A social good innovation curriculum and tool for teens and educators

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  • Product concept + strategy

  • Branding + brand strategy

  • Design

  • Development

  • React Native

  • Css-in-JS

  • Content Strategy

  • Content management system (CMS)

Innovation is shaping the human experience, and it’s the engine behind real solutions to world problems. Unfortunately, not everyone gets a fair chance at becoming an innovator.

The Opportunity

The Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education, a non-profit at the University of San Diego approached Substantial looking to create a web-based application to help educators teach teenagers innovation skills, using design thinking. The platform would be framed in the context of the UN’s list of 17 global challenges (called Sustainable Development Goals)—like climate change, improving the quality of water, and affordable, clean energy. By presenting design thinking as a tangible, realistic practice, the app would help students go beyond the “this is too big for me” mindset.

In the span of only three months, we partnered to build the beta version of Pactful: an app that helps educators empower students to develop an innovator’s mindset for a better world.

What was behind Pactful’s mission? In 2018, the term “Lost Einsteins” was coined by Stanford Professor Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Equality of Opportunity Project. In an analysis of more than one million inventors in the US, they found that if women and minorities from low-income families had the same exposure to innovation and invented at the same rate as white men from high-income families, we would have four times as many inventors in America today. And at the current rate, it will take another 118 years to reach gender parity.

In the current climate, patents aren’t rewarded equally—race, gender, and class barriers are expressed by disproportionate technological authorship. People tend to innovate upon the work of their peers—so when work is cloistered in bubbles (physical or perceptual), social barriers work to exclude. Not everyone has a fair chance at becoming an innovator.

"Substantial brought the overall package to the table including design elements, background in ed tech, solid technology foundation, a focus on diversity and inclusion -- ....a mission that supported our underlying mission."
Monte Kalisch : Director of Technology at the Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education

The Challenge

Pactful’s team envisioned a digital tool to bring design thinking into the classroom to tackle large societal problems in an iterative way—modeling the kind of thinking and collaboration of innovation organizations in the real world. Products existed within the design thinking space, yet there was a unique opportunity to create a technology for teachers that would integrate painlessly into their curriculum (and be intuitive enough for easy adoption).


The Pactful team, led by Dr. Lisa Dawley (herself an educator) and Monte Kalisch (also an educational technologist), sought guidance on product concept and build solutions to help address this challenge.

The Substantial team started the project with product ideation—partnering with the Jacobs Institute to align on the product’s foundational concept, roadmap, and strategy. With a limited budget and timeframe, we helped to distill the scope and how to build a strong product with MVP energy in the course of a few months.

In the design and build phase, Substantial built a prototype, developed branding, naming and brand strategy, and implemented a custom learning tool with easy, integrated content management.

A play on “impactful”, the platform was named for its purpose. Both lightweight and decisive, “Pactful” is a gesture to the nature of design thinking.


Pactful needed to effectively engage both teachers and students, with the educator’s experience top of mind. Teachers would use the platform to supplement their teaching material and guide the curriculum around innovation, easily managing feedback and documentation.

Since this wouldn’t be a primary tool for educators, but rather one used supplementally for a class intensive or one day per week, it needed to feel accessible. It was essential that the technology felt both compelling and intuitive for students and teachers—the app itself an innovation upon traditional learning, a product of design thinking.

A third audience: the client team. The Jacobs Institute needed a sustainable platform that would be easy to manage post-engagement.


The project presented a tension between the structure of traditional teaching and the non-linear nature of innovation learning.

The Pactful team sought an experience that would excite students—an app experience that might feel like taking a vacation from standard education. Substantial answered with crisp, focused branding and UX treatment informed by the nature of design thinking. Pactful was branded simply, defined by a clean wordmark and swirling visual markers, signifying fluidity.

To engender design thinking, we created a system that would allow students to explore in any order of their choosing. This was solved through design aspects—like arrows signifying multiple pathways to solving problems and visual symbols of movement throughout the design process.

In a shift toward modernized learning, Pactful made use of Google education suite as the documentation system, encouraging teachers and students to think iteratively and collaboratively, exchanging feedback and responses in real time—in living, breathing documents rather than through static PDFs or text documents.

In development, we used our favorite combination for building web apps: React + TypeScript + CSS-in-JS; for communicating with the server, we used GraphQL. For other experiences, we implemented affordable, off-the-shelf tools to power the administration panel and CMS. By using a modern, well-known stack, we made it easy for any new user to jump in quickly.

It was important to deliver a CMS the client didn’t have to work hard to maintain. With relatively little iteration, we delivered the small Pactful content team a robust, sustainable administrative system and CMS built with Contentful. Post-launch, the three-person team has been able to manage the software completely autonomously.


Substantial brought Pactful to educators and students very quickly—favoring effective design over volume of content or number of features.

The result was software that effectively presented the methodology behind design thinking, empowering students to think effectively through problems and solutions to real-world problems. On a practical and philosophical level, Pactful hopes to help recapture the “Lost Einsteins” of the world.

Pactful was named a Cool Tool finalist in the 2020 EdTech Awards, and met with critical success by educators.

Additionally, in Spring 2020, The Jacobs Institute for Innovation in Education launched the first-ever Jacobs Institute Changemaker Challenge. This worldwide event supported educators and teenagers in developing social good solutions aligned to the UN Global Goals. Challenge winners and finalists came through with innovations for green food bags, idle reminders, technology to protect shellfish from climate change and an app to foster gender equality, proving that given the right support, today’s youth can and will become the problem solvers of tomorrow.

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