Promoting v Researching Design for Policy

Design for policy is now a hashtag (#design4policy), a book (edited by Christian Bason) and is finding its way into governmentspeak. In the UK, this is no less thanks to the stirling efforts of the redoubtable Andrea Siodmok who is heading up the Cabinet Office Policy Lab and our very own Lucy Kimbell, who is currently the University of Brighton/AHRC Research Fellow with the same. More widely, the many innovation labs that are coursing through national and regional governmental departments have given more impetus to this thinking.

Two important London gatherings took place on Tuesday 24 November to celebrate and explore this turn. The first was a breakfast meeting at the Design Council that pulled in a wide constituency of policy-makers, designers and academics to hear Mike Anderson (Home Office) Christian Bason (Danish Design Centre), Ellie Runcie (Design Council), Will Reynolds (Home Office) and Andrea Siodmok speak on the subject.


Such events are always a bit breathless as we try to fit two rounds of coffee and croissants (aka networking), an introduction, several speeches and a question and answer session inside two hours. The purpose of this concertinering of activities is really to give a taster, open up some early questions and generally promote the concept of design for policy as a good thing. Given this format, it’s not surprising that shortcuts tend to get made and certain terms get taken as understood.

It occurs to me that we should also slow down the debate and be critical and knowing of the terms that we are using, however.

To start with and as ever, ‘design’ is taken as a given among those in the know. There is a tendency — exhibited once or twice at the Design Council event — to say, ‘because that’s what design does’ as if design somehow has its own agency, regardless of the people, things and environments in which it is enacted. A long history of design promotion has struggled to explain what designing is on the one hand, while describing design as a value-added quality on the other. The latter always runs the risk of mythologizing and over-generalizing what it is.

How, specifically, is design understood amongst policy-makers or within the process of policy-making? What happens when we pay more attention to the precise tools and actions within this setting? Does it become more like ‘people thinking about stuff and other people with the aid of stickers, marker pens or plasticine’? This is not to belittle this. Rather it is to draw attention to specificities of the situatedness and materialities within which designing is carried out. Design for policy is no exception and will be nuanced accordingly.

Another term that requires more qualification is ‘ethnography’. This has become embedded into various design practices over the past decade. It is often used, wrongly, as a fancy term to describe straightforward observation. Ethnography involves the interpretation of observed phenomena while also understanding, on the inside, how social practices are known and performed (otherwise, the ‘etic’ and the ’emic’ parts).  In which case, design ethnography has to critically investigate the processes of interpretation or sense-making of an organisation, collectivity or other such social formation. Equally, it has to be knowing of the researcher’s own position in relation to the observed.

A third term that came up frequently at the Design Council event was ‘implementation’.  I’m a great fan of implementation:  I’ve grown tired of design charettes, hackathons, workshops, idea-storms or whatever (I’ve run a lot of these and am equally to blame). Let’s get actual and really find out whether something is more than just a good idea!

But we need to be keenly aware of the issues and challenges that run through implementation and not see it as a one-off and homogenous process. It is multiple and mutable.

Implementation is slower, longer and more varied than delivery. It has multiple moments. Seeing policy into law or resource allocation are points of implementation involving multiple actors and interests. Once underway, policies are played out through time. In a sense they are always unfinished in the way that all the different moments, networks and locations of their enactment change the way by which a policies function. They engage with multifarious publics and, indeed, produce publics. All these have to be tracked and understood otherwise we think we have implemented when we’ve barely started.

With these, and with many more terms that are used in this field, I think that occasionally we should put the brakes on and be more precise about how they are used and what is meant by them. And this is where good old fashioned scholarly research needs to kick in.

Guy Julier

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Social Design Futures Report


Social Design Futures cover image

We are delighted to present ‘Social Design Futures: HEI Research and the AHRC’ on behalf of the University of Brighton and Victoria and Albert Museum. Please click on the link above to download your copy.

Recommended citation: Armstrong, Leah, Jocelyn Bailey, Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell (October, 2014). ‘Social Design Futures: HEI Research and the AHRC’, University of Brighton and Victoria and Albert Museum. 

