What are the 10 big design challenges in the social sector?

August 12, 2008 — 6 Comments

It is great to see more application of design thinking in the social sector. Organizations such as Tim Prestero’s Design That Matters and Cameron Sinclair’s Architecture for Humanity are encouraging designers to engage with social issues. At the same time we are seeing foundations such as Rockefeller funding projects that include design thinking. My concern though is, just like the social sector in general; we may be diffusing a small amount of capacity across a very broad range of problems. I worry that we only see incremental progress rather than major breakthroughs because we are spreading efforts too thinly. There are some exceptions to this. Designers Accord, the non-profit sustainability coalition, has created significant momentum and now has more than 100,000 members. Even so, it is bewildering to see the number of NGO’s working across the social sector. In his recent book Blessed Unrest Paul Hawken makes a brave attempt to list them all. While the sum total of this effort is no doubt admirable the diffusion of resources and ideas is quite extreme.

We have relatively few design thinkers operating in the world. What would happen if instead of that capacity working randomly on problems it was focused on a small number of big issues? Could we use new mechanisms like open source or prizes to motivate larger numbers of creative people to collaborate? Could we create categories where creative competition causes us to build on the ideas of others to create the breakthrough ideas many areas of society need? I think we could.

The first step is to generate the list of big design problems in the social sector. I want to take a stab at starting that conversation here. One place to start is the list of Millennium Development Goals published by the UN. What do you think? Is this the right list? What about social issues in the developed world like obesity or crime? What kind of metrics should we use to determine the potential impact of tackling any given challenge? Should we use a return on investment approach like Bjorn Lomborg? How do we go from these general categories to more specific design challenges? I would love your thoughts and ideas.

UN Millennium Development Goals:
Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development

Tim Brown


6 responses to What are the 10 big design challenges in the social sector?

  1. Heady stuff. It’s hard to argue with the seriousness of listed problems. I’m in agreement that all should tackled with design thinking, but I’m also wondering if the overarching problem is overpopulation. At the current rate of growth, the planet will have 10 billion people living on it by 2060. Will this staggering number give us an additional list of 10 or 20 we’ll need to solve?

  2. I’m designer and live in Mexico and I defenitly agree, on that list are the most important things to solve in the social sector and also I believe that design thinking could give a great hand to find creative solutions.
    But what I see has one of the bottom problems that also contributes to that list is the consumerism culture that is spreading allover the world, the manipulation of the media on how much better your life will be if you had “that” product or you are going to feel better with yourself if you buy and buy…
    I think USA is starting to understand and is doing something about it, but the rest of the world is following and we also must help understand the others that this model is unsustainable. If you think in all the connections between economics, countries, markets and people you will see how deep this problem goes.

  3. Scalable and accessible sanitation has to be one of the great design challenges. The UN declared 2008 as the International Year of Sanitation and according to their web site “around the world, 2,6 billion people do not have a clean and safe place to use for performing their bodily functions – they lack that basic necessity, a toilet.” Closer to home, except for the occasional composting toilet or waterless urinal, what new design thinking has been done to improve our plumbing systems which are wasteful of water.

  4. I agree that all the Millennium Development Goals are what is needed – but I would also like to apply another lens to this…. we need to see the poor as producers (and not just consumers of products and services). By applying design thinking to challenges around creating sustainable income streams, we would not only be able to impact a set number of people directly impacted by the initiatives, but also see a ripple effect as other economies get created around this. For example, by creating aesthetically pleasing design inputs to rural producers in India, companies like Maya Organics and IndusTree are improving income leves of urban and rural producers. As they gain access to more lucrative markets, these producers will have more money to spend on food, healthcare, education and creating better living conditions for their family members.

  5. To successfully focus on a small number of big issues with design thinking,efforts must be embraced at the micro (read:community) level and be self perpetuating. Design thinking is necessary, but not sufficient, as efforts must be embraced at the local levels, which requires authenticity in designed solutions, the ability to be tailored, and, I believe, a measure of after-action review/reporting to inspire success in similar communities. Open source is an enabler for communication, but linking theory to implementation is a part of any problem which must be solved.

  6. I think the first thing people should focus on is to set up an infrastructure that helps groups with similar interests to find each other in order to joins efforts in solving common problems (Develop a global partnership for development).
    So the first challenge would be to analyse structures and institutions to find a ways to bring people together. I think this in itself, once implemented, will spread knowledge in between groups much easier, minimize friction and boost progress in every field related.

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