Today, in a world context defined by increasing complexity, deepening disparities and rising uncertainty, the imperative of connecting knowledge with action to create systemic social change and achieve more equitable futures for all human beings is greater than ever. The task is ongoing and necessitates both the adaptation of known solutions and the discovery of new possibilities.
This dissertation investigates the subject matter of design as a deeply humanistic knowledge domain that is drawing mounting attention and praise for its ability to open up new possibilities for action oriented toward social innovation and human progress. Paradoxically, despite unequivocal signs of such forms of design gaining prominence in our institutions and organizations, the unique value that professional designers impart to the class of systemic challenges and innovation opportunities at stake is an understudied pursuit that lacks articulation and merits elucidation. This dissertation contributes to filling that critical gap.
Integrating theories of social innovation, organizational culture, institutional logics and design, and building on the construct of “design attitude” (a set of unique capabilities, abilities and dispositions espoused by professional designers and that are related to organizational learning and innovation), the dissertation relies on the interpretation and analyses of three independent field studies organized in a multiphase mixed methods exploratory design sequence. The dissertation is organized in a dialectical progression that presents the following overarching research question: How might we elucidate the value designers bring to the field of social innovation?
The first study combines a grounded theory approach with a comparative semantic analysis of four case studies of design for social innovation projects (conducted with design teams from IDEO.org, Frog Design, Mind Lab and the former Helsinki Design Lab). The insights culled from semi-structured interviews of designers and managers with a high fluency of “design attitude” point to a unanimous concern to claim, with more clarity, the value of design as a means to achieve social innovation.
This central finding informs the research design of the second study, a quantitative investigation composed of a field survey that offers an aggregate view of the positive significant relationships between the multidimensional construct of design attitude (and the five first-order dimensions of the construct that we operationalize as creativity, connecting multiple perspectives, empathy, ambiguity tolerance, and aesthetics) and social innovation project outcomes, team learning and process satisfaction, as reported by managers and designers with a high level of design fluency practicing predominantly in the social and public sectors. The study presents a set of foundational metrics that explain with new evidence how and why design matters in the domain of social innovation.
The third study of the dissertation uses an ethnographic case study approach to extend the statistical insights from the prior study and probe the manifestations of design attitude in the organizational context of the Innovation Unit at UNICEF. A key finding is the identification of a number of enablers and inhibitors that advance and alternatively collide with efforts to promote and integrate design attitude capabilities as part of the organization’s overall innovation agenda. In this study, the themes of accountability and urgency emerge as important macro-level forces that define the institutional logics of UNICEF and impact the agency of design attitude at the individual level of its organizational actors.
Collectively, and through the sequence of perspectives that they offer, these three empirical studies reveal with disciplined coherence and powerful evidence a set of principles and capabilities that further clarify the significance of design attitude for social innovation.
From a theoretical perspective, this dissertation advances our understanding of the possibilities, limits and implications of design for social innovation amidst a multidisciplinary landscape characterized by a pluralism of emergent practices, a diversity of methods and a wide range of cultural circumstances. At the core of its theoretical contribution is a new framework that conceptualizes what we call the “return on design” (ROD) for social innovation.
From a perspective of practice, this research offers new insights into how organizations might recognize and more confidently integrate key design attitude capabilities that can result not only in social innovation outcomes, but also in broad organizational impact and human progress.