The public event Beyond Social Night 'Redesigning the Process' was held on February 4, 2016, showcasing best practices of recent interdisciplinary student projects on the topics of fast fashion, healthcare, refugees and wheelchair users. The underlying goal of the event was to investigate the processes behind these social art and design projects. What is the intention of this generation of designers? What are they aiming for? Is their methodology in line with their goals? And is the educational system consistent with their needs?
Wheelshare and everlasting love for Iraq
The best practices that were highlighted represented different thematic approaches within the four specialisations of the WdKA's Social Practices profile: Cultural Diversity, Sustainability, Gamification and Open Design. The project Wheelshare by Witske Lutgendorff (Open Design) provided an online platform where wheelchair users can share images and short video clips, shot by a camera attached to their wheelchair. The videos show the inaccessibility of public spaces which wheelchair users have to deal with on a day-to-day basis. According to Wietske, the Wheelshare project will lead to an increased consciousness of current accessibility bottlenecks in the Netherlands, thus bringing us one step closer to a more inclusive society. Ghada Al-Saoddy (Cultural Diversity) documented a self-reflective process of being a former refugee and related this to the issue of the current influx of refugees. Her video project, entitled 'We Have Planted the Love for Iraq in Your Hearts', searched for ways to give refugees a face that Dutch people can relate to. In carrying out this project, Ghada wishes to bring some nuance to the current refugee discourse, in a very casual, natural, almost subliminal manner.
In the project RAID, Kelly de Gier, Domino Koopmanschap and Gina Willems (Sustainability) addressed and redirected the fact that many fashion consumers are well aware of the unethical aspects of fast fashion – such as the inhumane working conditions in the low-wage countries where the clothing industry does business – but that they don't act in accordance with this knowledge. One of the reasons for this is that a proper alternative for these consumers is simply not available. RAID aims to offer these fast-fashion consumers an ethical alternative. A smart collaboration with the Salvation Army enables the development of very fashionable recycled clothing for a price that can compete with the fast fashion industry.
Empathy as common ground
The best practices shown here all act upon a shared value: empathy. The designers engage with a certain social issue and wish to raise awareness of the problems, challenges and opportunities related to that issue. However, 'raising awareness' is just the first step in the designers' intentions. They all explicitly claim that they want to do more. Their prime goal is to have a transformative effect on society with regard to the issue they're addressing. Simply put: they want to add value and to make an impact.
The need for impact assessment
The intentions of the projects are without exception honourable. The problem is that almost none of the designers seem to get beyond the first step of 'raising awareness'. With the exception of the project RAID, the question that springs to mind with each of these best practices is what the follow-up will be. If adding value or transforming (part of) society is your goal, then you need to generate credible proof that your design proposal is actually provoking the desired outcomes. Without this proof, the impact of the project is only based on assumptions and, therefore, questionable. So, if 'making an impact' is the main goal of a social art project, it is important to know what kind of impact is being achieved. Designers need to apply – or at least to be aware of the existence of – tools or methodologies that reveal what kind of impact a project is generating. It is not necessary to invent an entirely new methodology. Suitable methods and tools can be found by examining the way other (research) disciplines are mapping their effects and results. For example, let's take a look at CAL-XL and at the Mapping Impact initiative.
CAL-XL is a Dutch laboratory for arts and society that researches community art projects and other related initiatives. One of CAL-XL's projects is POMICA: an applied research resource that aims to provide insight into the functioning of community arts projects. The goal is to increase designers' awareness of the meaning and outreach of their project, so that every stakeholder can act upon this knowledge. Obviously, evaluation of, and reflection upon, the project play a prominent role in this research. CAL-XL emphasises that the intention here is not to call to account the artists, but rather to make the value of community arts projects understandable and self-evident. To assess the impact of a project, CAL-XL uses different instruments and methodologies, with an emphasis on qualitative research. An important tool CAL-XL has developed to evaluate a project is called the 'projectscan'. This instrument should be understood as a form of self-evaluation. Designers describe the ambitions and realisations of their (design) project. In order to have a more accurate idea of the outcomes and impact of your project, the scan should preferably be made at the beginning as well as at the end of the project. The projectscan makes explicit the choices that have been made, thus increasing the designers' insight into their own project. As the scan clarifies the intended and realised ambitions, it simplifies the process of optimising the project and it makes it easier to open up the project for discussion with (potential) partners. Finally, the scan also makes it possible to compare similar projects.
Mapping Impact (SVA)
In 2010 the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York started a programme called Impact! Design for Social Change. In March 2015 Impact! organised a panel discussion called Mapping Impact. Three experts in impact measurement came together to explore what designers can learn from how other fields think about impact measurement – from public health, impact investing and poverty reduction, to city government, design and social sciences. Impact! felt the need to organise this discussion in order to explore the possible results of incorporating impact assessment into the design process, based on a belief that impact assessment has the potential to strengthen the position of best practices, lead the field toward new insights, and help avoid making mistakes in the future.
'We don't question the power of design to improve daily life. But we must avoid [a situation where we] find out days, months or years later the interventions the designers implemented, actually did more harm than good. We must avoid mistakes such as these, based on the subjective approach of designers to solve real-world problems. Impact assessment leads us towards a more evidence-based practice, rooted in a deep understanding in the way communities work. Impact assessment isn't something new, it's already common in many other disciplines such as economics, public health, international development, impact investing, public policy, just to name a few. Also, collaborations with disciplines such as anthropology, environmental psychology and social work can help build legitimate approaches to impact assessment.'
Logic model and constant feedback loops
In the panel discussion, Rachel Dannefer of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene explained how the Department uses the 'logic model' to map out what it hopes to achieve and how it plans to achieve this. The key to making this model work is that it's reasonable to expect your design strategies to lead to the identified outcomes. Sasha Dichter of Acumen calls himself an 'impact investor' in the field of poverty. He sees impact not as a yes-or-no question. Acumen started to use the Lean Data Initiative. 'Randomized control-trials used in (academic) researches are incredibly expensive and take sometimes longer than the project itself. That's a disadvantage.' He pleads for creating short but constant feedback loops in design processes. This facilitates better understanding of the effects being created and enables the possibility to intervene in time to adjust the effects of a project or product.
Make impact consciousness an intrinsic element of the design process
So, as a designer, if you want to formulate valid conclusions concerning the effect of your intervention, your process also needs to include experimentation and evaluation. Without this, the anticipated impact of a project is only based on flimsy assumptions. The examples mentioned above show that impact consciousness can be helpful in order to optimise the design project and to generate proof that intended effects are indeed to be expected. Currently, however, many social designers lack knowledge of experimental methodologies and of different types of evaluation. This is where the educational system has an important role to play, by providing social design students with the required knowledge and tools, so that impact consciousness becomes an intrinsic element of the social design process. And so the ball is now in the educational system's court.
Anne Seghers (1982) is an urban designer. She works on urban research, theory and design. She focuses on innovative approaches to urban development addressing socio-spatial issues. Anne is also the editor of Blauwe Kamer, a professional journal on urban design and landscape architecture.