From Things To Services

The rise of Service Design and Social Innovation in Asia-Pacific

5–6th February 2015

National Design Centre & SUTD, Singapore

The Design for Social Innovation in Asia Pacific (DESIAP) is a unique gathering of key change-makers in Asia-Pacific who are all shaping the landscape of design and social innovation in this region. The inaugural event took place at the National Design Centre, Singapore, on 5-6th February 2015. ‘From Things to Services: The rise of service design and social innovation in Asia Pacific’ attracted over 150 people during the two-day event to share local stories, inspire ideas, stimulate discussion, provoke thinking and collaboratively explore what it means to design in this landscape.

DESIAP was initiated because we are witnessing a growing tide of grass-roots movements in citizen participation, catalysed by an economic, humanitarian, environmental and political crisis around the world. There’s a growing recognition that such large-scale ‘wicked problems’, which are so complex with inter-locking issues, cannot be solved by public institutions alone. Authority-driven, one-size-fits-all approaches to service delivery to fix such problems are now proven to be inadequate in many case studies in the West, because of the diverse character and needs of people and communities.

However, in many Asian countries, top-down culture is ingrained. Hierarchy is often accepted, respected and perpetuated. Conforming to social norms is seen as a way to maintain harmonious relationships. Valuing a collectivist orientation also means that it is harder to critique the status quo, express alternative views or ‘fix’ things that others may not see as ‘broken’. If social innovation is conventionally seen as a bottom-up approach to citizen participation, how does it happen in the Asia-Pacific, and what role can design play here?

In asking these questions, we have also seen a trend of seeking answers by looking West where the industrial model of design and design education has its roots, in search for expertise, models and best-practices in Europe and the US. This, inadvertently, can establish another hierarchy between regions and misconstrue that design can be ‘imported’ from the West like a product and applied without considering the cultural nuances and conditions that can foster social innovation. If we try not to see design as something unique, isolated or causal in enabling social innovation alone, but also acknowledge other factors that are inherently entangled in making change, such as local place, people, culture, materiality, indigenous knowledge, histories and language, we can build an understanding of design and social innovation that is more appropriate to the Asia-Pacific region. We need to learn from one another and from what is happening in our own regions.

The fourteen speakers in DESIAP 2015 are just a handful, but also powerful representatives of design and social innovation initiatives in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. They generously shared their personal experiences of how they are actively creating spaces and places for meaningful engagement, skills sharing, capacity building and purposeful transformation. In many of their examples, public institutions like governments, universities and NGOs are key partners in these initiatives in funding, collaborating, educating and enabling these ideas to seed, grow and prosper.

In this arena, designing can take on a new role and meaning. Design here is no longer just the domain of professionals possessing specific knowledge about design, solving problems on behalf of other people. Most DESIAP 2015 speakers were not trained in traditional disciplines of design. Designing can also be performed by non-design experts who have local knowledge, social relationships and specific entrepreneurial competencies. Designing here becomes a catalyst to enable people to draw on their latent resources and creativity to co-design, co-create and co-make new ways to address the challenges they face.

Insights, too many to summarise and capture, were shared during this event. Some of these can be seen in the resources page (still to come). Common elements was an absolute commitment to create conditions for people’s well-being where human-centred approaches enabled a way to see the world from diverse perspectives. Various strategies, both intentional and serendipitous, were shared that helped to foster trust, collaboration and relationships in order to bridge boundaries and connect to human, social, cultural and economic resources. These were expressed as paramount to disrupt hierarchy, boundaries and social norms, and to bring people along in transitioning to alternative ways to live, work, study and play.

Again, design was acknowledged as a valuable skill in making intangible phenomena more tangible and fostering spaces that helped others to understand and engage in. However, other human dimensions such as empathy, generosity, patience, humility, curiosity and openness was also seen as valuable when engaging in social change.

Several other concerns and questions also emerged during the two days:

These questions, and more, will be taken up in a future DESIAP event.

The DESIAP 2015 Speakers Booklet (1.1MB PDF) is available to download.



VENUE National Design Centre, Level 2 Auditorium


Brief introduction of the event by Yoko Akama and Joyce Yee


9:30am Design for Culture
Nanci Takeyama, Assistant Professor from Nanyang Technological University

10:00am Slow Design
Chong Keng Hua, Assistant Professor from Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD)

10:30am The Concept of ‘3’: Giving birth to endless possibilities
Joseph Foo, designer from 3nity, 3X, Neighbour Program

11:00am Rethinking How We Teach Design Thinking
Kal Joffres, CEO of Tandemic

11:30am Conversation with morning session speakers

LUNCH (12:15–1:15PM)


1:15pm Design thinking in social marketing campaigns
Suthasina Chaolertseree, service designer/strategist

1:45pm Designing businesses for innovation and social relevance
Tong Yee, co-founder of The Thought Collective

2:15pm Design for Disaster: From Ideas to Actualization
Vipavee Kunavichayanont, founder of Design for Disasters

2:45pm Reflections: Participation and Social Innovation
Vicki Gerrard, co-founder and executive director from Opportunity Lab at the Singapore University of Technology & Design (SUTD) and Carol Candler, evaluation consultant from the Lien Centre for Social Innovation

3:15pm Conversation with afternoon session speakers

BREAK 4:00–4:30 PM


4:30pm mAgri: Enhancing the Lives for Farmers Through Service Design.
Brandon Edwards, executive creative director & co-founder of Frog APAC

5:00pm Innovation ecologies – a ‘Think’ and ‘Do’ tank for architecting innovation capacity in Japan
Hiroshi Tamura, co-founder of Re:public

5:30pm Innovating without a brief: blending anthropology, data, and design to tackle the messy urbanisation problems in developing Asia
Bernise Ang, co-founder and executive director of Zeroth Lab and Syinc

6:00pm Community design: Field Practitioners’ Guide from Kampung Kampus
Tay Lai Hock, Founder and Kampung Chief of Group-up Initiative and M.Ibnur Rashad, Co-Inventor of iBAM and Kampung Scientist of Ground-up Initiative.

6:30pm Conversation with evening session speakers

7:15pm Closing note from Yoko Akama and Joyce Yee

8:00pm Participants to leave the venue by 8pm


VENUE O-Lab Singapore University of Technology and Design, Changi campus, 8 Somapah Road. The nearest MRT station is Changi Expo, on the East West Line. 

FACILITATORS Yoko Akama, Joyce Yee, Vicky Gerrard

The 2nd day’s focus is to synthesise the themes, issues, opportunities, questions arising from 1st day through a participatory workshop. The aim is to cohere the event outcome in a way that starts to create a picture of service design and social innovation space in the Asia-Pacific. This is mainly a student-centred activity, but if you would like to participate, you are more than welcome!



Coordinated by

RMIT University Design Research Institute

Coordinated by

Northumbria University Newcastle


SUTD Singapore University of Technology and Design


Opportunity Lab

Host Venue

National Design Centre

Supported by

Design Singapore Council