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Why design for social innovation?

Blog

  • Circular economy
  • Design

As I write this, I am sitting at my desk in the converted loft at home, staring at the raindrops on the rooflight above me, sipping my fourth hot cup of anything that keeps me warm, and listening to the relentless pinging of notifications on my laptop.

I switch off my wifi to reclaim my focus. Just below me, my immunocompromised husband turned my dressing table into a makeshift desk for the foreseeable future. He hasn’t interacted with anyone outside our bubble for months. Below him, our wonderful nanny hangs out with our one-year old twins. A stone’s throw away, our extroverted four-year old is having the time of his life back at nursery after months at home. I am 100 days into my role as Director of Design and Innovation at the RSA.

It certainly feels as if I’ve been here for longer, or rather as if I’ve always been here. I think that’s due to two things. Firstly because of how welcomed I’ve been by brilliant, enthusiastic and supportive teams who have quickly made me feel at home (pun intended) despite joining remotely in the middle of a pandemic. Secondly because of the timing during which I joined, as the organisation is experiencing an exciting state of flux. The pace of change is high and so is the opportunity to influence change, as we push our ambitions on projects and programmes committed to impact, whilst also reimagining the role The RSA plays in the world during these uncertain times.

This whirlwind of internal and external change does warp my perception of time. Yet amidst this, I have resolutely created time and space for questioning and reflection. In fact, from the outset, I was determined to apply The RSA’s own Living Change approach to my personal enquiry entering the role: ‘What are the strengths propelling the RSA towards its vision? What are the obstacles standing in its way? How can design for social innovation help? And how can I help?’

Living Change is the approach we take across our work, in order to have a positive impact on individuals, communities, society and the planet. Distinct parts of the approach are not new. It draws on established and emergent disciplines such as critical thinking, social research, design thinking, systems thinking, social innovation, entrepreneurship, and futures and foresight. But how these all come together in a multidisciplinary and collaborative way, to design and deliver an effective social change approach is what is novel, and more importantly necessary. This is because the social challenges we work to address – some of the most pressing challenges of our times – are simply too complex and intractable for a single discipline or organisation in the system to address in isolation. With the Living Change approach, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The approach challenges us to work together with humility, to think like a system as we strive to understand and define the challenges we’re experiencing (the ‘what is’), and to act like an entrepreneur as we innovate and experiment with interventions that shape inclusive, equitable and sustainable futures (the ‘what if’).

We have been applying, iterating and improving the Living Change approach across a range of systemic challenges. With Cities of Learning, we’re using the approach to disrupt the future of learning in a city by using digital innovation, movement building and place-based models to widen access and connectivity to learning opportunities for all ages around core life skills. On Make Fashion Circular, we drew on the Living Change approach to understand the systemic challenges standing in the way of circular practices in the industry, and to identify an opportunity for tapping into the energy, and developing the capabilities of creators and innovators across the system to accelerate the transition to a circular future for fashion – this led to the recent launch of our Rethink Fashion learning journey. On 2020 Crises and Change, we’re using the approach to harvest and amplify stories and aspirations from communities in the UK on response, recovery and renewal during and beyond recent crises, to inspire communities around the world to re-imagine their future for the long term.

So in the spirit of Living Change, I set out on my 100-day quest. I spent time building knowledge about The RSA and building relationships with the people that surround it on the inside and the outside (too many virtual coffees and papers to count!). These surfaced challenges, opportunities and energy for change where design for social innovation could support. In response to these, we mobilised in teams around a number of interventions and workstreams; from designing the lifecycle of our impact programmes, to defining the role we play and the value we bring to impact work. From developing inspiring propositions that communities of change can gather around towards a Regenerative Future, to kick-starting learning journeys with our colleagues, fellows and partners to build capabilities in our Living Change Approach.

