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Oh, social design. Social, schmocial. In buildings and on the streets, in the shops, on the newsstand and coming through the letterbox, on the screen and on the web, on my back and yours – it’s all around us and in our face; it’s all “social”. And if it’s any good, and visible or available to a decent number of people, it has social benefit. Even baubles of exquisite craft and fineness viewed only by half a dozen people in private cabinets often end up in museums for public view, so luxury has its social benefit also.

Oh, social design. Social, schmocial. In buildings and on the streets, in the shops, on the newsstand and coming through the letterbox, on the screen and on the web, on my back and yours – it’s all around us and in our face; it’s all “social”. And if it’s any good, and visible or available to a decent number of people, it has social benefit. Even baubles of exquisite craft and fineness viewed only by half a dozen people in private cabinets often end up in museums for public view, so luxury has its social benefit also.

The outgoing master of the Royal Designers made a mysterious disclosure last night when he said that the RSA were “uncertain” about the election of milliner Steven Jones to the Faculty of Royal Designers. Speak for yourself, I thought, since neither I nor anyone else at the RSA, as far as I know, has raised an eyebrow about the sensational hatter. Fashion, which fills the pages of so many magazines and walks among us - not to mention the employment it generates across the developing world - arguably has the greatest reach of all, the greatest potential to diffuse the art of the possible, and quite a widespread social benefit.

The basic argument for the social value of design is that people are happier and more productive when they can buy products, use facilities and services, or inhabit environments that are well-designed and pleasing. Here’s the paradox. With the twentieth century and the triumphs of modernism in hindsight, only a fool would disagree. Of course people are happier and more productive. The argument rings gratuitously at this point – we know this already so why are we still saying it? Because manufacturers and government procurement practices continue to take it or leave it. Also because the script hasn’t been adopted by enough people who aren’t designers themselves, and they would say that, wouldn't they?

So let's stop making sophistical social claims for design that's self-evidently both good and available, and let's stop construing the social as not-for-profit work for good causes. Let's change tack. Right now, we need two things: firstly, a new accommodation between the professional designer and everyone else, and secondly, a new accommodation between design and the market; that is, the times we live in. 

Taking it as read that good design makes people happier and more productive, in the RSA's Design & Society account I’ve made the assertive claim that design – rather reductively interpreted as a readiness to improvise and prototype, a bravery in the face of disorder and complexity, and a developed sense of part and whole –  can also make everyone more resourceful and self-reliant. We’re calling for a re-distribution of the tools and insights and processes that professional designers use among the wider population, from policy-makers to punters. Having made that claim, naturally our ambition is to prove it by increasing the design capability of  those who are “under-resourced”. Currently this includes school children, police officers and people with spinal injuries; we expect it to expand.

On the second thing: It may be too soon to say we are fortunate in the UK with a prevailing political agenda of inclusiveness and participation. But never before have civil servants taken so much interest in what governed people might do for themselves, including the design of public services. This is a commercial opportunity for designers as well as a social one, recognised particularly by the emerging group of “service” specialists. We are doing what we can to invigorate both supply and demand in this area.

Private sector interest in choice, customisation and creativity might also help to redistribute the tools of design. The commercial value of creativity at large in the population is not lost on manufacturers like Nokia who recognize that an adaptable or customisable product is one of the solutions to multiplying customers with increasingly diverse preferences and capabilities. 

And all the while a downturn in the big, conmmercial design and construction market prompts us to ask, how might people trained in design and architecture enter a productive relationship with the smaller, local community or a more distributed economy? 

The social change I’m looking for is an advance on the well-rehearsed discourse of designing for disadvantaged, ageing, socially excluded etc. people, for little or no money. Prepositionally speaking, let's go from for, through with, to by; beyond co-design. Let’s look at how design might help people do more for themselves, and at new business models for design.

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