MFA Design for Social Innovation

19 Jun 2011 - 7:59am
2552 reads
Cheryl Heller

Design meets Social Innovation 

Social Innovation Design is simply (and remarkably) the design of innovation and change that assumes ethical responsibility for creating positive outcomes for people and the planet.

It has application everywhere innovation is needed: in every business, mission-based organization, community, society and government.

It includes the design of everything: from conversations, communication campaigns, experiences, structures, technology platforms, systems, products, business models, strategies, art and culture.

It incorporates all traditional and new design disciplines and mediums – from identity to interactive, film, product, movement and game design, and it also lives outside these disciplines – in the hands of millions of citizens who are working in communities around the world to bring wellbeing back to their lives and their environments.

Social Innovation Design has the potential to be the single integrating force we need to take on the challenges we face – systemically and sustainably.

Social Innovation has become the bigger-than-big-new-new-thing – in corporate board rooms, academia and on the ground everywhere from developing countries to US cities looking to change their prospects for the future. It is garnering more attention, and more funding all the time. Even the G8 at Deauville said: “Drawing on experiences across countries, we underline that a holistic approach to innovation and growth is needed, which would include both technological and non-technological innovation as well as innovation in social and public services”.

The big question all this begs of course, is why we have any other type of design, or innovation, at all. The answer lies within us, in our seemingly intractable need to create silos, our addiction to the cult of the expert and our need to flatten the important things in life into a soundbite.

Here’s how it usually goes: We “discover” a new idea or process, mainstream it, create a separate silo for it instead of seeing it as part of the larger system, create jargon, soundbites and experts that over-simplify it, misunderstand and misapply it, then tire of it and judge it as inadequate. Finally, we move on to whatever we deem the next cure-all quick fix.

Let’s not do that any more.

Social Innovation, like design, is not separate from life. It’s the way we need to navigate life now. It isn’t a silo or a quick fix. It needs practitioners who are passionate, broadly curious generalists, integrators, listeners, systems thinkers and doers, and people who want a life with both success and purpose.

While the definition of Social Innovation Design that began this post is simple, getting it right is not. It cannot be seen or acted upon as a silo, only as a system. It is a learned way of being, and of seeing. To achieve consistent, measurable outcomes requires immersion in all the contexts where innovation is needed, the specific skills and tools to develop and scale ideas, and mastery of diverse, game-changing collaboration.

We are launching Design for Social Innovation ( at SVA (New York) to change the course of social innovation, design, and most of all, of all of us.

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