Design Culture Salon 15: How does design address immobilities in our society?

Not strictly a Social Design Talk, but this event, also supported by the University of Brighton, certainly has overlaps…

Friday 13 March

Victoria and Albert Museum
Clore 55, British Galleries

While Design Culture Salon 10 looked at the concept of movement in urban culture, this salon focuses on spaces of immobility to reveal some of the inconsistencies and resistances in contemporary design culture. Bodies of the disabled, ill and elderly are difficult to find in design history, while contemporary design is often more eager to engage in idealized forms of engineering the urban mobile citizen. So, how can the enabling capacities of design be improved? What are the challenges and obstacles here? How can they be overcome? What can designers learn from cultural theories and histories of the representation of the body and from a wider reading of disability studies?

Chair: Rob Imrie, Professor of Sociology, Goldsmiths, London

Ana Carden-Coyne, Co-Director of Cultural History of War, University of Manchester and author of Reconstructing the Body
James Grant, Senior Communications Manager, Transport for London
Graham Pullin, Course Director of Interaction Design at the Duncan Jordanstone College of Art, University of Dundee and author of Design Meets Disability
Carmen Papalia, V&A and Adam Reynolds Memorial Resident, in partnership with Shape
Alison Thomson, PhD Candidate, Goldsmiths, London

Free event
All welcome!

Directions to Clore 55 here:

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We are take a break from organising Social Design Talks while we pursue other projects.

But don’t go away!

One of these projects is ProtoPublics. Otherwise called Developing participation in social design: Prototyping projects, programmes and policies, this is a project commissioned by the AHRC which aims to prototype new kinds of research collaboration oriented towards achieving societal change and collective outcomes.

As part of this we are recording a series of video interviews with a range of researchers. These capture their thoughts on issues relating to collaborative research, understanding the social and the relationship between other social science, arts or humanities research methodologies and design research methodologies.

Elsewhere, Leah Armstrong and Guy Julier continue with the University of Brighton/Victoria and Albert Museum Design Culture Salons. Many of these engage social design questions.

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Event: Social Design Futures – HEI Research and the AHRC

Wednesday 9th July, 4.00 – 5.30pm
Room 55, British Galleries, Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London, SW7 2RL

Since November 2013 we have been undertaking a review of social design research and practice to help AHRC plan its future strategy in this area (a process which has been documented in part by this blog).

The project has mapped and critically reviewed HEI and non-HEI research and practice relating to social design in the UK and internationally, and sought to understand developments in the economic, social and political contexts that have shaped social design.

On the basis of this mapping we have produced some recommendations and speculations on future research strategies, programmes and practices, and in doing so hope to raise awareness (within AHRC but also with a wider audience) of issues, challenges and potentials for social design amongst UK researchers.

On the 9th July the team (Guy Julier, Lucy Kimbell, Leah Armstrong and Jocelyn Bailey) will be publicly presenting the findings and recommendations of the project.

All are welcome, and it is free to attend.

If you’d like to join us please RSVP here:

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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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Report on Social Design Talk 15: Social Design in the Age of Collaborative Media

Speaker:  Professor Bo Reimer, MEDEA lab, Malmo University

Respondent:  Professor Gillian Youngs, University of Brighton

MEDEA is a design-led research centre at Malmö University in Sweden, whose academics work with companies, institutions and individuals to investigate the role of collaborative media in the internet of things, in cultural production, and in sustainability.

In his talk at the V&A, Bo Reimer discussed his work at MEDEA, and presented two big questions for the evening: ‘How do design processes assist in creation of a sustainable public sphere? And is social design utilising the full potential of collaborative media?’


What is collaborative media?

Bo began with a brief outline of what MEDEA understand by the term ‘collaborative media’ (as opposed to ‘social’, ‘digital’ or ‘new’ media). In his view it refers to two linked phenomena as follows.

  1. Distributed production, or the phenomenon of many more people collaborating in the production of media. Of course this has existed for some time in non-digital realms (e.g. fanzines), but MEDEA are particularly interested in digitally-enabled collaborative media. So rather than referring to digital/ new media which focuses on the technology, they prefer to use ‘collaborative’ media which puts the emphasis on the action/ outcome.
  2. Entirely new forms of media that are driven by this new digitally-enabled capacity to collaborate. And within this he is particularly interested in the relationships between art and collaborative media, saying that now ‘the arts is the area where the digital will be most transformed…’

One distinctive feature of collaborative media is that people participate not only in generating content, but in designing the very infrastructure of the platforms. Much of the technology and infrastructure is very open to re-appropriation, and there are many examples of users driving the development of the infrastructure. Examples of this include teenagers maximising use of SMS and early Twitter users inventing the hashtag. So it’s not just about producing and consuming, but designing as well.

What does it look like?

He then talked through a handful of examples of collaborative media experiments that are pushing boundaries. One example is where medical staff in hospitals have been creating learning videos about difficult-to-use hospital equipment (‘live manuals

Another is a periscope that shows future visions of an urban landscape – with those visions being co-produced/ proposed by citizens – to enable debate about shared civic space

Bambuser, an instant streaming service, has found new social purposes through the Arab spring, allowing people to report directly on conflict. But it has also found a use by emergency services to assess problems before arriving at an accident.

Arduino, the electronics prototyping platform, has facilitated new forms and applications of learning.

MEDEA has generated a project to draw out the skills and capacities of a group of immigrant women in Malmo – who he described as an unrecognized resource in the community.

What are the implications of collaborative media?

