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DESIGN 21

Our commitment to improving life through social design has been with us since the beginning. This is who we are and why we’re here.

  • Design for Social Innovation

    June 04, 2007

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    We're pleased to have design researcher and writer Jennifer Leonard as DESIGN 21's resident blogger.

    I’m thrilled to get a slice of cyberspace every week to riff on the blooming notion of “design for social innovation.” It was a synergistic moment in Japan, several months ago when my keynote at the IdcN (International Design Center Nagoya) on this very topic sparked an “A-ha” moment in the minds (in attendance) behind DESIGN 21. They approached me, I accepted, and the music began. Tra la la.

    That fortuitous day, I spoke about my learning curve while researching and writing Massive Change, a book about the future of global design, and how my conversations with thought leaders across disciplines helped shape my unique point of view on design. By way of live-to-air dialogue for over one year with individuals who do not refer to themselves as “designers” (even though they apply their expertise to global problems, such as water shortage, mass transit, shelter, and disease), I came to see design as a global endeavor, born of intentions, grown by actions, and shared by one and all.

    Somehow, some way, I began to seek out problems that were being attacked at the root, whose goals were not surface detail or shape or physical structure but something more along the lines of systemic change. Design – a glorious process and practice that often yields equally glorious products – began to take on the mixed consistency of fluid water, blue sky and rich soil. I soon realized I was no longer navigating "the world of design"; I was knee-deep in an elixir called “design of the world.”

    Here, my humanitarian instincts, journalistic sensibilities, and creative curiosity melded and found a safe space to learn through play. I talked to tissue engineers, epidemiologists, political scientists, social entrepreneurs, military analysts, chemists, architects, mayors, and economists, to name a few. I discovered the power and promise of design by way of human stories.

    As I continue to pull toward me (or get pulled toward) such stories, I nudge my way closer to seeing this ever-growing, never-ending (and sometimes befuddling) design aesthetic for what it truly is. Ultimately, design for social innovation is a big picture that’s reflective of reality today. It’s not anything like the narrow view of happenings painted by conventional news media. It’s more like a revolving panorama of anecdotes from all layers of life and all sorts of skill sets that individually and collectively give us reason to keep on keepin’ on.

    Design for social innovation is representative of daily events that cumulatively consider the greater good – of a city, a condition, a system, a culture, a nation, a world. It’s about the people who rise up amidst adversity and push through obstacles. It’s about those characters out there who give a damn and make an effort because their soul urges them to and won’t let them rest if they don’t. It’s about the inventors and activists and artists and scientists who dream of a better tomorrow, and act on those dreams rather than let them shrivel up and die.

    Design for social innovation is about sustainability in the truest sense – not just all things “green” of course but more, all things that grow. That means each and every one of us, the streets we travel along, the skies we jet-propulse through, the parks we hike in, the seas we swim in, the people we love, the children we teach, the food we eat, the water we drink, the sun we salute, the laws we live by, and all the other conditions we experience and shape each and every day. These are the human stories we need to tell more of.

    Design for social innovation is shared. It’s plural. It goes beyond self. It’s about the choices we make when we have the luxury to choose. To quote my past work Massive Change, and to kick off this public exchange right here, right now, I’ll ask, “Now that we can do anything, what will we do?”

    Jennifer Leonard is a design researcher and writer at IDEO, in Palo Alto, California. Her craft is content creation; her art is "the interview" and her favorite tools include fine-tipped pens, hard-bound journals, her digital camera, her Sennheiser mic, a Marantz solid state recorder and Final Cut Pro. Prior to IDEO, Jennifer co-authored Massive Change, a book about the future of global design, and worked for several years as a print journalist, radio broadcaster and design critic. Her pieces have been published in Azure, Nylon, Saturday Night, Details, Form, Damn and Shift. She has spoken at design conferences around the world – Designmai (Berlin), World Design Congress (Copenhagen), Utrecht Manifest (Utrecht), IdcN (Nagoya), Luminous Green (Brussels) – and is a graduate of the inaugural year of the Institute without Boundaries, a design think-tank that once-upon-a-time lived inside the Bruce Mau Design studio in Toronto.

    Photo courtesy Jennifer Leonard