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Why Designers Practice Social Innovation

The role of designers in society is changing. More and more, designers are being tasked to make an impact on the world around them by applying their skills to better society. “LEAP Dialogues: Career Pathways in Design for Social Innovation” published by Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design explores this emergent field of design for social innovation, its key issues and the future of the field. The following series are excerpts from the publication.

 

Rosita Reyes, a community organizer in chile | Image courtesy of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design
Rosita Reyes, a community organizer in Chile | Image courtesy of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design

Inspiration

This is a photograph of Rosita Reyes, a community leader with whom I worked in Chile in 2008. She lives in an informal settlement outside Santiago with no running water. Together with a team of students and faculty who were participating in the Designmatters Safe Agua initiative, we were conducting field research in Rosita’s transitional housing community with the goal of collecting insights to design for impact in this highly resource-constrained environment. The aspiration was to come up with affordable new products and identify innovative services that addressed the specific challenge of going about daily chores without the convenience of a nearby tap. In the picture, Rosita is pointing to a photograph of her eldest daughter, and sharing a proud moment of her life—the day of her daughter’s high school graduation. I remember her telling us the story about how that morning she had to wake up extra early so that she would have the time to heat enough water (which was kept stored in large barrels outside her home) in order for her daughter to be able to clean up before going to school. This cleaning ritual, that is common in this community, is referred to as “washing by parts,” and amounts to a makeshift sponge bath. The insights from this particular story, and more time of observation and deep empathy, inspired one of the student teams to design a very clever do-it-yourself (DIY) camp-like shower device, “Ducha Halo,” that Rosita now owns—and that went on to win design awards, raise start-up funding, and be distributed to many families through TECHO, our nonprofit partner in the project.

I eventually realized that this particular design intervention accomplished much more than simply giving Rosita and her daughter a useful product, and garnering considerable material success along the way. It provided Rosita and others with the fundamental dignity of suddenly being able to take a warm shower, and the uplifting sense of self-esteem that this experience brings.

This story encapsulates why design, as a discipline, applied to addressing complex societal challenges inspires us: it exemplifies the tangible and fundamental humanistic quality of design. The many new forms of practices that are discussed in “LEAP Dialogues” all tie to the humanistic core of design. This dimension emerges as a key source of inspiration behind why designers are engaging in career pathways that—sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity—call for navigating an uncharted territory with a combination of expanded skills and an audacious mindset.

Design students in Chile | Image courtesy of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design​
Design students working in Chile | Image courtesy of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design​

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Explaining Underlying Dynamics

When we attempt to answer any why? question, we embark on an effort to explain emergent phenomena that we may not yet be able to confidently name. That process of elucidation—one that is often iterative and generative—is important because it represents an opportunity of approximation to new knowledge: the ability to grasp patterns with new clarity, find causal relationships of substance, and discover underlying dynamics that may account for practical and consequential problems we had been previously confronted with. In other words, these are the beginnings of good theory generation: one that starts with inquiry in the real world and seeks to explain something meaningful about it.

In design for social innovation, this process represents the pursuit of a continuum of understanding rather than a definitive set of generalizable answers. The ideas and concerns debated between practitioners in this field often build upon a sequence of perspectives and lived experiences that—despite inconsistencies and contradictions—allow us to progressively uncover the repositioning of design in new places of engagement and action within the framework of a contemporary cultural context in profound flux.

A Pluralism of Practices

An interrogation about why professional designers practice social innovation goes hand in hand with an examination of the principles and values that stand behind their creative work. The first section of “LEAP Dialogues” that explores why designers practice social innovation shines light on these values and the many approaches to problem-solving and problem-seeking that designers are employing today as they practice in an environment that is increasingly defined by unbounded conditions and complexity—what many of them refer to as “wicked problems.”

In the first dialogue of the book, Valerie Casey, Founder and Executive Director of The Designer’s Accord and former Chief Product Officer & VP of Samsung’s Global Innovation Center, and Barry Katz, Professor of Design at California College of the Arts, celebrate design’s power to shape human and cultural circumstances. Their conversation offers a provocative reflection about the implications associated with such agency, and touches on important questions of access, resources and diversity. Importantly, it also imparts practical wisdom to the young designer seeking to craft a responsible social practice through clear points of advice drawn from Casey’s experiences in Silicon Valley and Katz’s academic research.

The field of social entrepreneurship as an innovative and social value-creating activity that can occur within or across nonprofit and businesses sectors is key subject matter in Susi Soza and Tommy Lynn’s conversation. From their experiences integrating design and design thinking in the global social entrepreneurship competitions of their company, Verb, they showcase the aspirational quality of design and its power to simplify complexity and bring value in a wide spectrum of situations and levels of intervention. Sosa and Lynn specifically discuss the value of prioritizing design early in the development phase, reflecting on how much design can amplify innovation outcomes for social entrepreneurs tackling “wicked problems.”

