About Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability

Social innovation is defined as

new solutions (products, services, models, markets, processes etc.) that simultaneously meet
a social need (more effectively than existing solutions) and lead to new or improved capabilities
and relationships and better use of assets and resources. In other words, social innovations are
both good for society and enhance society’s capacity to act.

The term “Social Innovation” has been around for many decades and it could be argued that
the process of social innovation has been around for centuries but not defined in a commonly
agreed way. Social innovation links to and builds upon practices of community development. 
In one sense, community development is driven by principles of social justice and focusses on
people being the agents of change in their own lives. 

Social innovation is also practiced by communities themselves every day when they collaborate
in some way to help tackle challenges they face. 

A key aim of design for social innovation is to design solutions with people, rather than for people.
A failure to put people and communities at the centre of creating new solutions would make social
innovation elitist and disempowering.

Some of the areas where design can play a role:

Design thinking and doing
Design can bring practical and common-sense tools that change the direction of how solutions,
or projects, are conceived. Designers can help articulate the precise problem, the assumption
that underpin current approaches, considering a diverse range of possible solutions, prototyping
the best options (feasible, desirable, viable) and refining these through user testing and feedback.

Design is not the only practice that is co-creative but it will start with the assumption that
the most important experts in any social problem are the people who experience them on
a day to day basis. Design can involve these people and mediate or broker between the
technical or political knowledge that is required to bring a solution to reality. 

Why set up DESIS Ireland?

The complexity of social and environmental challenges is forcing governments, businesses,
community organisations and individuals to rethink how the accelerate the shift from activities
that deal with the symptoms to addressing root causes and systems. Design for Social Innovation
aims to create concepts and solutions to social challenges that are practical, culturally appropriate,
scalable and sustainable. 

DESIS Ireland will initially set out to share experiences and resources on design education for social
innovation and sustainability across University of Limerick, Dublin Institute of Technology and National
college of Art and Design. This will build on and strengthen the teaching and research on social innovation
and sustainability that is already happening in Ireland. 

DESIS Ireland will provide an intellectual space for collaboration and discovery of shared student projects,
research and other activities. It will allow designers, students and other stakeholders to meet, interact,
experiment, ideate, and prototype new solutions.

Depending on need it may develop into a physical space designed to encourage and facilitate cooperation
and the co-creation of meaningful and innovative solutions to complex problems in Ireland.

What kinds of problems could DESIS address?

  • Problems that are complex and interdependent. This could be challenges where
    it is not clear what the problem is, where there is little agreement on the route cause
    and where the assumptions underpinning the design of existing approaches to tackling
    the problem are open to question. 
  • Problems that have no clear owner. This includes problems that have multiple “owners”
    e.g. Citizens, communities, public sector
  • Problem that have become resistant to traditional solutions. These are problems that
    can not be solved by process improvement or making existing practices more efficient. 

What might a DESIS lab in Ireland look like?

A “lab” is a collaborative spaces for discovery. It involves a team, a network, a space and

a process for tackling complex challenges that require systems change. It should:

  • provides a structured process to approach messy and complex challenges
  • provides a safe and creative environment to experiment and prototype radical innovations
  • enables deep collaboration among multi-disciplinary teams and diverse stakeholders
  • takes a user-centered approach and an outcome focus