Report: Social Design Talk 14: Vinay Venkatraman: Design for frugal innovation


Vinay Venkatraman’s Social Design Talk at the Victoria and Albert Museum provoked great excitement and great unease. The excitement came from hearing an account of design-led innovation for social impact that offered something distinctive in relation to current conversations about innovation and social impact. The unease came from wondering how many other designers, entrepreneurs, foundations, universities, companies or students are capable of working in the mode that Vinay and colleagues do.

One of the co-founders of Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, a start-up educational institution teaching and researching the design of interactive products and services, Vinay now works through his consultancy but continues to be involved with the Frugal Digital group he initiated at the institute. He began his talk by noting the challenge for contemporary design as creating holistic experiences and coping with systemic complexity. As he described three different kinds of projects, Vinay offered insights into a mode of design practice that is centrally concerned with making change happen, in part through an iterative studio practice of making (digital) devices and visualizations, that rests on an analysis of socio-cultural patterns and a political commitment to inclusion and access.

Describing the Frugal Digital team’s visit to Mumbai, Vinay said how they studied practices of salvaging computer parts by skilled local people who are not educated in formal terms. He described an informal but well-established set of processes by which unwanted CRT monitors are salvaged, and components are combined with TV tuner kits to create retrofitted TVs. These are then packaged up and transported on passenger buses to rural areas when there is room on them, and sold for around Euro 30. Alongside this, printed instruction manuals for “people who know how to fix things” are widely available for sale on market stalls, enabling what Vinay calls the “new technology crafts”.

Unlike the kinds of user research now common within design, often starting with micro-social analyses of users’ experiences, in contrast this research analyses the sociotechnical systems users’ practices are part of. It provides a powerful basis for reconfiguring resources based on an asset-based model of such systems, rather than one based on what product marketers call customer “needs”.

While this analysis of tinkering and fix-it culture is not unique, where the team’s work opens up possibilities is when they take this analysis of a culture and system, and respond through a studio practice that starts with what is readily available.

One project example started with noting the key roles of front-line healthcare workers who support families close to or in their homes, rather than in the public health centres that are typically 7-15km away. The team identified an opportunity to enable the healthcare workers to help patients decide if it is worth giving up a day’s wages, and investing in traveling to the health centre when someone is ill. The Frugal Digital team proposed a triage system to enable healthcare workers to help families make such decisions, thus playing changing the flow of patients to and load on the public health centres.

The proposed design builds on two resources: first, the fix-it locally culture and resources for cheap fabrication, and secondly, strong visual literacy among healthcare workers (even if reading and writing skills are less common). The Frugal Digital team’s design starts with the ubiquitous alarm clock. By adding sensors and a micro-controller, the team turned an everyday, low-tech object into a multi-functional digital tool that can be used within different kinds of health screening activity. For example adding different sensors turns the hacked alarm clock into a device for measuring things such as blood pressure or pulse rates. A further step is to add a USB port to it, and develop a simple SDK (software development kit) to allow other people to write and build code for the micro-controller inside and add new sensors. The dial was replaced with a simple graphic enabling healthcare workers to triage patients, to work out if they needed to travel to the health centre. As an intervention into a local health economy, the Medi-Meter is not classed as a “medical” device so manages to go under the radar in terms of institutional control.

This solution, then, rests on a socio-technical analysis that recognizes India’s fix-it culture and capabilities in simple electronic fabrication and adaptation, and combines this with a readily available device that is appropriated for different activities. Re-introduced back into this healthcare system, the device and the ways it becomes used change behaviours and the economics of rural healthcare.


Other examples from Vinay’s talk included the Tele-panchayat. This he described as piggybacking on the existing public telephone system in India. The team combined this with India’s new biometric ID system, to create a prototype of a public referendum system. As with the Medi-Meter device, the Frugal Digital team are mashing up different socio-technical systems, but here there is something different going on. By attempting to create a new collective behaviour of voting in referenda on local political questions (something that is not currently done in India, Vinay reported), here the Frugal Digital team are bringing a new kind of public into view, or at least trying to.

Summarising his talk with the idea that data is a raw material for the creative industries, Vinay noted a shift from design as being a market differentiator, to design as being a new market creator, to design as being a behaviour creator. Through the team’s research and material/digital prototyping, the Frugal Digital initiative is opening up new possibilities for design for social impact by working at the level of systems hacking and capability building, rather than designing user experiences.

