Three questions following the 2016 Design for Social Innovation Symposium

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This event was the second Design for Social Innovation Symposium, hosted by Massey University in Wellington in July 2016. There were two central questions explored:

  • What does it mean to create a co-design practice that is distinctly of this place called Aotearoa New Zealand?
  • What are the ethical issues involved in doing co-design work?

The symposium was a potent mix of camaraderie, and challenging each other to think and do better. I’ve since been reflecting on the learning and value of the day, and here are my top three questions from the event:

1. Who is the real hero?

David Hanna from Wesley Community Actions kicked off the symposium, stating ‘We don’t know’ and ‘We can’t change you.’ He believes that people’s lives are more complex than we can pretend to understand, so we cannot help people if we have the mentality of being heroes, dropping in with solutions to fix what is ‘broken'. 

We cannot change people. Perceptions from the inside – and the outside – as to what problems are can vary greatly. What we can do is take the time to truly listen, and work alongside them to create options that are appropriate for their needs. Any change in their lives will be of their own doing and their own hard work. 

This is a challenging notion to many of us who want to be the change-creators.

2. Where are our limits with Empathy?

Josie Wilson from SKIP, an initiative which provides parenting support, information and strategies, hosted a skill-share session around ‘Empathy when it doesn’t suit’. She explored our personal empathy limits; listening to others’ worldviews when they contradict our own. 

The session also made me reflect on how, when our job so heavily relies on being good listeners, we can become saturated with others’ points of view. The process of constantly having an open mind and shifting our mental models to accept others’ truths can be exhausting.

We can then feel stretched to save empathic capacity for the people who matter most to us in our personal lives; our colleagues, friends, and loved ones.

3. Are we really listening, or just waiting to speak?

This question was asked in a wider context at the symposium, but it triggered a feeling of design evangelism fatigue for me. Before charging in with our post-it-notes and double-diamonds, how often do we ask ourselves, is this approach appropriate in this context?

Co-design is about diversity; bringing multiple perspectives into the room to tackle problems from a new angle. The current widely advertised cookie-cutter approach to the design process in New Zealand leaves little room for cross-pollination to adapt and advance our practice. 

My biggest take-away from the symposium was that we need to keep asking ourselves the fundamental questions. How can we better learn from other methodologies? How can we create appropriate approaches in complex ethical environments? How can we continue to learn from each other as practitioners across different sectors?

As Meg Howie from said to me at the symposium, if designers stop bringing the ‘we don’t know’ to the table, we are no different from everyone else in the room. After all, is it not more powerful to question answers, than answer questions?

Rachel Knight / Experience Designer