Social Design for Wicked Problems: authorship as warranty for social impact.

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Last Friday I attended a dialogue at Kennisland between their research project ‘The Wicked Series‘ in collaboration with Hivos and ‘Social Design for Wicked Problems‘ (SDFWP) initiated by Het Nieuwe Instituut, Twijnstra Gudde en Tabo Goudswaard.  The Wicked Series organized by Kennisland and Hivos spanned three evenings in which 40 participants were invited to unravel -in collaboration with relevant (experience) experts- the (un)logic of a series of wicked social issues. SDFWP involves a research project in which design teams work on three different topics, one for ING/NN, a (Dutch) bank/ insurance company, one for the Municipality of Amsterdam and another one  introduced by the designers themselves. SDFWP I observed from a distance since it kicked of with an ‘expert meeting’ at the conference WhatDesignCanDo 2013 in Amsterdam. In the Wicked series I attended as a participant in 2013.
What these projects share is their intention to deal with/unravel the complexity of (global) social issues. What fundamentally sets them apart is the way they both deal with context, a key-factor in ‘wicked’ issues. Why ‘wicked issues’? Because they are a token of this time where problems typically are interrelated (systemic) like for instance poverty related to unemployment, debt and housing or youth recidivism linked to education and mental healthcare. Or qualitydecline in (health)care provision because of an increasing economic focus.

What struck me when the film/report of the Wicked Series was presented on Friday was the authentic nature with which the (preliminary) conclusions were crafted. Likewise for the way the issues/questions that the expedition started out with were determined. They were rightfully called ‘wicked’: the Greek crisis, the issue of transparency with the increasing role of technology and the topic of an ageing society were introduced by people that because of their professional practice had an insiders take. But were by no means problem owners as wicked issues typically tend to have multiple responsibles from diverse strata. It’s quite ambitious to claim that within the format of the Wicked Series there would be any (substantial) outcomes. This however neither was the intention, even more so since it first of all set out to explore the actual wickedness of the issues from the widest possible angle. The participants coming from all walks of life, arts, humanities, sciences, economics, media, (non)government, respecting the character of ‘wicked issues’ which are often of a polymorphous nature. Both process and outcomes were continuously up for debate.

SDFWP, the second case presented on Friday, left a lot to be guessed about the why’s and how’s of this research project. It was a lot less transparent how the actual issues – obesity, financial awareness and local cohesion- were chosen, by whom and for what reasons. In all this appeared to me as quite an unfocused approach to rather sticky topics. And I wondered if this was the right startingpoint for a ‘research project’. Even more so since the terms ‘social (design)’ and ‘wicked (problems)’ were involved but no accounting was given as to what made the cases ‘wicked’ or ‘social’. Again mentioning provenance of the issue and inclusion of key stakeholders as vital aspects of ‘wicked’ issues.

What makes this last project any different from so many situations where artists or designers are invited to do what they are (often) good at, namely share their disparate take on things, I was left to wonder? For now I’m not getting into the discussion whether it’s then also design for marketing or design for development. Let me approach the point I’m trying to make. What actually determines whether to speak of ‘social design’? This notion is currently adopted by many. If (as a designer) you say you’re taking on a social issue, what does that mean in terms of (successful) outcomes? Because isn’t that what ‘social’ is about in the end, people and impact? But if neither the process nor outcomes in their approach deal with related accountability, then why is it called ‘social design’? Is it enough to say ‘I’m taking on a (self proclaimed) social issue and start coming up with (self proclaimed) solutions.’ Or does it actually require a certain (empirical) process to validate starting points and outcomes? Many other (social) sciences/disciplines deal with the ethical implications of social issues every day. They know that these issues are about (involving) people. Needless to say that both should always be involved in the process from the start. And what then if the people (or users) are not in sight as with the SDFWP’s case for ‘financial awareness’ owned by ING/NN. Where the only given definition of the ‘social’ is the (financial) organization itself as a “reflection of society”. How appropriate is it to make this claim after the recent financial crisis that was often caused by the behaviour of financial institutions leaving many people/clients in serious (financial) difficulties? What makes it ‘social’ if questions like these and the people involved aren’t addressed?

If the term ‘social design’ will continued to be used in situations where there’s a lack of proper processes dealing with the ethical implications and parameters that actually make it ‘social’ it risks to become void and bereft of meaning.
The design process itself can be very inclusive. Not claiming it always should be, I feel inspired by beauty everyday. But if it claims to deal with the ‘wickedness of the social’ you would expect that more (visible) accountability is given towards these notions. Even more so if designers want to be partners in tackling pressing issues.