“Social innovation is a process of change where new ideas emerge from a variety of actors directly involved in the problem to be solved: final users, grass roots technicians and entrepreneurs, local institutions, government and civil organizations.” — Ezio Manzini
We also use the Young Foundation to help guide conversations about social innovation with students.
To us, human-centred design is an approach that places human beings at the centre of every step of the design process. The aim of this approach is to produce solutions that meet real needs while responding to environmental constraints and opportunities.
Design thinking is a form of inquiry that is applied in the conceptual stages of a planning process and subsequent stages of program or product development. The process of design thinking is described as open-minded, iterative, and human-centered and is intended to result in new, innovative, and groundbreaking solutions. It is used to help define problems from the user perspective, explore user needs and desires with respect to a particular issue or problem and identify solutions to address those needs and desires.
In the context of global health, design thinking is emerging as an approach to enhance the effectiveness of health program interventions. It is helps to tailor program interventions to user needs and desires in order to improve the uptake and sustained use of health products, services and behaviors.
I am concerned about rigorous advancement of the concept of social innovation which I believe has been aptly defined by the Stanford Center for Social Innovation as, “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions. The value created accrues primarily to society rather than to private individuals.”
I am keen on the range of participatory methodologies that engage stakeholders in the understanding of, and the development of creative solutions for social problems.
We don’t use the term ‘social design’ — it’s not helpful in a government context. If anything, we refer to our work as ‘service design’ or ‘human-centered design.’
In referencing that definition from the literature, it seems as though the term ‘social design’ is not used all that much in practice. I find that people who have applied ‘design’ to ‘social’ challenges tend to use the terms ‘human centred design’ or ‘design thinking’ in referencing what they have done.
I personally don’t think any of these terms really encapsulate the true essence of what designers do, and how they do it, when applied to social challenges. For example:
“Human-centred” is too much focused on the end-user of a product/service, and doesn’t emphasise enough the notions of multi-layered and multi-perspective co-design when working in complex systems.
“Design thinking” emphasises too much the ‘thinking’ piece and doesn’t do justice to the action-oriented, maker aptitude, that is design ‘doing’.
The definition of “social design” provided in the literature places too much emphasis on the satisfaction of ‘needs’ through technical solutions to be bought, and not enough emphasis on design’s role in facilitating ‘radical democracy’ and ‘social change’ processes that might be more political than economic.
For me, I am yet to settle on a single term and remain open to the use of a pluralism of terms depending on my audience.”
It is a practice that evolves and adapts the creative capacity of humans to the challenges of their shared environment – challenges which seem to grow in complexity commensurate with our exponentially expanding capacity to measure our world.
More to the point of this summit, one might say that social design arises from the gaps that emerge around us as our measures have improved, revealing problems that are tougher than we’d previously presumed. Problems whose solutions must be designed socially, structurally, collaboratively.
I think of the quote from Henry Ford when asked how he knew to develop the automobile. He said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said they wanted a faster horse.”
It differs from typical social intervention in that it takes on an iterative process that allows for prototyping and refinement.
Impact Design also considers a larger pool of stakeholders than a typical design approach and tends to be highly inclusive. Traditional design tends to focus on the recipient or end-user of the transaction (with satisfaction-level metrics for instance), but measuring the long-term impact of design also means considering the full ecosystem surrounding the recipient, such as the family, the community, etc.
The end-game is not a new product to be consumed, but rather, a small contribution to human flourishing.
How it is different from typical social interventions:
It flips the power dynamics usually at play, decision-making becomes interlaced with the voices of those actually affected by those decision, voices which are usually unheard, heard too late, or de-prioritised.
But are cell phones “social design”? In some ways yes, if you focus on tools like mobile money that emerged from places like East Africa and brought financial services to people for the first time. But in other aspects, cell phones are still very much “traditional design.” The design of most hardware is still controlled by a few big players. The manufacturing supply chains have all sorts of problematic ecological and labor issues. There is more to be done in making the design of mobile technology more “social.”
As for the relationship between social design and social activism, I would say there is some overlap. Traditional social activists are interested in policy change, that is getting government and businesses to change the rules and act in different ways, i.e. gay marriage. Activists, as well as social designers, are also interested in behavioral and cultural change, i.e. social acceptance of LGBT people. Social designers focus on making interventions through products, services, and interactions to change behaviors, culture, and policy. For example, this could mean designing new ways for people to pressure governments for LGBT equality, or new tools to help people safely come out to their families.
On the one hand, in traditional design we are working and creating within a set of constraints that are fairly fixed and knowable — the business objectives, the form, the materials, the aesthetics. On the other hand, with traditional social interventions, we are looking at a more unknowable model of constraints — other people, and their needs, dreams, and motivations.
At issue here is that social design brings in a range of people-influenced dynamics. These include power, race, class, hierarchy or affiliation, blended with individual needs and goals. Designing well with these dynamic forces and constraints is a challenge for most traditional designers, and fixed brief-able elements are unlikely here.
Design in social interventions means that we take the methods and approaches from the world of design and adapt them for a new context.
This allows us to make ideas tangible earlier, which is traditionally a problem in social projects. It also generates an opportunity to develop a shared understanding — not only of what we all think the issues are, or what impact we might want to produce — but also of what it might be. For example, Plot do a lot of prototyping of service evidence to make things visible and tangible as early as possible. The interaction between crafted production and the attention of engaged people is both powerful and highly productive.