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AHRC-ESRC Design Research Fellowship at the UK Cabinet Office PolicyLab

At the beginning of September I began a one-year research fellowship in the UK Cabinet Office’s PolicyLab, created by an open call by the AHRC and ESRC.

The Policy Lab was set up in April 2014 by the Open Policy Making team of the Cabinet Office, part of the UK Civil Service. It aims to experiment with bringing creative problem-solving, design thinking and user centred design approaches to policy-making in central government by undertaking projects with the 17 government departments funding the lab. Led by experienced designer Dr Andrea Siodmok, this is a one-year experimental pilot that aims to bring creative approaches to the early stages of generating policy, by focussing on people’s experiences, using data analytics, digital tools and prototyping to engage a more diverse group of people in policy-making.

The Policy Lab builds on similar activities elsewhere, notably in Denmark, which set up a cross-ministerial innovation unit MindLab over a decade ago, as well as Nesta’s Public Innovation Lab, France’s 27e Region, and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. It sits alongside other related Cabinet Office initiatives such as the Behavioural Insights Team and the Government Digital Service.

Most of the existing literature on these initiatives currently comes from reports, conferences and blog posts. See for example the recent report on i-teams (innovation teams) by Nesta. There is comparatively little academic writing about using “design” approaches in policy making in central government. This research fellowship will draw on academic research in design studies, participatory design, participatory governance, participatory action research and management research to provide a thorough review of this emerging initiative. It will present an account of what such approaches do within central government policy-making, aimed in the first instance at the PolicyLab’s key stakeholders.

My research will anchor the Policy Lab’s activities within a strong evaluative framework supported by academic research and co-designed with its major stakeholders through a collaborative process. This framework will enable the Lab to evaluate and analyse the impact its approach and methods have on developing and implementing policy.

My two main outputs will be a report summarising the evaluation framework and a literature review that combines different fields to support further academic research into this emerging area.


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End of project summary

This post marks the end of the AHRC Mapping Social Design Research and Practice project. At the end of July, we (the four researchers who set up this blog) submitted our report to the AHRC. Thank you to all of the people who participated or contributed directly and indirectly via this blog and twitter, via the speculative digital research, and through direct interactions with us.

We hope that we will be able to publish and circulate this report during the autumn to researchers and practitioners involved in the expanded and expanding field of social designing. We anticipate publishing it here on this blog and sending it directly to people we were in dialogue during the study.

This blog will now become a forum in which the researchers continue the discussion, including via a one-year AHRC-ESRC fellowship that complements and builds on this study, and our Social Design Talks. More on that in the next post.

Lucy Kimbell

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Speculative Design Brief #11

solution_sketch #11

Neighborhood Virtual Platform

A response to our speculative brief: ‘I can’t get out of the house to get what I need’ by Maíra Prestes Joly, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. 

What is it?

It is a virtual platform created by a neighborhood association (or a group of inhabitants within a location) and fed by its local population, in order to exchange services and make people get to know each other.

How does it work?

Through a virtual form or face-to-face interviews, people interested in participating say what kind of services they would be able to offer within the neighborhood. The services could range from professional ones to daily activities, like taking dogs for a walk, buy products in the supermarket, buying medicine in the pharmacy, babysitting, preparing lunch/dinner for delivery, teaching yoga or a language, preparing homemade bread and marmalade, chatting and getting together, etc. In fact, people would be stimulated to open their minds to say whatever service they would be able to offer. The service would be registered and let available on the virtual platform, with the contact of the service provider and his/her location (it does not need to be the address, just a reference point). With this information, people from the same neighborhood could get in touch with the person that offers an interesting service. The payment could be done in an exchange of services or an arranged price.

How it can be operationalized?

The platform could be operationalized using already existing systems, like greenmap (, that can geolocate information using icons that represent it. Also, social networks like Facebook could support it. Actually, a private group on Facebook could be the birth of the platform.

Financially, the platform could start with zero expenses, when started with a free social network. After, with a group of interested people, it could be charged few dollars per month to keep the platform online. People could earn money, offering services through it, or the economic benefit could come indirectly, through the exchange of services.


