What is your theory of change?

Hillary Carey
3 min readFeb 17, 2023
A person is drawing with marker on a wall covered in brown paper. She is drawing linked lines and words include “place, impermanence, temporality”
My collaborator maps her ideas about change onto brown paper

The magnificent Indigenous researcher Eve Tuck shines her insights into how we all have theories about how change happens (2009). But these change theories become a problem when they remain unsaid, unshared, and unexplained. Taking the time to reflect and tell others how we believe changes are most likely to happen is essential to creating the path for it. That is how Tuck distinguishes between ‘implicit’ vs. ‘explicit’ theories of change.

“A theory of change will have implications for the way in which a project unfolds, what we see as the start or end of a project, who is our audience, who is our “us,” how we think things are known, and how others can or need to be convinced.” (Eve Tuck, 2009)

We all propose change at work, at home, in our community. By taking a bit of reflection time to ask ourselves what theories, beliefs, models, and values we are drawing on to shape our approach to initiating change — making our own theories of change explicit — we can act on them more deliberately and have conversations about them with others.

As designers or leaders, we are likely to often be proposing change. But we rarely ask ourselves, “what is my theory of change here?” I.e., why am I doing it this way? Why do I think implementation needs to happen this way? Because my theory of change is that bottom-up engagement is most likely to be successful? Do I assume that projects require considerable funding to ensure follow-through?

Theories of change in design contexts often involve considerations of:

  • Who and where do we seek inspiration from?
  • Who needs to be involved in the process as ideas develop?
  • Whose approval matters along the way?
  • How do viability and affordability intersect with desirability?
  • When and how will technology and financial constraints factor in?
  • What values would make this project worthwhile?

I have also co-written about theories of change in community-driven design projects. These papers are collaborations with my amazing researcher-friends Maddy Sides and Erica Dorn. In “Articulating Theories of Change” (2022) we developed a set of questions to foster reflection and conversation to make change theories more explicit. These questions include:

  • Who am I in relation to this issue, this context, this history, this place?
  • Who has lived experience and wisdom in this context?
  • Who will shape the structure of this project, make decisions, determine the timeline?
  • What are the economic, political, cultural, and systemic structures at work in this context today?
  • How long will we allow for any given intervention to unfold?
  • How will we assess success and progress?

Taking time at the beginning of a project to discuss and examine our personal and shared theories of what hopes we have for how change will unfold can be incredibly valuable.

CITED

Carey, H., Sides, M., and Dorn, E. (2022) Articulating theories of change towards more just and transformative design practices, in DRS2022: Bilbao, Spain. https://doi.org/10.21606/drs.2022.626

Sides, M., Carey, H., Dorn, E., & Theriault, N. (2022). Engaging with Theories of Change in Transition Design. Cuadernos Del Centro De Estudios De Diseño Y Comunicación.

Tuck, E. (2009). Re-visioning action: Participatory action research and indigenous theories of change. Urban Review, 41:47–65. DOI 10.1007/s11256–008–0094-x.

Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3): 409–28.

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Hillary Carey

Design + AntiRacism + Long-term Visions | pursuing a PhD in #TransitionDesign @CarnegieMellonDesign @DesignDept.Co