A different kind of social activism is emerging and it’s asking us to rethink how we are working to address current social, economic and environmental challenges, from climate change, ageing populations to wealth disparities. Design activism is the term used to describe the active role that design is playing within contemporary contexts of social change. The practices of human-centred design, participatory design, co-design, social design, ecological design thinking, and socially responsible design are part of a movement to ignite, accelerate and amplify design-led social change and social innovation.
From community regeneration in inner cities in America, the tsunami relief efforts in South Asia, reducing food waste in Germany, to suitable shelter for refugees, the involvement of design is making positive social and environmental change. People are realizing that good design is more than making aesthetically beautiful products, it is equally important to make products and services better, useful, and ultimately help to solve small and big problems in society.
Some characteristics of this form of activism are:
To design is an act of optimism. Design is the process of envisioning a future and systemically implementing the vision. Designers bring ideas to reality and believe in possible futures. The discipline of design allows us to disengage from analysis paralysis and the critique cycle, and instead, take on the disposition of an explorer and scientist where unknowns and uncertainties are spaces of discovery and probability.
At its best, the design process is egalitarian and participatory and thanks to technology, democratisating social change is easier than ever. Consider OpenIDEO, an open innovation platform that’s enabling people from around the world to collaboratively tackle some of the toughest global issues through its design challenges. Their model of open innovation has since been replicated by numerous social innovation organisations around the world.
Design for non-designers
Design professionals are increasingly involved in projects that have a social impact. But what is notable, is that more than ever, social and environmental activists are acquiring the design mindset and method to solve problems and generate solutions. Design practice is part of the toolkit for social and environmental justice.
- Acumen Fund, an innovative philanthropic organisation has partnered with IDEO.org to offer a free 7-week online course on Human-Centered Design for Social Innovation.
- Design without Borders is a non-profit foundation that is using the co-design process to improve living conditions and lift communities out of poverty in developing
- Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) facilitates convergence across art, science, design and technology and combines insight into global trends and local needs to create enduring solutions to entrenched challenges. Each year the BFI Challenge invites scientists, students, designers, architects, activists, entrepreneurs, artists and planners from all over the world to submit their innovative solutions to some of humanity’s most pressing problems.
All these organisations are resolute in their commitment to build capacity by transferring skills and knowledge to the local communities. These emerging inclusive practices support communities to address their most critical issues and define resilient futures as they see fit.
Design education has also changed with social and impact design courses gaining increasing popularity. There are postgraduate courses and intensive programs within the broad category of design for social change around the world. The student are exposed to an interdisciplinary approach to design and learn about technology, user-experience, abductive and integrative thinking, storytelling, community development, business, political science, sociology, philosophy and ethics. The enrollment in the interdisciplinary design program is growing exponentially.
The rise of hybrid design professionals and businesses
Poverty alleviation, access to clean water, financial inclusion, health services for the poor, affordable housing, livable cities are no longer exclusively the calling of the social sector. We are seeing the emergence of hybrid professions that are challenging the ‘do well’ or ‘do good’ duality. The design activist, the activist designer and the activist entrepreneur with their distinct sensibilities and skills are occupying the liminal space between the social, private, public sector.
International design consultancy like IDEO, frog, Fahrenheit 212, and Dalberg all have social justice related projects in their design portfolio. Large philanthropic organisations like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,
the Rockefeller Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and businesses like Autodesk and IKEA are encouraging design for good. At the same time, mission-driven design businesses and non-profit social innovation firms
beginning to become multidisciplinary teams of designers, community development practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and educators.
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The social impact of design activism has yet to be evaluated systematically and rigorously. But given the urgent and complex challenges we are facing, it’s in our interest to explore and experiment with new ideas and practices.
Robyn Lui, Ph.D.
Founder & Principal Strategist at
Social Change Collective & general mischief-maker.
Mission: championing good people to achieve
great things that benefit people and the planet.