Everybody participating in this initiative would be a winner. People that started the platform could transform it in a star-up, developing it as a real business. Later, its business model could be “exported“ to other neighborhoods.

People that are offering services could get extra money for their income. Even unemployed people could get advantage of the platform, offering local services, that later could inspire them to open their own business.

People that are “buying“ services could be benefited from services next to their home or even at their houses. This negotiation does not have to involve money, since it can be based on the exchange of services.

Finally, since everybody who is participating is from the same neighborhood, this platform would help to increase the local social cohesion. Knowing neighbors is helpful when you want to collaborate or need help. People could help each other taking a look of each other’s houses against thievery, for example. Also, through social networks people would be able to discuss local issues, what could lead to an increase in local political engagement.

How people that cannot get out of the house could get benefited from the platform?

Not being able to leave home does not mean you are incapable to offer a service or, even more, that you do not need to be served. This last issue, as the most obvious, could be solved through the contact with the services from the neighborhood: people unable to leave the house would be able to know the services that are available locally, asking them for delivery at their houses. Besides, since the idea is to exchange any kind of service you are able to, these people could buy or get in exchange for services that are related to “making company” and “chatting“, which could be done in person or through Skype.

Last, but not least, people that are unable to leave home, can also offer services, like teaching (a language, for example) in person or through Skype. This could help not only financially, but also in terms of social relations, which are important for a happier life.

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Review: (Social) Service Design at the RCA


Image taken from ‘Urban Recipes: a citizen engagement project in Bath’ by Iban Benzal

Although the main intention of this Mapping Social Design project has been to assess the state of research in social design, we have also met an unavoidable, recurring question about the state of teaching in social design. So I was interested to see what the students of the UK’s first service design MA (at the Royal College of Art) have been up to, as evidenced by their final degree show, on this week at the Royal College.

And already we come to a definitional hurdle. The course is labelled service design (and service design and social design are not necessarily one and the same), but then again pretty much every student here has delivered a final project with an overtly social or sustainability agenda, so it’s hard to see what the difference would be. It may as well be an exhibition of social design projects.

Actually this emphasis on deploying design for good is – and I asked – very much the choice of the students, rather than the direction of the course tutors. Which reinforces something I have suspected for a while: that we are in the midst of a flood of graduates who, raised in the shadow of climate change and economic recession, have a very different idea about what they want to do with their design skills. This in itself has huge (and hopefully positive) implications.

So to the content of the show… The quality of the projects was high, as one would expect from the RCA. The solutions were carefully argued and, of course, beautifully presented. However as the purpose of our work here is to think about futures for social design, and as I’m sure the students and the course directors won’t mind a little constructive feedback, I have a few observations.

First: there is an emerging – perhaps already dominant – ‘service design’ aesthetic. I’m talking about the very clean, ‘finished’ look that I suspect comes from product design, and those animations with dinky little tunes explaining how much happier Eric the nurse is now that he’s a part of (insert social design initiative here). You might ask, ‘why does it matter if they all have the same look and feel?’ But the problem is not the consistency, rather the style itself. It implies a level of finishedness that certainly exists in relation to products, but rarely does in relation to services, systems, organisations, or the lives of people. These things are, to use design terminology, in perpetual beta. It feels as though in the race to present completed projects – that can hold their own aesthetically alongside the high grade design work of other RCA departments – the natural ambiguity of this kind of design has been glossed over, all loose ends tied up.

Second, and relatedly, there is sometimes a hint here of too much idealism and too little reality, or too little awareness of the precarious ethics of making social interventions. Is there something slightly unnerving about a room full of neat and tidy utopian scenarios? Where is the abovementioned messiness of real life? And is it risky to unleash people with an obsession for designing on an unsuspecting public, without first making them jump through the hoops that a sociology/ psychology/ anthropology degree would? Although it may not be meant in a sinister way, such sentiments as ‘I like designing relationships between people’ can (just as ‘social design’ itself has some uncomfortable connotations) sound quite alarming in the hands of intelligent graduates from an elite institution with all the social capital that entails. Is this a misplaced sense of confidence and authority? And where is the critical awareness of the failed social experiments of design (certainly architectural) history?