Some of the questions about the politics and ethics of design that come up in Casey and Katz’s conversation are eloquently present, top of mind, front and center, in the dialogue between Cameron Tonkinwise, Professor of Design at UNSW Art and Design in Australia and former Director of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design, and Maria La Madrid, Co-Lead of Supercommunity, a social design and technology collaborative in Los Angeles. Their insightful unpacking of social design practices touches on important questions about identity, agency, empathy and power dynamics, and offers a call to action against forms of naiveté that regrettably still abound.

Why collaborate? Why seek complementary expertise? Why feel inadequate and frustrated when projects do not advance past pilot stage? What needs to change for more designers to participate and/or lead decision-making processes in highly competitive and data-driven environments? The veteran practitioners we hear from in the conversations within this book bring a refreshing criticality and a sense of uncompromising resolve as they wrestle with these difficult questions. Amidst the recognition of unquestionable progress, a sobering reminder of the limitations of design ensues. Denis Weil, the new dean of the Institute of Design at Illinois, and Tracy Johnson, the senior program officer for User Experience & Innovation at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, discuss many of the factors that might account for why design for social innovation practices have yet to be fully adopted and integrated in the fields of international development, policy and aid. These are organizational contexts that are governed by institutional forces that must respond to great urgency and high accountability. A similar line of discussion is echoed in the conversation between Robert Fabricant, who recently founded the Design Impact practice in the global development consultancy Dalberg, and Manuel Toscano, Co-founder and Principal of design firm, Zago. To Fabricant’s provocation about some of the serious shortcomings of designers’ forays in the field of international development, Toscano emphasizes how consequential character traits such as self-awareness, reflexivity and humility become in these pioneering practices: “We are designers, and as such we are practitioners of an activity that can support and enhance change, but that on its own is of lesser relevance.”  

In a conversation that highlights many factors accounting for the profound disruption that we are experiencing in the ways we live, work and play, Christopher Fabian, from his vantage point as UNICEF’s Ventures Lead and Co-founder of the Innovation Unit, and Bobby Chang, now a food entrepreneur at Mission: Heirloom—but previously of industrial design fame at Incase—bring forth a reflection that focuses on many issues that characterize forms of design for social innovation that are about exploring and understanding the systems shaping the present and the not-so-distant future. Fabian and Chang discuss design’s agency in positively impacting new systems of production, manufacturing and governance and explore many organizational forces that are accounting for the current rapid rate of changes. Their reflection leads us to further questions and a sense of wonder about what might come next. A dimension of the necessity to confront the unknowable that is present in their dialogue carries on to the piece by Seth Goldenberg, Founder and CEO at The Epic Decade, a purpose-driven design thinking studio, and Charlie Cannon, Head of the Industrial Design Department at the Rhode Island School of Design. They debate social design practices that manifest in hybrid organizational contexts driven by a “narrative of purpose” and within fluid educational settings where the design briefs of a traditional industrial design curriculum are re-imagined anew. This is a context where designers’ ability to identify what the problem is, is the problem—to quote the famous words of the design theorist Horst Rittel. In a spirited back-and-forth, Goldenberg and Cannon celebrate the social designer’s mindset that is open to curiosity: “to be living ever-presently with inquiry.” Their exchange also highlights the urgency for a new sense of mastery and ingenuity that both practitioners and educators must harness in order to arrive at acceptable solutions that can both delight and withstand the test of time. 

Design students working in Chile | Image courtesy of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design​
Design students working in Chile | Image courtesy of Designmatters at ArtCenter College of Design

Forward Movement

The philosopher John Dewey reminds us that human knowledge is “an organ of inspiring imagination through introducing ideas of boundless possibility, indefinite progress, free movement, and equal opportunity irrespective of fixed limits.”

The pluralism of contemporary design practices illustrated in “LEAP Dialogues” speaks of that sense of boundless possibility for a more humane and bright future. Designers are connecting their thoughts and actions with a purposeful pursuit that becomes an important impetus to shape the present with a newfound sense of responsibility. We learn that some experience these professional pathways as a portfolio of projects, while others embrace them as a start-up venture, and many more treat them as a continuum of intentional engagement that cuts across nonprofit and commercial endeavors. From this kaleidoscopic spectrum of activity we see designers making novel and significant contributions to “society’s capacity to act.” We also witness emerging practices in design for social innovation that are starting to become confidently named. Might this be a sign of a field maturing at last?

Top Image: Ducha Halo designed by Narbeh Dereghishian and Jessica Yeh

References
John Dewey (1920). Reconstruction in Philosophy.
Horst W. J. Rittel (1987). The Reasoning of Designers.

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