At the heart of these activities, clarity also emerged around my personal purpose for how and why I champion design for social innovation at the RSA - a purpose that is rooted in the RSA’s own purpose: ‘my job is about creating, enabling and amplifying movements of change that use design for social innovation as we unite people and ideas to address the challenges of our time.’

But why design for social innovation? Why now? And why The RSA?

Why design for social innovation

I am known to quote Victor Papanek all too often. This is because I strongly believe that he was one of the earliest thinkers of our time to realise the inclusive nature of design as an everyday practice basic to all human activity, and the power this realisation can have when all of us – as every designers – consciously apply this practice in order to intentionally improve the world we live in.

“All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act toward desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process. Any attempt to separate design, to make it a thing-by-itself, works counter to the fact that design is the primary underlying matrix of life.” 

Victor Papanek, 1971, Design For The Real World

It is human nature to design for need, to design for better, to design for change. We design at our best in times of uncertainty, urgency and crisis. Our designer mindset – whether we identify as designers or not - sees challenge as opportunity not obstacle, learns through imagining, making, testing and iterating not predicting, embraces ambiguity as space for creativity not anxiety, approaches novelty with curiosity not fear, and explores diversity with empathy not judgement.

Despite some of its virtues, design has been far from hero. For the last century as ‘design’ as a mindset started finding its voice and language as a professional practice, it has failed to recognise its power, impact and therefore responsibility. In reality, it has contributed to a lot of the social challenges in our world leading up to the crises of 2020. Design has been more biased than equitable. It has sided with short-termism over long termism. It has focused on individualism over collectivism. It has been concerned with winning over serving. It has put people over planet. And conscientious design has been the margin not the mainstream.

Alongside systemic collaboration, I believe that the power of social innovation lies in its ability to bring together four different paradigms – society, technology, economy and ecology - to identify opportunities and to create or amplify interventions that are either new, or new to context, in order to tackle complex challenges. The society paradigm is about understanding the needs and strengths of our collective society, now and in the future. The technology paradigm is about recognising the art of the possible when 21st century tools, and ways of working and organising are put to use to address our social and environmental challenges. The economy paradigm is about exploring, interrogating and disrupting the ways in which materials, goods and services are produced, traded, managed, used and valued. Finally, the ecological paradigm is about striking balance and harmony between our society’s need for resources to thrive, and our ecosystem’s need for regeneration so it can thrive with us.

The four social innovation paradigms brought together with a designer’s mindset, create an exciting opportunity for design for social innovation; a practice that is open, optimistic, pioneering, rigorous and enabling to support us to both imagine and create a better future.

Cue in social innovation and the value this practice, as pioneered by Michael Young, has on developing effective solutions to challenging and systemic social and environmental issues. Social innovation recognises that its work often requires active collaboration across different sectors and levels of the system to affect meaningful social change.

Why now?

An unprecedented global pandemic. The worst global economic recession since the Great Depression. The tipping point for systemic racism. Growing polarisation and conflict. One of the biggest non-nuclear explosions of all time. An alarming increase in wildfires across five continents. Two decades ago, innovators, futurists and visionaries used 2020 as the year on the horizon to point to for what good might look like and for what we might aspire to achieve. Ironically, as that horizon drew closer, it grew more apocalyptic than aspirational.

The crises of 2020 certainly didn’t start this year. I’d like to use the fizzy drink bottle analogy here, introduced to me by a gentle sleep consultant in an entirely different context, when I hired her in exasperation a few weeks after returning to work, as the twins decided they wanted to be stuck to me every minute that I am with them. Apparently babies can’t self-regulate without reassurance from their primary caregivers, and as stress builds up over the day - a bit like a fizzy drink bottle we keep shaking – it all gets released at once when they are united with their primary regulator; or when we open the lid at once. I believe this is what we have been experiencing for the last few decades around the world. We have been shaking that fizzy drink bottle regularly, and not giving our society and our ecology the opportunity to self-regulate, regenerate, recover and find balance. Until the pandemic surfaced, acting as a lid coming loose, and releasing all that pressure that had been building up over time. I envisage that the pressure will continue to be released over the next decade exposing more crises along the way until and unless we take radical action to find a balanced way of living where both society and our ecology can thrive in harmony.

