Dr. Pierce Otlhogile-Gordon is Director of the Equity Innovation Studio at Think Rubix, a Black-led social innovation consultancy. Pierce has taught courses in design, evaluation, international development, and equity across four continents; co-designed partnerships, products, and services with local and international changemakers to support social change; and researched the complexity, evaluation, and emergence of design and innovation across the world. We’re excited to share Pierce’s insights on equitable design, organizational development, and how he and others are testing the limits of innovation.
You’re the Director of Equity Innovation Studio at Think Rubix. Could you share more about your journey to get there and what you do now?
When I was thirteen, my best friend at the time convinced me to get a skateboard, and we started to skate in the driveway of my grandmother’s house. Everyone that knew me at school began to tie my identity to the sport: when I wasn’t playing in school or leading percussion in our school bands, I spent all my energy learning kickflips and ollie-ing stairs. What I really loved about the board, though, is that it made me mobile. I loved rolling to new places, finding new things that I could learn from and introducing others to when I returned from my travels.
Since leaving home, I’ve been traveling – physically, from Atlanta, Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Botswana – academically, from applied physics, aerospace engineering, to innovation, international development, evaluation, and equity – and professionally, from academia, to entrepreneurship, to nonprofits, to multilateral organizations, and now as the director of an arm of a strategic consultancy. I’ve been asked this question a few times over the past couple of years, and I’ve realized the more I reflect on my career, the more I realize how important it is to brave new worlds, big and small.
It’s why I’ve been attracted to the field of design as a topic based in the belief that humans can shape their world, just as I’ve shaped my path, and also why I’ve been attracted to equity, as a need to use those tools to make the world a less corrupt, more liberating space. It’s why my work takes on three core tasks: support partners in just transformation, build knowledge on our topics of expertise, and support our organization however it needs. It’s why we wrote such pieces on Equity Innovation, Anti-Racist Systems Thinking, and Innovator’s Relationships with Power. It’s why we work with organizations like WePower. Everywhere I’ve been has influenced how I do my work, and how I aim to use these skills to serve people all over the world. It didn’t start, however, until I felt ready to take that first step into the unknown.
Is there a common pain point that you frequently find yourself addressing with companies and/or founders?
Absolutely! A few come to mind. First of all, many people have trouble finding a strategic path to address their organizational struggles. We run into these issues ourselves sometimes; there’s an organizational, engagement, impact, research, or community struggle that they’ve been sitting with that keeps them from actualizing their vision. It might manifest in a person who holds too much power. It might be a collection of governance strategies. It might be a culture issue that is hard to name, or it might be a limitation of resources. Sometimes, it’s all of these issues wrapped up in one.
In these situations two realities usually exist: people don’t see the full ways forward, and/or they don’t feel they have the weight to name and recreate a healthier system. That’s where we come in. With care, honesty, and purpose, our organization holds space for that transformation. Transformation has always been one of the most difficult things for humans of all creeds and cultures: but if it’s the right action, you’ll be amazed you ever went without it.
What’s a notable example of an inclusivity-based pivot you’ve seen in your work?
A long time ago, I built a relationship with a legislator based in Oakland, CA that was looking to, in their words, ‘hack homelessness.’ To them, they were constantly struggling against a hydra of a problem: business owners, activists, neighborhood organizations, and the actual unhoused community were constantly butting heads about what was to be done about homelessness. At the time, it became an even larger problem: although many communities had pitched tents for short periods of time, tent cities in specific Oakland locations started to become permanent establishments. At the time, ‘hackathons’ were already being wielded to address countless other tech and social problems, so why not wield it here?
At the time, the organization I co-founded, Reflex Design Collective, decided to shift how we saw the problem. If we were to hold hackathon, it would be community-centered, supporting the ones at the margins, and building with their experience and capacity in mind. Over the next six months, our team built relationships with activists, governmental bodies, business owners, and neighborhood volunteers desperate for change. Needless to say, stepping into this problem felt like moderating a Cold War-era international debate – these people couldn’t get along even if they tried. However, with kindness, consideration, and motivation, we administered a community design workshop that paired our clients with those on the front-lines of social inequity in a collaborative design process. Among multiple proposals ready for support by the Oakland City Council, the meeting was apparently the first in years where possible adversaries left the space with care and warmth for each other. You can learn more about the insights of the experience from this peer-reviewed paper.
What do you think is the most commonly misunderstood aspect of equitable design?
People have trouble connecting the dots between equity and innovation. For most people, equity is a limit; an obstacle, a tactical minefield that they can’t navigate. Additionally, in today’s reactive digital culture, if they make the wrong misstep, they’ll be crushed by the blowback.
It’s part of my job to flip that conversation: some of the most creative, problem-solving, valuable innovative capacity comes from people solving the hardest problems of society; those dealing with inequity and injustice. Design, as a field, is both a problem-finding and a problem-solving endeavor, and inequity sits at every industry and level of our society. Some of the most difficult problems our society hasn’t been able to tackle are ones of equity and justice. Why not use it as fuel, instead of fear?
What business and/or technology trends are you excited about looking forward?
I’m hype to learn about organizations that purposefully function as ecosystems. I’m a bit of a systems thinking nerd myself; I love learning about a messy system of interconnections, and finding a way to name the underlying structure that keeps all of us hamsters on the wheel. However, though organizational and ecosystem theories have become a bit more mainstream, most people in business are in a company that doesn’t build their agency.
Two books come to mind: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, and Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown. The first book operationalizes a theory called Spiral Dynamics, made to understand how people, communities, and relationships operate based on their ability to understand human complexity. It takes a bit of time to understand, but the final level the book describes – Teal Organizations – suggests organizations as ecosystems. Instead of running a business like a gang, a monarchy, or like an unchanging machine, the book offers methods, activities, and examples where workers exercise their agency, fluidly establish, build, and shift their roles in the organization, and where organizations respect their holistic needs as humans. Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, offers a meditational foundation on a freer way of navigating issues of social justice. By keeping core the reality that change is constant, they offer values and tools to recognize your relationship with the world in flux, and how to shape that change in a vast collection of issues.
If you could change one thing about consumer behavior in the interest of your values, what would it be?
I want the world to evolve past human-centered design. I have to admit: I was first introduced to rigorous innovation research through this discipline, and its methods and mindsets have transformed businesses, schools, and governments forever. The field offers a lot of value: in theory, it requires designers to understand the context of complicated problems from multiple disciplines and perspectives, it prioritizes creating and testing, low-cost iterative cycles. However, many designers have critiqued human-centered design for years. The method only focuses on the needs of a single perspective – the consumer – at the expense of other stakeholders, like workers, organizers, and even non-humans. As a result, only consumers the business cares about are important, and the health of the rest are forgotten about or actively flouted. There aren’t only countless other communities to consider, those communities offer infinite ways to innovate, to imagine, to transform our world into a more equitable place. What should matter to business owners, then, is having the courage to think outside the box.
About Dr. Pierce Otlhogile-Gordon
Dr. Otlhogile-Gordon is an innovation catalyst, researcher, facilitator, and evaluator, impassioned by the space between transformation and liberation. Though he’s lived in half a dozen locations from Oakland, Atlanta, to Gaborone, Botswana, and given public talks worldwide on innovation, international development, and research across the world, he’s more likely to pick up some drumsticks and find a way to fill the room with a beat. He lives by the late, great Octavia Butler’s words that “change is the only constant,” and holds degrees from Morehouse College, the University of Michigan, and UC Berkeley.