Presenting ‘social cohesion’ to the Kingston MA students

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to present ‘promoting social cohesion’ to the current MA Design for Development students. It is a subject that I am passionate about and always great to be able to discuss the topic with fresh participants. The current students are impressively up to speed with service design and social innovation and we had a great discussion.

Promoting Social Cohesion

I have been working with a charity shop in Dalston to see how social innovation and service design methods can help improve the shop and it’s been a challenging yet rewarding project. The main topics covered in my presentation were the challenges faced with real life social innovation projects; understanding the end users and stakeholders, having empathy with the people affected by the project/service, thinking on your feet, having time to reflect and understanding how to use design thinking to tackle different situations.

We then discussed the barriers and enablers for the four projects I am currently working on: Ecoinomy, a work placed engagement system that motivates employees to use less energy, the Water Design Challenge;, working with a school in Southampton to help them use design to reduce their water consumption, The People’s Kitchen;, a food waste collection initiative which provides a meal for the community and the charity shop project.

The People's Kitchen

Barriers and Enablers

It was a helpful way for me to reflect on the projects I am working on and very satisfying that we all came up with similar words/themes.

Continue to learn: a project never runs as originally planned. It is stimulating to be open to a change of direction (often for the better) and to use the insights gained along the way to benefit the project.

Keep a fresh mind: It is very easy to get too absorbed in a project, especially when you are the only service designer. Taking a step back or speaking to people outside about what you’re experiencing is essential. It is amazing how people unrelated to your project or service design can be helpful with an idea.

Be confident: There will often be times when a project isn’t going as planned or in the direction you had desired. Barriers come up all the time, stakeholders can change their minds about decisions and time can run out. It is important to stay confident at all times (or at least appear confident!) so that the rest of the team/stakeholders do not worry about the project. It is always possible to involve new people if necessary or discuss how to face a certain situation with the project team.

Add value: There is no point in carrying out a project (especially as a service designer/design thinker) if you are not adding value. Remind yourself that as the project evolves, you need to be able to measure how the project is going, think about where value can be added and refer back to your original aims on a regular basis.

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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.