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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Social design rant 2 — James Duggan

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 second of these is by Dr James Duggan, of the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University.


‘Social Action Platforms’


There is something beautifully simple and seductive about social action platforms but they’re also a bit of a black box with ‘Internet solves the problem’ written on it. Scott’s ‘Seeing Like a State’ explains the destructive consequences of top-down, technical and rational policies and technologies in imposing a simplified perspective on a complex world, such as big dam projects, agrarian reforms… and extending this, parts of the welfare system as well.

There is a constellation of digital and social tools that potentially could enable communities to work with the grain and granularity of their own local complexities. Amongst these SAPs are websites that enable a user to describe a project or problem and get members of the community to resource it, such as Spice Hive and OpenIdeo. Although there are a few examples of successful platforms, there are many more failures and the potential remains unrealised especially in terms of focusing and cohering local-level, grassroots civic projects.

There are lots of reasons for this but given the limited time, I’d like to focus on the partial ‘social’ in social action platforms. Here ‘social’ could mean social good or social media tools but what I don’t think it relates to is the everyday social fabric of communities as they come together to develop projects to improve things.

Some of the issues are to do with using online technology and a social enterprise business model. The wider the geographical scope, the greater the number of projects and money raised and so the more commission going back into the platform. But people live in places. I think there’s something different and substantial about communities doing local projects that the platforms don’t engage with. Not everyone has a new, discrete, fundable project but people have lots of small, diffuse and different things going on and might like to know who in their city could and would help them, if anyone is doing anything similar and so on.

At this point I should say that I tried unsuccessfully to develop an alternative social action platform called ‘Weave’, a place-based social action platform-cum-ecosystem to bring together people at the local level around social innovation and civic projects. As the plans got more comprehensive and complex, links to the council and enterprise hubs and so on, we decided we had to focus on something simple around the social.

I was interested in how FaceBook built and marketised the social graph by enabling users to share pictures of ‘lolcatz’ and see who was single or not. From this we came up with gratitude as a proxy or analogue for the exchanges and relationships that were integral to the emergence and flourishing of civic projects. Gratitude is social and relational: ‘I thank you’ has a strong cultural, religious and normative base – from telling children to say ‘thank you’, to cards, flowers and chocolate boxes…

Gratitude is also useful. Take the sentence ‘John thanks Jane for help designing a website for his new project’. Here we learn that Jane has web development skills, that she knows and will help John and so maybe people like him. We also learn about John’s new project. At under 140 characters it can be Tweeted and FaceBooked etc. Significantly, John has an incentive to log on and thank Jane and she is flattered to log on and accept. At least that’s the theory.

Beyond the individual level, gratitude can be re-interpreted as an incentive for a variety of organisations to collaborate. For a university gratitude is research impact or community engagement, for businesses it’s CSR, for local politicians it’s campaign content. All of this can be brought together around the identity of a place, e.g., WeaveMCR with Black Birkenstock events to recognise and inspire wider engagement. So we created Thnku, a simple web interface that enables users to thank other users and pin thanks under categories… but that’s as far as we got.

One view might be that social action platforms have come as far as they should. Not everything needs to be replicated online, serendipity exists in the real world too. I think there’s a place for them though, but connected to the real world, rooted to the people and organisations in places. Implementation is another matter.

More widely, unpicking the social in social action platforms reminds us of the blind spots in technologies and our ideas as they conceptualise, reconstruct and afford new social relations but always the importance of weaving them into the warp and weft of the social life of complex communities.

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Speculative Design Brief Response #10

Beijing smog

An Amazon drone making a delivery

An iPhone App showing Beijing’s air quality as hazardous

An in-car air purifier

The following is the response of Wezeit editorial team. Wezeit is a Chinese online company aimed at creating social content young people love to share.

The air quality in Beijing is atrocious. Rich people emigrate and the rest of us try to stay in doors close to an air purifier most of the time. Many of us have an app that alert us when the smog outside is merely unhealthy rather than hazardous, that is when we venture out to get life essentials. In our scenario, “I can’t get out of the hose to get what I need” takes on a new quality. It almost becomes “nobody can get out of the house…”

Industries such as online retailing or food delivery has become mainstream in this environment. A few companies have even started experimenting with drone delivery or parachuting your packages. The irony that we are fighting the consequences of modernization with even more technology is not lost to us. Still, what else could we do?

Every time we meet a consumption demand, we make our environmental problems a little worse.

Our mission is to 1) improve air quality but limit people’s consumption; 2) find more things people can do inside.

The instruments (technological or policy) we adopt should be both effective and fair.

The fairness element is important because it would not be fair for people who consume the most to get away with not suffering the consequences like everyone else. In addition, we would like to find designs that deemphasize material consumption in people’s perception of social status, and if possible enhance people’s status if they perform more social good. We feel under the circumstances, we need to make people feel pain when they create pollutions. Here are some Orwellian but perhaps necessary ideas.

Limit people’s ability to isolate themselves from general pollution in certain places. Perhaps though ventilation requirement associated with the design of windows in flats and cars. (But allow filtered air in public transportation.)

Give people quota on the amount of rubbish they generate or dispose. Perhaps only collect refuse once a week and force people to think about their waste generation.

Give each family a quota on electricity and fuel consumption caps.

Given people already spend most of the time indoors due to pollution, find ways they can contribute to society at home or in their building block. There are apps where people can sell their surplus food to neighbours. This idea can be extended to looking after elderly, house cleaning, tutoring, childcare etc. People can earn credits when they render social services and this can be exchanged locally.