In her response to Vinay’s talk, Corinna Gardner, Curator of Contemporary Product Design at the Victoria and Albert Museum, started off by commenting on the museum’s acquisition of one of the One Laptop Per Child laptops for its collection. ‘Is this an example of good design?’ she asked. Perhaps they should start documenting and collecting Frugal Digital’s projects right now.

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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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Social Design Talk 14: Shaping Technology with Design

Social Design Talk 14: Shaping Technology with Design- Digital Experiences for Global Complexity

In Collaboration with Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital, the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Date and Time: Thursday 30 Jan 2014, 7pm

Venue: Hochauser Auditorium, Sackler Centre, V&A

Speaker: Vinay Venkatraman

Respondent: Corinna Gardner

Free admission, all welcome.

Vinay Venkatraman trained as a product & interaction designer in India and Italy and is one of the co-founders of CIID (Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. His talk will focus on recent research on ‘Frugal Digital‘ projects, involving methods and practices around creating digital solutions in low resource settings like that of developing economies. He also intends to talk about issues around Big Data in this context as his latest startup Leapcraft ( builds extensively on the emerging potential of big data driven innovation.

Free admission, all welcome.

Corinna Gardner is Curator of Contemporary Product Design at V&A.

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REPORT: Social Design Talk 13: Thomas Markussen: Design Activism for Social Innovation

Social Design Talk 13 was organized by the UAL (University of Arts London) DESIS Lab.

Thomas Markussen’s talk explored the practices of design activism, the specific ways it differs from other forms of activism (art activism, political activism), and how it is accounted for in design research literature. Weaved throughout his talk were inspiring examples of design activism from serial design activists such as Santiago Cirugeda (pictured above), and projects of his own undergraduate students at Kolding School of Design.

Design activism, loosely defined, is an act of design which highlights problems with the status quo (inequality, social exclusion, climate problems, the excesses of consumerism), and/ or seeks to create social change. Markussen’s argument is that although it may be similar in form to some kinds of political and art activism (he references the Situationists), its intention is different. Although design activism may happen in many arenas, drawing on a variety of design fields, his particular area of interest is the potential for disrupting and innovating in the urban realm – tweaking the urban fabric to trigger a different social interaction or behaviour (such as archi-suits that allow people to sleep on benches that don’t normally allow it), and ‘bending’ the material of the law to do so (such as creating t-shirts out of plastic bags that signal to strangers that the wearer is up for a snowball fight). He is particularly interested in work that rejects the notion of the city centre solely as a place of consumption.

In his talk he rehearsed some of the frameworks that exist in design research for understanding design activism, pairing them with real world examples, and detailing what he thought were their shortcomings. He then followed up with his own new framework for understanding design activism.

Anne Thorpe’s framework, for example, draws on  a typology of activism taken from sociology, which Markussen says doesn’t allow for enough distinction between types of design activism, doesn’t say much about the designerly nature of the activism, or about its intended effects. Carl di Salvo draws on political theory (the distinction between Politics, and The Political) to suggest ways of understanding design activism. Design for Politics might be something like designing a voting booth, however political design suggests something broader, that could be an act of protest. However this framework of course limits design activism to the political – to the world of power structures, which is too narrow. Theories of art activism (Brian Holmes) don’t say enough about the purpose of design activism. An artist’s intent can be very different to a designer’s. And the field of ‘critical design’ (Dunne & Raby) he says confines itself to communicating only with designers, leaving the everyday lives of ordinary people untouched.

His preferred framework he draws from French philosopher Ranciere, and the notion of ‘disruptive aesthetics’. To quote from Markussen’s own paper (see end of article):

“For Rancière, what  characterises the aesthetic act in particular, is that it introduces new heterogeneous subjects and objects into the social field of perception. In so doing, the aesthetic act effects people’s experience in a certain way: it reorients perceptual space, thereby disrupting socio-culturally entrenched forms of belonging and inhabiting the everyday world.”

In other words, by making a change in the physical environment, you can create a small opening in the normal order of things, that offers an opportunity for people to behave differently. Importantly, this kind of activism can be a trigger for social change without being overtly political, or violent, or concerned with the overturning of power or institutions: aesthetic dissensus offers more opportunities than political dissensus. So instead of the usual forms of activism (protests, for example) he proposed some sites of activism within the normal activities of urban existence: walking, dwelling, playing, gardening & recycling.

