Problem Statement

Feelings of empathy do not usually translate into meaningful action.
How might we transform empathy into effective and scalable impact?

Jeremy Barribeau
Uyen Cao
Isaac Jaeger
Nate Smith
Aleksei Zhurankou
Concept Development
Visual Identity
Video Production
Winter 2019
10 Weeks

Design Expo︎

Every year, Microsoft invites design schools from around the world to develop concepts around a given theme and present at the company’s Design Expo. The theme for 2019 was “Empathy at Scale.” Our response was Catalyst, an exchange platform that allows communities to coordinate around the things they value, trading resources for mutual benefit. Through Catalyst, individual actions become collective impact. Catalyst was chosen to represent UW at the 2019 Design Expo

Empathy and Action
Catalyst aims to reduce the distance between the empathy we all feel when faced with iniquity and the actions we take in response. All to often, our reaction is limited to the feeling itself, as if merely being outraged confirms that we are good people. We therefore began this project from the premise that empathy is only worthwhile if connected to concrete action.
         At the same time, we recognized the daunting complexity of structural problems that lead to issues like homelessness or poverty. For an individual to truly make a difference, their actions need to be part of a collective effort. Catalyst addresses these problems by providing a platform for individuals to come together around a common goal. Our innovation is not economic or technological, but social.

The heart of Catalyst is the Recipe, a user-generated set of instructions that govern an exchange of value. Recipes are essentially algorithms whose input and output variables are specified by the Recipe’s Creator. These variables can be people, places, actions, and the triggers that prompt an exchange. Recipes are based on principles of integration and ease of use — think IFTTT.

Creator Catalyst members who want to make a Recipe
Contributors Users who support an issue and contribute resources via the recipe
Participants Users who are on the receiving end of a Recipe exchange
Input Resources going to a Participant—money, time, skills or goods
Output Resources going to a Contributor—money, time, skills or goods
Exchange Conditions The set of actions that trigger the Recipe. These can be as simple as traveling to a particular location, making a purchase, or volunteering. While a Creator may set up the Recipe as they like, Catalyst incentivises transactions that are beneficial to the community due to the democratic nature of the platform—Recipes catch on and are recommended to other members only if found to be useful.

Connecting Needs to Resources
The driving insight behind Catalyst is that needs and the resources to meet those needs often coexist. An intra-community, decentralized network can help connect Contributors and Participants while circumventing the often cumbersome of typical institutions. Facilitating equitable exchanges can help build trust, contributing to increased local resilience and social cohesion.
         It’s important to note that Catalyst is not merely a mechanism for streamlining charitable donations. It’s not just about the haves helping the have-nots. Although that may well be the intent of a particular recipe, Catalyst members can give and receive simultaneously, playing different roles in multiple Recipes.

Involving all Stakeholders
To achieve our vision of strong self-perpetuating networks at the hyperlocal level, we need to involve as many community stakeholders as possible. This means welcoming support from government initiatives, businesses both small and large, and other kinds of organizations operating within the community. The democratic model of the platform ensures that only those Recipes that are wanted by community members grow and spread.

Help Post Bail for Detained Immigrants!
The primary example we used to explain how Catalyst works was a Recipe called “Help Post Bail for Detained Immigrants!” We told the stories of two members involved with the Recipe—John, who saw the Recipe on the app and became a Contributor, and Maddy, the Creator of the Recipe.   

John the Contributor

National news provides constant coverage of terrible conditions at border detention camps. As the son of a South American immigrant, John feels empathy for people held there, yet is unsure of the right way to help. Catalyst provides a way for him to contribute while helping him realize that this issue is relevant not just on a national level, but in his local community as well. 

John’s individual contribution is very small—a few cents every time he buys coffee—but given the large number of people who care about the issue of immigrant detention, the Recipe has the potential for great cumulative effect. In other words, the Catalyst platform aggregates individual actions towards collective impact.

Madeline the Creator

Madeline has first-hand experience with the struggles of undocumented immigrants going through the court system. As an expert in her community, she knew the best way to help. Catalyst allows her to easily set up a transaction that she believes would gain wide support. 
Catalyst walks Madeline through the process of setting up a Recipe in a way that is flexible and easy to understand. The app guides her in choosing the mode of exchange and the Contributors and Participants who would achieve her desired outcome. 

A Real Need
This Recipe example was conceived in response to a real-world need. The issue of immigrant rights and the mistreatment of asylum-seekers at the border have been on our minds recently. We saw people on social media looking for ways to help and being directed towards Facebook Groups or GoFundMe pages. We wanted to see what a Catalyst response might entail.
         In contrast to crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe, Catalyst looks beyond the acute symptoms of structural problems and attempts to formulate responses to the underlying conditions. A community member can create a Recipe to raise funds to help cover their friend’s emergency heart surgery, but they can also create Recipes that subsidize healthier food options, facilitate neighborhood exercise sessions, or help with housework for convalescents.

The Big Picture
The most important point of contact for initiating widespread change is the community. Building strong an cohesive networks of support on the local level leads to positive outcomes on a broad range of metrics, from health to education. The challenge is creating cultures of participation in order to tap into latent capacities for change. Catalyst aims to achieve this in a decentralized, community-driven way by deferring to the needs of users and providing a tool for self-organization. 

A Few More Recipes
Small Business Insights

A Recipe can help build a case to protect independent local businesses by aggregating participation data. Contributors can opt in to having their visits recorded and be prompted to record messages in support of a business that is being priced out of its neighborhood.

Neighborhood Childcare

Families can use Catalyst to divide childcare duties for neighborhood children. This can help cut costs for a service that is typically very expensive and that many families struggle to obtain. Integration with calendar apps can help automatically schedule childcare duties based on availability.

Redistribution at Scale

Catalyst aims to address systemic issues by creating long-term incentives. One example is the subsidization of low-wage occupation of high societal value, such as teaching or nursing. Contributors can put money towards a fund that helps these workers pay for groceries.

The course of this project offered an intriguing glimpse at the potential for designers to contribute towards social good. By taking a holistic view of the way in which structural change propagates and considering the potential of technological systems to influence behaviors, we were able to effectively speculate on what designing with empathy could mean at a scale beyond the singular user-persona of the typical human-centered design process.