Citizen-centered Problem Solving, The Value and Performance of Social Problem Solving Design

SPEAKER: KOO, Yu Ri (Professor of Hongik University)

This presentation aims to accomplish three goals - to introduce concepts and methodologies of social problem-solving design; to draw value of social problem-solving design from cases shared at the previous forums hosted by the city of Seoul; and to put forward designers’ future role and vision in relation to the evolving social problem-solving design. 


Intro: Widening a Role of Design

Across the globe, we’re seeing more complex and diverse issues in our society ranging from social structures and policies, climate change, pandemics, to inequality. Design’s role and potential are expanding in addressing these issues. The Ministry of the Interior and Safety has included public service design in the Administrative Procedures Act to encourage citizen participation. Similarly, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has incorporated social problem-solving design into its policies and general plans.  

Part I. Concepts and Methodologies of Social Problem-solving Design

1. Design as a Problem Solver

Design as a problem solver is not a new concept in design research and many influential researchers have been discussing the idea. Herbert Simon stated that design is about creating ideal scenarios to achieve desired goals and make them work. The ideal scenarios he mentioned are closely connected to the act of ‘problem-solving’.

2. Design to Solve Social Problems and Lead Innovation

In the era of hyperconnectivity, design stimulators are evolving beyond technical innovation and driving social changes and meanings. People are focusing on the importance of social dialogue in triggering changes in our society, along with the value of public design activities that allows participants to use their own knowledge and design capabilities. 

Accordingly, design to solve social problems and lead innovation contribute to the co-design process that drives social changes. It also means combining elements including original ideas, vision, practical design tools, and creativity within a design approach. Research in this design field is particularly crucial in addressing a set of more complicated and immense problems.  

3. Methodologies of Problem-solving Design

Given this background, how can we define design thinking or design approach? 

Unlike conventional design that relies on individual’s capacity or technique, design thinking is a team-based process. Final results are ‘user experiences’, rather than objects or artifacts as in the case of conventional design. Another differentiator is that design thinking requires the integration of knowledge from technology, business and design. Simply put, it emphasizes strategic execution while prioritizing team members’ time. Diverging and converging ideas to reach a consensus among different stakeholders are also considered an essential step. Jeanne Liedtka has identified the following four scholastic origins of design thinking (2015). 



1) Wicked Problems 

Various problems we face in our world can be categorized into two groups. The first includes issues that can be easily defined, whereas the second encompasses incomplete and contradictory problems that are changing all the time and thus difficult to pin down. For the former group, scientific solutions can work effectively. But the latter group requires design thinking to creatively solve the issues. 

Most social issues are complicated because different stakeholders may agree or disagree with ideas or values. For example, shared mobility can bring benefits by improving passenger safety and transport experience. But it can also cause a conflict with taxi drivers, creating a new issue in our society. In other words, a biased and short-sighted approach may result in unexpected tensions or problems. 

2) Problem Framing 

This is why perspectives or problem framing matters when dealing with social issues. Framing, one of the scholastic origins of design thinking, is about building a new viewpoint to tackle difficult situations. According to Dorst, a ‘frame’ refers to how we look at an issue. New perspectives allow us to define and solve the same issue in a different way. Working with given constraints to create a framework is a core execution process in all design work, so a similar idea can be applied to how we frame social issues. 

3) Hypothesis-driven Approach & Focus on 'What might be’

Design thinking is also based on forward-looking imagination. A similar design practice known as speculative design employs design fiction to show what is possible in the near future through easy-to-understand contexts. By doing so, it facilitates criticism and research. Instead of relying on designers to directly solve problems, design thinking offers hypothetical scenarios and new perspectives for the future. Such application of design thinking tools and methodologies help realize the preferred future.  

Although not covered extensively in design research, design thinking also has three important elements – user focus, visualization, and diversity. 



4) User Focus

User focus, one of the core elements of design thinking, is based on a human-centered design philosophy that prioritizes people over technology or business when addressing issues. People who are known as great design thinkers are excellent at empathizing with others. They use their ability to look at our world through the perspectives of colleagues, clients, and users. To policymakers, the human-centered design philosophy provides a new point of view to predict a success or failure of public policies. 

5) Detailed Visualization_Prototyping

Typically, prototyping is used to act and explore before reaching an answer. It is a process of finding better solutions from failures. Manzini states that in social problem-solving design, prototyping means turning ideas into detailed visuals to trigger, facilitate, and summarize social discussions. As illustrated by Saint-Etienne’s City Eco Lap project, it enables people to picture a new and changed society by creating user-centered narratives and keeps the social dialogue going. Prototyping can also give a chance to experience specific solutions or support small-scale experiments. For instance, experience-based prototyping was used to study the interaction between long-term patients and plants. 

6) Co-design Process & Diversity 

In solving social issues, designers act as facilitators rather than professional planners because they offer various tools or frames and encourage participation. This means that users are no longer an object of observation. Instead, they become co-design partners. Active collaboration with different participants is especially critical in the co-design process. A concept of diversity within design thinking is not limited to team structure. It covers broad research backgrounds including past, current and future trends as well as stakeholder analysis.  


