Proposing approaches for continuity and durational practice


This section offers a framework that hopefully will increase the capacity of social designers and their partners or clients in going ‘Beyond Projects’. The framework consists of two parts:

The first is a series of approaches for carrying social design initiatives to their next phase and nourishing their sustainable continuity. These approaches derive from the analysis of the interviews conducted as part of this research and the experiences of the researchers themselves. The different approaches may provide input to overcome the barriers mentioned in the previous section. By being aware of the path for continuity and ideally aiming at it from the beginning of the design trajectory, we believe some barriers toward implementation may be lowered.

The second is a collection of questions addressing potential implementation and continuity barriers. We believe that if these questions are posed collectively in the project teams, they could likely enable implementation or help reveal the potential blind spots of the initiative’s journey towards sustainable continuity. Furthermore, in this section, we no longer use the word project. Instead, we use the term social design initiatives. As long as we keep using the word project, the association many of us have with a project is of something with a beginning and an end, which is the core issue we are addressing with this essay. The word initiative, instead, embodies the notion of continuity and suggests something that many people invest energy in.

Approaches to implementation

Social design is a broad field in which the output of design trajectories differs vastly. Each output needs a different process, strategy and actions to reach sustainable continuity. In addition to having diverse design outputs, we learned that social designers are also legally and financially organised in different ways. Some establish or work for a company, others work as freelancers, some work in formal and informal duos or collectives and others set up non-profits from which they initiate and collaborate on projects. From the survey we sent out, we learned that some designers combine different forms of organisations, such as being freelance and having a non-profit foundation, and choose which organisation they will respond from when presented with a question based on the initiative’s needs. The legal status and form of the designer’s organisation affect their funding sources and liability and therefore, it influences how they can implement their initiatives.

Given the broad spectrum of social design practice, it is hard to draw strict protocols on how each design entity might implement design propositions. In addition, other major variables come into play when considering the implementation of social design initiatives, such as the context of the initiative or the period in time. Given all these factors, defining one process, recipe, or roadmap towards sustainable continuity is difficult and perhaps unrealistic. Therefore, we decided to propose several approaches for going “Beyond Projects”, which can hopefully be applied to the wide spectrum of outputs in the social design sector. Each approach could be further detailed into an action plan fitting the initiative. While these approaches are described as distinct from one another, they can of course overlap. All five approaches manifest the energy and commitment needed to enable continuity and the creative effort that is an inherent part of the implementation process.

Anne Meesters, team Het Bouwdepot

“What I enjoy about implementing design initiatives is that they are something that is never really finished. So it’s always about reflecting and trying to make it better and improving it. Also, as an implementer, you can have a lot of influence in making the idea better in the given context.”

Embedded approach:
embedding an initiative in an existing organisation or institution

A social design initiative can be embedded in an existing organisation or adopted by it. This would often mean that the ‘receiving’ organisation creates time and space to perform the initiative’s activities or deliver its service or product. In practice, this might look like creating a new vacancy for a project manager, developing a new programme, and allocating an operational budget with a durational potential. To make this approach feasible, the initiative needs to be developed with the adopting organisation from day one. In that case, the designers and the organisation start the design process together. Collectively they research the urgent problem, think about the design question, conceptualise a proposition together and test the idea, concept or prototype with the organisation’s target group. Applying for initial funding together from the very first step could help establish shared responsibility for the initiative.

Aurore Brard & Lotte de Haan, initiators of FysiekFabriek

“We organised a work day with one of the directors and a team from the organisation. We held a small pitch and a co-creation session to show what is important and create an overview of the service. We mapped which roles are needed to realise this initiative and where we could generate money. This day impacted the directors. We felt we managed to include them in the process.”

Aurore Brard & Lotte de Haan, initiators of FysiekFabriek

“When we talk about conception, it is important to note we did not have the full concept before we started working with Fokus. It developed during the collaboration, which is why we became very co-dependent. And they still see themselves as co-designer of this initiative.

What also helped here is that we applied for a starting subsidy from Stimuleringsfonds and Agis Innovation fund together with Fokus.”


