With this research we posed the overarching question of how we understand the value of social design. We approached the discussion of value by looking specifically at questions around continuity of social design initiatives. We asked: Why do many social design projects remain a short-term intervention? And how can we go beyond the symbolic enactment of promising ideas? What is needed to overcome some barriers to the long-term continuation of design for society?
Over the course of a year, we conducted in-depth conversations, learned from practical examples, facilitated shared sessions and turned to academic research for theoretical support. The scope of the research was broad, and the questions were complex. At times, we collectively experienced a lack of motivation and even cynicism — implementation and continuity seem so hard, can social design really fulfil its promise? And how can we as design researchers, with limited resources and scope, find answers and ways to enable continuity?
Now, having finished this research, with the support of many voices and minds, we are glad we didn’t give in to the moments of discouragement. Implementation remains as difficult and thorny as ever. But we are excited to contribute this body of knowledge, which we believe can support the sustainable implementation of social design initiatives.
With the section Unpacking Implementation ↗, we equip the readers with a more nuanced and broader understanding of the implementation process, building on existing design practices. The section of Identifying Barriers ↗ makes the struggle towards continuity explicit and comprehensive — it is not easy to go Beyond Projects, and there are no quick fixes. These insights set the foundation for the crucial conversations that need to happen with social designers and partner organisations and companies. Issues and challenges of continuity should not be carried solely by the designers. The approaches section ↗ stretches to the realm of possibilities by proposing a framework to build on further. As every initiative is different in output, collaboration structure, and context, drawing one recipe for implementation is impossible. Even within each approach we propose, there could be many ways to design the implementation process. The proposed five approaches & five questions offer a strategic groundwork that supports designers and partnering organisations towards sustainable implementation.
Reflecting on the entire research and essay process, there are a few core conclusions we would like to leave you with:
Further research on the relationship between organisational structures and implementation is needed
As part of this research, we sent out a survey to social designers. The objective of the survey was to explore how designers organise their companies, legally and financially, and to what extent that influences their ability to go Beyond Projects.
While the survey outreach was too limited to draw metrical conclusions, we received fascinating qualitative answers. Relevant learnings from the survey have been integrated into the sections in this research. Nevertheless, we see an opportunity to research this area further. Such research is important for equipping the design sector with more tools and knowledge to understand how their choice of organisational model impacts their ability to collaborate with other parties and work towards continuity. The survey questions have been added to this essay ↗ for others to build on.
Acknowledge implementation as a state in the nonlinear design process
This essay challenges two issues in the current understanding of the design process, specifically in designing for socially urgent problems. The first issue is approaching the design process as a linear process with a beginning and an end. This linear thinking means that people enter the design trajectory with an end in mind and a consistent timeline. In reality, the process goes back and forth, and there is hardly a moment where a clear ending could be drawn. Societal issues are not exhausted, and the work is never done. Projects shouldn’t be seen as something that end, but rather as a process that continues to evolve. Even if the design process is changing, the output alters, the people carrying the project change, or the form it takes in the world, the project cannot or should not really end.Awareness of this evolution process and making it explicit is part of the Beyond Projects mindset.
The second challenging aspect we addressed is that implementation is often seen as something that happens after the design is completed. It is seen as an operational job where design is not needed anymore. With this essay, we are calling for implementation to be seen as a design act as well as an operational, organisational and strategic act. It may well be that not all designers can or want to focus on this phase. Nevertheless, certain design qualities are needed for the initiative to achieve a stable foundation for continuity. Design skills such as storytelling, research, facilitation, experimentation, orchestration and creativity of the initiative are crucial. There is an opportunity and need for designers to focus on implementation design together with other professionals who thrive from putting ideas into action. When that happens, more and more projects can achieve their potential and operational goals. By writing these words and creating a visual language around implementation, we hope to equip the design sector and partner organisations with tools and language to expand the discourse and implementation practices. We also hope to have made implementation appealing!
We should move from ownership towards shared responsibility
In this essay, the term ownership is mentioned often. In the conversations we had, it was often brought up as a barrier — for example, in cases where the partner or client does not take ownership. It is also brought forward as a desire to be something that is shared. In practice, it seems hard to both feel ownership and share ownership simultaneously. Perhaps shifting our thinking and working towards shared responsibility is more productive. When a coalition of different parties feels responsible for the design initiative, they might also take care of it. Moving towards shared responsibility means challenging the current commissioning models the design sector knows — client-commissioner, designer-funder. The social design field has an opportunity to experiment with new commissioning models based on the foundation of shared responsibility — and some are already doing that. In such coalitions, different roles and levels of engagement may change over time. The level of shared responsibility, and the way it evolves during the design trajectory, must be made explicit and designed for.
We were often told to ‘design ourselves out’ by our teachers when we were students. That is the ethos we were educated with. In some cases, that might be possible. However, this seems to be an unrealistic or possibly harmful departure point in the case of complex social design trajectories. What if, instead, we would educate designers to “Design yourself out, so you can design someone else in”? Thinking and discussing how the responsibility can be passed on should be a part of the implementation design process.
Celebrating when a project is no longer a project
When is a project no longer a project? When does it leave the realm of imagination and enter the realm of possibilities? Or, more practically, when can we call the initiative by its operational form, by the vessel in which it exists in the ‘real world’?
When these questions can be answered by the team developing a design initiative, it calls for a celebration. This is perhaps not a precise moment or a sharply defined step. It is rather a blurry transition that happens over time, with some back-and-forth moments of stepping in and withdrawing. As discussed in this essay, in some trajectories, implementation can be from the very beginning (actualisation) ↗; in others, it is when an extended pilot is set up, and for others, it is when certain conditions are met to realise the initiative’s goals. Once we can point out the transition, or multiple moments in which the project ceases to be a project, we have moved beyond its project state. Then, and only then, can we celebrate the valuable contribution of design for socially urgent problems.