In this issue

Autumn 2012: Design and Social Innovation

From the Editor

There is a growing interest in the role that design can play in catalysing, harnessing, spreading and scaling social innovation around the world.  This is expressed in two key ways:
•    by a growing number of professional designers and design disciplines applying their skills to addressing social issues; and
•    by the adoption of design tools, techniques and methods by a growing number of other disciplines focused on developing social innovation.

Perhaps the most recognisable facet of this interest has been the rise of ‘design thinking’ not only in business, but increasingly in public service and policy fields.  Fuelled by design agencies such as           IDEO in the US, non-profit bodies such as the Design Council in the UK, and education institutions such as Stanford’s ‘d.school’, design thinking has begun to be recognised as a key ingredient underpinning innovation (whether that be social innovation or not).  Indeed, according to Sir George Cox, past chairman of the Design Council, design is what bridges creativity (the generation of new ideas) and innovation (the successful implementation of new ideas).  In other words, design could be described as:
“the human power to conceive, plan, and realize products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of     any individual or collective purpose” (Richard Buchanan, 2001).

The purpose of this overview is to introduce readers to the enormous and growing range of work that links design and social innovation – it is merely a taste tester for a much larger feast of practice and analysis that is emerging around the world.  In it I have tried to incorporate a range of different perspectives – some that are embracing of design approaches and their potential to contribute to social innovation, and others that are more critical, urging some caution in the use of such approaches.

In traversing a range of literature I have also drawn on the assistance of two practitioners and a design critic in the review process.  I invited two guest reviewers (Joanne Hutchinson from the Social Innovation Branch in DEEWR, and Jacqueline Wechsler, a user-centred design consultant) to share with readers their thoughts about a design book or article that they have applied in their work.  These reviews are important in the context of this literature review as the exploration of design in social innovation is not just an academic exercise, and despite some critical insights from academics in the works reviewed here, design is practical by its very nature.  Both of the guest reviewers enthusiastically explore a book that they have used in their practice and I think these reviews in particular will inspire readers to seek out further literature exploring design and social innovation.

I also sought out a contribution from a recent design graduate, Vera Sacchetti, who, in her Masters thesis from the School of Visual Arts in New York, critically explored the emerging field of ‘social design’ in the US.  Vera has kindly allowed me to include an excerpt from her insightful thesis to highlight some of the emerging tensions amidst the possibilities of social design.

Indeed, the application of design methods and approaches to social innovation has raised a number of important questions, many of which are taken up to some extent in the articles and books reviewed here:
–    can the addition of design methods, design thinking or design techniques really enhance social innovation or help us to develop more impactful social services?
–    what is it about design approaches that has the potential for significant changes in the way we approach social innovation?
–    can anyone apply design approaches to the arena of social innovation or does it require the involvement of professional designers?
–    do designers have an adequate grounding in social sciences and the history of social intervention to be able to apply their skills to addressing social issues?

I personally believe that the growing interest in the application of design methods to social innovation is very exciting – for two key reasons. First is the potential of design to fundamentally alter the way public services and civil society engage with citizens and to bring the ‘users’ (aka ‘clients’, ‘consumers’, ‘constituents’) back into the centre of how we imagine and implement services in the social sector.

Second, the methods of design start from action and then refine and learn from this action (referred to as ‘prototyping’ in the design field).  This is exciting because for too long we have been flipping between two poles in the social policy and community services area.  One pole is defined by an unhealthy obsession with strategy and planning (exemplified in but not limited to logframe analysis) prior to any action occurring.  The other is focused on political reactionism whereby projects can be funded because are politically expedient.  Without drawing on any previous learning such projects must often be ‘delivered’ or at least funds expended in very short time frames that everyone knows will not lead to any significant or long-term changes.
So, conversations which begin with ‘users’ and focus on action learning represent some of the most refreshing and innovative conversations I’ve heard happening in this sector for a long time.  A starting point of design is also bringing into the dialogue a rich diversity of disciplines and a cross-sector flavour which opens up the possibilities for enacting real change in relation to some of our most pressing social issues.  In the social sector we are no longer merely talking amongst ourselves and this has got to be a good thing!

Finally, I have tried to present a balanced picture of the possibilities and the critiques of applying design methods to social innovation.  At times I have possibly swung too far into the critical literature.  However I urge readers not to be discouraged by some of the critical thinking presented here.  Indeed I believe that if design is truly to find a place and have an influence in the way we approach social innovation then we need both to enthusiastically embrace its potential and energetically critique its application.  If there’s anything I’ve learnt over the twenty years that I’ve been working in the social sector, it’s that we should be very wary of simplistic answers and silver bullets.  Design approaches, design thinking and design disciplines do not provide panaceas for solving social ills.  What they have the potential to add to the mix, however, is something that takes us out of the dominant paradigm of strategic planning, logframes and politically-driven project agendas into a landscape that helps us think and act on ways in which real change is not only possible but can be turned into reality.

To help readers I have mapped the articles reviewed in this edition of Knowledge Connect on a matrix that gives a sense of whether they are more analytical, or more practical, and whether they are grounded in specific case studies or present a big-picture perspective on design and social innovation.

I would also recommend to readers that they explore the many agencies, organisations, practitioners and networks operating in this space, many of which are outlined in a map at the end of the review.  I should also point out that there is a broader annotated bibliography exploring design and the social sector that has been produced by Australia casino Courtney Drake and William Drenttel from Yale University’s School of Management should readers be interested in exploring further literature (available at: changeobserver.designobserver.com/feature/design-and-the-social-sector-an-annotated-bibliography/30158/).  Finally, for an excellent primer on social innovation that makes substantial links to the role of design, I would recommend the ‘Open Book of Social Innovation’ (published by NESTA and the Young Foundation in the UK, published in 2010 and available at:  www.nesta.org.uk/library/documents/Social_Innovator_020310.pdf).

Click image below to enlarge.

Dr Ingrid Burkett

Guest Editor, Knowledge Connect


2 Responses to Autumn 2012: Design and Social Innovation

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