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Year Here: Design Methodology and Social Action

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Examples and findings, Thought Pieces

Year Here is a postgraduate leadership programme that challenges talented graduates to a year of tackling social issues in their own backyard. The programme combines experiential learning, frontline service and project work and is delivered in partnership with the leading lights of social innovation – including IDEO, Citizens UK, Institute for Government, FutureGov and Nesta.

We offered two current Year Here participants the chance to talk about what they've been doing and what they've learnt about policy and progress.


Recently I had the privilege of working with Richard Rogers, architect of Pompidou and Millennium Dome fame. “Design,” he told me, “is all about making people's lives better. Or at least it should be.” The project we were working on included fellow Starchitect, Zaha Hadid, recently condemned for her apathy regarding the migrant deaths during the construction of her design for the Qatar stadium. The rapacious global demand for design in this physical and commercial sense has a great deal of power and opportunity to enhance or damage people's lives. But how can the strategic thought processes of the 'creative problem solvers' be applied to social action rather than economic growth?


Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO has said “designers are optimistic. They believe there are solutions to tough problems and that, with the right methodology and collaboration, they can find them.” And it's easy to be overwhelmed by the increasing number of methodologies being proposed as the next design tool-kit is brought out to trump the last.


One of the most refreshing, concise and universal proposals I've come across is Ben Terret's design principles for the Government Digital Service, which although related to the redesign of the website, asks key questions about context relevant to the unique problem at hand; where is the user using the service? Could they be in a library? Do they have a smartphone? and so on – and it's this type of lateral thinking which is the essence of innovation in alleviating specific social problems.


From tool-kits to thought, a slightly less prescriptive approach is the notion of 'design thinking', a method of treating problems with optimism, curiosity, creativity, and most importantly – empathy for the user and their issue. The at Stanford University define the phases simply as: empathise // define // ideate // prototype // test.


It can be argued that the creative process, and the motivation to innovate, is something that can't be taught. Sometimes a scenario where there hasn't been a tool-kit in sight, but rather an inescapable confrontation with a problem is where the intuitive and enterprising characteristics of potential innovators and inventors spark significant social action. To me, it's this form of creative grassroots innovation that's the most exciting.


The 'Disobedient Objects' exhibition at the V&A showcases some “objects made as part of activist social movements playing a key role in cultural and political changes – not made by commercial designers but by people collectively taking design into their own hands to make a change in the world”.


Examples include Istanbul protesters make-shift tear gas masks to galactically mysterious metallic blobs decorating the ceiling, which are in fact inflatable cobblestones used in worker protests recently in Berlin and Barcelona to baffle the police, made by the 'Tools for Action' group famous for other inflatable interventions. An app, 'Phone Story', developed as a “paradoxical commodity that interrogates it's own platform” is designed to guide players through the production of the device they're playing it on – and to win you must force children to mine Coltan in the Congo. Finally, a graffiti-writing robot that is able to plaster protest messages sent remotely, affording the co-ordinator the luxury of contributing to the riot from a safe distance.


It seems that design, in all its guises, is a multi-faceted term sometimes applied to give a 'designed' outcome the false appearance of having been considered and thoughtful. However approached as a form of creative problem solving it becomes clearly defined as steps we can apply to achieve an outcome unique to whichever wicked problem we feel compelled to tackle. Helpfully formulas for success are in abundance, yet the 'designed' objects of the reactionaries are arguably an equally powerful force in a journey of social change.

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