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Redesigning social challenges

27 Jan 2012 Voices

Dan Sutch says charities need to be thinking about different ways to harness the skills of designers and technologists in order to tackle today's challenges.

Dan Sutch says charities need to be thinking about different ways to harness the skills of designers and technologists in order to tackle today's challenges.

In the context of cuts and economic challenges, we have to look to other areas to maximize our resources to address big social challenges. One resource that we have in abundance is the ingenuity of designers, technologists and social entrepreneurs who are all looking for new ways to address social challenges. We need to explore how we can support them in rethinking the challenges we all face – based on today’s need, rather than yesterday’s legacy.

Design thinking is an approach that is gaining more and more popularity as it offers a focused approach to developing solutions to big challenges. In part, this is due to the agile methods it uses that test new ideas quickly and iteratively; in part because it co-develops products and services with ‘users’ to ensure solutions match their needs and contexts. However, a real strength of this approach is the way in which it can be used to really readdress the challenge in the first place. By looking afresh at the challenges to be addressed, solutions and interventions are developed with a renewed focus.

New approaches

Take Sidekick School as an example. Designed and run by Sidekick Studios, a social-tech/design organisation, Sidekick School is an attempt to support charities to develop new digital products and services that support them in working towards their charitable objectives. It adopts an incubator approach which is a tried and tested method for initiating and developing new ideas; it brings in expert support from technologists, designers and business experts – again, a mentoring/partnership model that has been developed across generations.

However, what is new, is their approach to taking those incubation processes inside existing charities. It recognises that at the heart of charities effectively using digital technologies is the challenge of organizational change. Consequently, Sidekick School has developed an innovative way of co-opting a ‘start-up approach’ inside existing organizational structures. The ingenuity of their redesign isn’t just the process of developing new digital products and services, but how those products and services interact with existing business models and practices.

Sparked.com and Global Giving provide a further example of readdressing challenges in light of today’s context. These approaches start by recognising that there are many people who would like to volunteer but, for many reasons, haven’t been able to put that desire into practice. They’ve found a way to decrease the barriers to volunteering by breaking up activities into smaller chunks affording the opportunity to micro-volunteer. This means you can take advantage of your train being delayed by 20 minutes and use that time to support a charity of your choice or you could offer your professional expertise to a charity the other side of the world without leaving the comfort of your own home.

This isn’t to say that all volunteering opportunities can be done at a distance or in small chunks of time – but this approach increases the number of people who can volunteer and perhaps helps refocus other volunteers on the roles that can’t be done in such a way.

And it’s this ‘refocusing’ that is an important part of redesigning the way we address social challenges. We can use digital technology in ways that mean we don’t need to travel as much; don’t need to start from scratch each time; we can share more easily, find things more easily etc. Where these technology-enabled approaches overlap with our current ways of working, we have a chance to refocus on the (decreasing) part where there is no overlap.

This allows charities to focus more clearly on what can only be achieved by their own organisation and not by others; that can only be achieved by face to face meetings and not online communication; that can only be achieved through their own created resources and not by developing further other people’s resources shared online. By rethinking what can only be achieved through existing practices, we can refocus our resources and develop partnerships with fresh approaches to tackle other parts.

From financial necessity we now have the opportunity to consider how we can redesign our approaches to social challenges based on the immediate context rather than on existing or legacy approaches. Redesigning approaches requires re-examining the challenges in light of the tools and opportunities we have available now: be that digital technologies, or the ingenuity of design-focussed organisations.


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