Not craters in the ground but ripples in the water

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Impact is a marvellous word. It sounds strong and forceful. It speaks of consequences: action and reaction, cause and effect. Impact is a magic word. Everyone, from designers and engineers to artists, scientists and entrepreneurs, wants to have ‘impact’.

In 2015, for example, the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science announced an incentive programme under the (English) title, The Art of Impact. According to the official website, “ The Art of Impact examines and encourages existing and new art projects with a clear impact on a societal theme or issue.” Companies and entrepreneurs wishing to increase their impact can join the international network Impact Hub or the Dutch organisation Society Impact . Scientists and researchers are not only expected to contribute to their own field of knowledge, but to clearly demonstrate the ‘social impact’ of their work. Over the past ten or twenty years, the word ‘impact’ has become common currency.

This is extremely interesting since impact, or at least ‘social impact’, is difficult to define and even more difficult to demonstrate. The Social and Economic Council of the Netherlands (SER) is currently looking for a way in which to measure the impact of acting in accordance with Corporate Social Responsibility principles. Development aid organisations are similarly keen to measure the impact of their work. To date, no simple solution has been found.

And that is hardly surprising. Unlike ‘effect’ or ‘output’, both of which refer to results which are measurable and largely predictable, ‘impact’ is a word which attempts to do justice to the complexity of our world. It acknowledges that a single action can have countless, extremely diverse consequences, and that it is not possible to encapsulate everything in a spreadsheet or a formula. The word ‘impact’ really took off once it was realized that focusing solely on the measurable ‘effects’ and ‘output’ of an action was to overlook its numerous ‘softer’ consequences.

We can speak of ‘impact’ when we consider what happens when underprivileged women in a developing country form a self-help group. We can speak of ‘impact’ when a researcher works alongside a designer or an artist alongside an entrepreneur and there is a cross-pollination of ideas. We can speak of ‘impact’ whenever there are processes and interactions which create ripples in the water rather than craters in the ground.

Impact is a marvellous word. It does indeed sound forceful, but we use it in a different way. We wish to make the world a better place, but we also understand that the world is complex. That is when the word ‘impact’ comes into its own. Measurability is a mixed blessing. Not everything can be measured or predicted, not everything can be controlled. Impact is not only a marvellous word, it is a very honest one.

Lynn Berger Editor,
De Correspondent