Monday, 30 January 2012

Amplifying Social Wellbeing by Design

Alastair Fuad-Luke and Kirsi Haikio from Aalto University blog about changes in design

The School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Aalto University organised first workshop in London together with The Finnish Institute, as part of the 365 Wellbeing project for the Helsinki World Design Capital 2012, in order to share learning about designing for wellbeing. It was the first of the series of international seminars discussing 365 Wellbeing project as it evolves.
The objective of the seminar ‘Amplifying Social Wellbeing’ was to learn and share experiences on exploratory – critical – real life design cases and discuss the potential of proactive and socially responsible design to leverage change.  The programme included talks, discussions and engaging activities. Here are some reflective comments and key things we learnt from the day.
Existing projects and design approaches
Speakers talked about academic approaches to design, design in public sector projects in hospitals with elderly people or in developing new services for municipalities.
Academia brings a tradition of critical thinking, thinking differently and projective thinking. This generates a way of seeing things as something else, a means of dissent for disrupting or questioning, a means of consent to co-build, and a means to construct new dreams (or nightmares!). Design interventions, such as Bill Gaver’s Prayer Companion or Photostroller, are a means to experiment with technology and specific people-orientated contexts and reveal one approach – what to design for them.
Ilpo Koskinen’s notion of designers being as interpretationalist “Surrealists” suggests that design can inculcate debate, transferring new ideas and possibilities, and debate spreads (new) wisdom. Design can also be grounded on a deep understanding of human dreams and needs, a capability which Aalto University has its research groups with expertise in, for example, cultural probes, empathic design, user-centred design, and co-design.
So key questions for the academics and researchers then are;  ‘What is the motivation and intention of your design approach?’ and ‘Is your design approach interventionalist, provocative, aimed at causing disruption or dissent, or is it collective, collaborative and consensual?’
How do designers work with diverse actors and stakeholders?
                  “Underneath is a notion of…What kind of society we want to live, design has lots to say.”
What emerged through the seminar is a gradual revealing of the new roles that designers are taking on, or being asked to explore, in public sector or for socially orientated projects. Design is shifting towards (new) social clients.
365 Wellbeing offers a diversity of opportunities, contexts, actors and stakeholders to test the best design approaches, the relationship between designers, actors, stakeholders and beneficiaries.
The first 365wellbeing project, dealing with psychiatric care indicated several key roles occupied by the designers. From UK Design Council perspective Head of Design Strategy Marianne Guldbrandsen offered in her presentation a clear list of roles for designers in public healthcare projects. Also Heli Leinonkoski from City of Jyväskylä, Finland noted how design can help with changing attitudes.
These roles can be tentatively classified as follows
People-orientated - Building bridges between institutions and breaking down organisational exclusivity; preparing clients, partners and users; helping people feel connected through a facilitated neutral design space; testing prototypes with users; diminishing the stigma associated with people with psychiatric conditions; reduce the risk of trying something new or unknown.
Problem-space orientated - Questioning and critical activity; help define or re-define the problem(s) with a systematic view; help define the right brief.
Process-orientated - Bring adaptable processes; help explore how people understand their lives and how they define well-being..
Solution-orientated - Provide a ‘nurturing service’ for ideas and practicalities; provide proof by testing and evidencing prototypes.
Perhaps we could also add another category…Persuasion-orientated, or the key role that designers can play as story harvesters, collators, synthesisers and re-designers of existing stories into new stories by bringing them to life.
Developing design sensitivities, awareness and the right language
                  “We are designing for potential.”
The language used by the audience to describe ‘social wellbeing’ emphasised the importance of design’s impact on human relationships (sharing, values, the everyday Arki), attitudes (creative, equanimity), and feelings (joy, dignity and  equanimity).
Design should encourage people to relate to each other in the everyday (environment) to maximise socialisation and participation. Design for social  wellbeing must create valued outcomes, that have the potential to be dynamic so they are  never stuck  but can find new directions and adapt. Design can play a key role in questioning and testing the potential development of society.
Context is everything!
The importance of understanding and framing the design context was emphasised by a number of speakers and during audience discussion. Designers should feel comfortable with dealing with ‘core’ contexts (the daily ones dealt with by governments, public and third sectors) and ‘breakaway or unexpected’ contexts driven by a new need or demand. Social engagement within the context is affected by (institutional and social) structures and issues.
The relationships between context, the audience(s) and choosing the right processes are interwoven and interdependent.
Processes and solutions
                  “Sharing – it’s a great way to move forward.”
Processes are dynamic because different actors and designers enter and leave a continuous circle of participants, process tools and critical dialogue flowing through co-design, co-creation and co-production cycles. Designers need to think about the entry, exit and re-entry/re-exit points in the short and long cycles for a project.
Outcomes and impacts
                  “Everybody can have some design agency, we can take any profession; nurses, firemen, politicians…
Outcomes as solutions embed new directionality for the actors and stakeholders (and maybe the designers too) and create positive ideas for moving forward.  Some consequences of the designing can be seen, other ‘unintended consequences’ or random impacts emerge. Impacts can be on systems and/or on people or both. In the context of specific communities wellbeing projects can change them from inwards looking to outwards looking, from invisible to visible and from closed to open communities.  Impacts vary as there is always a fuzzy boundary between ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ self interest.
Design itself is changing
                  “Design has a key role, but not in a traditional sense.”
Designing for social wellbeing is actually changing how design operates and finds expression, but designers need to focus on communicating how the design has added value, how it has impacted and how it is often designing for potential by creating dynamic outcomes or systems. Designing for wellbeing implies sharing design’s processes, methods and outcomes in order that it can encourage new things to happen. This requires a certain bravery from the designers, actors and stakeholders in order to ensure that everybody can offer their own design agency to solve complex challenging problems.
While a number of approaches, techniques and case studies were examined there was insufficient time to discuss how these were transferable between cultures or indicate how they can be adapted or modified to embrace new social  clients.  Perhaps this can be the theme for a second seminar when more 365 Wellbeing projects have been executed.

Alastair Fuad-Luke
Professor of Practice, Emerging Design Practices, Aalto University 
Kirsi Hakio 
PhD student, Aalto University


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