Implementation means different things to designers: exploring emerging understandings

Over the last decade, much attention has been given to researching and analysing the process of design research and concept development in social design. However, the trajectory that occurs when social design projects are implemented in the real world, in their designated context, has received little attention. There is a worrisome gap in both theory and practice because, at the end of the research and development phase, many promising design proposals struggle to fulfil their potential.

In this section, we explore what designers actually mean when talking about “implementation” in social design. As a term, it may seem straightforward, but our research showed it was an ambiguous concept. In conversations with social designers, experts and people who work with designers, it became evident that people mean different things when discussing the implementation of social design initiatives. How can these different notions or practices help us to go beyond the symbolic enactment of promising ideas?

By highlighting these different notions and practices, we hope to promote a more nuanced discussion on implementation in the design field. We hope the proposed ways of understanding implementation as a continuous process can help social designers reach the “Beyond Projects” mindset.

Implementation is a continuous process rather than a final stage of a project

The Cambridge Dictionary defines implementation as ‘the act of starting to use a plan or system’ or ‘the act of putting a plan into action’. While this definition may sound relatively simple, it is hard to grasp in the context of social design. For most social initiatives, implementation is a continuous process rather than a final stage of a project.

Those who are active in the field of complex social questions, and manage to create long-lasting, impactful work with communities, learned through experience that such projects never really end and can rarely be reduced to a clear linear timeline. However, many designers and parties who commission them still approach a social design endeavour as a temporary project to be completed at a specific moment. This may be harmful to the communities involved, as projects end, designers leave, and the proposed “solution” evaporates, even though the design question remains pertinent. The complex social challenges that social design initiatives address, such as social cohesion, poverty, clean streets, and stable futures for homeless youth, will likely always need attention and work. The need for a project’s solutions does not disappear just because the designers leave.

There is something about the word “implementation” that may suggest an end of a process, as in a completion of a goal or a final stage of development trajectory, but in the context of social design, that need not be the case. There is a tension between the ‘static’ — the state of completion, and the ‘dynamic’ — the state of transformation. Social design discourse often harbours the misconception that implementation ends in a static outcome, as if it were a linear process with a beginning and an end — whereas to achieve sustainable continuity, the outcome actually needs to be thought of as dynamic.

Jeanne van Heeswijk
Artist and co-founder of De Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie

“I think of projects as durational, and that they are in a constant state of becoming. When starting a new project, I try to think that we are actually embarking on a process of realising something together. In that process, there are moments in which we can present what we are doing in public.”

Approaching implementation as a continuous process suggests we keep carrying the initiative to the next step, iterating on it, improving it, scaling it, and spreading it. Rather than aspiring for the project to be “completed”, we may think of it as a living entity, constantly changing shape, based on the context in which it operates and the people who carry it. This doesn’t mean that the project could or should live forever in its current form. Social design initiatives may exhaust their means of time, money, and energy. Or the people involved may feel the relevance has passed. However, when implementation is thought of as a continuous process, and the designers and their partners are committed to it being sustained, the project will keep moving and evolving, even if it becomes a seed of a new collective effort.

Mitchell Jacobs, studio Tast
participated in What If Lab

“A project is never really implemented because contexts are changing over time. Once you move from the MVP (minimal viable product) to the product, you know where the focus area should be to improve it further. And simultaneously, you keep researching, ensuring it is still achieving its goal, adding new features, and constantly implementing it.”

Four ways of understanding implementation as a continuous process

The form a social design project takes in the ‘real world’ alters according to the designer, the design question and the context. As this research shows, implementation means different things to designers. To some, implementation means that a project has reached its goals. To others, implementation is seen as a phase in which the project becomes sustainable or part of an infrastructure or a system. We propose four ways of understanding implementation as a continuous process: a process of realisation, actualisation, transformation, or maintenance.

Implementation as a process of realisation

The form a social design project takes in the ‘real world’ alters according to the designer, the design question and the context. As this research shows, implementation means different things to designers. To some, implementation means that a project has reached its goals. To others, implementation is seen as a phase in which the project becomes sustainable or part of an infrastructure or a system. We propose four ways of understanding implementation as a continuous process: a process of realisation, actualisation, transformation, or maintenance.

Tabo Goudswaard
Studio Goudswaard

“When working with policy, it is often hard to point out when it gets real; it exists on paper and in conversations. Realisation in design is when abstract things become tangible — not just in the form of a vase, chair or lamp, but it is also ‘real’ when people show certain behaviour or use certain words. Making things concrete is a strong skill of makers and creative professionals.”