An example of this sustainable continuation approach is FysiekFabriek Cases. FysiekFabriek makes tailor-made aids for and with people with physical disabilities, care providers, local creatives and the manufacturing industry. It is a service that responds to the specific needs of people with a physical disability by establishing a co-creation process in which all parties collaborate to design customised tools. The initiative was initiated by designers Aurore Brard & Lotte de Haan and was developed in collaboration with the healthcare organisation Fokus. For the development phase, the designers and Fokus received two-phase funding from Agis Innovation Fund and Creative Industries Fund. After the initial research and development phases, the healthcare organisation Fokus adopted the service. The designers signed a ‘handover’ contract, and Fokus created a vacancy for a project manager. The designers are still involved in the initiatives by giving design support and advice.

Independent approach:
creating a new self-standing initiative

Sometimes, designers and their clients or partners choose an independent approach that ensures the initiative can continue. This means establishing a new entity which stands independently in the ‘real world’. Designers and their clients might choose an independent approach for several reasons. The first reason could be building a firm foundation that proves the initiative’s potential. This is often easier to achieve when operating independently with fewer organisational limitations. Another reason could be establishing a relatively impartial position for the initiative by avoiding conflicts of interest or blurry ethics around intentions. In addition, by establishing a new self-standing initiative, the responsibilities and risks of implementation can be shared by more parties than one organisation or company. The initiative is independent, but the responsibility for it can be carried by multiple stakeholders. Finally, there is not always an obvious organisation where an initiative can be embedded. This is often the case in social design trajectories, as rarely does one party see itself as the main one responsible for carrying on the design proposal.

Alain Dujardin, Greenberry
participated in What If Lab

“Working as a consultancy goes hand in hand with setting up start-ups or actively developing products. Many designers let go of their project at a certain point when it gets difficult. They often proudly say: ‘And then I step out’. That is so strange. I have also heard designers say, ‘Well, if the investment comes, I am gone’. Why is that? You want it to happen, see things change for the better. When the product is launched, you’re only getting started.”

In terms of organisational forms, a self-standing initiative can take several shapes. Based on our conversations for this research, the most common forms we encountered are:

  • A designated company

    When the initiative can rely on a profitable business model, a straightforward choice would be establishing a new company involving external stakeholders and investors. Starting a new company centred around one service or product usually means adopting a start-up mentality, in which a team is busy making one proposition sustainable. Designers that choose this model could seek knowledge, tools and support from start-up and social enterprise development models.


    An example of this approach is Seev by Afdeling Buitengewone Zaken Cases. Seev started as a design research assignment with Garage2020 Rotterdam and grew into an independent organisation. Seev is a tool to give youngsters a better grip on their debts and make creditors aware of their co-responsibility in building up debts. The app's first version was developed with Citylab010 and Project IDOLS*, and the first assumptions were tested at the Albeda MBO college in Rotterdam. The app has been iterated several times by building a strong foundation with partners who support the idea of the initiative. It has transformed into an independent initiative with scaling-up potential.

  • A designated non-profit

    Some social design initiatives require non-profit models for their sustainable continuation. This is often relevant for initiatives that cannot be sustained solely on profits from their services or products or are not ‘attractive’ to investors. Ideally, their profit can be seen as social capital, and they qualify for receiving support from social, cultural or governmental funding. Often, the main reason to establish a formal foundation (non-profit)  around an initiative is to be able to apply for funding. Many social, cultural, and governmental funding programmes grant funding only to non-profit organisations. In addition, social design initiatives cannot always fit into existing organisational structures, or they ask for systemic change to roll out their proposition.

    Starting a non-profit to implement an initiative brings many tasks and responsibilities regarding bureaucracy and regulations. If social designers remain in the lead, it often means that they become primarily focused on the initiative in question, at least in the first years. Often establishing a foundation is a full-time commitment, and it demands a lot of time. Once the foundation is stable, it is possible to create a handover situation, which is a part of the implementation design process.

    An example for this trajectory is Het Bouwdepot initiative Cases which formed a new foundation to enable the implementation of the programme.

In-house approach:
becoming a product or service owner

The in-house approach is when the designer decides to remain the party offering the initiative under the umbrella of their design studio. This can be seen as an ‘in-between’ business model used by designers that operate like a consultancy or on a client-commission base. The initiative becomes part of the designer’s service and/or product portfolio. This approach requires a shift in how designers think about their own practice. From offering their services and time on a project-based engagement to becoming product owners and remaining end-responsible. 

The importance of this approach is that it enables designers to focus on the initiative without becoming or starting a ‘one product’ or ‘one service’ based company. When designers can combine being consultants, working for clients, and implementing their initiatives, they maintain certain creative freedom and derive energy from diverse assignments. The difficulty of this approach is in keeping up with the different income flows and the number of people needed in the company to sustain the studio’s products, services or programmes and work in commission for clients.