Much more comfortable (less ethically fraught) were projects where the designer was taking on the functioning of a system rather than fiddling with the lives of people. ‘Disclosed’ was one such. Bordering on design activism, it’s a service that tells shoppers to what extent the products on supermarket shelves match their own values: is it British grown, does it have locally recyclable packaging, etc. It reminded me of another project by a previous RCA (although from a different course) graduate project: Jessi Baker’s ‘Provenance’, which seeks to create transparency about the origin and supply chains of the things we buy. This to me feels like a good target for critical design thinking – in effect trying to undo some of the mess that design has done elsewhere in the world, in the service of the Great God Capitalism.

This also raises a point we’ve been discussing in the team and with our advisory board about the nature of ‘the social designer’, should such a person exist. In Jessi’s case, one has the impression that it’s the cause that motivates her, and her identity as a designer is a means to an end. Truly good work is unlikely to be project-based, but the result of long engagement with a context. I don’t know what this means for university teaching, which is necessarily project-based. But one can see how the service design MA might be a really valuable catalyst for people with some life and career experience already under their belt.

Finally, in general, I felt the most convincing projects, the most likely to be in some way sustainable, were those that worked to enhance an existing system/ organisation, or help bring out a latent social innovation. (Here I find myself coming down very much on the side of Ezio Manzini et al of the DESIS network.) Those projects that were largely the invention of the student, or relied on entirely new configurations of people, organisations and resources – even when they were great ideas – seemed least likely to make it to real implementation. Perhaps that’s not a criteria that should be applied to student design projects? But then again, what was exciting about the show as a whole was the possibility that some of these ideas might really be put to work.

Certainly I can’t fault the enthusiasm and commitment of the students to their ideas, and it will be very interesting to track where the alumni of this course go in the next few years.

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Social Design Rant 5 — Cameron Tonkinwise: Social Design & The University in the Age of Neoliberalism

As part of our Expert Workshop, we asked participants to each make a 4-minute rant on a designated topic.

We are blogging the text of some of them, with thanks to their contributors.

The third of these is by Cameron Tonkinwise, Director of Design Studies at the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University


Social Design & The University in the Age of Neoliberalism 


Why ‘social design’ here, now? What is society, today, in certain parts of the world, such that it is not unusual to think that designers might have a role to play in reforming society? What is design that designers think reformed sociality is the outcome, if not also the means, of what designers do?

The most succinct answer – dangerously succinct – is Ezio Manzini’s reappropriation of the Young Foundation’s talk about “unmet needs.” (See for example Victoria Thoresen, Francois Jegou, Ezio Manzini, Sara Girardi and Carla Cipolla’s “LOLA (Looking for Likely Alternatives)” in SCORE: Sustainable Conusmption Research Exchange: Proceedings Sessions III-IV, Belgium 2008, which quotes the Young Foundation’s 2006 definition of social innovation as “new ideas that work to meet pressing unmet needs.”) The claim is:

  • There are people who have needs
  • Society is no longer succeeding in meeting significant aspects of those needs
  • through governments
  • and through markets
  • So designers can and should help those people to meet their needs in other ways.

Despite its succinctness, there are lots of assumptions in this formulation. Society comprises

a) governments
b) markets

which are two different things. But society also comprises

c) people with needs
d) whatever it is that ‘social designers’ develop to meet those needs in ‘innovative ways.’

One challenge to these assumptions is ‘Neoliberalism.’ This piece of critical theory jargon at the least refers to the argument that there should be no difference between a) and b), that society should in the end only comprise b). If people have needs, those needs should only ever be met by the market. If the market is not yet satisfying all significant needs, it must be, says the Neoliberal, because governments are getting in the way.

From the Neoliberal perspective, design is an agent of marketization: d) is not distinct from b). The outcomes of ‘social design,’ better termed ‘social entrepreneurship,’ should be financially self-sustaining, if not profit-generating, enterprises.