Barefoot College: India’s Barefoot Solar Engineers. The solar engineering program at Barefoot College started in India in the 1990s. As of December 2007, Indian Barefoot solar engineers had installed – with absolutely no aid from urban professionals – 8,700 solar units, generating 500 kilowatts (kW) per day, and manufactured 4,100 solar lanterns. As a result, 574 villages and hamlets (nearly 100,000 people) as well as 870 schools now have solar electricity (several villages have more than one school; average attendance is 25 to 30 children). In the remote Himalayas, 270 Barefoot solar engineers (57 of them semi-literate rural women) have installed 16 solar power plants of 2.5 kW each. The women also built 40 parabolic solar cookers and 71 solar water heaters as well as trained others in their communities so they could assist in the establishing of 23 rural electronic workshops.
The reason this project was one of the most successful goes far beyond that one data outcome, however. The mayor of DC was so impressed with the work that he publicly honored this NGO, saying that other organizations in the district needed to adopt these same data analysis and visualization skills. Moreover, the tool that was built for this NGO started appearing elsewhere: a group in the UK used the tool to identify terminally ill children in need of hospice services, while a group in Bangalore adopted the tool to provide financial accountability for government.
Our job is to work ourselves out of business by making sure that all NGOs have access to data science capabilities, so the expansive application of the tool and its use in inspiring groups to expand their own data science skills made this one of our most successful projects.
Over the last two years there are examples of projects that we’ve launched that have used human-centred design, but we don’t yet know if they’re successful. We feel they must be, because of the assumptions that have been challenged, the errors in thinking that have been brought to light and because of feedback from our users, but we don’t know this for sure. Not yet. I’ll have a think about the projects that have inspired me.
Our current Built for Zero campaign is working with 70 communities who have already housed more than 61,000 chronically homeless individuals and homeless veterans since early 2015. Here the design challenge has become more audacious: designing and simultaneously implementing local housing systems that end these conditions for good. Eight communities have already reached and held a measurable “zero” for six months or more.
Another interesting example from our work comes from Hartford, CT, where we have spent time trying to reduce utilization of emergency rooms in low-income neighborhoods. The healthcare system has been trying to figure this out for a long time, and they’ve mostly approached it by trying to get more people insured so they can access primary care. But what we found when we started doing user interviews was that most people didn’t need more or different medical care at all, they needed much cheaper social interventions like utility assistance, landlord mediation, help with transportation. We started problem solving with users around those issues, and we saw ER use go down among our beta group by more than 57% in nine months.
Although the environmental field has solved the issue of impact assessment, the social sector has yet to be equipped with powerful tools such as LCAs. This means that success for design, or what we see as positive long-term social and/or environmental impact, is still relative, inconsistent and challenging to clearly define.
Because of the lack of standardized metrics, at the Autodesk Foundation, we discuss with our grantees which metrics they’d like to share with us. This provides an opportunity for us to assess how the practitioners are measuring and reporting on their impact, and it creates trust within our portfolio engagements. However, it doesn’t give us a consistent base for comparison by which to define the success of one organization over another.
While somewhat modest in scale at this early stage, GMA Village is extremely scalable. I personally like to champion these entrepreneurial efforts by young designers to showcase how accessible it can be to engage in this type of work, especially at the local level. This project has all the hallmarks of a good social design project; multi-disciplinary team, embedded in the community and co-created with locals. GMA Village has received substantial funding, indicating belief in the project’s value, which in turn we hope leads to growth and great success.
Measuring it though, across visits and patients, that’s much harder. And while the power and value of a moment like that can motivate some doctors, it isn’t enough for most if all the other signals from the system don’t support and value connecting with patients.
As for measuring success, Meu Rio has been able to raise money to be self-sustaining over the last few years. They now have over 200,000 members on their email list, and they have succeeded in their advocacy efforts like saving a historic public school serving special needs students from demolition to make way for a parking lot for the Rio Olympics. I certainly can’t claim this credit as mine as a designer, but I think that crafting an open, flexible identity has been instrumental in the creation of the Meu Rio movement, a model that has now been replicated in other cities across Brazil.
There is no big heroic story here. The impacts are small and emergent. So far:
The truth is that this kind of work is very hard to do, takes a long time and the impact is difficult to track, but not impossible.
Anne Bastings developed TimeSlips, after working with people with Alzheimer & dementia and failing to help them to remember their own stories and be able to express themselves. She believes that you can deeply impact peoples lives through the use of the arts and humanities. First, she tried improve, but got only silence from them. Then, she showed them a picture and asked them question after question about the picture. Forty five minutes later, the group had a story to tell about the picture. Anne found that simply talking to them through the use of ‘rational language’ resulted only in silence. It was only after showing them the picture, asking questions about the picture (using emotional communication), listening to their creative answers & putting them together to make a story, that the consumers needs were met. She has given them the gift of storytelling. The beauty of TimeSlips is that it allows everyone who is touched by dementia/Alzheimers to move past the stress and pain of memory loss and instead enjoy using ones imagination and being creative. This is very impactful for the consumer (person with dementia), caregivers & family members. It is an amazing way to bring joy to everyone impacted by Alzheimers/dementia and changes peoples perceptions.
– 11th Street Bridge Park in Washington, DC – their intense community engagement (over 500 meetings to date) and commitment to supporting the existing community through their Equitable Development Plan
– Friendship Court housing redevelopment by the Piedmont Housing Alliance in Charlottesville, VA – super thoughtful, person-to-person engagement on the redevelopment of an aging public housing project which will retain 100% of current residents and offer quality of life improvements during the planning process and beyond.
How to know if you’re using social design.
Depending on the type of work you do, you may use different names for social design, such as Human Centered Design (HCD), Service Design, Social Innovation Design or even Design Thinking. You may alternatively be engaging in activities that are part of the social design process, such as collaborative processes or citizen science. In other words, you may be using the social design process and calling it something else.