Theory of Change
What is it?
Theory of Change is a tool used to model how short-term changes lead to long-term impacts. It is used primarily in the context of social and humanitarian problems, but it can be used in any context where human efforts intend change (such as problems of engineering, policy, or design). You can think of a Theory of Change as a series of linkages, where one thing leads to another, which leads to another.
The Theory of Change model forces the design team to articulate assumptions. In creating the model, the team designates the inputs—levers—to manipulate and must state how these levers will affect an outcome. The model demands that implied causality be made explicit. The model also identifies linkages between things that are in your control and those that are not. For example, you may have some control over where you place a set of tents for homeless people in the city but little control over existing zoning regulations. The Theory of Change forces you to find a connection between where you place your tents and how policy must be changed.
The Theory of Change also forces the design team to state the nonfinancial value they intend to produce and to link that value to the problem through an intervention. This helps the design team to focus— to say “we are working in support of this, but not that”—and to identify political, social, and systemic constraints.
A Theory of Change is used to define outcomes, and to identify outputs and inputs.
An outcome is the humanitarian value that a team expects to produce, such as minimizing the prevalence of poverty. It is described as a series of changes. Short-term or micro changes might include knowledge, skills, attitudes, and motivations. Medium term—or intermediate—changes may be related to behavior, practice, policy, procedure, activities, and methods. And long-term change affects the environment, social conditions, economic conditions, and political conditions. The outcome describes the “desired state.”
To achieve an outcome, you must create outputs, the “who” and “what” of the design intervention. An output describes who is affected—directly and indirectly—by the design team’s actions. For example, homeless people may be directly affected by your actions, while the zoning board, neighbors, and politicians are indirectly affected. The output also describes what is produced—the result of your product or service—such as the artifacts (physical, digital, or knowledge-based) that are made along the way.
Inputs, sometimes describes as strategies, activities, or interventions, are the things you invest and the product or service that you create. Investments, the resources used to start the process, include time, money, physical resources like buildings or computers, partners, intellectual property, etc. The process of design is a strategic input. The actual product, system, service, activities, interventions, or other “design product” that is made also acts as an input into your Theory of Change because without it, the cycle would not begin.