Reflected in the term, ‘The Asian 21st Century’ by economists and political journalists, developing economies in this region are projected to outpace developed economies in Europe in this century. This shifting economic climate is a significant factor in the growing attention towards the Asia-Pacific region as an emerging global leader. However, prosperous economies like Australia, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong are facing challenges of balancing economic development with social and cultural sustainability, indicated by the emergence and popularity of Design and Social Innovation labs. Our worry here is how design accompanies and accelerates this economic growth and pursues a neo-liberal agenda because it is still framed within the precepts of industrialization. This then manifests in increased consumption and atomism, accelerated by globalisation. Ideology of progress and development is a European thought from the 19th Century. The ‘west knows best’ thinking can be evident in the stream of ‘western’ experts giving talks and workshops to the ‘locals’ on emerging fields like service design, design thinking and social innovation, which apex cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai are actively undertaking. We are concerned that this region continues to follow trends of looking ‘West’ to seek answers from Design and Social Innovation exemplars to address their own social and sustainable needs, inadvertently replacing cultural, traditional and heterogeneous practices with imported and dominant paradigms to ‘design a better world’ – a commonly heard catchphrase in Design and Social Innovation.
These concerns and observations fuelled our motivation to host international symposia and workshops in Singapore 2015, Bangkok 2016, Malaysia 2017 on Design and Social Innovation in Asia-Pacific (DESIAP). The political agenda behind DESIAP takes on the heterogeneous characteristics of Asia-Pacific, a region consisting of a constellation of islands, countries and a continent where many indigenous cultures have been resilient in spite of colonization. These events convened academics and practitioners who are initiating change in Australia, Cambodia, China, Japan, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Phillipines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand who generously shared their personal experiences of actively creating spaces and places for meaningful engagement, skills sharing, capacity building and purposeful transformation.
The agenda for DESIAP is not to set up dualisms or to displace dominant constructs in design.The change-makers and researchers who have participated in DESIAP initiatives share diversity in heritage, upbringing and in places where they choose to live and work, where many have experienced cultural difference throughout their lives, embodying such plurality and recognition of ideas that have been exchanged globally for centuries. As such, we have all come to this to trouble literal and simplistic distinctions of cultures that are assigned to countries, nations or groups of people.
Below are a list of research initiatives and outcomes:
Bridging the UK and Asia-Pacific Practices research
(AHRC UK Research Network Fund: 2016-2017 )
Seeking Stronger Plurality: Intimacy and integrity in designing for social innovation
(Paper by Akama and Yee, presented at Cumulus Conference 2016, Hong Kong)
Design for Social Innovation Impact Evaluation Study
(Report by Hill and Vaughan, funded by RMIT University Enabling Capability Platform)
Co-designing Social Innovation: A Culturally Grounded Evaluation Practices
(Workshop in Australia led by Akama, Yee, Hagen and Blomkamp)