Identifying current barriers towards implementation

Collaborative social design projects often start their life in the world through an initial experiment or a pilot. These pilots create enthusiasm and hope, generate excellent visual material, and, if successful, provide enough evidence that the proposition is promising. But, very often, the pilot ends, the project is presented to the public, and there it stops. The pilot becomes a mere symbolic enactment of the project but is not the project itself.

There is nothing amiss with symbolic execution if that is the intention of the collaboration. However, in many design projects, the primary intention is to contribute to a societal issue in an operational manner. This cannot be done through a one-time experiment or intervention. This section explores what makes implementing collaborative social design so challenging.

Building on interviews with designers and experts and analysis of What If Lab cases, we identified four key barriers that designers and their partners face when trying to go beyond the project phase into implementation. Through the lens of these barriers, we discuss why so many social design projects remain a short-term intervention and why many projects remain an unfulfilled promise. We show the issues designers and their partners or clients face when setting a design concept in the world in a stable, durational manner.

Minsung Wang, Bron van Doen

“We achieved the most success when we were the only designers in the room and could rely on other disciplines to play a role in implementation. I still do not know how to solve the issues of continuity of social design projects. We have at least two concepts in this neighbourhood created by designers: conceptually they are all sound, but it stops at the phases afterwards. There is a gross underestimation of the efforts needed to implement that vision. It is not just a problem with the designers but also those who gave them that assignment.”

Barrier 1: Issues in the character of design collaborations

Social design projects are collaborative. The diverse parties working together often function at different paces, with different expectations of each other and different working methods. This can cause friction in the social design process. Often, social design does not lend itself well to a clear pre-established project plan. In addition, the fast-paced design process does not always match well with the slower, more bureaucratic ways of working in many organisations. As a result, organisations that are used to a more rigid process can be hesitant to fully commit to social design due to the unpredictable character of the design practice.

Wouter Corvers, Studio Corvers
participated in What If Lab

“Even when the design process includes a pilot, it is still difficult to ensure the client or partner will continue with the outcome afterwards. You can’t ‘force’ the client to do something with the result, especially since the outcome is never clear from the beginning.”

Evelien ten Elsen, Customer Experience Manager at the Dutch Railways

“Sometimes, there is a major gap between the creative sector and business or the public sectors. There are often misunderstandings from all sides. For example, during the test phase of a What If Lab, when designers received positive consumer feedback on their designed propositions, they saw this as confirmation to proceed to implementation immediately. But the partner organisation first needed time to create internal support to take the next steps. Companies often need a different language and a different burden of proof to take a project further.”

In addition, the collaborative aspect of social design makes the process sensitive to changes or internal issues within organisations. Social design projects tend to get lost or fizzle out when partners face internal changes or difficulties, such as reorganisation, changes in data systems or sudden lack of capacity. In addition to the unpredictable character of the design process, friction also comes from the false expectations that external parties have of social design. Some stakeholders may enter the process of collaborating with designers with PR or marketing objectives but not with an intrinsic intention of making a positive transformation. Moreover, designers face struggles when collaborating with external partners due to their practice being both over- and underestimated.

Dries van Wagenberg
program manager What If Lab, Dutch Design Foundation

“We worked on projects where the design outcome was good. Still, the stakeholders had expected more from it. They had an expectation of returning to the organisation with this revolutionary answer; they wanted to change the world with one project. But, unfortunately, that is not how it goes in the real world.”

Overly optimistic and idealistic ideas of what design can do leads to difficulties at the start of social design processes or organisations being underwhelmed by designers’ ideas. Designers are often confronted with a lack of commitment from the organisation because not enough members see the value of social design. The opposite can also occur: organisations expect ideas that match up to their overly optimistic vision of a single design project changing the world.

In addition, even when ideas are promising, and the partner organisation is enthusiastic about them, there needs to be a framework within the organisation for them to help implement them. Social design often operates in the spaces between departments, roles or traditional organisational pillars, and implementing the ideas requires organisational change or the formation of a new organisation. This is how many projects end up on the shelf.

“The value of an innovation process is often diffuse and difficult to explain. And yet, it’s precisely that value that is needed in an efficient and result-oriented culture to help projects move forward. That is why it is important to show or make tangible the added value of working together throughout the entire process, no matter how small the result.”

“The new ideas don’t land in a vacuum but in a context where practices are often already established. What is commonplace is being questioned, and existing practices must be adapted or replaced. Scaling up the new (deviate) also implies shaking up the existing (default). Building new practices and converting or phasing out current practices.”

Barrier 2: Issues with ownership

Ownership turns out to be an essential and difficult topic in social design. Ownership is a difficult factor as both the ambiguity of ownership in social design processes as well as clearly demarcated ownership can lead to discontinuity of the process.

In the case of collaborative design structures, such as design challenges, living labs, or design labs (such as the What If Lab), issues around intellectual property (IP) emerge. Sole ownership of intellectual property lowers the possibilities of continuity, making the process more dependent on the owner’s actions. Suppose the ownership of a project lies legally with one of the partnering organisations or clients, for example. In that case, the designer depends on the commitment of the owner to continue the project. The process will likely hit a wall if the organisation does not take action. And vice versa: when the intellectual property lies with the designer, it can lead to discontinuation when the designer does not want to or cannot continue the project.

Wouter Corvers, Studio Corvers
participated in What If Lab

“When we first worked with a What If Lab project, the question-holder organisation had the creative rights to the concept. Later on, we had interest from another party to develop it, but we were not allowed to act upon it. With a different What If Lab project, the IP remained with us, but also the responsibility. So if we don’t develop it ourselves, it will stay on the shelf.”

