Are you a social innovator?

How would you define the term ‘social innovator’? The Centre for Social Innovation define it as ‘new ideas that resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet. A true social innovation is systems-changing – it permanently alters the perceptions, behaviours and structures that previously gave rise to these challenges.’ This definition to me is what a sustainable designer does. It tackles the three pillars of sustainability for a balanced future and concentrates on behaviour change.

I used to call myself a sustainable designer but after giving a presentation on ‘creating social cohesion’ for the 15th Sustainable Design Network seminar I tend to say I am a ‘socially sustainable designer’. I see this as encompassing design thinking, service design and social innovation to help make our planet a better place to live. Some people would see this as purely social innovation but I feel it is important to keep the word design included – a designer uses their creativity to solve problems while a social innovator could be argued to make social change. It could be that understanding the design process or being able to realise the end result puts a designer at the forefront of innovation where as an ‘innovator’ is more business focused?

The website ‘Challenge Your World‘ makes the following observation that ‘the term social innovation is both vague enough to attract a diverse following and specific enough to afford its followers a sense of identity. But left poorly defined for too long, I worry that social innovation could lose its followers like chewing gum loses its flavour’.

Social innovation is very important for the current climate. The Big Society needs social innovators to help implement the governments goals.

Collaborative consumption, sustainable design, service design, design activism and co-participation/production are all successful contributers to helping The Big Society idea. There are plenty of people out there already contributing – but do they realise?

For example, my neighbour is setting up a new company to help companies recycle their unwanted goods but she thinks of herself fundamentally as a business woman whereas my cousin is helping reduce food waste yet fundamentally thinks of himself as a chef. I trained as an industrial designer yet now think of myself as a socially sustainable designer. I would call us all social innovators.

There are many people out there doing great things to help our environment which are socially orientated – let’s help them make their ideas happen and promote their work – this takes me back to the Challenge Your World comment about not letting social innovation lose its followers – the design activist in me is always on the look out for new adventures and projects which we, as a society can benefit from.

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Co-partipation

I currently work two days a week managing the SVP charity shop in Dalston. It’s an interesting place to be; community focused, retail work, managing volunteers, sorting donations, making money from other people’s preloved goods and dealing with the customers that come in.

I’m doing it off the back of my Masters thesis and I love it. Not only am I able to develop on the ideas I had for helping local charity shops improve (with no money) but I am helping to recycle unwanted goods (and prevent them going to landfill) while provide affordable shopping for the local community. Service design and social innovation also play a large role.

Every day is a challenge in the shop. The main issues I come across are getting the volunteers to understand how best to tackle a situation, how to make sure donations are dealt with properly and how to keep the stock turned over. It is very easy for a charity shop to become stale and uninteresting for the customers.

I noticed the other day that the stock room had become completely disorganised. The clothes were put on any clothes rack, some were priced, some were steamed and some clearly needed discarding. I think out of sheer frustration I decided to organise it and spent all afternoon putting different types of garments together and labelling the different areas. I felt a real sense of achievement and went away pleased with myself.

Of course, I came in a couple of days later to find the clothes all over the place again and my signs had been completely ignored. At first I was really frustrating and then I sat back and was annoyed at myself for completely ignoring my own belief in co-participation! I had gone in and organised the room without consulting the volunteers!

Once I had all the volunteers in, I sat them down and asked what they did and didn’t like about the system I’d created and what they would like to see changed. It needed explaining why I had decided to create a system in the first place as it wasn’t obvious to all of them why we needed it. After explaining the need for putting similar items together (to make stock replenishment easier) and not pricing/coding items straight away they seemed bought into it.

The reason my system hadn’t worked simply boils down to the fact that some of the volunteers aren’t tall enough to reach the top rail….. I love it when a problem is because of something very simple!

We took time to go through some co-participation and have resolved the system issues (by moving rails around), kept all volunteers happy and kept me happy by having a tidy stock room.