Our Common Future? Questions for designing social innovation

Design roles are expanding in society, as reflected in a growth of interest and funding for design and design research in the area of ‘social innovation’. By social innovation here, I refer to the provision of social services and resources, such as habitation, education, care, mobility and food, in which design is increasingly engaged in the complexity and dynamics of local provision of such services and resources, and in the co-production of alternatives. The question of designing for social innovation necessarily involves political questions about the role of design in how, where, by and for whom, and in what forms, wider social practices and systems, beliefs and authority, may be altered.
Recent decades have seen a significant shift in how profound and intractable
problems such as poverty, disease, violence or environmental deterioration are
handled. While such problems have traditionally been handled through national
social and spatial policies in Europe, there has been a substantial redistribution
to the market, regions and communities. Previous paradigms, premised on
centralized, top-down, sectoral and expert-led approaches are increasingly
recognized as insufficient. Sustainability governance in Europe has moved in
recent decades toward more ‘grounded’ and regional forms of social and spatial
planning, with an emphasis on what Giddens terms “co-production”, in which
there “should be collaboration between the state and the citizen in the
production of socially desirable outcomes.” This shift is embodied in the term
‘social innovation’, which has been identified as a priority for addressing the
“major concerns shared by citizens in Europe and elsewhere” (European
Commission, 2011).
Social innovation typically refers to a type of cross-sectoral and transdisciplinary
innovation involving multiple societal actors and levels in society. Social
innovation manifests in diverse problems with and solutions to the provision of
social services and resources, for example, such as habitation, education, care,
mobility and food (see the US Office of Social Innovation and Social Innovation
Europe for some examples). Social innovation is is not an unambiguous term – in
Western political history, it is part of a semantic network of terms associated
with social reform, radicalism and socialism and, in contemporary discourse, it is
used in a variety of dissimilar ways, for example to refer to social
entrepreneurship, social responsibilities of businesses, and the social aspects of
technological innovation. In part, this lack of definition can be explained by the
fact that it takes different forms in different historical moments, political
regimes, geographic and ecological situations.
Besides contested definitions of what social innovation is, Mulgan (2007) argued
that there is “a remarkable dearth of serious analysis of how social innovation is
done and how it can be supported”. This question – ‘how’ – has opened for
design approaches premised on traditions of co-production, collaboration and
participation. I argue that the question of ‘how’ also involves questions of 
‘where’, by and for ‘who’, and in ‘what’ forms, with implications for the political
dimensions of design.
I explore these questions here through three cases exemplifying design roles in
the co-production of alternatives to the handling and provision of local and
urban resources. In these case studies from the US, Denmark and The
Netherlands, designers, design methods and materials took part in issues and
controversies of sustainable development. Design had roles in (re)producing or
rupturing a particular ‘commons’ in terms of how and where social innovation is
framed and staged, for and by ‘who’ and in ‘what’ forms.
Excerpt from Mazé, R. (2014) ‘Our Common Future? Political Questions for
Designing Social Innovation’, in Proceedings of the DRS Design Research Society
Conference (Umeå, Jun).