"How might we encounter each other in new ways, that fix each other less, demean each other less, and allow for new potential to emerge” Christian Penny
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 .
5. Better, together — systems empathy, and user empathy
Designers cannot go at it alone. Design expertise is needed alongside content knowledge (e.g. ageing, child protection, health, youth development) and experts through lived experience. We’re seeing powerful solutions be developed by teams who work in partnership between content, process (design), systems-change expertise, and lived experience.
In 2027, I doubt we’ll see any agencies, groups or gatherings of people comprised of designers only. Whoever they are, there will certainly be no one going at it alone.
Social change happens when we have empathy and understanding for the lives of people, the systems that contribute to those lives, and practically, how change happens in complex structures.
6. It’s not enough to ‘just bring the process’
It’s not enough to say “oh, we just bring the process”, complex challenges need and deserve more than that. Designers are being asked to leave spaces they where they can’t demonstrate deep understanding, and in doing so fail to build trust and credibility with key influencers.
We need user empathy and system empathy, as well as an understanding of how to work with key influencers, and create change within complex structures. Whether the complexity is real, or imagined, we must demonstrate knowledge and care of it to build trust.
Instead of moving from university, into design agencies we might see more designers spending time working in the sectors they’re attempting to influence, developing that empathy, understanding and trust. When we have that trust, we can be provocative in a way that is heard. Effective.
Sometimes we’re frustrated with managers, leaders and frontline workers for not wanting change as much as we do. We think disruption should be desired, while forgetting how deeply painful being disrupted is.
To develop trust people need to know we understand, and empathise with them, not only the people they’re attempting to serve.
7. Fighting the tyranny of scale
The challenge of scale is immense. As the Innovation Unit describe, the challenge of being ‘stuck onsite’ where we do a significant work to discover down the track that what has been developed cannot be scaled further. When we’re looking for radical change, when we need it, we need scale, not only the niche.
We’re noticing two main contrasting approaches to scale:
- start with scale
- start small, prototype with scale in mind, then attempt scale.
Where we’re seeing success in scale largely but not exclusively, in the former. Starting with it. When we start with scale, we’re deliberate about building infrastructure and strong relationships. Communities of practice, champions, advocates, and sound business models.
Perhaps we’ll battle the tyranny of scale, through setting out to scale, every time. We might do this through still holding the local with tenderness, remembering we cannot simply transplant models that worked in one place, at a moment in time, with a range of unique and non-unique conditions.
8. Conditions for social innovation to thrive
Simply. Good investment and bold leadership.
Bold leaders convince others that social innovation is worth investing in, a worthy and reliable investment.
Bold and skilled social innovation leaders support teams to be in ambiguity, while not being swallowed up by it. To act on emerging opportunities, while understanding that more projects doesn’t necessarily create more impact. To have safe, culturally competent and participatory practices, without dogma or jargon that leads to inflexibility and confusion.
Naturally. Obviously. We need good investment. What can make investing in social innovation hard isn’t always that we don’t have the cash, but that to get it we often have to stop spending elsewhere. We have to stop doing things that don’t work, in favour of those that do. Bold leadership enables this too.