Social innovation by design

Christian_hi-resDesign is rapidly becoming a discipline that is central to social innovation. However, to maximise the power of design, public and social leaders must embrace new approaches such as ethnographic research, user involvement, ideation, prototyping and experimentation.

By Christian Bason, Director of Innovation, MindLab

In the London borough of Lewisham, Development Director Peter Gadsdon asked service designers to help redefine how his organisation deals with homelessness. In the city of Odense in Denmark, manager Christina Pawsoe applied design-led methods such as graphic visualisation and cultural probing to radically transform her institution’s services to mentally handicapped adults, recasting them as social innovators. In each case, in spite of vastly different national, cultural and organisational contexts, design helped these managers on a journey towards social innovation that might otherwise not have been possible. What lessons do they hold for other leaders in public and social organisations who have an appetite (or desperate need) for radical, positive change?

What is Design Today?

Most of us would recognise that design can be about creating attractive, functional products such as smart phones, chairs and cars. Most would also recognise that design can be about shaping the graphical identity of products, services and organisations. However, already in the late 1960s, social scientist Herbert Simon proposed that design should be understood in much broader terms, as the human endeavour of “converting actual into preferred situations”. Simon, who won the Nobel Prize in economics, argued that everyone designs when he devises a plan to create something that is better than what exists today.

Certainly, this should raise the interest of innovators who seek to generate better social outcomes. If design is about making things better, not just for consumers but also for society, in what ways can design help social innovators? In my experience, design really can focus on anything from crafting a new typeface for a publication, to designing policies for a region or a nation. Often, it is the mix of different design disciplines that really can power social innovation. When graphical identity, physical artefacts and contexts are coupled with new service interactions and systems, design becomes a powerful, holistic discipline that can generate tangible change.

For instance, when London’s borough of Lewisham redesigned its approach to services, it changed the communication (from “homelessness services” to “housing options”), it created new visual guides to assist clients in their application process (using a highly tangible story-board style), it changed how case managers interacted with clients (considered a “profound effect” for changing the staff’s view on the service they were providing), and finally systems were redesigned (including smoothening the municipal budgetary process for the transition from providing healthcare for children to healthcare for adults).

A Collaborative Way of Designing

The process of designing itself is increasingly shifting away from the notion of the individual, creative “artist-designer” towards a more collective process of designing solutions that are intertwined with those ultimately affected. This idea of “participatory design” is by no means new, but has now become more main stream under headings such as service design, design thinking, strategic design, human centred design, co-design and co-creation.

From Helsinki to Melbourne, Copenhagen to New York, these labels are being applied to the design of social solutions. They draw on other disciplines such as ethnography and cultural research in order to ground the design work in how people experience and engage with existing or future communication, products, services and systems. The design process involves end-users in a number of different ways, from taking active part in the research phase (rather than as mere research subjects), to contributing to the development and testing of prototypes. The entire design process is often highly iterative, experimental and emergent.

The cases above illustrate the point. In Lewisham, a design team trained individual case workers in how to use video for design research. The case-workers then filmed their own interactions with clients seeking public housing, leveraging this material to generate new ideas of how to improve the service. In Odense, the adult mentally-handicapped users were given digital cameras to document their aspirations for their workplace; subsequently they co-designed new offerings and services together with the managers and social workers.

Taking the licence to design

What does it take to achieve a “license to design” social innovation? To me, it is all about courage. Applying design approaches to tackle societal challenges is still novel, and there can be challenges in getting started. Whether you are a social entrepreneur or a public manager, it takes active curiosity and courage to grab the opportunity and step up to a more “designerly” way of working, for example by partnering with trained designers, or by subcontracting for their competencies.

The challenge now is to place design practices more squarely at the centre of the social innovator’s toolbox, rather than at the margins. You and I need to apply design approaches not because of the incentive of support programmes, but because of the promise of more radical, sustainable social change.


Christian Bason is the Director of MindLab, an innovation unit that is part of the Danish central government. The author of four books on social innovation, design and leadership, most recently “Leading public sector innovation: Co-creating for a better society” (Policy Press, 2010). He is a member of the Advisory Board of the Lisbon Council and Chairman of the European Commission’s Expert Group on public sector innovation. Christian holds an M.Sc. in political science and is currently writing a doctoral thesis on public management as a design discipline.



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