An example of design activism which takes walking as its site is the iSee project by the Institute for Applied Autonomy, which publishes maps showing paths through the urban environment that are unseen by CCTV. Another is by one of Markussen’s own students, who created an opportunity for a moment of interaction at a pedestrian crossing by setting up a system that turned the lights green if a sufficient number of pedestrians joined hands to connect a circuit between two traffic signal posts.

On dwelling and playing, he turned to the work of serial design activists Santiago Cirugeda, and Bureau Detourne. Cirugeda is probably best known for his scaffolding extension to his flat. Denied planning permission to create a first floor extension, he graffiti-ed the wall himself and successfully received permission to erect some scaffolding to remove the graffiti – which he promptly turned into his desired extension. Markussen also showed another project of Cirugeda’s that exploited the laws around rubbish skips. Whilst residents may not be allowed to construct a playground for their children in a certain place, they can put a skip anywhere. Cirugeda then converted these skips for a number of purposes: including making a mini-playground. Markussen seems particularly interested in projects such as these where the law is ‘bent’ slightly. He mentioned a number of others of his own students. For example, it is illegal to litter, but it’s not illegal to send a message, so one student project used old bottles to leave messages around the public realm.

The major critique of most of the projects he discussed, and design activism in general, was the extent to which they triggered a permanent reordering of things, as opposed to a temporary moment of dissensus, a problem he recognised. And others remarked on the fact that whilst social innovation usually requires some collaboration across groups, design activism in the examples he presented seemed to still be very much the ‘designer’ doing something to (rather than with) others. There seemed to be little participation or co-production evident, but this implies a further question about activism in general: about whether it can ever be truly participatory and therefore a practical mode for social innovation.


Thomas Markussen is Associate Professor at the Kolding School of Design. The arguments explored in his talk are presented in detail in his paper, ‘The Disruptive Aesthetics of Design Activism: Enacting Design Between Art and Politics.’

csm2013 desis_logo2

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Social Design Talk 13 — Design Activism as Social Innovation


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Date & time: Wednesday 20 November, 1830h

The LVMH Lecture Theatre  (E003)
Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design
King’s Cross Campus
Granary Building, 1 Granary Square
London, N1C 4AA

Speaker: Thomas Markussen, Kolding School of Design, Denmark

Free admission, all welcome.
Please RSVP if you would like to attend:

Thomas Markussen will focus on design activism as holding a valuable, but rather unexplored potential for social innovation. The economical and financial crisis has made it abundantly clear that there is an urgent need for finding alternative models for growth and development in our societies. By going through a number of interventionist projects in urban and public spaces, Markussen demonstrates how design activism can play a vital role for community building, citizen participation, and the addressing of intractable social problems.

Thomas Markussen is Associate Professor at the Department of Communication Design and Head of PhD Education at Kolding School of Design in Denmark. In his research, teaching and work Markussen focuses on design activism and design fiction as critical practices manifest within design, art and architecture.

This Social Design Talk has been organized by the UAL (University of Arts London) DESIS Lab.


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Reflections on Rewarding Social Design – INDEX Design to Improve Life

Social Design Talk 12

Friday 20 September, Victoria & Albert Museum

Speaker: Liza Chong
Respondent:  Jeremy Myerson

‘There are enough white teacups in the world’ is one of INDEX’s mantras. And coming from Denmark — land of clean modernist lines and of domestic coziness — this may seem a strange declaration. But this represents a clear move to signal another side to Danish culture and politics.

Photo credit:  Jenni Parker

Photo credit: Jenni Parker

As respondent Jeremy Myerson noted, cities and countries brand and differentiate themselves as ways of attracting inward investment and know-how; it is interesting, he added, that Denmark should use social design as a tool to do this. INDEX certainly reflects the democratic, consensual and socially motivated politics of its host country and Liza Chong explained how it allowed for a championing of this other side to Danish design discourse.

Liza Chong eloquently took us through the background, rationale and processes of INDEX to show that ‘improving life’ doesn’t stop at the front door. It courses through all aspects of public life.

At the heart of INDEX’s activities are its biennale design awards. Five of these are made, each being for €100,000. This is an gargantuan amount in the tight margin world of design and it is admirable that the Danish government commit so much to this. Past finalists range from humble but impactful products such as Lepsis’s grasshopper growing kit through to entire Copenhagen’s city plans for dealing with changing climates. Many more of the awards and finalists can be found on INDEX’s excellent website.

