Prospect and Refuge: The State of Social Innovation

At both human and sub-human level, the ability to see and the ability to hide are both important in calculating a creature’s survival prospects…Where he has an unimpeded opportunity to see we can call it a prospect. Where he has an opportunity to hide, a refuge.

Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape (London: John Wiley, 1975)


In 1975 British geographer Jay Appleton proposed that humans are aesthetically attracted to physical space in two ways, owing to our origins on the African savannah. We prefer vistas because we crave opportunity and mystery, seeing vast spaces as ripe for exploration. Yet we also appreciate places of refuge, safe havens where we have our back protected and feel control over our surroundings. Prospect-refuge theory seems decidedly obvious when you think about our evolutionary history of hunting and gathering.

This innate love of complexity and problem solving—and accompanying desire for meaningful sanctuary—can also frame the current state of social innovation: systemic changes are revolutionizing whole industries, while a deep conscientiousness for human and ecological needs is permeating the innovation community.

Here you will meet several people committed to their work at both of these levels, all of whom have been guests at School of Visual Arts MFA Design for Social Innovation program this past semester to share their experiences and facilitate dynamic discussions on social change. They are leading multidisciplinary teams to drive corporate sustainability, empowering communities with new technologies and languages, and disrupting philanthropy, design and business.



Leaders who think big, take risks, and impact at scale.

The Building Whisperer

Prospect-refuge theory made its way from art to architecture in the 1990s, when architects like Bill Browning adopted the concept to create more natural spaces for human interaction. Bill is founder of Terrapin Bright Green, a Manhattan-based sustainable design firm that has advised on environmental strategies for Grand Canyon National Park, Battery Park City, the White House and many more. Inspired by working with George Lucas and Robert Redford, Bill says he often “treats a building like a screenplay,” moving through it both physically and mentally to explore it’s full story and structure. By adopting nature’s forms and processes, Bill’s biophilic design work not only integrates with ecological systems but inspires heightened productivity and cognitive capacity among the humans who dwell in these spaces. He’s building real sustainability and meaning into some of our world’s largest and most impactful structures.

The Enlightened Executive

Jason Rzepka is VP of MTV’s Public Affairs group. He started his career in public relations, but participation in a youth-led genocide action campaign inspired Jason to dedicate himself to sociopolitical issues full-time. He believes in the responsibility of culture-making giants like MTV to create “pro-social history.” Jason’s taking on challenges like bullying, genocide, and AIDS at MTV. He’s built sexual health advocacy campaigns around the popular TV show 16 and Pregnant, started a successful bullying and abuse hotline through mobile phone game Angry Birds, and is constantly employing celebrity influence to motivate youth to get up and moving. “It’s not enough to be just another massive, globally successful brand,” he insisted. “We have a critical mass…Daily decisions can move the needle on huge issues.”

The Wise Investigator

It’s hard to disagree with Amy Hall, Director of Social Consciousness at Eileen Fisher, when she describes the impending global water crisis and urgency of human rights in textile factories, then implores you to take more care in choosing what you put on your body. In just the past few years, Amy has transformed Eileen Fisher to a model of corporate responsibility. She’s taken on the company’s global supply chain, demanding transparency and humanity at every node and in every material. Amy leads a lean team of specialists in human rights, environmental chemistry, supply chain, and textile design. Blue Flower Collaborative is an initiative of her team, with the intention of reframing and revolutionizing the textile value chain by building a textile factory in the South Bronx that employs the community, sources fiber from recycled materials and produces everything in house. Amy believes that through careful consumer decisions and radical innovation, we can drastically evolve the wasteful system of global fashion.


Leading by first listening, to themselves and others, they build human capacity.

The Mindful Activist

Emily Jacobi is the founder and co-director of Digital Democracy, a nonprofit that “empowers marginalized communities around the world to use technology to defend their rights.” Their approach is unique and direct: Emily and her team train people to use technology (cameras, data capture, computers, mapping tools) to document political and human rights violations, and communicate in compelling stories. Aware of the implications of introducing new technologies to a community, Emily is careful and empathetic. Her foundations are in youth journalism, so Emily is a trained listener and starts every project with present, open listening. Digital Democracy is disrupting policy agendas of powerful institutions by developing relevant partnerships with real communities and “leading from behind.”

The Truth Seeker

Dave Rapaport has been on a mission for a more environmentally conscious public since his radical days as an organizer for Greenpeace and director of Vermont’s Public Interest Research Group (PIRGs). Realizing the strategies for inspiring environmental policy change were evolving, Dave decided to move into corporate responsibility. He is now working for global cosmetics company Aveda as VP of Vice President of Earth and Community Care, deeply committed to bringing mindfulness and meaning into the company’s business agenda. For example, Dave engages Aveda stylists in their communities, starts staff meetings with wellness exercises, and approaches manufacturing with a cradle-to-cradle approach. “I’ve moved from confrontation to collaboration,” he reflected, laughing. “Design thinking is about understanding the needs of an increasingly wide range of stakeholders. We need to value meaning over utility, and create an authentic story that taps into our deepest aspirations.”

The Curious Listener

Schuyler Brown was starting to “make it” in corporate marketing; she was climbing the proverbial agency ladder, being rewarded for emotionally draining, morally punishing client work. In search of greater fulfillment than salary and title, Schuyler took to the woods and began to dance. She has slowly returned to her innate skills in human connection and communication that helped her thrive so quickly in agency marketing, but only commits them to work for purposeful causes and clients who care. A personal manifesto inspired by Joseph Campbell and Gabrielle Roth keeps Schuyler balanced when she ventures into the hard, fast world of corporations—and she’s finding humility and creating synchronicity in places you’d think it impossible.


It’s becoming part of the culture to think rationally about saving the natural world. Because it’s the right thing to do, but we will save the natural world in order to save ourselves.

From A Conversation with E.O. Wilson, author of Biophilia (NOVA, 2008)

Image source: Flickr user giennaro


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