Report: SDT 16, Designing Social Design Toolkits

This social design talk focused on a staple of the social innovation world: the toolkit, and one toolkit in particular: the Development Impact and You (DIY) toolkit. Designed through a collaboration between a European agency (STBY) and an Indian agency (Quicksand), it was commissioned by Nesta and the Rockefeller Foundation, who together saw a gap in the support for innovation provided to the development community. The overarching objective of the toolkit is to increase the innovation capacity of development practitioners. Geke van Dijk from STBY, Ayush Chauhan from Quicksand, and Theo Keane from Nesta, collectively presented their work.

The team’s task here was not to invent new tools (there are already plenty of well-known tools available, and Nesta had already assembled a big list) but to work out how to choose and package them so that the development community might make more use of them. So they spent some time investigating their community of users such as development practitioners to work out how to design for them.

Their research revealed the following insights:

  • this is not a community that necessarily identifies with the idea of innovation, or toolkits.
  • there is something of a conceptual gulf between the development sector (activists, grass-roots non-profits, government officials, international development professionals) and the innovation discourse community (innovation theorists, donors and funders, design intermediaries);
  • innovation discourse is typically a western-centric discourse, and across global communities there are very different ideas of what constitutes innovative action (e.g. “you don’t need to be groundbreaking if you’re creating positive change”);
  • there is no appetite for yet another theory, or framework, or model, but there is demand for inspiration, for practical help ‘to do something tomorrow’, and for the kind of support that enables people to help themselves.

They also recognised some fundamental challenges facing the project, as follows.

  • How could they structure it so that people could dip in and out without having to wade through theory first? And, related to that, how would they navigate certain institutional interests relating to how models and theories are presented?
  • How could they present easy-to-use worksheets but avoid an overtly ‘design & innovation’ identity?
  • How would they engage enough of the global development community to usefully test the thing, and after that how would they get people to actually use it?

The team responded to these observations and challenges in developing the DIY toolkit, by:

  • steering clear of innovation jargon or buzzwords in any of their material;
  • foregrounding the tools, with no heavy reading of theory up front (although the supporting theory/ literature is usually referenced in footnotes);
  • developing a navigation tool through the website (‘I want to…’ – followed by a list of actions or change-oriented tasks, without any obfuscating language) that reflected the reasons people might be there;
  • making everything very actionable (rather than simply descriptive), by providing a printable worksheet for each tool.

They then tested the prototype website with a network of ten partner organisations globally, building up case studies. So far it seems to have landed well, with website visits from over 150 countries, and also sparking interest from people outside of the intended community. However they recognise it is a project in permanent development and are hoping to get yet more feedback and suggestions for improvement over the coming months.

Theo Keane (NESTA), Geke Van Dijk (STBY) and Ezio Manzini take questions

Theo Keane (NESTA), Geke Van Dijk (STBY) and Ezio Manzini take questions

The presentation by Geke, Ayush and Theo was followed by a response from Ezio Manzini, founder of the DESIS network, and social innovation expert. Ezio commented that toolkits were useful and necessary things in the pursuit of social innovation, a process which requires everyone to participate in design. He also praised the clarity and ease of use of the DIY Toolkit.

However he suggested one thing that might be missing. The DIY toolkit seems very much to be about ‘problem-solving rather than sense-making’. It will be a great help to those who know they have a certain problem and how they want to respond to it – but what about those who haven’t yet diagnosed the problem? And how might a toolkit such as this improve people’s willingness to do things? Perhaps version two might include tools that help define visions of the future, such as scenario-making, and that help to create trust. Ezio also commented that there are some things that toolkits can’t do. Social innovation is inherently an open-ended thing, and there is no ‘magic wand’ that can ‘solve problems’. How can a toolkit instead create better conditions for innovation among networks of people and resources?

Questions and points from the floor reflected many of the concerns the team had about being too western-centric. One audience member suggested the very idea of ‘the toolkit’ itself is a western concept, and another asked if a website is always the best medium for reaching those working in development contexts. There was a discussion around the specific vs generic-ness of the toolkit. Was it too generic to be useful? Or perhaps there is value in putting all these known tools in one place, and removing the innovation rhetoric that deters so many from engaging. The team also observed that – from the evidence of feedback and case studies – people have already been improvising, hacking and adapting the tools provided, and this practice will go to inform further iterations of the toolkit.

The Development Impact and You toolkit possibly ranks as the most complete of its kind in the range of activities within social innovation and social design it embraces. Lucy Kimbell’s list and discussion of toolkits on our sister blog raises a set of questions as to the power dynamics that toolkits implicitly engage. Critics may argue that there are already too many toolkits out there and not enough impact on the ground. We rarely know what the on-the-ground, qualitative influences that these toolkits have.

An alternative to this may be in looking into evidence-based solutions where the specificities of particular problematics are clear. The issue here is how to develop from these without abstracting knowledge to the point that we enter into another round of virtualism, where social design is real enough as a process but not sufficiently actual in its contact with everyday practices. Perhaps merely telling the stories of ‘what happened’ and how is at least a first step toward thinking about the transferability of experiences to other contexts, or, at least, raising the profile of things done and inspiring more doing.

Jocelyn Bailey with additions by Guy Julier

 

 

 

 

 

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One Response to Report: SDT 16, Designing Social Design Toolkits

  1. Pingback: Non Profit Innovation Toolkits: Methods To Invent, Adopt, an

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