Much social design is in fact design in the service of government – d) is not distinct from a) – or design in the service of improving the effectivity of government services, so that government agencies can better meet needs not being serviced by the market. This government service design could still be neoliberal if its outcome is corporatization – d) is not distinct from a) which in turn should become b) – requiring service recipients to think of themselves as customers with market choices, and government agents to conform to retail models of service delivery. But it could also be anti-Neoliberal, boltstering non-market-based relations between strengthened governments and those they serve.

There is another assumption in the “unmet needs” version of ‘social design’ that I won’t go into much now. By putting “people with needs” as a distinct line item, there is the claim that those things are also outside of, or more precisely prior to, the servicing of those needs by a) or b) or perhaps d). There is a version of critical theory that says that what feel like needs to you and me are in fact constructs of marketing – c) is increasingly a product of b) rather than an external driver – just as they could be the constructs of social engineering by dictatorial and/or propogandizing governments – c) is a product of a), not vice versa.

But let’s move on to the more interesting proposition, that the real concern of ‘social design’ is the creation of ways of meeting people’s needs that are distinct from existing forms of government and markets. To put this another way, is there a ‘social design’ (d) that is not merely Neoliberal (a) or Anti-neoliberal (b)?

There are two easy answers to this. The first is to insist that ‘social design’ happen by way of ‘third sector’ organizations. By definition these should be neither a) nor b), though obviously some ‘community organizations’ are under pressure to enhance their governance and even marketize, just as many NGOs are criticized for being too commercial or too bureaucratic.

A second answer, which is what I take to be interesting about the DESIS perspective (, is that ‘social design’ should only ever happen in terms of innovations already being undertaken by the people with the unmet needs. A social designer’s job is not to create d)-like innovations, but to find such innovations and just help them to become more sustainable for their initiators. (See Ezio’s recent papers in Design Issues – “Making Things Happen: Social Innovation and Design” Vol.30 No.1 (2014) – and in CoDesign, co-authored with Francesca Rizzo – “Small Projects / Large Changes: Participatory Design as an Open Participated Process” Vol.7 No.3-4 (2011).) Perhaps, along the way those innovations might be able to be scaled-up, or preferably (because I am not sure what non-Neoliberal scaling-up is), scaled-across (this is Margaret Wheatley’s concept) – that is, the model might be translated to other people with related unmet needs.

These easy answers belie a larger issue. The fact that these innovations arise from what we call the third sector, whether incorporated as community organizations or merely manifesting as the informal economies of families and neighbors, does not guarrantee that they are distinct from government- or market-based solutions.

There is an assumption here that capitalism, despite its frequent claims, is not an all encompassing ‘be all and end all.’ There are plenty of domains and activities within our societies that are distinct from capitalism.

Take family life. This set of practices, essential to capitalism as the (re)production of the labor supply, takes place within capitalistic relations – the purchase of food and housing in the market, for instance. On this reading, the domestic workers known as parents are just dupes, failing to get paid for the work they do for the capitalistic system. But on the other hand, it is absurd to reduce the diversity of what is involved in being a family member to that reading. So much more is going on – as is particularly apparent when family life goes wrong. Being (in) a family in certain ways is clearly compatible with wider capitalistic systems, but the former is more than its role in the latter.

Yochai Benkler has a nice illustration of this general point – attempting to give economic sector codes to practices of intra- and inter-family sharing. [See below image from “Sharing Nicely: On Shareable Goods and the Emergence of Sharing as a Modality of Economic Production” Yale Law Journal Vol.114 (2004).]

Benkler Sharing Codes

On this point, you could say that one hunch emerging from a range of ‘social design’ cases is that a d) that is distinct from a) or b) has something to do with ‘sharing systems.’ Clearly most of those identifying as a startup in the ‘collaborative consumption’ domain are very market-based ways of delivering needs, explicitly monetizing what could have been social relations. But there do seem to be possibilities for non-market-based forms of sharing between communities outside of or under larger-scale governmental structures. I do not have time to defend this further, but it foregrounds the role design can (or cannot) play in regularizing informal systems of sharing before those systems turn into commodified markets.

There are many examples of these practices upon which capitalism depends and/or is compatible with but which are not – or were not – capitalistic: communing (as opposed to being in an organization), learning (as opposed to training), enjoying music (as opposed to buying recordings or concert tickets), ideating (as opposed commoditizing and marketing), etc.