This is an emerging practice that is still young. It may look like an incubator programme currently developed by Studio Ink., or like the product development trajectories of Studio Tast. Over the years, Studio Tast developed, in collaboration with different parties as well as independently, a few products that they still offer clients and maintain themselves. One of these products is Unblok, a communication and activation tool for innovation teams to use when exploring new ideas or addressing challenges. It combines physical and digital tools that assist collaborative and creative teamwork. Studio Tast promotes and delivers the products directly to the market while in parallel working as a consultancy and digital design studio in commission for other clients.

    Methodological approach:
    translating the initiative into transferable knowledge

    Some social design initiatives are neither suitable, intended, nor desirable to continue in their current form. In many cases, the initial project’s offering can be seen as an experiment of a new approach or attitude towards a question at hand. In such cases, the path towards implementation might take a more methodological approach, in which the designers translate their ways of working and their proposition into a methodology that others can apply. A methodology can be shaped as a training trajectory, a toolkit or a knowledge transfer object. In addition, some social design initiatives are so site-specific or people-specific that they cannot be transferred into another context. However, they often lean on core ingredients that inspire like-minded initiatives or trajectories. A challenge of this approach is that it is often hard to ensure that the method is being applied or others are using the toolkit, for example. This still requires personal engagement, a proactive approach and continuous contact from the designer and relevant partners.

    Tabo Goudswaard, Studio Goudswaard

    “With the Social Design Police initiative, we define two levels of value: the content level and the value of the learning process.

    Regarding the content, the design collaboration adds value to the topic at stake in the neighbourhood where police officers are active. Secondly, we highlight the importance of the designers and police agents learning from each other. They learn from the contrast in skills, and the rigid, hierarchical, political environment of the police, in contrast with designers’ more improvised, emotional approach.”


    An example of the methodological approach is the involvement of Studio Anne Ligtenberg with the research project WAVE Cases, set up by the UvH (University of Humanistic Studies) and the CCE (Centre for Consultation and Expertise). Over the course of two years, Studio Anne Ligtenberg worked with two cases in healthcare for people with intellectual disabilities. The question was: How could a fresh perspective from outsiders initiate a new movement in care issues which are stuck? With the observations of  Studio Anne Ligtenberg and interventions, they worked towards a more humane living environment for the two cases and an attitude of the caregivers based on trust instead of fear and risk aversion. Their findings (combined with the other researchers) have contributed to developing a learning module now offered by the UvH.

    Anne Ligtenberg, Studio Ligtenberg
    participated in What If Lab

    “In project Wave, I did not come to teach people, I came to observe and learn from all involved. I developed this idea of working with silence for my buddy, inspired by one of the musicology caregivers. This made the caretakers more accepting of my approach, as I was not just a designer that came in to tell them how it is done.”

    Place-based approach:
    creating a new (physical) hyper-local space

    Another approach for implementation and continuity could be establishing a physical place that ensures longer engagement with local communities. It requires shifting from thinking in projects to thinking in programmes and from thinking about a target group to thinking about a space, community, and network. The place-based approach invites designers to shift from symbolic enactment to operational mode. When an initiative establishes itself within a specific site, it can go beyond the temporality of a project. It can become a part of the social fabric of an area rather than a temporary intervention. Location and space become central design ingredients, as well as the activities that would take place. In terms of organisational approach and financial suitability, the initiative can lean on the approaches above. Establishing a physical space also opens up different potential collaborations and income models. These can be based on sharing space and facilities and generating income from, for example, hospitality and cultural programmes.

    Working locally within a place that functions as a community place increases the possibility of making a long-term impact, even when the scale is limited. The initiative begins to respond to local needs and can form an ongoing engagement with different groups that are not always easy to reach otherwise.

    Minsung Wang, Bron van Doen

    “The focus of starting this place was to show what design can do locally within our neighbourhood to improve the quality of life. For example, in terms of health, welfare, and language. It is a long process of building a location and building a culture. We go about it in two ways: creating an educational service or building a culture through community experiences, food and a shared economy while reflecting on these experiences.”


    There are several interesting examples in the Netherlands of the place-based approach for implementation, such as spaces like MEDEWRKN in Eindhoven Cases, The Beach in Amsterdam, De Voorkamer in Utrecht, De Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie and The Niteshop in Rotterdam. While they all differ in their objectives, focus and programme, they share a hyper-local approach and close connection to diverse communities. The Niteshop is especially interesting as it demonstrates the close relationship the designer can form with a location to establish continuity.


