Prototyping and infrastructuring in design for social innovation

By Per‐Anders Hillgren, Anna Seravalli and Anders Emilson

Hillgren, P., Seravalli, A., Emilson, A. (2011)  Prototyping and infrastructuring in design for social innovation, Co-Design, vol. 7, no. 3-4, September-December, pp.169-183
This article is written by three members of the Medea Living Labs, an innovation lab at Malmö in Sweden.  It draws connections between the predominantly Northern European and Scandanavian tradition of ‘participatory design’ and design for social innovation.

The authors begin with an excellent synthesis of the contexts and histories of linking design and social innovation which, they point out, has evolved out of numbers of local, national and regional practices and explorations to begin to have an international presence over the last five years or so.  I have added some of the many practices and thought traditions they canvas to the ‘map’ on page 18.

They recognise both the potential and the challenges of applying design to social innovation and with this in mind they reflect on a core technique within design approaches, that of ‘Prototyping’, which could be defined as “the design of a working model of a product or service that can be used to test out the reactions of potential clients and providers” (Mulgan et al, 2010;p.50).  They use a case study of work Medea was involved in (with a Swedish NGO founded by a group of migrant women) to reflect on the use of prototyping in the context of social innovation.  I have made a mind-map of the issues they raise in relation to prototyping to provide a sense of their reflections (see figure below and click to enlarge).

Their conclusions centre around three key ideas:

[1]  Prototyping can be revealing:  Using prototyping in social innovation does not always evolve into concrete products or services, but it can be very important in revealing questions, dilemmas, controversies and opportunities in the design process.  The challenge then, lies in learning from these revelations and incorporating them into further evolutions of the design process.

[2]  Prototyping may require ‘infrastructuring’:  Social innovation prototyping may be limited in a defined and time-limited ‘project’ frames and may require what the authors refer to as ‘infrastructuring’, that is, building a design structure that is more open-ended over a longer period of time, enabling the building of a network of relationships and resources around the process.

[3]  Prototyping needs to link the ‘bees’ and ‘trees’:  Prototyping social innovations often requires an interplay between bottom-up and top-down processes, and a conscious connection between different actors in different parts of the social ecosystem so that small organisations and individuals are linked with larger institutions and businesses.  Murray et al (2010, p.125) have referred to this as linking the ‘bees’ (individuals and small organisations buzzing with ideas and imagination”) and the ‘trees’ (“bigger institutions that have power and money”).

This is an interesting article for two reasons.  First, it opens up the links between social innovation and design approaches (such as participatory design) that have been evolving in Northern Europe since at least the 1970s.  The contribution (actual and potential) of these approaches is not always adequately acknowledged in literature which frames the link between design and social innovation as having a much more recent history or that links the evolution of social design to North American traditions of ‘user-centred design’ (stemming more from technology and product design disciplines).

Second, this article is interesting in terms of the way the authors have engaged with the critiques focused on the use of design in social innovation.  They have certainly demonstrated that these critiques are being taken seriously, and could indeed lead to some even more exciting conversations in the future!  It does, however, leave the reader with some real and practical questions, questions which plague the social innovation field more generally, such as who may pay for the long-term involvement of designers in social sector organisations, and how design could be built into interdisciplinary teams around the social sector more effectively so that designers do not have to reinvent the wheel in addressing complex social issues.

A pre-print version of this article is available at:

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