Collaborative media challenges the notion of the expert. We are seeing the rise of Pro-Ams – non-experts who can create their own knowledge/ become expert in, for example, astronomy or medical conditions.

It has changed the way people are designing media platforms (and other things) e.g. the idea of being ‘in perpetual beta’. Nowadays you don’t design a perfect project and launch, you get a good enough version and then allow user interaction to shape the design.

Bo also recognised the popular criticism of this kind of work. Is it just propping up a neoliberal regime in constantly addressing or solving problems that are created through mainstream capitalism? In response to his own question he suggested that MEDEA’s work isn’t about ‘projects’, but about sustained relationships and engagements
. It includes the concept of ‘infrastructuring’ in that it is more directed at creating scenarios, resources and relationships through which people can enact their own agency rather than being passively ‘done to’.

Professor Reimer closed by running through the MEDEA rules for collaborative media engagements, as follows:

  1. be collaborative;
  2. be interventionist;
  3. be public;
  4. be agonistic (not antagonistic);
  5. be accountable.

Gillian Youngs, who is Professor of Digital Economy at the University of Brighton, provided the expert response. She suggested the need for more critical work on the way design is being mobilised
 at present. If, indeed, design is becoming so important in social and policy fields we should enquire into what it is replacing, she argued. Is there something post-ideological in the way design is being mobilised? Formerly, collective action was, by default, ideological and in this context perhaps the designer is more neutral: design can facilitate the navigation of values rather than argue for or against different forms of values.

Further, Gillian suggested, design is often used as a timeless concept and so it doesn’t immediately call up the problem of temporality, but, rather, it avoids it. Alternatively, Gillian argued that social design and digital media can also engage a fuzzy edge where things are not perfected. They might promise an on-going set of processes that involve expert and non-expert knowledge that can challenge authority. Through this, things like YouTube enables a new folk knowledge, a new collective memory it was suggested from the floor.

Another suggestion from the floor was that just as the MEDEA project that addressed problems with using hospital equipment was collaborative, so this might be extended so that platforms like YouTube could be mined in order to provide data on product use. This could, in turn, help improve products.

Bo Reimer’s talk and Gillian Young’s response showed that there is much to be gained in considering social design in the context of collaborative media, but that there is still much to be debated and experimented. With the Future Everything Festival due to kick off in Manchester just a fortnight later, it is as well to remember that the digital should not be silo-ed off from the social. As the globalization sociologist Saskia Sassen has reflected, the topography of electronic space weaves in and out of non-electronic space. Perhaps in social design we should remember to start with the latter before we get carried away with gizmos and promises.

Jocelyn Bailey and Guy Julier

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Social Design Talk 16: Designing social design toolkits

Date  Monday 7 April 1830
Seminar room E002, Central Saint Martins, London
Speakers: Geke van Dijk (STBY), Ayush Chauhan (Quicksand – via skype from Delhi) and Theo Keane (NESTA)
Respondent: Ezio Manzini (DESIS)

This Social Design Talk is jointly organized with the UAL DESIS Lab. 

desis_logo2      UAL_Logo_Black_AW

This talk will share the experiences of the team who created the Development Impact and You (DIY) Toolkit published online in March 2014. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, initiated and project managed by NESTA, and designed and developed by STBY and Quicksand, this toolkit aims to help people working in development to invent, adopt or adapt ideas that can deliver better results.

The design and development of the toolkit involved extensive prototyping with development professionals around the world through organisations such as UNDP, Oxfam and Social Innovation Exchange. It offers a suite of practical tools for social innovation, specially designed for people working in the development sector, and is a compilation of thirty tried and tested tools that have been brought together in one place to help practitioners innovate better.

This toolkit is the latest in a long line of toolkits and methods decks published in the past decade that aim to support innovation, including social innovation. During this Social Design Talk, three of the key people involved in the DIY Toolkit will reflect on the challenges they encountered in designing and prototyping something created to work in many different contexts of use, shaped by different political, cultural and organisational factors. They will discuss their collaborative approach to the research, development and design – which included co-design and international user testing across four continents. They will also look forward to explore the future utility of the tools to extend beyond their original scope.

This is a free talk, but to attend, please RSVP to Chloe Griffiths at CSM on

All welcome.

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Social Design Talk 15 — Social Design in the Age of Collaborative Media

Friday 14 March, 1900h.
Seminar Room 1:  Sackler Centre
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Speaker:  Bo Reimer, Professor of Media and Communication Studies,Malmö University

Respondent:  Gillian Youngs, Professor of Digital Economy, University of Brighton

Socially motivated design practices depend to a great extent on media, both in the sense that media function as distributors of social design and in the sense that media products and services oftenmake up substantial parts of social design assemblages. But what happens to social design when the uses and the properties of media change? When it becomes possible for amateurs to produce media in professional ways, when the uses of media increasingly become collaborative, and when media products and services continuously are remade and remolded – by both professionals and amateurs?

Given this new framework, in this talk Bo Reimer will discuss the possibilities and problems that face designers, researchers and other practitioners working with social design today. He will base the talk on work carried out at the MEDEA lab in Malmö since 2010, but he will also draw on international examples.

Bo Reimer is Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the School of Arts and Communication at Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden. He is the founding director of MEDEA Collaborative Media Initiative at Malmö University ( He is the author of The Most Common of Practices. On Mass Media Use in Late Modernity (Almqvist&Wiksell International, 1994) and The Politics of Postmodernity (Sage, 1999, co-written with John R. Gibbins). His latest book is Collaborative Media. Production, Consumption, and Design Interventions, co-written with Jonas Löwgren (MIT Press, 2013).

Free event. All welcome.

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