in Change Agents, Community Design

The Theory of Change

Combining ideas about systems of thinking needed to explain something is often based on principles independent of the thing to be explained because they involve feelings. On the other hand, direct actions seek to make someone or something different. The acts alter or modify an existing condition into a new one. The banners in the above graphic on the “Theory of Change” combine ideas with action applied in various institutional settings. It is a discipline worthy of routine use in achieving long-term goals. Perhaps this is why the phrase “community design” is used by the architects and planners. They practice it as an art. Community feelings are the vibrant heartbeats of change, and as an equal part of its street and building design. 



The goal of philanthropic investment in supporting community vibrancy, financial sustainability, and resilience integrates three fundamental objectives:

  1. To magnify local power to address this generation’s pressing societal and environmental challenges to equitable change
  2. To implement strategies and programs to make self-sustaining organizations possible with solutions developed in partnerships with financial asset associates.
  3. To confirm new and traditional investment models that break down portfolio and grantmaking barriers to reduce the conflict of interest between short-term impact and the desired permanency of inclusion, diversity, and equity.

Of course, these are not the only objectives, but they can be measured. The purpose of an intervention is to bring about an outcome. For example, in community design, the construction and rebuilding of physical space is an intervention in a communities life. But unfortunately, terminology can get people hung up. For example, the production of tall residential buildings in a community yields a variety of emotions. Understanding a community’s experience of this as an intervention is an excellent example. In it, the relationship between community and design becomes extant. However, another less complicated example would be helpful regarding a desire to produce change instead of reacting to one.

“In ten years, the number of children from impoverished backgrounds that become successful students and citizens will be doubled in community-X to help meet broad citywide diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.”

When stated as a long-term goal with implied objective components (i.e., defining “successful student,” “impoverished household.” “doubled”) establishes a base criterion. That done, a set of possible actions can become strategic.

The next step is to provide a structure that will prove a proposed intervention is working. The desire for change lacks meaning without an empirical basis along the path to its achievement. So a tactical prototype could be “after-school programs.” The steps following this decision would be to create a managing policy and a supportive work plan involving students, faculty, space, and material resources. In addition, the spatial and project design for the program would take active shape with a sense of priority regarding implementation.

Why a Theory of Change? (TOC)

Kurt Lewin’s work as a psychologist initiated a strong understanding of human cognition combined with social change. His work became a significant interest of the Aspen Institute (Roundtable on Community Change). As a result, Aspen is credited with the broad dissemination of TOC and its wide acceptance. While it began under the auspices of Aspen in the 1980s, the body of work “in the field” over the last forty years has produced well-received and practical examples of TOC efficacy.

A global leader on TOC implementation is Actknowledge – a nonprofit organization in New York City. The founder of Acknowledge, Heléne Clark, has helped expand TOC from its early beginnings to include the Center for Theory of Change to provide additional training and education resources worldwide.

In 2007, the first web-based processes offered by the Theory of Change became available. Since then, it has drawn nearly 25,000 registered participants. The impressive list of Acknowledge TOC clients is (here) for review. In addition, a series of publications are available (here) for further reading. Also, there are a variety of spin-offs. One example points to the Theory of Change compared with the Logic Model used by ASAID (here) and more broadly (here).

The logic method is linear. It is used to extrapolate and optimize what exists as knowable. The process is functional, but there is an alternative. Design thinking offers equally practical processes by which concepts develop through a feedback loop that includes verifying measures yet involves a wider range of participants. 

Applications to Planning, Design and Architecture

Since Lewin’s founding work and the investment by the Aspen Institute, the Theory of Change is recognized today as a revolutionary contribution to social change because it is counterintuitive. TOC is an alternative to the prevailing thought that following specific indicators such as prescribed functions will lead to a design program. However, the sole use of “indicators” or “outputs” are not sufficient contributors to long-term social change as a process.

Implementing TOC is supported by the  Four W’s — asking who, when, where, and why, followed by how. The answers help define a change in the context of feelings — asking how injects that emotion into a place. As a thought experiment exercise, asking why with a minimum of five responses also produces tangible results. Working with a community to gain information specifying an experience with change (also known as the Big What?) has significant implications for the end products created by design and architecture. TOC offers an excellent pathway. Here is another example.

The experience of travel is a helpful example to share regarding the practice of goal setting. Simply traveling is one aspect; however, it is very different when feelings and destinations allow for distinctions. For example, heading for Alaska requires significant differences in thinking compared to the Philippines. Getting to those differences and back-mapping to a present location offers many preparation planning and action choices with a place and a time.

In social change, it is crucial to develop a similar set of specifics to produce the needed perspective — it does seem counterintuitive to work backward from the desired outcome. Social change succeeds when the practice commands a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures. A well-known New York urban planner often quotes Yogi Berra, “You have to be careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.”

The example of the after-school program would require several specific quantities (attendance, grades, testing, grad rates) followed by results in the post-education experience of former students in the long term. Of equal importance, however, is the quality of experience. The feeling of getting to a destination. Here is one example of TOC’s impact on design. One fieldwork TOC effort sought to discover meager attendance rates in a Manhattan elementary school. It proved not to be the cause of parental or teaching behavior initially considered a function of the problem—a fully applied TOC process discovered it was the school’s adjacency to a high school with abusive students. The design solution – alter the design using time and the pathways. Initiate efforts at the HS level to effect change.

The contribution of TOC to the practice of community design is its emphasis on “long-term” when the goal is to achieve a social change as an outcome. Even randomized surveys of human opinion ironically prove that people lie on surveys. A typical example is that many people will say they practice recycling compared to the far lower percentage of actual household recycling. The TOC message is that it is difficult to measure an attitude accurately, but it is possible to measure observed behavior correctly.


Lewin’s 3-Stage Model of Change: Unfreezing, Changing & Refreezing. (2012, September 11) is available in (here).

In addition, two publications for downloading from Actknowldege examine goal formation and back mapping as a process for selecting short, medium, and long interventions to achieve outcomes. Theory of Change Technical Papers (Dr. Dana H. Taplin, Dr. Heléne Clark, Eoin Collins, and David C. Colby) and Basics, A Primer on Theory of Change, (Dr. Dana H. Taplin, Dr. Heléne Clark)

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