We can build into the last idea many popular ideas that exist in the reward systems of MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games). Many otaku millennials spend a lot of time in online gaming in pursuit of friendship and social status. It is worth considering the psychological rewards that MMOGs give them and channel these elements into the design of a socially useful framework.

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Social Design Rant 1 — Lorraine Gamman

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 first of these is by Lorraine Gamman, Professor of Product and Spatial Design at Central St Martins, University of the Arts London and Director of Design Against Crime.


I am not sure that there can be an easy definition of social design, or an easy policy about this, given that players in the field seem to me to deliver different types of social innovation as well as socially responsive design as part of existing design practice. Ezio Manzini’s concerns raised elsewhere are shared by me too. Designers are often generalists – and there are many actors in the design field and so differentiating social design from market-led design has always been annoying and needs to be clear about what expertise we believe we have linked to our holistic focus.  For example, Hartmut Esslinger of Frog Design was arguing in an expo that Adam Thorpe and I spoke at the MAK in Vienna in 2013, that his products are aimed at enhancing well-being constitute” social design”.  I disagree as I feel his is a simple market- led approach, with a bit of ‘well-being wash’ added, but this is a longer argument. My point is that clarity of definition still escapes this area. Maybe we need to lose the word ‘social’ altogether, but what to replace it with is not clear to me.

So to rant:

  1. Certainly in the UK we need to challenge the grasp of NESTA and TSB who act as almost conglomerates for techy start-ups and the third sector. They dominate because they hold the purse strings of what can be understood as social innovation or social design or even socially responsive design. What is design’s future role in this context needs to be better understood not least because a lot of community arts practice in prison, for instance, looks very much like design for social innovation, as does urban architecture and slippage between terms is clearly in need of further investigation.
  2. We have to make sure our Universities can accommodate part-time students who do not follow the normal career path, rather than end up as finishing school for students who can pay (which will make us fragile anyway). The nature of bottom-up social innovation or socially responsive design engagement and how it links courses to communities needs to be thought through from the point of view of the anti-fragile educational pathways as these will impact on the research agenda later.
  3. Whilst I feel it will be useful to have some sort of policy in place that gets government and research councils to support what many of us do – we have survived without that and need to be careful about policy fashions and so our definitions should include a very broad church of activity. I am keen however to see AHRC support more social design projects, and also to change how researchers can apply for such grant in strategic ways discussed at the workshop on 2nd June at V & A.
  4. The Design Against Crime Research Centre’s (DACRC) practice is diverse because it embraces different approaches. Consequently we have sought strength by coagulating towards the DESIS network which we have joined and which is in place in over 40 countries precisely because of its recognition of the emergence of the social innovation movement and ability to provide partners to make bids.  DESIS (from the point of view of a practioners working with social responsive design in the uk since 1999) for me leads this practice led approach at present. For me the main strength of DESIS is its recognition of diversity of design approaches to social design and so Design Against Crime intends to learn from partners in other countries, from their practice as much as their theory, and the fact that each is “ political” in a different way.
  5. We need to be clear what the politics is behind the policy or it may be the header on our tombstone: my point is that diversity has value in terms of challenging discursive power bases. Finally, I have always thought policy lags behind practice and so I want to make the case for practice-led social responsive design research experimentation with communities as to what works –and evidencing that. Socially responsive design, defined by Gamman and Thorpe elsewhere in depth, attempts to work with existing networks where they are in place, which may include government as well as market and business mechanisms.   In terms of the crime agenda we offer a specialist focus but the learning is transferable to other areas and the methods and the learning very diverse. Thing is, for example, our own DACRC practice embraces more than service design and the role of what are termed “boundary objects” of “ things” and so broad definition of social design remains significant for all of us as does the idea that a creative sensibility is not easy to imitate.

Lorraine Gamman. June 2014


Lorraine Gamman and Daniela Sangiorgi at the Expert Workshop, 2 June 2014, V&A

Lorraine Gamman and Daniela Sangiorgi at the Expert Workshop, 2 June 2014, V&A


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Expert Workshop — Monday 2 June



On Monday 2 June, we held an Expert Workshop at the V&A. This comprised of our Advisory Board members plus some extra invitees.

Its aims were:

  • to access expertise in reviewing, assessing and refining project findings;
  • to build on the research findings proposing some scenarios of what could happen in the future in social design research;
  • to triangulate the findings by testing against academically related fields.


Lee Davis (Maryland Institute College of Art)
James Duggan (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Lorraine Gamman (Central St Martins, University of the Arts London)
Joe Harrington (Innovation Unit)
Sabine Junginger (Kolding School of Design)
Peter Lloyd (University of Brighton)
Ezio Manzini (Politecnico di Milan/ Central St Martins, University of the Arts London)
Daniela Sangiorgi (Lancaster University)
Adam Thorpe (Central St Martins, University of the Arts London)
Cameron Tonkinwise (Carnegie Mellon University)

Leah Armstrong (University of Brighton/V&A)
Jocelyn Bailey (freelance)
Guy Julier (University of Brighton/V&A/University of Southern Denmark)
Lucy Kimbell (Said Business School, University of Oxford/University of Brighton/ Central St Martins, University of the Arts London)

Findings will feed into our final report.



Lilian Sanchez-Moreno (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México/University of Brighton)

Expert Workshop, V&A, 2 June 2014

Expert Workshop, V&A, 2 June 2014

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