Anna Noyons, studio (ink).
participated in What If Lab

“Ownership of innovation in the public realm is a complicated and strategic dilemma in every project. Who owns accessibility? Who owns poverty? Who owns complex societal challenges? Nobody owns them, and frankly, nobody wants to own them.

Everybody wants to solve the problems, but nobody wants to own the problems.”

When ownership is not clearly established from the start, or parties back out during the process, the project misses an actor that drives it forward. Our conversations with designers show there is hesitation among partners when taking ownership of social design processes, as social design deals with wicked problems for which no single entity is responsible or has a clear solution. To be the ‘owner’ of these issues requires long time commitment and maintenance and often goes beyond the mission and possibility realm of one single organisation or company. Therefore, we call to shift the thinking about ownership towards shared responsibility Five questions to collectively address to lower the barriers towards sustainable continuity as an essential ingredient for continuity.

Alain Dujardin, Greenberry
participated in What If Lab

“At the beginning of the What if Lab, the municipality we partnered with questioned why we wanted co-ownership of the IP. But we are creating something that might work for more contexts than just that specific city. Looking forward to the future, what do you do when you have a success story? We believe a joint ownership means a joined effort.”

Barrier 3: Gaps in design education

Many designers, particularly those at the start of their careers, are wary of committing to long-term projects. This reluctance was mentioned repeatedly in our interviews with designers. There are different plausible reasons why designers tend to stick to short-term projects (up to 6 months). The first is the educational system, which is often structured around project-based learning. Most design schools operate in two, three or four semesters a year. Often, students are assigned a new project every semester. In the yearly educational flow, designers learn to work on short-term projects with high tempo and quick turnover. Coming out of such courses, it’s difficult for designers to imagine committing to a project spanning a year or two. But according to designers we spoke with as well as case studies from the field, it’s clear that a long-term process is needed if a social design trajectory is to make an impact.

Minsung Wang, Bron van Doen

“I think professional design is currently not built to sustain societal initiatives. We are not trained to attach to a particular context but to hopscotch to any situation and be able to design for it. That’s why we need to strengthen our service skills and become multidisciplinary.”

Another potential reason designers struggle to commit to implementation could be how designers are taught to understand the design process. For example, students are often not taught about the ‘reception constitute’ phase of design, as defined by design theorist Alain Findelli. This phase comes after the concept and prototype, and is often understood as an operational phase in which the designer steps out of the process. For that reason, it’s often not included in design education. In reality, the implementation phase is an ongoing process that asks for creativity and design thinking next to organisational and business skills and practices.

Furthermore, some (young) designers tend to lack the organisational knowledge or strategic skills required to embed a social design project in an organisation or create a new one. Organisational and business training are not often included in design education, and many designers lack a systemic understanding of how their projects could operate in the real world.

Anne Ligtenberg & Mats Horbach, Studio Ligtenberg
participated in What If Lab

“When we researched the impact of social design, we discovered how important the baseline is. By baseline, we mean establishing the current state of affairs before starting the project. Designers tend to look forward and imagine and are not necessarily good at understanding the status quo before intervening.”

Barrier 4: Financial and bureaucratic challenges

Currently, the size of investments that clients, partners, or even funds are willing to make in design projects is too low to be able to roll out a long-term, upscaling development phase. There is sometimes a mismatch in the ambition and the intentions of parties who work with designers and the investment they are willing or able to make.

Anna Noyons, studio (ink).
participated in What if Lab

“Partners should be more aware that they need substantial funding to implement design concepts. You cannot invest 20K into developing a solution and expect it to be magically brought to life.”

At the end of a design lab or design challenge, professional designers are often expected to invest in the project themselves to develop it further. However, running a social design company or freelance business usually means a business model based around billable hours. This makes it hard to create time for the continuity of a social design project without a clear assignment and a committed client. This major factor stops designers from investing in the next step.

If designers want to develop a project further and go towards implementation without a client or committed partner, they have to look for other funding themselves. This is where designers encounter bureaucratic challenges. The business model and legal state of design studios make it hard to secure funding for the implementation and maintenance of social projects, which are seldom profitable, at least not in the early phases. Many social or cultural funds (at least in the Netherlands) do not fund a private company or freelance business but only non-profitable organisations. And grants aimed at startups are a whole different ballgame, as they require setting up a company focusing on one product. Many social design companies find themselves in the middle of these two worlds and struggle to fit into current funding structures. This hinders the implementation of social design initiatives.

Mitchell Jacobs, Studio Tast
participated in What If Lab

“Although we work within the social domain, we are often seen as a commercial party since we are a BV (private limited company). 99% of the funds think we don’t need funding or are too commercial. So the big juxtaposition is that when you make the project more commercial, no funding will approve you, yet the governmental parties are not ready to support this innovation yet. So we are stuck between two worlds.”


In this section, we dived into why many social design projects struggle to realise their goals and achieve a continuous state in the real world. We identified key barriers towards implementation. These barriers can be read on different levels. They present issues on a sector level: gaps in the design practice and shortcomings in the organisations collaborating with designers. But they also present gaps on a systemic level. Social design aims to kindle a societal transformation — improving a certain issue requiring organisational and systemic change.

Movements on a systemic level happen over a long time, and are only achieved when different organisations and actors come together and take steps both internally and as coalitions. If you’re a designer reading this chapter, you might have already lost motivation, as it is clearly not easy. But we hope that by discussing these issues explicitly, we can actually build motivation and help organisations, companies and individuals from the design sector and beyond to investigate where they could adapt their skillset, collaboration process and commissioning models to enable social design initiatives to achieve their potential. In the next section, we go one step further and offer approaches for sustainable continuity. These approaches can equip designers and those who decide to work with design with a framework towards implementation they can lean on before and while working on an initiative.

Last edited: 27/03/2023