As the design process includes imagining and thinking of new or other possibilities for the current situation, there is often a moment of shifting from concept to reality. Thinking of implementation as “realisation” means considering it as the act of transitioning from the realm of ideas to the realm of forms. When a design project is realised, the idea becomes tangible and receives a concrete form. This could be, among others: a physical product, a digital experience, an activity programme, a service model, or a gathering space. As the design process includes many iterations, realisation can be seen as the phase in which designers begin to test their idea in the designated context. The challenge is that realisation may only mean reaching a point of potential, rather than fulfilling the designer’s intention and long-term goals of the project. A programme pilot, a working digital prototype, a functioning model, and a small-scale experiment can be considered as the realisation of a concept.

Alain Dujardin, Greenberry
participated in What If Lab

“Implementation has different stages. Realisation is the first thing that needs to happen to get the design implemented. Usually, we have non-working prototypes and working prototypes. For us, the next step towards implementation is making sure the product gets used. We start with one user and then a group of ambassadors that want to work with a product. The quality of the realisation determines the level of implementation.”

Example of implementation as a process of realisation

In the case of Extra Teamlid Cases, a project developed within the What If Lab, realisation meant translating the concept into a working digital product. Created by Greenberry, Garage2020 and Municipality of Amsterdam, Extra Teamlid is a physical and digital product to support youth workers in determining the best trajectory for their clients. It combines a board game with an app, connecting to relevant data from the past years to show the different trajectory options for supporting vulnerable children. In 2020, the concept was realised, and a working prototype was developed using actual data and tested with youth workers. However, when the municipality changed their data system later in the process, the entire project had to be reconsidered. That meant the project has been realised to a certain extent, but due to external circumstances, it was limited in time and scale.

Implementation as a process of actualisation

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

“We talk a lot about the ripple effect. Establishing a relationship with the people we are designing for is essential. It means that we meet them along the way and can plant seeds or let a drop of water fall and see whether this positively affects their life. You could say that when you are very close to the people you are designing with, the implementation starts at the project’s beginning.”

There are social designers and socially engaged artists that work in a different way than the common design model of ‘research, idea, and implementation’. They approach their entire process as an act of collaborative collective action. These makers work with a person, a group or a community that are usually non-designers and who are often referred to in policy language as ‘the target group’. Their design process could involve spending lots of time with the relevant community and engaging in activities where short-term design interventions come together in a longer-term design trajectory. Designers that work in this manner blur the boundaries between concept and realisation, studio and context. From the start, they work with the people relevant to the question in the process of imagining and making alternatives to the current state of affairs. They implement throughout the project by actualising ideas at different moments in time. The notion of implementation as actualisation came out of our conversations with Jeanne van Heeswijk.

Jeanne van Heeswijk
Artist and co-founder of De Afrikaanderwijk Coöperatie

“After years of experience, I stopped thinking of a project timeline with clearly demarcated phases of realisation and implementation. I see my work as different processes with groups to self-actualise.

I don’t talk about ‘projects’ because they are entities; they are alive and move at the speed they need to. I often ask how we can sustain the process, rather than sustaining the project.”

Example of implementation as a process of actualisation

During interviews with Jeanne van Heeswijk about her socially engaged art practice from the last two decades, she reflected on what it means to implement projects in reality. Van Heeswijk says she avoids thinking of her work in terms of projects and their implementation. Her process is established around a group or network of groups working together in a specific context. An example is her work with The Afrikaanderwijk Cooperative Cases, a cooperative that strengthens the power and qualities of Rotterdam South by investing in active inhabitants and local businesses. This initiative has been going on for over fifteen years, and from day one, it has been about a group process to imagine and create alternatives to the system in place. In that ongoing collective process, which she defines as group self-actualisation, there are different moments of making something public — actualising ideas as a group (e.g. a book, exhibition, public programme, or service). These moments are not considered as implementing the project or reaching an endpoint. It is a constant process of working to actualise needs and dreams.

Implementation as a process of transformation

Mitchell Jacobs, Studio Tast
participated in What If Lab

“Implementation to me means making a shift or a change in behaviour. Because essentially, the products we make are the means to an end, not a goal in itself. They are means to a transformation. Here lies the hard part: to get people to change.”

When discussing the output form of a project with designers, it becomes clear that one-off social design interventions often do more harm than good unless they are explicitly meant for a short-term goal, a research act, or a campaign. Essentially, social design projects respond to a need for change. The social designer hopes to change a situation, improve it, or sometimes amplify and scale up positive elements that are already there but are unnoticed. Implementation, therefore, links closely to the impact the project intends to have on society. What is the transformation the project hopes to achieve? Can the implementation process roll out the concept for a larger group of people, in different locations, over a more extended period? Transformation trajectories address questions about what needs to happen to make positive change and how to shift from symbolic enactment (pilot, prototype, intervention, presentation) to a practical, operational state. Thinking about implementation as setting a plan in action in social design refers to the process of achieving the desired change.