A special example of such a practice is: the university. Universities, ideally, are unique spaces and times for questioning. They are domains of respite from, if not critical distance on, the market, even when market-based, and from the government, even when government-funded. Certainly, as neither a) nor b), universities are under threat, and the name of that threat is Neoliberalism. Nevertheless, as with families, or music, there remain special opportunities in universities, opportunities to ask questions like, for example, what would ential a d) that is not an a) or b).

I think it is worth remembering that design is only a recent entrant to the university. This might explain something like the rise of social design: it is the consequence of design having the capacity to engage with unmet needs now that some of this profession resides within this not entirely a)-ed or b)-ed territory.

This seems an important factor that a project like ‘Mapping Social Design Research and Practice’ might be taking for granted. In the USA, where research degrees are still oddly rare in relation to design, ensuring that ‘social design’ happens in critical and questioning ways, within the kinds of frameworks that non-a) and non-b) research demands, is something that you cannot take for granted. So it is important that the ‘Mapping Social Design Research and Practice’ project re-foreground that ‘social design’ should be able to, and might only be able to, negotiate the forces of Neoliberalism, when it takes place in the unique domain that is the researching university.

This is not a new point. Ezio Manzini and his colleagues have written extensively on the special powers that lie with universities for undertaking social (innovation) design: the often-global diversity of the student body provide ‘antennae’ on signals of innovative ways of satisyfing unmet needs; university-life affords opportunities to ‘living lab’ efforts at scaling-across those innovations (see for example: and Carlo Vezzoli and Lara Penin’s “Campus: “lab” and “window” for sustainable design research and education: The DECOS educational network experience” International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education Vol.7 No.1, 2006).

My point is more political than functional. And in some ways it is more two-way: not just that the university as a locus for social design can help the latter negotiate Neoliberalism, but also that social design projects can help the university deal with its own Neoliberal threats.

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Event: Social Design Futures – HEI Research and the AHRC

Wednesday 9th July, 4.00 – 5.30pm
Room 55, British Galleries, Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL

Since November 2013 we have been undertaking a review of social design research and practice to help AHRC plan its future strategy in this area (a process which has been documented in part by this blog).

The project has mapped and critically reviewed HEI and non-HEI research and practice relating to social design in the UK and internationally, and sought to understand developments in the economic, social and political contexts that have shaped social design.

On the basis of this mapping we have produced some recommendations and speculations on future research strategies, programmes and practices, and in doing so hope to raise awareness (within AHRC but also with a wider audience) of issues, challenges and potentials for social design amongst UK researchers.

On the 9th July the team (Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell, Leah Armstrong and Jocelyn Bailey) will be publicly presenting the findings and recommendations of the project.

All are welcome, and it is free to attend.

If you’d like to join us please RSVP here:

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Social design rant 4 — Ezio Manzini

As part of our Expert Workshop, we asked participants to each make a 4-minute rant on a designated topic.

We are blogging the text of some of them, with thanks to their contributors.

The third of these is by Ezio Manzini, founder of the DESIS network, and chair of design for social innovation at UAL. This text is an extract from Design when everybody designs. To be published by MIT Press.


‘Design for social innovation vs. social design’


In the 21st century social innovation will be interwoven with design as both stimulus and objective, indeed it will stimulate design as much as technical innovation did in the 20th century. At the same time, it will be what a growing proportion of design activities will be seeking to achieve. In principle, design has all the potentialities to play a major role in triggering and supporting social change and therefore becoming design for social innovation. Today we are at the beginning of this journey and we still need a better understanding of the possibilities, the limits and the implications of this emerging design mode, but what is already clear is that design for social innovation is not a new discipline: it is simply one of the ways in which contemporary design is appearing. Therefore, what it requires is not so much a specific set of skills and methods, but a new culture, a new way of looking at the world and at what design can do with and for people living in it.

Design for social innovation

Given these examples and the reflections on them, to help frame a discussion on what design for social innovation is and what it does, I will propose a rough, but in my view, already meaningful definition:

“Design for social innovation is everything that expert design can do to activate, sustain and orient processes of social change towards sustainability.”

