Designing With the Bees and the Trees – on Design for Social Innovation

Anders Emilson is a PhD student in interaction design with a focus on design for social innovation. Last week, MEDEA hosted a seminar where Emilson led a discussion on the topic “Designing With the Bees and the Trees”. Here’s an excerpt of the position statement of Emilson’s thesis.

Designers are facing many challenges when trying to engage in solving today’s wicked problems. First, it is not only about physical stuff and mass-production, it is also about looking into social issues, relationships and creating engagement in communities. Second, its about working across professional and sector boundaries to create new alliances and collaborations.

With a departure in theory and practice from both social innovation and design, but also relating to other academic fields, I will through interviews and design experiments explore what design can contribute to the field of social innovation and what constitutes the emerging design research field design for social innovation.

My focus will be on designing networks and how social innovation often is driven and created by coalitions or wider networks of actors from different disciplines and sectors (private, public and third sector) connecting what Murray et al. (2010) calls “the bees” (creative individuals or small organisations with ideas) and “the trees” (larger institutions with power and money). The role of the designer will be to involve the different stakeholders in the process and design WITH (Leadbeater, 2009) them rather than FOR them. Here, my point of departure will be from the rich tradition of participatory design but I will also relate to concepts like co-creation and co-production. Other relevant design approaches in this work will be service design, strategic design, meta-design and transformation design. In trying to not become to instrumental and avoiding the trap of social engineering, I would also try to use critical design as a lens to look at the work through a more critical perspective and as a tool to reach other dimensions or values in social innovation solutions.

A goal for this kind of design practice is to create social change. My focus will (as for now) be more specifically to create – through participatory design with stakeholders and communities where parts of the design thinking and practice is transferred to the participants – some kind of “adaptive capacity” where individuals, organisations and communities capacity to create change or reach goals by themselves is strengthened.

The ultimate goal is to strengthen individuals and communities resilience (the ability to deal with change and continue to develop).

The MEDEA approach
Our way of working at MEDEA resembles many of the established approaches in design for social innovation (co-design, transformation design and design thinking). However, in our practice (see e.g. Bjorgvinsson et al. 2004 (pdf), 2010, Seravalli et al. 2011), we put much emphasis on building long-term relationships and on using prototyping as a way to evoke and explore dilemmas. Our activities could be characterized by three aspects:

  • setting up collaborative design processes where diverse stakeholders with complementary skills work side by side and where mutual respect and learning is supported;
  • building long-term relationships and trust with stakeholders. This can lead to the foundation of open-ended designing networks;
  • performing early prototyping where possibilities are explored in real contexts but where potential dilemmas also are highlighted.

Social innovation demands multiple perspectives and we collaborate with NGOs, municipalities and business partners. Often we establish relationships with them separately to explore possibilities related to their own agenda, getting multiple starting points for potential projects and innovation. At the same time we also try to see how different interests could be integrated.

In one of our cases we are working with an NGO of immigrant women, Herrgårds Kvinnoförening (HKF). Their activities are focusing on cooking, textile design, traditional clothing and carpet production. During the first meetings with them they expressed the desire of being more integrated in the Swedish society by finding opportunities where their abilities and skills could be valued. Instead of setting up a short and well-defined design process, we have slowly been building a long-term relationship with them. In this process we are not acting as the smart designers and imposing solutions on them, rather, we are facilitating HKF in being the designers and developing ideas about how they could contribute to society.

One of their ideas was that they could become a resource for refugee children hosted in Malmö, e.g. by providing a cooking class for the orphans. Our role as designers was then to help them in prototyping this as a potential service by, for example, establishing a connection with the media company Good World (one of the members of the MEDEA network) who let HKF and the children use the kitchen in their premises (see Kreativa kvinnor och social innovation).

This prototype proved that the women could provide an important support for these youths, but it also highlighted some potential dilemmas. For example a union’s representative responded very negatively to the idea of a non-commercial NGO doing business and accused HKF to compete under unfair conditions and ‘stealing’ regular jobs. Another dilemma concerned power relations within the womens’ families: some of the husbands were upset with the idea of the women providing an income.

Furthermore, it clearly emerged that HKF needs support in navigating the Swedish bureaucracy as well as in setting up business plans. In response to this we tried, through the intermediating of a start-up match making platform DoDream, to connect HKF to the Göran Network, a network of successful women in Sweden. At the moment some women from HKF and Göran are involved in a process of exploring mutual interests and have divided themselves in five theme groups: food, health, craft, a book project and gardening, to explore different possible business opportunities.

In this process we have had a more passive role, actually letting go of the creativity monopoly, and the process have been led by a woman from the Göran network. This process raises questions about how balance between steering a process and letting go to let it self-organize. In the HKF case new ideas and new possible collaborators adds on in a constantly evolving web of possibilities. Who should be in charge to manage that and how?

Incubator for social innovation and Innovation forums
Although NGOs such as HKF has been a central starting point for us to explore new opportunities in social innovation, we also collaborate with the municipality of Malmö where some civil servants are eager to learn about design and social innovation. Our approach is to let them know about our experiences and results as well as supporting their ongoing projects by organizing design workshops and meetings where we also bring in the actors from our network. These workshops act as mutual learning spaces where we explore how design could make sense in their context. Through them, the design opportunities are brought to another level, more closely connected to policy, where civil servants in important positions have the power to implement large-scale change.

During the spring we have also led, on commission of the city of Malmö, a series of workshop to explore the possibility and the context for establishing an incubator for social innovation in Malmö. Three workshops have been carried through where actors from academia, private, public and third sector have worked together. The result was summarized in a report that stressed the fact that there is already a lot of support structures out there in the city but they have to bee co-ordinated. This more distributed structure could work as a pre-incubator able to spot and support promising ideas on a local level and in that way complement a more traditional and central incubator.

The ideas of a more distributed pre-incubator have shown to fit well with city’s ideas about “innovation forums”, small units based in connection to the five “area programs” that should help lift the areas of Herrgården, Holma-Kroksbäck, Seved, Lindängen and Kirseberg out of deprivation. At the moment I am involved in a pre-study about the establishing of these innovation forums.

If you are interested in what Anders Emilson is doing, get in touch with him here.

Further reading
Dealing with Dilemmas: Participatory Approaches in Design for Social Innovation
Kartläggning av design för social innovation
“Inkubatorn finns därute” – en rapport från Living Labs Kvarteret