness to change, as a result, is as difficult as it can be rewarding. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • Robert Chambers: Ideas for Development
  • Liz Sanders: Participatory Design
  • PRA/PLAParticipatory Rural Appraisal / Participatory Learning and Action
  • Participation in urban planning
  • Grassroots movement building
  • Internal Learning System

Power Dynamics

Being able to name power, watch for power and ultimately shift power is a necessary skill in any social change project or endeavor.

More about power

Every interaction, every group, and every system has its own topography of power. It’s often unwritten, unspoken, and rarely made explicit–yet we each feel its impact and adjust our behavior accordingly. Power is most noticeable when it is not equitable. This becomes problematic when it shows up as power over another, not power with or power through. Inspiration in this area includes:

  • Robert Chambers
  • Helzi Noponen
  • Privilege, e,g. Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Post-colonialism and globalization
  • William Easterly

Antiracism Commitment

We are working to give voice to the principles and questions that will keep us accountable and guide us theoretically (in our thinking) and practically (in our acting) into new ways of being.

Know more about our commitment and how our work evolves to support the commitment here >>.