The most important Design for Social Innovation is Invisible.
1 August 11
Meg Wheatley said that “So much of human behavior is habitual. And behind every habit is a belief – about people, life, the world. If we can know our beliefs, we can then act with greater consciousness about our behaviors.”
It appears a growing number of people agree that if we are to have a different future than the one we are heading towards, it will require changing our behavior. In other words, no amount of green buildings or consumption of green products will suffice to reduce the environmental destruction and social inequality we are inflicting on the planet and each other. Stands to reason.
What this points out is a fundamental truth about humanity that we have pretty much been able to avoid thinking hard about until now. Of course it’s more comfortable to place the responsibility elsewhere, but it is dangerous. That’s why I cringe whenever I hear someone use the cliché that they want to “change the world”, since it so clearly isn’t the world that needs changing, it’s us.
The implication for Design for Social Innovation is that the most important design of all is invisible. It’s not the “stuff”, not the artifacts, not the technologies. It’s the beliefs, the ethos, the values, the systems behind the campaigns and products and events that form them. It’s designing events and products and behavior before they happen. And that is precisely where we need to be designing.
Design for social innovation begins with the design of conversations themselves – it requires treating a conversation with the same care, and the same planning, that would be appropriate for the design of a product. Conversation starts everything – and yet we rarely think of them as an opportunity for design. This is not only the most important, upstream part of the systems that we need to change, it’s the fastest way for a designer to become a vital part of a strategic initiative. It’s where things begin, and where the most important things are decided.
On the hard side, it doesn’t provide much of a portfolio. Nothing to enter into design competitions, few samples to put on your website, harder to explain at a cocktail party just what it is that you do. In fact, most of the invisible things you’ll be designing are private and sensitive to CEOs and leaders of all types of organizations. You can’t even talk about them. This can be a tough shift for designers who are loathe to give up the artifacts of their work. Of course it doesn’t mean that you won’t design any artifacts, it only means that they will be the last thing you design, not the first.
New Scientist (sorry they won’t let me link to their articles) ran a story on hydrothermal vent mining. It’s the next frontier of mining rare earth elements from the deep ocean floor, and needless to say there is competition building for the best locations. Also needless to say, we risk damaging remarkable ecosystems of which we know very little about (sound familiar?) – mysterious ecosystems of giant tube worms and unknown species of shrimp and who knows what else. The point the author was making is that before we have another gold rush like we did in California in the 19th century, we should put in place the legal frameworks that will help avoid the potential destruction of still untouched ecological riches.
But is that enough to change our behavior and prevent us from repeating history? Isn’t this a process that would benefit from the involvement of Social Innovation Designers? Isn’t this one of the big conversations that needs thoughtful architecture to gain alignment around what’s best for the planet and not for the same rich countries that always prevail? Wouldn’t it be an important thing to design communication so that everyone understands the risks as well as the benefits? What about integrating all the wisdom we have about these places into our actions?
This is design at a point where it can significantly impact the future. The most important design challenges in the world are the ones we can’t see – until they are upon us. The answer is yes, let’s get involved.