Teaching Social Innovation

At the recent Winterhouse Design Education Symposium, a group of educators focused on humanitarian design education gathered to discuss topics related to funding, journalism and content, and teaching pedagogy. The threads seemed to align around the topic of teaching social innovation. For clarity, two definitions of social innovation are offered:

  1. Design is a catalyzer of community engagement. Social innovation is a creative re-combination of existing assets, aimed at achieving socially-recognized goals in new ways. It’s a “participated design approach.” [Ezio Manzini‘s definition, from the DPPI conference]
  2. Social innovation is a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals. [Kriss Deiglmeier]

In both definitions, the emphasis is on socially-recognized goals. What is implied in Ezio’s definition is the role of designer as synthesizer – one who does not create something new as much as leverage things that already exist, recombining them in new and creative ways. Typically, the “things that already exist” involve humans and human capabilities – knowledge, skills, tenacity, relationships, and more. In most of the social innovations Ezio has described or been involved with, a “designed platform” supports this unique recombination of human resources.

Last year, at Winterhouse, I wrote:

I’m concerned, particularly with the metric-driven emphasis on measurable outputs, measurable outcomes, and measurable impact. By definition, a measurable output is reductive, and rigorous measurement serves to separate a given phenomenon from the background of a larger context. It’s at the heart of scientific research – the idea that one can isolate a variable from all others, treat it, and measure the effectiveness of treatment (comparing that effect to a control group to help determine causality). But as Dori Turnstall (Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching at Swinburne University in Australia) commented at our symposium, an ontological view of the world doesn’t separate a person from the background, or view a figure-ground relationship between a person and a culture. Instead, it views all of these things as intimately connected, and a discussion of causality is neither appropriate nor necessary.

The conversation this year seems to have shifted, but only slightly. Our group conversation was less focused on tracking and assessing social impact, as occupied much of the conversation last year. Instead, the emphasis was now on tracking and assessing social innovation education.  There is little precedent for teaching social innovation, and the thrust of the conversation at Winterhouse was around success criteria. Simply, if we’re teaching social innovation, entrepreneurship, or enterprise, how do we know when we’ve succeeded in an educational capacity?

If a student works with an NGO, leads them completely sideways, and learns a great deal in the process – is that a success?

If a student enters a third world country, forms relationships, starts to make an impact, and then leaves and returns to the US after learning a great deal – is that a success?

And if a student forms a philosophy on entrepreneurship that focuses on a humanitarian ROI – but then joins a massive Fortune company upon graduation and ignores this value structure, is that a success?

Most schools have integrated the accreditation-driven push towards assessment and learning outcomes, where a formal criteria for success is established prior to learning, and the student’s progress – and faculty’s abilities – are judged against this criteria upon completion. The majority of design studio classes are focused on the “project.” A project is a finite course of study that brings a real or simulated situation into the school, where students work through the process of design in order to arrive at a solution. Students conduct research, synthesis, ideation, evaluation, and reflection, and then the project is over. Typically, it’s documented in a portfolio, and allows the student to say “I made this thing.” It also becomes the core item that is assessed – somewhat objective measurements can be compared to the project outcome, and a design professor (or, more likely, an administrator) can say “85% of our students satisfactorily achieved objectives A, B, and C on the project.”

Studio project-based learning is convenient. At the end of the semester, the project comes to a completion, and just as a consultant moves to the next project, so too does the student – and faculty – move on to the next design problem. The finiteness is a feature, and it allows for assessment points of evaluation. And project-based learning typically forces reflection-in-action, as it occurs in a studio environment with a teacher as informed guide, a group of people supporting one-another through critique, and all of the studio-culture that designers reflect upon as critical for their training. But project-based learning has two major flaws, when applied in the context of social innovation.

The finiteness of the studio project can force us to abdicate responsibility to those being served. When the project is over, the designers disappear, leaving “the users” in an incomplete and often frustrating state, lacking resolution and with a partial solution that may or may not have positive implications. This isn’t just socially irresponsible; it’s literally the wrong thing to be teaching students who want to focus on social innovation over the course of their design careers. It reinforces the hands-off, “not my fault/what can I do?” attitude that led us to the sustainability mess we’ve only begun to recognize. And, it continues to drive a “design for” attitude, where a designer conflates their expertise in design with expertise in a particular social problem and assumes that they know best.

Additionally, project-based learning reinforces the artificial idea that meaningful impact can occur in a tremendously short time-frame – often as little as three or four weeks. Design students don’t have the experience to doubt this, and when they encounter project after project that features such a short time-frame, they come to expect this as the norm. They’ll graduate without the patience for a longer engagement, and they literally won’t know how to stay the course.

Unfortunately, it’s not just academia that supports project-based engagements. Granting agencies traditionally offer grants only to projects – engagements with a finite timeframe, a clear set of objectives, and measurable levels of impact. That seems to make sound financial and investment sense, except that it isn’t how real life works. So we learn to craft a narrative for the granting agency, one that acts as though social impact is immediately measurable – as though poverty is an engineering problem.

The answer is an extended engagement, one that allows users to become designers and designers to become empathetic. That means we need to find new frameworks for students to learn within. At AC4D, that translates to entrepreneurship, where the focus is not on forming a project but forming a company. While the studio learning ends when class is over, the company continues to drive actual impact, and at graduation, the students transition to founders – with all of the opportunities, trials and tribulations that come with this change.

At Winterhouse, Helen Walters, a writer from Doblin (and formerly of BusinessWeek) described that design programs focused on social innovation are producing students “who are coming into a marketplace and looking for jobs. There isn’t anywhere for them to go. Corporations don’t know what to do with them. They don’t fit into the corporate structures as they exist.” She’s right, and entrepreneurship mitigates a great deal of the problems of fitting a socially minded designer into the square peg of a Fortune management hierarchy. The implications of this from a pedagogical standpoint are huge and challenging. “Designer as founder” requires a different skillset than “designer as artifact maker.” It requires soft-skills like facilitation; it requires an understanding of market dynamic and funding structures; it requires the ability to view culture as a complex system; and it requires deep, sustained passion.

In all of the discussion at Winterhouse, I found the most astute points coming from an unlikely suspect – Kevin Hicks, who is the Dean of Faculty at Hotchkiss, our host for the Symposium. Kevin – who is neither a designer nor a design educator – offered that “We [need to] teach decidedly unglamorous, small scale tools that allow people to make meaning in as significant ways possible, not only in terms of outcomes, but in terms of process.” That’s precisely the right message for design educators – to emphasize significance in process, rather than object, and focus on small-scale, deep impact. It’s a rejection of an exhausted focus on metrics, scale, and artifacts, and for many of us, it means ignoring the hype of design tourism. I’m positioning the program at AC4D on creating founders who have a sensitive, passionate, and intellectual approach to their work. And I’m thrilled to see more and more programs embracing social innovation, and re-evaluating – and in many cases, massively overhauling – tired design curricula.

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