By giving this definition I simply mean that in order to talk about it we do not need to introduce new models or new definitions, in addition to those we have already seen when discussing design in general and the way it appears in the networking world. Design for social innovation (writer’s note: from now onwards this expression will be used to mean social innovation towards sustainability) is not a new kind of design: it is one of the ways in which contemporary design already functions. However, since it requires a special sensitivity and a few conceptual and operational tools, it seems to me useful to give it a name and focus on its peculiarities.

From the above definition it appears that, when talking about design for social innovation, we are referring to a vast field resulting from the intersection of the entire range of social innovation phenomena (outlined in Chapter 1) with expert design in all its contemporary shapes and forms (outlined in Chapter 2). It is therefore a constellation of activities, each characterised by a different acceptation of these two terms.

In conclusion of this part, we can say that design for social innovation is the expert design contribution to a co-design process aiming at social change. In practical terms, it is a blend of different components: original ideas and visions (from design culture), practical design tools (from different design disciplines) and creativity (which is a personal gift), within the framework of a design approach (deriving from previous reflexive design experience).

Design for social innovation vs. social design

The question of similarity and difference between design for social innovation and social design has been much discussed within the design community and has created no few misunderstandings outside it. To my mind it all depends on the double meaning commonly attributed to the adjective “social” in many languages. Although, strictly speaking, it refers to the ties between people and to the organisational forms that characterize a society, it is very frequently used to connote particularly problematic situations, such as extreme poverty, illness or exclusion, and circumstances after catastrophic events. In other words, when used in this way, “social” becomes a synonym for “highly problematic condition”, which poses (or should pose) the need for urgent intervention, outside normal market or public service modalities. It is precisely in this acceptation that the term “social” made its entrance into the design debate several decades ago, generating the term: social design (BOX 3.1 Social Design).

BOX 3.1 Social design

The application field for Social design is that of problems which are not normally dealt with by the market, and its interlocutors do not normally have a voice there (for the simple reason that they do not have the economic means to generate market demand). From here arises the ethical, noble nature of social design and also, traditionally, its limit: if these socially sensitive issues do not express an economically receivable demand, neither can they sustain the costs of design. In some cases, the work that a design expert can offer to a charity organization that proposes to deal with such problems, is also considered social design. In this case the designer may even be paid. However, this occurs within the framework of initiatives that, on the whole, are charitable in nature. It is exactly for this reason that, until now, social design has been professedly marginal. In fact, in this conceptual framework, we assume that there is “normal design” that operates for the market and, alongside it, there is another activity, the social design that we should operate to bring into being and that should be based on ethical motivation: a well-meant design, to do in one’s free time.

Social innovation design starts from quite different premises. The first is that it concerns the “social” in its general sense: the way in which people interact together generating social forms. The second is that what it is proposing is not to meet an urgent need, but to produce an innovation. In other words, it seeks to produce a change as a local discontinuity: as a step towards sustainability. The third, deriving from the first two, is that design for social innovation is to be seen as a new field of action for expert design.

As a matter of fact, design for social innovation is related to the role that behavior and social forms play in the sustainability field (environmental, but also social, and touching on questions of equity and democracy). It follows that, in this perspective, questions concerning social groups that do not appear problematical under the first acceptation of the adjective “social” become interesting. An obvious example concerns the behavior of the new middle classes in the emerging countries: how they will decide to live (meaning their choices in terms of food or type of home and transport) will impact heavily on the environmental future of the Planet. Therefore it is of great importance to social innovation design. Furthermore, we can and must add that, in the spirit of social innovation design, the choices and behavior of the wealthy classes is of great interest since, as we have seen in the past for issues such as food, homes and mobility, their orientations (or at least those of certain social groups who are prosperous but culturally and socially open-minded) may open the way to the feasibility of innovative solutions. This is not only because they make it possible to create the first prototypes, but also because they contribute to their visibility and positive connotations.

