Daily Reflection 12: Social Innovation

Another day spent primarily reading, thinking, sketching, refocusing, reading, thinking, sketching…I continue to place trust in my process and pursue breadth over depth. My primary concern is how long is too long to continue defining my question? I am still early on in this process, but I am anxious to know my focus. Thus I continue to battle as I try to get a grip on what I am researching. Today I took another step back and reflected on my original proposal in my application to DESMA. A major part of my argument focused on design and social innovation. I tried to make the point that in order to address wicked problems, we need to scale the design process to actively engage large groups of people (neighborhoods, cities, regions, countries) in problem solving social issues. As I started to consider my argument I realized that it depends much on a view of how to drive social development or social innovation. My perspective has been that people can use design methods to design positive developments for their neighborhoods or cities collectively. This might sound naive, but I am starting to understand that this concept is problematic for a few reasons.

Design methods often involve a set of skills, dispositions, and knowledge that can be “tacit” to the designer. Some methods that designers use are adapted from other disciplines (ethnography, etc), however, others are developed over years of training and practice in a design profession. Additionally, it seems that some methods that are considered co-creative or participatory are hybrids of the explicit, well-articulated methods used in the social sciences, and the more abstract, intuitive methods of design. For example, generative methods used in co-design can reveal user needs and desires, but may also serve as a prototypical solution to a design problem. In these hybrid methods it seems that the results are left for inspiration or interpretation by a designer, and leave the participant with little knowledge or insight gained into the process in which they participated. Such a scenario maintains focus on the designer as the central driver of the design process — an approach to design that is one-to-many or few-to-many. While co-design may be valuable in many instances, it doesn’t quite follow the argument I was trying to make in my essay. It seems I have found myself situated between the specialized skills and tacit knowledge of the designer and how I think those skills and knowledge can contribute to democratic social development.

I find myself often considering the following notions:

a) Not everyone wants to be, or should be trained as a designer

b) Design processes and methods can be incorporated into education to foster creativity, problem-solving, communication skills — but how long will that take to have a positive impact at a societal level?

c) Distributing or scaling design tools does not ensure that large groups of people will produce good design

d) Designers as facilitators place the designer in a pivotal role that limits the scalability of the design process to a level of social innovation