    The Niteshop Cases is an initiative by the media-and-design collective Concrete Blossom. They define The Niteshop as one of their research spaces to shape the city's future. In the Niteshop, one can find the wealth of the super-diverse city in physical products and content or programmes. They host regular events in which people from the neighbourhood are behind the steering wheel. This initiative shows how the design collective goes “Beyond Projects” through a physical space. The Niteshop is a space for the community to gather and a space for Concrete Blossom to practise its vision for a super-diverse city in a way that is both theoretical/visionary and practical.

    Five questions to collectively address to lower the barriers towards sustainable continuity

    In addition to the different approaches designers can choose from, there are also very practical questions that may support and enable continuity in social design. These questions could be raised before starting a social design initiative and during the ongoing development process. These questions could help identify the initiative’s blindspots and stimulate continuity and sustainable duration. Some questions relate directly to the design process, others to the foundation of the collaborations, and some are more directed at the team’s skills or practices. The questions are conversation starters for an ongoing dialogue between the designer, partner or client, and other parties involved.

    What are the intentions with which we are stepping into the process, and how can we make them explicit?

    In many cases, the various parties involved enter with intentions that may not align with the “Beyond Projects” attitude. The gap between different intentions can apply to the designer, the client, the partner or the question holder. As the popularity of social design increases, some parties may enter the process with other intentions and expectations in mind, such as marketing and PR. And similarly, some designers may enter the process to develop a portfolio piece, not an actual long-term initiative. At different steps of the process, especially in the beginning, the question about intentions should be posed to make them explicit. Why are we entering this process? What do we aim to achieve? Do we actually intend to develop a practical proposition, or is it a symbolic act? Articulating the intentions as part of the initial agreements can help prevent the disappointment or loss of engagement that often comes later in the process.

    The discussion around intentions can help formulate the boundary and possibility space of the collaboration: in which scope and scale are we acting? Through these questions, the conversation can deviate from the binary of success or failure and instead become a reflection on the value and contribution to the initial design question.

    Evelien ten Elsen, Customer Experience Manager at the Dutch Railways

    “A company that partners with designers has to consider in advance whether a What If Lab or other design trajectory fits within their programmes. Is there a structure that can follow up the outcomes of a What if Lab? Besides, designers should be informed about the innovation process within a company and the administrative context around this process to create the right expectations.”

    How could we establish tangible commitment, what form could it take?

    When the intentions are explicit, it is possible to collaboratively form a tangible commitment to the initiative, which goes beyond the initial research and concept development phase. The commitment towards the continuous development of the project could take a tangible form in finances, time and policy. Sometimes, it could mean that the client or question holder allocates a specific budget to the project. This enables taking the initiative further towards realisation and, later on, maintenance. In other cases, allocating time for the initiative from all parties involved could be a tangible commitment. Another way of establishing a tangible commitment when collaborating with an organisation or company is to investigate at an early stage of the process if there is a structure in which the proposition can ‘land’ in and what that is. This could mean an internal programme line, a long-term project, a policy pillar, or a department within the organisation. When it is clear such a framework doesn’t exist, more conversations need to occur to understand which approach Proposing Approaches is needed to work towards implementation.

    Alain Dujardin, Greenberry
    participated in What If Lab

    “It may seem weird to look at it from a financial perspective, but if there is no funding, you can not expect things to happen out of the void, so that is a good tool to create some insurance.”

    Which skills and knowledge do we need in the team?

    It takes a deep understanding of the relevant organisational and network landscape to bring the initiative towards implementation and continuity. As mentioned in the previous section Barrier 3: Gaps in design education, designers are not always equipped with sufficient knowledge or skills to fully grasp the challenging situation in which they operate. All parties involved could benefit from a conversation about the organisational situation they are about to enter and the various governance models that apply to their collaboration. In addition, the following questions could help identify the specific gaps in the team: Is there a need to strengthen the strategic thinking in the team? Could the initiative benefit from business development skills? Is there a deeper understanding of the social fabric in which the initiative operates? Are people from the target group involved in the decision-making process?

    This conversation can result in an inventory of the other people that are needed in the team to bridge gaps in knowledge or skills. It is important to mention that when designers have experience in a specific sector, such as education or healthcare, they are more likely to bring the initiative further towards implementation. They know how to navigate within the networks and systems in place.