Given that, it follows that the fact that today it is an activity practised and requested by few, is not a structural fact. The hypothesis is that it may become an important, if not actually dominant, component of design in the future. The fourth premise, deriving from the previous one, is that design for social innovation has an ethical base that lies, or should lie, at the basis of all design activities (where the wellbeing sought after is the wellbeing of the people for whom and with whom we are designing and of the Planet on which we live, and on which our children will have to live). Having said this, it requires no further addition on ethical ground. What it does require however is to translate these “normal” design ethics into practical and aesthetic choices that contribute to the quality of people’s “normal” everyday lives in a connected world, while grappling with this discovery of the Planet’s limits.

Post scriptum

Having made this schematic differentiation between social design and design for social innovation, we should say that in contemporary reality the criteria it is based become less and less easily applicable. This not only because those who talk about them often mix the two meanings of the term “social” (this would simply imply a banal question of terminology). It is also, and more substantially, because the fields on which social design and social innovation design have so far been working are moving closer and creating areas of objective (and very productive) overlap. In fact, social design is increasingly oriented towards social innovation, recognizing that this is the only possibility for solving the problems it traditionally deals with. In turn, facing the extension of the economic crisis, design for social innovation is more and more frequently involved in initiatives that invest socially sensitive issues.

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Social design rant 3 — Peter Lloyd

As part of our Expert Workshop, we asked participants to each make a 4-minute rant on a designated topic.

We are blogging the text of some of them, with thanks to their contributors.

The third of these is by Peter Lloyd, Professor of Design, University of Brighton.


‘What’s Wrong with Design Studies?’


I speak as an Associate Editor of Design-Studies-the-Journal and former Professor of Design Studies at The Open University. So you’d think I might know something about what Design Studies is… well, not necessarily.

We’re already talking about two different things: Design-Studies-the-Journal and Design-Studies-the-Subject, so straight away Design Studies seems to have something of a personality disorder – if that is what’s wrong with the patient, then maybe some clinical therapy might help fix it?

Like all good therapy, let’s go back to childhood. To birth even.

Design-Studies-the-Journal, like punk rock, started in the late seventies, with a remit to focus on the processes and practices of designing – what is it that designers do, it asks, how do they solve problems? (and to be honest, the early years pretty much established what designers do do). The cover is a bit boring, but never judge a book by its cover, someone from Design-Studies-the-Journal might tell you.

Design-Studies-the-Subject is rather younger, though could be older if you include Design-History-the-Subject-and-Journal, but let’s not go there.

Design Issues is a journal that could be about Design-Studies-the-Subject if the name hadn’t already been taken by Design-Studies-the-Journal. It was launched in 1984, about when Tina Turner and Van Halen were topping the charts. Its strapline is ‘history, theory, and criticism’ in looking at ‘the cultural and intellectual issues surrounding design’. Which sounds like Design-Studies-the-Subject to me, although there is more than a hint of Design-Studies-the-Journal in there too.

Design-Issues-the-Journal, it should be said, looks a whole lot better than Design-Studies-the-Journal. Which is something, in my book (which doesn’t have a cover). Always judge a book by its cover, someone from Design-Issues-the-Journal might tell you.

And then there is Design-and-Culture-the-Journal, launched in 2009, the same year as hits from Lady Gaga, Beyonce, and Kanye West. Design-and-Culture-the-Journal is officially the Journal of the Design Studies Forum, which is a nifty way of solving the name problem that Design-Issues-the-Journal couldn’t. Design-and-Culture-the-Journal is about where design ends and something else begins, about ‘the edges of design’, design as a changing and powerful cultural force.

Design-and-Culture-the-Journal has something of a post-modern cover, so you never quite know what you might find in there. Picking up the current issue there is an article from Cameron Tonkinwise called ‘Design Studies – What is it Good For?’ which is very good, though almost put me into a regressive loop. Victor Margolin, in the same issue, says that maybe Design Studies is a bit like Food Studies. Maybe it is, but perhaps it is more like Music Studies?

So maybe what’s wrong with Design Studies is that we don’t recognize that we already have a solution. Maybe the Design Studies patient, its death much exaggerated, and after years in therapy, has finally got better. Maybe what Design Studies needs most of all is a sense of humour?

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