Understand your social innovation topic (a step in Design Thinking)November 13, 2008
In the d school, there is no linear method to understand design thinking. The step by step process we will take is not an indication of which comes first. It’s just to facilitate the communication about it.
In understanding the situation or issue at hand, we look at it through our own lens of expertise and we focus on the things that matter the most to us. The very same issue could be tackled in a completely different way from someone else who has other salient features available to them. The more creative we are, the more we are able to notice those other features as well, and then determine if we want to take them into consideration or not.
To understand a huge topic such as social innovation, the very first step would be our sincere interest and passion to know more about both elements: the social, and the innovation. The first time I learned about this was last year, as part of a training offered by the Centre for Social Innovation (you’d think I’d get a hint from their name, but that was a slow day for me). They describe the process as the new ideas that resolve existing social, cultural, economic and environmental challenges for the benefit of people and planet. A true social innovation is systems-changing – it permanently alters the perceptions, behaviours and structures that previously gave rise to these challenges. Some examples are the Wikipedia, the Open university in the UK, micro-credit, the fair trade movement, and community wind farms (Geoff Mulgan talks more about these examples). When you dig deeper into the research as part of your thinking mechanism (now that you became a design thinker), you get more information on the leadership qualities behind those who pioneer it, the environmental factors that facilitate its process, and even how to notice the missing gaps that can lead to a socially innovative idea. In the case of micro-credit, one of the leading figures and a Nobel Prize winner is Dr. Muhamad Younus, who noticed that a village of 42 people in Bangladesh only needed $27 to pay their debt and save them from the loan sharks. He loaned his own money to the villagers thinking it was a gift, and was surprised when the money was returned to him fully after the villagers recovered their losses. That initiated a movement of micro-credit around the world.
Another thing you can do to understand the issue at hand is by talking to experts. Experts are those who will use the innovation, the affected ones, in addition to those who know about it. You start by understanding the needs that aren’t being met, and consider some ideas of how it could be met. Sometimes needs are very obvious like homelessness or hunger. Other times they are less obvious like domestic violence or racism. In Geoff Mulgan point of view: “empathy is the starting point, and ethnography is usually a more relevant formal tool than statistical analysis”. Everyone knows how to solve their problems, some need courage, others need resources or support. If you find those who champion the success stories, then you can get insight into what’s possible and more effective.
When you immerse yourself in the topic of your choice, inevitably you will get experience. This will help you further hone down your target and the solutions proposed. You will find support if you take the extra mile. This support can come from others working with you or from organizations willing to sponsor you. Some of the big organizations that support social innovation for example are:Eva’s Initiatives Award for Innovation, the Institute for Social Invention and their Global Ideas Bank, MIT Community Innovation Lab, the Social Action Laboratory at Melbourne, South Africa’s Poverty Action Lab, Innovation Lab Copenhagen , Civic Innovation Lab.