Connecting Design and Social Innovation

By Guest Blogger: Miguel Guerrero

I have been working with Design Thinking in one form or another since 2010 and I have long heard about IDEO, the design consultancy that coined the term and led the development of the human-centered practice. I finally got the opportunity to tackle IDEO’s CEO Tim Brown’s book Change By Design over the rainy holidays.change by design cover
Brown takes the reader on a ride through projects, partners, and fellow travelers. Brown’s stories of product and service innovation and organizational transformation flow easily from one to the next. While the process was not new to me and many of the stories were already familiar, I was inspired again to get back into the messy process. All in all, this is what a good holiday read should do.
However, Brown did manage to surprise me in this celebratory tour of (mostly) IDEO’s successful projects. It was in the way that his discussion flowed from creating value for corporate clients to the consultancy’s long commitment and notable success with helping social enterprise. Indeed, IDEO’s commitment to social innovation led the organization to found a new nonprofit in San Francisco,
But how do the techniques for product innovation lead to social innovation? The answer is not as simple as it might seem. After all, there is plenty of money to be made by helping corporations continue to innovate. Oral-B children’s toothbrush was the number one selling product for 18 months after IDEO helped them redesign the handle. Brown continues the story:

Just six months after its launch, the lead designer in this group was walking along an isolated beach in Baja California and noticed a colorful blue object lying just out of reach of the surf. It was not a turtle. One of our ergonomically designed, dentist-approved, commercially successful Oral-B toothbrushes had washed up on shore.

Perhaps this is just a dramatic turn, but the effect was real. Citing famed Canadian environmental designer Bruce Mau, Brown goes on to discuss dozens of stories about social and environmental innovation projects, both IDEO-led and by others in the field.
In particular, Brown’s tour of social projects takes an acute interest in the organizations that blend business models and social missions. It is worth pausing to unpack the relationship between Design Thinking methods and social enterprise. In Brown’s book, I find three themes that make the connection more than just a coincidental one.

  1. Brown makes the point that in order for Design Thinking to take hold in an organization, it’s necessary to have a culture of optimism. Optimism is a pre-curser to the playful experimentation that is essential to Design Thinking. For a social entrepreneur, a healthy dose of optimism is a pre-requisite to starting a new mission-based enterprise. The social entrepreneur needs to be able to take risks and see the way that world could be, instead of just how it is.
  2. Design Thinking is also sometimes called Human Centered Design. It speaks to what’s unique about the design process. Human Centered Design also resonances with the social / environmental values of the social entrepreneur. Indeed, the process of gaining deep empathy with humans leads almost any designer to discover their social values.
  3. Ever since Alex Osterwalder busted the lid off the business model trash can with his book Business Model Innovation, business models have become just another aspect that is subject to the creative energies of the design team. This is a positive for many, but especially for those interested in social innovation because entrepreneurs’ who are able to innovate around how business models work hold a key to solving some of the hardest social problems.

As RADIUS continues to evolve our ventures curriculum for social impact entrepreneurship, Design Thinking and the methods described by Tim Brown and many others will remain important tools for building better businesses and solutions.