While good-intentioned, designers can be guilty of designing people in and out of opportunities for decision making. The very same criticisms we often have for others.
Sometimes we carry out deep formative research and generous prototyping, while leaving the ideation, detailed concept development, implementation and delivery to designers and other professionals. We do that, because that’s what we’re skilled at. Right?
Sure, designers and other professionals have immense value. However, there’s an opportunity for us to be really honest about what we’re trying to achieve in the work of ‘social’ innovation, which, in many ways is so very different to commercial innovation.
Design for social innovation is an act of service, not merely a service.
This article explores eight observations on what appears to be emerging in the field of social innovation. What may be holding us back, propelling us forward, and where we might be headed with design, and co-design practice.
1. The fallacy of designing for everyone
In social innovation we’re looking to increase the agency of those systematically excluded from decision making and who have likely been socialised as passive recipients of policies, programmes and services. In social innovation, we’re looking to radically improve the lives of those who experience unacceptable levels of disparity — be it in health, social, economic or educational outcomes. In social innovation we’re designing for extremes, not everyone.
In extremes, we find magic. Positive deviance, people who have developed extraordinary thriving strategies, despite the adverse conditions of their lives. We all benefit when we improve the experiences of those who experience the most significant barriers to health, happiness, and lives full of opportunities to prosper.
Innovation challenges, funds and social labs are often set up with an expectation that those we’re trying to serve will come forward. Forgetting experiences of whakamā, feelings of inadequacy, fear, the impact of ‘passive recipient’ socialisation on one’s sense of self-efficacy.
‘Put it out there and they’ll come’ just doesn’t hold up if we’re looking to meaningfully engage those who experience the most disparity, the greatest disconnection. We simply hear from those already engaged. Putting ourselves out there requires bravery, and an intrinsic belief that we matter.
What’s needed? Initial work to build self efficacy, and prime for trust. Taking the basic community development principle of meeting people where they are. Sometimes, we’re not the best people to do that work. Therefore, instead of running an innovation challenge, or lab, we’re running a challenge to build people’s sense of self-efficacy, confidence, social connections — of which one output may be pitching an idea for an innovation challenge.
Different to commercial innovation, within a design for social innovation context we have the chance to begin building capacity, and setting the conditions for social change from the moment we begin. We cannot afford to wait until after insights have been found, ideas discovered, tested and refined. By that point, we’ve missed a significant opportunity to build capacity and ownership.
2. A growing focus on capability building
In 2027, we’ll focus as much on capability building, if not more, as we do on facilitating a design process.
While it’s not easy building capability or self-efficacy, as social innovators we must be in the business of capability building if we’re to be a practice that actively promotes empowerment, inclusion and community led action — as opposed to further exclusion.
3. Safe, learning, loved — predictions for co-design
A dear friend who is an early childhood educator shared the principles of their centre:
Is co-design is dissimilar? At the heart of participatory design, is the opportunity for us to learn about ourselves, from others, and create new knowledge together.
As humans, we need to feel safe in order to use the creative centre of our brains. When we feel unsafe, our biology hijacks our ability to be creative. True for many people we’re designing with is a lowered ability to feel safe due to trauma, feeling a lack fairness, autonomy, an understanding of what is happening and why, and/or the pressure to perform. These things don’t go away when we take part in a co-design experience. If anything, they’re often amplified.
As designers, what do we really know about people keeping safe? What might we learn more about? How might disciplines such as neuroscience inform our design approach?
Some of our greatest hurdles in bringing decision makers, front-line workers, people and their whānau affected by a problem together productively — is time and interest. With time, we’re constrained by busy lives, jobs that are hard and expensive to step away from. With interest, we sometimes lack a genuine interest and curiosity for each others lives.
Bringing disparate groups together can feel hollow, and fail to generate the thick, and strong networks we need for social change to happen and be sustained.
How might we ensure that those we’re engaging with, are learning about themselves and each other?
How might you love your co-designers? How might they love each other, and the work they have to do together?
4. From designer-led, to peer-led
The goal of social innovation, co-design practice, cannot be great participation experiences. Rather, it must be genuinely recognising people as experts in their lives. What do we do with experts? We give them jobs and we pay them accordingly. For co-design to be really genuine, people need meaningful roles (where there is interest and willingness). Both in the creation of, and delivery of solutions. This might be drawing and building on methods such as peer-to-peer research, peer-to-peer delivery.
Social innovation teams in the future could look really different. We might focus less on hiring designers and design graduates, and more on finding people with natural mindsets of curiosity, empathy, a willingness to be in the grey, who have lived experience and are as diverse as the communities we’re looking to support. For social innovation to be of Aotearoa we must see more social innovation capacity among Māori, Iwi, and Pacific people.
Instead of designers and design researchers gathering insights, ideating, developing and testing prototypes, in 2027 we’ll see far more of this being designer supported, but peer led.
There are a range of social innovations incorporating a peer to peer approach in their design, and delivery. Peer to peer action is powerful and the solutions we’re seeing grown in response to child protection, ageing, caring, family violence — are all reflecting that. Some of these are Family by Family and Weavers from the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, The expert patients programme in the UK, and our very own SKIP Waitakere .