Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why I'm joining the Young Foundation as head of social design

Sketch of service ecology by my MBA students during a collaboration with MDes students from London College of Communication

In January I’m taking up a new role as head of social design at the Young Foundation. I will remain an associate fellow of Said Business School at the University of Oxford where I have been teaching an MBA elective on design and design management since 2005. I am excited about the opportunity to join the Young Foundation and contribute to its work on social entrepreneurship and innovation. Especially at a time when the existing ways of doing things are failing or are under severe stress from climate change, funding cuts in the public sector, and increasing inequalities between resource owners and others who could use them.
Here are some of the reasons I’m taking this role.

Working in the spaces between research and action.
Having been inside academia for some years I’m not sure that universities are a good place to do social or organizational research that leads to effective change. But “do tanks” like the Young Foundation potentially are. For every example of excellent scholarship that is engaged with public matters and communities outside academia (“Mode 2” knowledge), there are many others that produce research that is made use of by only other academics. I love reading a brilliant paper but brilliant papers are usually not digestible by non-academics. Many papers sitting in academic databases are hardly read by other researchers, let alone engaged with by people working in organizations or communities. So working with the Young Foundation and its network of ventures and partners will provide an opportunity to create faster feedback loops between research and action, at a time when there is a significant need to understand what is going on, try out new ways of doing things, and learn what the effects are.

Working collaboratively across different kinds of expertise.
The institutional incentives in academia are not geared to rewarding and supporting interdisciplinarity. The UK Research Councils have been trying to change this. For example they host “sandpits” where researchers from different fields, who have often not met before, and have quite different research cultures and agendas, construct project outlines during a residential workshop, that they then may work on together. But unless you are a senior, tenured academic, your institution generally rewards you for publishing in discipline-specific peer-reviewed journals, not for taking part in messy, cross-disciplinary projects that may or may not contribute to the various fields involved. And it is often hard for small organizations like SMEs, or the shifting practices and people that constitute local communities, to get involved in such research. Organisations like the Young Foundation which have research expertise and strong links with communities, businesses and policymakers, have the potential to be involved in and set up multi-expertise collaborations that generate learning and outcomes, without being overly shaped by discipline-specific practices and rewards.

Developing a culture of strategic design and collective experimentation.
The Young Foundation’s activities include creating new ventures, prototypes, research, advisory work and consultancy. In establishing this new role, the Foundation wants to build on its experience of working with service designers, and learning from members of its team not trained in design using approaches from design practice in their work. At a time when people in different contexts are turning to design, and designers are finding new sites for their work, including in public services, communities and sustainable living (eg MindLab in Denmark, Participle in the UK, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation, Project H in the US, and the DESIS Network), I am pleased to have an opportunity to help the Young Foundation develop its own vision of what social design might be.
Just as the term “social” immediately generates questions – is it the social of social media, or of social innovation, or of social theory? – so, too, “design” is very hard to pin down. The way I think about this is to combine the practices of the art or design studio with creative, collective research and experimentation in the field: what I call the fieldstudio. Having explored some of these ideas in my consultancy, in academia, my arts practice, and most recently at consultancy Taylor Haig, the Young Foundation seems an appropriate context to try and contribute to explorations of design in the expanded field.

Creating learning environments.

One activity I’ll be working on is a new venture called the Global Innovation Academy. Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, NESTA, the Gulbenkian Foundation and others, this aims to create a learning platform, tools and an experience for people in different kinds of organization who want to work in response to contemporary global challenges. Potentially this initiative is a disruptive intervention into professional higher education, currently being challenged because of high student fees and to what extent students are prepared for a complex world. My work will focus on the curriculum and learning experience. I will bring to this some of what I have learned by teaching a design elective in a business school for six years, and collaboration and dialogues with other educators such as Parsons The New School for Design (with programmes such as the MFA Transdisciplinary Design), UC Falmouth (setting up a Creative MBA), London College of Communication (with its MDes Service Innovation), and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee (with its MSc Design Ethnography and MDes for Service).

Helping grow a culture.
Although it’s 60 people, the Young Foundation feels like it has a start-up culture. It builds on the legacy of Michael Young, who created what are now well-established institutions such as the Open University, and was under Geoff Mulgan’s leadership until his recent move to NESTA. To date, it has been involved in creating or supporting over fifty ventures and initiatives from neighbourhood websites to community schools, new models of healthcare to training community campaigners. But it’s an organisation that is still creating itself, now under the leadership of Simon Tucker. With a matrix structure and several women in senior positions, it seems to have the flexibility and openness that I value in an employer.

My focus.
Over the coming months, my two main questions will be:
  • How to lead and facilitate the Young Foundation’s move to develop design capabilities, not so much by hiring designers, but increasing the whole organisation’s design literacy, understanding, knowledge and skills to develop a more designerly culture; and finding ways to understand its effects and impact and articulate a perspective on design in the expanded field.
  • How to use design to set up and enable creative collisions between the worldviews and practices of policymakers, community members, activists, researchers from interpretive social science, designers and artists, managers and technologists, to produce radical reconfigurations of resources to grapple with the challenges facing local and global communities.
We’ll be starting a blog in the Young Foundation’s new social design practice area, so this personal research blog will become quieter. I look forward to continuing and deepening many existing dialogues to explore the potential for this work in the UK and internationally.

I resigned from YF a few months after joining and left in October 2012. 

------A bit more background---------

For anyone who’s interested in my previous work, it ranges from
Keynotes including
Keynote at Service Design Network conference (2010): text or video

Keynote at Design Management Institute conference (2010) text

Writing including
Design Thinking and the Big Society, co-authored with Simon Blyth (2011)
Peer reviewed academic papers on design thinking, service design and organisational aesthetics - see my website for more
Teaching design and design management to MBAs at Said Business School, Oxford, since 2005 including an elective called Designing Better Futures - see my teaching blog
Installations such as the Physical Bar Charts, shown nine times internationally including at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh and currently at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (both in 2011)
Creating digital tools such as The Powerleague, now hosted by Futurelab