Part II. Journey of International Forums on Social Problem-solving Design

4. Evolution of Topics for Social Problem-solving Design International Forum

So far, we have discussed the concepts and methodologies of social problem-solving design. We’ll now look at previously-held social problem-solving design international forums of the Seoul Metropolitan Government to see how these concepts have been incorporated. It will help us understand the value and achievements of social problem-solving design. 

To briefly go through the topics for each year, the very first forum posed a question whether design can solve social problems. In 2018, the focus was on co-design as one of social problem-solving design methodologies and its potential to usher in a sustainable society. The 2019’s forum facilitated a more in-depth discussion on measuring the value and impacts of social problem-solving design. 

Last year, new roles of design in relation to the global crisis caused by COVID-19 were explored. In 2021, the forum examines design as a value creator that connects different actors and areas. To give more information regarding the panelists and presentations from 2017 to 2020, a total of 25 speakers from both home and abroad have shared their experiences and contexts to steer diverse conversations on social problem-solving design. 



5. Social Problem-solving Design Cases

In this section of the presentation, we’ll explore four cases that highlight what social problem-solving design can offer in terms of 1) application of humanism principles, 2) people-driven problem-solving, and 3) utilization of co-design tools and platforms. Also, two cases on impact assessment and result evaluation will be introduced. The purpose is to provide actual examples of the concepts and methodologies we discussed earlier and to study evolving value and roles of social problem-solving design. 

1) Professor Ezio Manzini is a well-known scholar on design for social innovation. In 2017, he pointed out that although urban areas have an interlaced cluster of complicated social problems, collaboration among different actors can build a sustainable city. By sharing Milan’s case, professor Manzini demonstrated designers’ role in outlining the co-design process with local residents and establishing scenarios for experiments. His presentation showed that designers can contribute to concretizing future vision and encourage public participation. 

2) In 2018, professor Leon Cruickshank from Lancaster University delivered a presentation on the co-design process as a methodology of social problem-solving design. He cited two study cases – Beyond the Castle and Leapfrog. The Beyond the Castle co-design project worked together with the local community to find better uses for green spaces near the castle. In his comparison, professor Cruickshank highlighted that the Beyond the Castle project involved residents in the co-design process but relied heavily on a designer-centric toolkit. On the other hand, the Leapfrog project developed a capability-building design toolkit to allow users to download and use as needed. Professor Cruickshank’s presentation showed how sharing a toolkit can help address issues. 

3) Sarah Schulman, a founder of InWithForward, stressed the importance of human-centered design research, such as probing, when identifying deep-rooted problems faced by people with disabilities. The participatory research helped understand the most significant issue for those transitioning to adulthood. They were isolated because they missed out on big and small life events that people usually go through when growing up. The research findings led to the creation of Kudoz, a platform that offers similar life experiences to motivate people with disabilities. 

4) Karel Vredenburg, director of Design at IBM, introduced ‘IBM COVID19 Design Challenge’ that brings together 350 designers in 17 different time zones through various online collaboration tools to develop solutions to beat COVID-19. The case demonstrated how businesses can use design thinking capability to address social problems. It also showed the expansion of who and where in terms of collaboration. 

5) Ifeoma Ebo, director at New York City Mayors of Office, delivered a presentation on measuring social impacts. She proposed an index of evaluation based on participation, uses, perception and social integration to assess changes in participatory design. Such evaluation was not carried out before. 

6) I also took part in the 2019’s forum, sharing Seoul’s social problem-solving process model that considers perspectives of different stakeholders and thus can be evaluated from users’ point of view. 

6. Evolution of Relationships & Perspectives:  For people – With people – By people

The set of actual examples portrays the evolution of perspectives on ‘problems’ within social problem-solving design and ‘relationships’ with users. In the past, designers decided what to create based on a client’s request. That has changed as the co-design process, in which users also participate, is now an important step in defining a problem to address. Because this trend will accelerate as we approach 2030, relationships with those who take part in the problem-solving process will be reinforced around a network of creative communities. Additionally, design results will reflect complicated relationships among people, products, services, and infrastructure. Simply put, we’re seeing a shift from design for clients to design with users and ultimately to design driven by creative communities. 



7. Role of Designers and Public Planners in Social Problem-solving Design Process

In tackling social problems and seeking innovation, designers and public planners should understand what people need and potentially want. It is also essential to connect people by proposing new ways for participation and collaboration. Their job is to design steps to create a new type of collaborative group. People we call designers develop tools and provide materials that can be used to articulate users’ collective ideas on future experiences. 

Undoubtedly, it’s crucial to take into consideration participants’ capabilities and competency levels when fulfilling this role.

In the past, design activities stopped once products were ready. But current design activities for social innovation need to continuously evolve within a project and enhance the way things are done. As a result, value connectors, such as service designers, who aim to create new value-based relationships among different stakeholders will play a more pivotal role. 

On a final note, 

Social problem-solving design is about creating ideal scenarios through various collaborative efforts with all stakeholders involved. It is a process to address problems and produce meanings to ultimately design services and systems for a better society. 

In other words, designers need to act as tool creators and enable people to collectively express their creativity regarding sustainable future. At the same time, designers should serve as value creators who work together with others to find technical solutions and meani

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