Anne Meesters, team Het Bouwdepot

“I like to work with people. And, especially with social design and designing for healthcare or the social domain, it’s always about people having to do something different, or to stop doing something. I like the aspect of design implementation in that it involves working with people and change management, but also reflecting and talking about it.”

Example of implementation as a process of transformation

An example of implementation as a process of transformation is The Bouwdepot Cases, a trajectory aimed at building (self)confidence and self-direction among homeless youth. Facilitated by the programme, the young people draw up their own building plan, using the €1050 monthly payment they receive for a year. They decide for themselves what they want to spend their budget on: for example, saving for a computer, celebrating their birthday for the first time in years, saving or taking up a hobby to expand their network. The central principle of the Bouwdepot is to provide young people in a vulnerable position with a stable basis from which they can build a better future. This puts young people back in control, instead of them being victims of the system. Ten young people from The Hague, Rotterdam and Eindhoven took part in the first pilots. Now, a larger group of thirty people is taking part in the programme, and the initiative is working on expanding to other cities.

Implementation as a process of maintenance

Mitchell Jacobs, Studio Tast
participated in What If Lab

“If it is successful, we continue implementing our proposition by improving with new contexts or product features. With some of our clients, we already work for five or six years, checking the strategy: Does the design strategy match the business strategy, and how do we adapt the product features to that?”

If we listen to different approaches to implementation discussed in this section, then it is clear that implementation should be seen as an ongoing process of care, rather than a temporary phase. In this process, the design initiative gets support continuously over time, is carried by different people, and remains vital. This line of thinking leads to notions of maintenance, ongoing care, and providing support for keeping something in good shape and preserving it from decline. Implementation as maintenance allows us to think in a durational, circular manner. We are never done with maintaining our house, body, or land. The same can be applied to a social design proposition or initiative — it always needs attention, iterations, creativity, and critical reflection. The often repeated saying that we can “design ourselves out of the project” is usually not in line with the reality of working in dynamic social structures. This doesn’t mean that the designer or the same designer that created the project has to remain equally involved. Perhaps it means designers always have a role in maintaining the creative DNA of social design initiatives, consulting, advising, or working on small iterations when needed.

Anne Meesters, team Het Bouwdepot

“I would say that when you implement a new idea, you have in mind the concrete results you need. But it’s also essential to understand and maintain the story behind Het Bouwdepot or any other initiative. To ensure everyone carries on the initiative’s philosophy while implementing it.”

Example of implementation as a process of maintenance

This approach can be traced back to initiatives such as De Voorkamer Cases, where cultures meet in Utrecht. In this inclusive meeting space, the talents of newcomers, people who have received refugee status, and those living in asylum seekers’ centres, and the local community are encouraged. De Voorkamer is a space created by and for the community. This is achieved by working in small groups where inspiration and talents are shared and exchanged. In collaboration with local professionals, meetings and projects are designed that bring the space to life, and events and objects are created that facilitate activities. What started as a student design project by Pim van der Mijl has been implemented in the local context in Utrecht since 2016. Implementing De Voorkamer is an ongoing effort to make sure it remains vital, vivid, and relevant, rather than an action limited to a precise moment or phase. Different periods bring new challenges; changes within the community that visits it, global powers that affect migration, external influences such as the Covid-19 pandemic, changes in funding programmes and more. All these require a constant response and creative adaptation of the initiative’s program, space, team, activities and plan. As such, implementing De Voorkamer can also be seen as an ongoing maintenance effort to continue fulfilling the initiatives’ objectives and innovate while maintaining its core principles.

Towards the Beyond Projects mindset

The four understandings of implementation overlap, but they also complement and contradict one another. We hope the different ways of understanding implementation as a continuous process can help social designers and their partners to reach the “Beyond Projects” mindset. By bringing these understandings forward, we can start unpacking implementation as a broad term, and move forward towards a more nuanced understanding of this concept. These four understandings support shifting from thinking of implementation as a phase with a beginning and an end, towards considering it an ongoing process requiring constant care, attention and creativity. They highlight the mindset needed for the social design sector and their partners to shift from great ideas on paper to durational actions in the real world. Using these terms to better define what we mean when we talk about implementation in the context of a specific initiative could help align the intentions of the parties involved and collectively address the tough questions of sustainable continuity.

Last edited: 30/03/2023