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A call for a new movement: social leadership and design thinking

Posted on September 16, 2013

Social leaders need to think more like designers and designers need to think like social leaders.

That’s the view I’ve come to having immersed myself in the world of innovation and service design thinking for the past year as part of my Clore Social Leadership Fellowship.

I was first inspired by the potential power of service design over five years ago when the social enterprise I worked for hired an ex-IDEO guy to help rethink the way we were offering support to budding social entrepreneurs. Directors were shocked by the post-its all over the wall but delighted with the results.

In recent years service design has been increasing embraced in our sector.

At one end, the bar has been set high by Participle and their manifesto - Beveridge 4.0 re-imagines our welfare state and has set about designing and piloting new approaches to aging and unemployment. Participle’s long-view, high ambitions and design requirements require substantial investment that few can match. However, design thinking can impact at different levels.

I recently completed the Service Design Summer school at Central St Martin’s and know that many social sector staff signed up to Acumen Fund’s free online training for Human Centred Design, others are fully committing to the new master’s programme at The Royal College of Art.

From my own experience staff, volunteers and “end-users” love being involved in the design process. It gets us all back to basics, back to thinking about what we all really want from a service, and really listening.

Given the scale of the social challenges we face design thinking is a must for the sector. We need to do more with less, and simply can’t waste resources on services that don’t hit the mark and make an impact. Often new insights do not have to be expensive or radical to make improvements. However many great designs projects sit gathering dust on council or charity desks as they hit the buffers of implementation. That can breed cynicism about the design process and “new ideas”.

Faced with this, many designers are becoming social entrepreneurs in a bid to get change happening. Common Ground Designer Bruno Taylor is being supported by UnLtd and NESTA in launching a new service Flip Yourself for young people. Social leaders also need to step-up. Design as they say, is “too important to be left to designers”. Business schools are now talking about “creative leadership” programmes, and design electives are popular on MBAs. Designer Dan Hill argues that we need to focus design on the “dark matter” of how organisations work. In the social sector we need to get up to speed. Leaders who understand design thinking and how to effectively commission and implement it, can create dynamic and competitive organisations genuinely able to make a social impact in changing times.

This is a guest piece by Owen Jarvis, 2012 Clore Social Fellow. Owen is currently a full-time Clore Social Fellow but was formerly Director of the Aspire Foundation, an organisation which enables disadvantaged communities to deliver local services through social enterprise.

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Owen Jarvis

Owen Jarvis

Service design champion

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