2020 has given us all the signals we need, that now is the time to actively question whether the old normal pace and systems we have created for living, working, making and trading -  and how these all intersect with one another - are sustainable. Now is the time to proactively re-imagine our future, designing in how and how often we are putting down that fizzy drink bottle to self-regulate.

We know all too well that design for social innovation is not the saviour here. It’s simply one part of the puzzle, and we believe when done well it can support to convene people, institutions, disciplines, knowledge, expertise and lived experience, to creatively and collectively solve the problems that matter.

Why The RSA?

At the RSA we have a vision for a world where everyone is able to participate in creating a better future. At our heart, we are an impact organisation who deeply believes in the power of uniting people and ideas to address the complex and multifaceted challenges of our time. From the future of work to how we adapt during a time of climate emergency. 

This approach to convening and eliciting design for social innovation, has always been in The RSA’s DNA, for the 260 years we have existed. For example in 1802 we launched a competition to design a ‘machine’ that would remove the necessity for little children to be employed by master sweeps to clean chimneys in England. George Smart won the competition with his invention: The Scandiscope. And after many years of The RSA campaigning for firstly master sweeps and then homeowners’ housekeepers to adopt the Scandiscope, parliament successfully banned the use of boys under fourteen in 1834.

The RSA has always been at the forefront of promoting design. Looking back over its history of competitions and prizes, social and public improvement initiatives, education and professional training, furthering of the arts, and lobbying of government, we can see that all the RSA’s work is characterised by a ‘designerly’ mode of operation: identify a problem, encourage and steward solutions, move on to the next challenge area. 

We are now more than ever committed to continue to champion design for social innovation as an enabler for better futures. I recognise the privilege we hold at The RSA with our 30,000 strong global fellowship, our convening power, the reach of our platforms, and the skills we have in design, innovation, research, engagement, influencing and futures. But I also recognise the limitations we are faced with, as a speck in the ocean of institutions and players that need to work collectively and harmoniously as a system to affect change in response to the intractable social challenges we are committed to. Working with these priviledges and limitations, I am determined to create, enable and amplify movements of change that draw on design for social innovation to address the complex social challenges our time.

Across the team, we are supporting movements of change against three priority areas: design for social innovation in practice, in learning and in theory.

In practice, RSA programmes bring together our skills, fellows, platforms and networks as we collectively commit to meaningful and long term impact at scale across ambitious missions such as The Future of Work and Regenerative Futures. In learning, we have worked for the last 90 years, on the Student Design Awards and later on our Pupil Design Awards and on Catalyst Awards to empower and inspire the next generation of designers and change-makers with the skills, mindsets, behaviours and opportunities they need to transform their world.

And finally, in theory, we have been bringing together theories, processes, models, methods, tools, and case studies across different schools of thought, disciplines and practices, to build up and share out effective approaches to change. Over the last few years, this hard work has culminated in The RSA’s Living Change Approach. We will be releasing an accompanying playbook in the new year, to support and challenge communities on change missions.

The year ahead

As we move into 2021 equipped with the energy for change from 2020, I look forward to updating you all on our journey through these priorities; what we are achieving, how we are learning, why we may be struggling, and where you can help.

I realise I’ve been typing away in darkness for some time with the early winter sunset. My four-year-old comes up to announce it was 6pm, as he does most work evenings. The nanny is about to handover for the day. We promised the kids we’ll put up the Christmas tree tonight. Time to get on with that as I welcome my son’s endless giggles and questions, to help me blow my work thoughts away, for now.


Thank you to Robbie Bates, Rebecca Ford, Ian Burbidge, Shirin Maani and Josie Warden for your contributions to the thinking shared in this blog.

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