Report: Talk 7, Collaborative Change

Social Design Talk 7 was given by Steven Johnson, Director of Collaborative Change, and co-founder of social design agency The Hub. Steven outlined his ambition to develop a socially engaged ‘collaborative community’ within the creative industries.

He began by introducing the idea that consumption is becoming an increasingly important sphere for engaging in political and ethical issues. With some large corporations holding greater economic and cultural influence than many countries and state institutions, and engagement in the democratic process declining, consumerism and brands need to be taken more seriously as a tool for social good. Add to this the increasing environmental pressures of rapidly growing demand in emerging economies and climate change, and it is clear there is a real need for a step change in the relationship between consumers and corporations.

What role should the creative industries play in this process?

Steven argued that design has an important role, not only because it was partly responsible for generating current unsustainable consumption patterns in the first place, but also because it occupies a powerful space as the conduit between consumers and corporations.

Steven also highlighted that the pressure for design agencies to engage in more sustainable practices was coming from below; in the changing priorities of design graduates – where there is increasing demand for more meaningful socially engaged work, and in the growing awareness of ethical issues amongst consumers.

However, rather than it simply being a moral case Steven argued that, in the current climate, a sustainable approach is fast becoming the best business case too. Designers can make this commercial case by producing more sustainable and efficient products and services and highlighting the value of these in protecting companies against volatile raw material prices. If we recognise that citizens now look towards brands for leadership, it is also clear that the creative industries, through their work in advertising and branding, can take the lead by pushing companies and public opinion towards collaborative sustainable solutions.

How can creatives put this perspective in practice and what can be done to lessen negative impacts of standard commercial briefs?

To close, and in response to this question, Steven offered five key principles for a socially responsible approach to design, these were;

  • An ethical foundation which respects people and their rights – being human centred
  • Embracing complexity – understanding people in their context and aligning our work with their value sets
  • Transcending disciplines – making a greater impact by moving design higher up the supply chain and developing the insight and business acumen needed to do this
  • Going lightly – being more environmentally sensitive in the specification of materials but also in how we make design and creative interventions further up decision making chain
  • Promote humanity – acknowledging the role of advertising in skewing societal values and being attentive to this dilemma when engaged in this work


Following Steven’s thought provoking introduction to the Collaborative Change project we heard several challenging questions, first from Charles Leadbeater as respondent, and then from the floor.

These included;

  1. What is innovation and co-production for? If we are looking to produce new forms of engagement which are more ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainable’ is there a risk that innovation is simply becoming a means of differentiation in exhausted markets. Is there a risk that the focus on innovation will lead to a baroque proliferation services, tools and products and might this, in the end, become less efficient and less impactful than standardised processes?
  2. Consumption is increasingly being defined in terms of systems rather in the purchase of individual products. This means value is created through sharing and businesses develop new models where scale is essential for success (for example Facebook or Amazon). This challenges the parallel made between consumption and voting as we find ourselves tied into systems. The flip side of this change is that corporations require mass social buy in, offering the opportunity for collective social movements to emerge. On this issue it was also highlighted that new forms of consumption often emerge from social movements, such as in the case of organic foods, and thus we have to ask whether distinction between consumption as bad and social movements as good is indeed helpful or accurate.
  3. Thirdly it was suggested that in order to address the idea of design for social good, and ‘the other 90%’ we might take a more global perspective, relocating the argument to account for those living in developing countries. Rather than thinking about how to make consumption a more ethical affair in the UK and other post-industrial countries, how can the creative industries attend to the extreme need still found in other places?
  4. Following this Charles Leadbeater highlighted the importance of the ‘frugal innovator’. Frugal innovation involves developing solutions which are simple, shared, reusable and recyclable, but also tailored to the situated issues and barriers to development found in that specific community, whether it is in Nigeria or Colombia, Pakistan or Mexico. In these locations Charles argued brands are currently not an important aspect of the consumer market. It is not something people are prepared to pay for. This means designers, as we recognise them, have to rethink what they know. This perhaps calls for a greater sense of humility about their skills and knowledge and further reflection how they might engage in innovation at a global level.
  5. In the discussion a question around the extent we could really expect large corporations to adopt an ethical approach, when this might be in direct tension with the ability to make profit, arose. Whilst it was accepted that looking to make positive change does inevitably involve engaging in the commercial environment there was some notable discomfort at this prospect. Does design have the institutional strength to divert companies towards more sustainable outcomes?
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