DESIAP embraces broad definitions of design – there is no one model – but it sees designing as a way of giving material and immaterial form to values and worldviews, which are often hidden from view. Design can be a method, a product, a technology, a system or a process, which takes both material and immaterial forms that expresses certain values and worldviews towards specific outcomes. Taken this way, designing social innovation means giving material and immaterial form to meet certain social goals. Communities and organisations have always tackled problems and effected change to meet certain social goals. Such acts can be called designing (with a little ‘d’), which has been operating under other names, continually incorporating various blends of cultures, relationships, materials, histories, philosophies and worldviews in response to particular localities and situations.
DESIAP focuses on design to understand what enabling role it takes in tackling various issues. Awareness of design is increasing in government and businesses alike. DESIAP has been assisting practitioners who may not self-identify as ‘designers’, as they have not been formally trained in design, to understand what designing is, and to recognise how they are designing in their practices, in self-taught and intuitive ways with the communities they work with. It acknowledges that such practices can be called designing social innovation and seeks to explore the synergies between established fields and discourses of ‘Design’ (with big ‘D’)and ‘Social Innovation’. This is an asset-based approach to build inter-disciplinary capacities.
Through successive DESIAP events, common features of designing social innovation have been shared and noted (see Fig below). In many cases, communities and change-makers are working in highly participatory ways that resemble established design approaches such as co-design, participatory design and human-centred design. Both co-design and participatory design are human-centred approaches that involve people in iterative processes of problem definition, research exploration, idea generation, evaluate and prototype creative ways of addressing challenging social, political and environmental issues. The highly collaborative nature and shared ownership of the work means there is significant investment of time and effort to build relationships and trust with and within the community and other relevant stakeholders towards empowerment of community. The nature of work is iterative and intuitive, providing multiple points of connection to build a shared understanding of the opportunity / problem being worked on and how best to respond to it.
While designing social innovation observed in the DESIAP network resembles established co-design and participatory design approaches, it is important to recognise that internationally popular methods and models of human centred design are ‘western’ in origin and worldview. This means these models can carry legacies and assumptions of its industrialized Euro-US centric origins that emphasise a linear, uniform, replicable and generalisable process of problem-solving and lateral thinking as the main characteristic of Design (big ‘D’), visualised as divergent and convergent processes. Design here is often framed as neutral, objective and detachable from place, culture and relationships.
It is clear from discussions within DESIAP network that there is not one model of design or ways to undertake social innovation. In other words, in contrast to theoretical models, the realities of designing social innovation is far messier and shaped significantly by its situated contexts.