Scott Boylston explains how well suited designers are for work in the social innovation realm. He discusses the process and the focus of social innovation, and highlights human centered design and what is called the solution revolution.
- In this last section, we're going to look at how social innovation is playing a role in the global shift toward sustainability and what designers should know about it. Social innovation is a process of reframing not only what we focus on as problem solvers, but on how we approach the problem. It concerns itself with changing both our problem solving focus and our problem solving process. The focus of social innovation is on holistic solutions that minimize negative and unintended consequences.
The process is inclusive, participatory, and experimental in that it requires trial and error. So let's dig into this a little deeper. Our world has grown increasingly complex, and it's no longer enough for individual organizations, companies, or even governments to apply superficial fixes of their own making to chronic problems. Short-sighted solutions kick problems down the road. And solutions that are not inclusive or do not consider root causes are by definition short-sighted.
Societal issues like poverty, social inequality, racial injustice, and food insecurity to name a few require a new kind of collaboration between the business, the nonprofit, and the government sectors. These wicked problems, a phrase coined in the 1960s by Horst Rittel to describe the complex, interconnected, and confusing nature of these large-scale social problems, require all three sectors to work together, and that's where social innovation comes into play.
If you've come across terms such as cross-sector, multi-stakeholder, or tri-sector, chances are you found an initiative requiring social innovation. Whether it's a global or a local effort, social innovation occurs at all scales. A collaborative effort between a school, a landscaping company, and a neighborhood group to create a community-led food enterprise fits the definition of social innovation as well as anything else. Authors William Eggers and Paul Macmillan apply the phrase solution revolution to clarify what they see happening in today's world.
They understand that chronic social ailments cannot be addressed by business as usual, where companies focus solely on making money while governments are expected to solve all problems. They make the observation that no individual sector can solve these complex problems alone. And they convincingly articulate how a convergence or disruptive technologies like apps, social media, and big data analytics, public-value exchanges that reframe value through a solution-oriented lens like crowdfunding and public prizes and challenges, and impact currencies like carbon credits, skill shares, and time banks have created solution ecosystems that drive change through scalable operating models, such as freemiums, citizen sourcing, and online platforms.
These are incentivized by forward-thinking wavemakers who had the access to funding and the desire to drive large scale change through collaboration. So what does all of this have to do with design? Thought leaders in design like Richard Buchanan have suggested that design is set to become a new liberal art of the technological age because it is not just a discipline focused on understanding context, but on creating functional solutions. Buchanan observes that without integrative disciplines of understanding, communication, and action, there is little hope of sensibly extending knowledge beyond a library or laboratory in order to serve the purpose of enriching the human life.
Written 25 years ago, this set the stage for new disciplines in design like design thinking, design management, service design, and of course design for sustainability. Design leaders like Victor Papanek and Tibor Kalman have chastised designers for contributing to some of our society's larger problems or promoting things like overconsumption, instant gratification, and self-centeredness. Yet designers' core capabilities have always included empathy, curiosity, and a love of experimentation, skillsets that happen to be necessary for effective social innovation.
This seems to suggest that too many of us have lost sight of what has always attracted us to design in the first place, bringing new ideas into reality through a rigorous and adaptive process of discovering, experimenting, and creating. This same skill, by the way, might also be our most valuable contribution to a sustainable future. Thankfully the era of human-centered design is well underway. First conceived by the world-renowned design agency IDEO, the goal of human-centered design, or HCD, is to locate, distill, and articulate unique aspects of the human condition as they pertain to a specific time, place, and situation, in doing so, context-sensitive solutions reveal themselves.
Human-centered design insists on empathy as a foundational posture to be embraced while rigorously reframing what we know and what we think we know, then testing any newly formed assumptions through a crystallization of discovered insights and design iteration.
- What is sustainability?
- Sustainable development goals
- Nature as a mentor
- Changing behavior through design
- Innovating technically
- Earning sustainability certifications
- Social innovation and change