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

    “Designers look to work on a project base, allowing us the most creativity and freedom. But many of the ideas we come up with just need more commitment. We must cooperate much more with people looking to develop new business models or ideas.”

    How could we nurture shared responsibility?

    As discussed in section 2, the notion of ownership remains complex and ambiguous in collaborative social design processes Barrier 2: Issues with ownership. In conversations we held, there was often a desire for shared ownership, but we should ask ourselves if ownership can be shared. Isn’t owning something inherently limited to one party? What if we shift from attempting to establish shared ownership towards establishing shared responsibility? A follow-up question could be how shared responsibility can be fostered. This research revealed good examples of how that might be achieved. One opportunity lies in presentation moments: key milestones in which the design initiative is made public. These could be presentations for stakeholders, exhibitions, conferences etc. When presentations are collective moments led by the designer and question holder, it helps nurture shared responsibility for the process and initiative. These presentation moments can also be potent communication tools to mobilise collaborations and create energy around the initiative. It could be valuable to frame moments of making the design public as moments of exchange and learning. When presentation moments do not feel like that end, but rather a stepping stone towards the initiative’s next phase, it helps avoid the energy drop of many experiences after presenting a project as complete. In addition, applying for funding as partners helps create a bond of shared responsibility, different from the client-designer bond. Also, adopting language that communicates the initiative is not owned by one party but is the result of mutual efforts can be meaningful in creating shared accountability. This is often in the nuances of formulating credits and role definition.

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

    “We have adapted the What If Lab process by learning from the past years. We are now much more explicit at the beginning of a lab about the steps needed to develop the proposals further. Also, the design agency and question holder present the concepts together as partners, creating mutual commitment.”

    “At the same time, is it necessary to move beyond the traditional role of client/contractor and take on other (fluid) roles in the process based on expertises, collaboration style and personality”

    What would it mean to maintain the initiative?

    The section Unpacking Implementation Unpacking Implementation of this essay brings forward the notion of maintenance as part of seeing implementation as an ongoing process.

    From discussions during our research and the Social Design Showdown 12th edition, we learned that posing the questions around maintenance can provoke people into thinking long-term and beyond the temporality of the project. The simple exercise described below can help to change one’s mindset towards sustainable continuity.

    This exercise can be done in every social design collaboration team:

    • 01

      Choose an object, thing, place or a non-tangible ‘thing’. You can draw it.

    • 02

      Explore if this object needs maintenance in everyday life. Then, think about your relationship with the selected object or thing.

    • 03

      Describe and draw what it would mean to maintain this object or thing in your life. Think of different actions. Elaborate further: how could you build a long-term relationship with it in good health? Try it with a few objects or (also non-tangible) things.

      Some examples: taking the car to be certified, descaling the dishwasher, combing your dog’s hair, or paying attention to a friend you lost contact with.

    • 04

      Apply this thinking to the initiative or process the team is working on. The same question can be posed: What is needed to maintain the initiative? To avoid decay? To take care of it over a duration of time?

    In situations where the initiative is not only a tangible outcome, maintenance could mean attending to relationships within the community or ensuring that specific protocols still meet the needs of the group involved. While this discussion may require some imagination and abstraction, it can bring forward the sensitive points of the initiative or collaboration.

    Many ways to design the implementation process

    This section aims to support designers and partnering organisations in working towards “Beyond Projects”. The proposed approaches and questions touch on the operational aspects, attitudes, and mindset needed for sustainable continuity. The five approaches: embedded, in-house, independent, methodological and place-based, can be seen as a strategic groundwork for putting an initiative in the ‘real world’. They demonstrate the position the designers take and the state of the initiative. The approaches touch upon core issues such as context, responsibilities, independence, and the relationship with the partner organisation. As every initiative is different in output, collaboration structure, and context, drawing one recipe for implementation is impossible. Even within each approach, there could be many ways to design the implementation process. Instead, we accompany the framework with a series of questions to address with the initiative team collectively. These questions could help shift from concepts and objectives to operational plans and agreements, informing the ever-evolving process of sustainable continuity. We invite the creative industry, public organisations, governmental agencies, companies, and every other party that believes in the role design can play in contributing to socially urgent problems to appropriate this framework and explore how it can help a promising initiative fulfil its potential in the real world.

    Last edited: 30/03/2023