INDEX also undertakes outreach work, developing design and innovation workshops in schools. It is also engaged in linking designers with impact investors in order to marry financial investment with creatives who have strong social design concepts but can’t, as yet, bring them to market. The commercial potential of social design is an important consideration for INDEX. Where social design is more engaged in public sector, NGO, not-for-profit or charitable institutions, valorization has to be reframed and recalibrated. Liza Chong agreed that we have to find other ways of demonstrating value beyond pure monetary success.

Another issue emerged in discussion regarding the kinds of problems that social design addresses. At the core of design thinking at INDEX is that social design starts with the problem. Thus it is admirably media agnostic — it doesn’t use traditional categories of, say, urbanism or digital design. Scale, client, public or design approach are therefore multifarious within their award rationale. It is how appropriately and effectively a problem is dealt with that is most important, not whether it is the best graphic design or product.

Even so, is there a danger that sometimes the solution to the wrong problem is being addressed? Can a brilliant solution have low impact because of other issues that are not confronted? The example of a cycling helmet (well, actually a kind of worn air-bag) was given by a member of the audience in the plenary discussion. Does the problem reside more in other road users’ use of the roads (irresponsible car drivers, pedestrians on cycleways etc.)?

Copenhagen is the enviable city where 36% of daily commutes are undertaken by bicycle. It is inspirational in the way it has returned cycling into something that is dignified, stylish and democratic: is not just about being sartorial on two wheels; it shows how cycling needn’t be about festooning oneself in reflective gear to be seen (although in London I would recommend that). It makes everyday, social and sustainable practices visible.

So here’s a thought:  why doesn’t INDEX (or any other institution) also make awards to innovations that are not necessarily design-conscious in that they are not undertaken by professional designers? Can there be awards for bottom-up or evolutionary actions that don’t take design as their ends but end up in design-type outcomes? Equally, should there be recognition for actions (such as copenhagencyclechic) that bring social design into wider acceptance and adoption? (See my Design Culture Kolding blog where I expand a bit on this.)

Suneet Singh Tuli, gave a fascinating talk after SDT12. The event was programmed by the Contemporary Team of the V&A to create a social design double-bill. Suneet is CEO of Datawind, the company behind the $35 Akaash tablet. If ever there was an example of someone who is not necessarily a designer, but who marries product innovation with a deep understanding of economic models and of users toward social change, then this is it. In certain contexts, there is too much stuff. For others (e.g. much of the population of India), there isn’t enough.

The statement that ‘There are enough white teacups in the world’ has, indeed, been around for a long time, particularly in Nordic design circles. In 1968 a poster went up at Norway’s National College of Applied Art and Craft proclaiming Vi har tekopper nok!’ (We have teacups enough!). Similar calls frequently appeared in the Norwegian design magazine Boyntt around this time (see Kjetil Fallan’s 2007 PhD on this). Of course, this resonates with many contemporaneous concerns of designers, particularly in Nordic countries and especially after Victor Papanek’s famous Helsinki workshop of the same year.

Forty-five years later, Liza Chong and Jeremy Myerson both give a strong sense that we are getting there a bit faster now. In particular, the representation of design that isn’t just about discreet objects, but also incorporates systems, strategies or services, that mixes tangible and intangible outcomes, is gathering afoot. Perhaps in 10 years time, the kinds of design that are seen at the INDEX awards will be very different.

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Social Design Talk 12: Rewarding Social Design – INDEX Design to Improve Life

Date & time: Friday 20th September, 6pm

Venue: The Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre, Victoria & Albert Museum

Speaker: Liza Chong, Strategy and Development Director, INDEX: Design to Improve Life (read more about Liza here)

Respondent: Jeremy Myerson, Director, The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design (read more about Jeremy here)

The Social Design Talks series is back with a bang during the London Design Festival. Liza Chong, Strategy and Development Director of pioneering Danish design organisation INDEX, comes to London to talk about their mission to ‘Inspire, Educate and Engage people in designing sustainable solutions to global challenges’.

INDEX: Design to Improve Life is a Danish NPO with global reach. It was originally conceived in 2002 by designer Johan Adam Lindeballe and Danish Permanent Secretary Jørgen Rosted as a world event for design. It now runs the biggest design award in the world worth €500,000. It sends its award-winners on a world tour. And it supports design education, city collaborations and other investment initiatives.

Find out more about INDEX here.

If you’d like to join us on the 20th please RSVP to or call 0207 202 8588.

Please note: this is a change to the original schedule as Kigge Hvid is now unfortunately unable to join us on the 20th. However we very much look forward to welcoming Liza!

Posted in design awards, Education, Sustainable futures | 2 Comments