Exploring the concept of social problem-solving design and its value, and evolutionary direction

  • Koo Yoo-Ri

Societies around the world are increasingly facing more diversified and complicated problems (e.g.: social structure and policy, climate change, chronic infectious diseases, inequality, etc.). And recently, in addressing these social problems by developing an actionable solution through collaboration with stakeholders, “social innovation” is emerging as a useful concept, and the use of human-centered participatory design approach is emphasized as a practical methodology to execute this concept. Unlike the conventional supplier-centered innovation that involves a top-down approach, these concepts focus on a bottom-up approach that emphasizes social connectedness, and the role of design as an elaborate problem-solving tool is critical in implementing these concepts. 

It is not new that social value creation is one aspect of design, and the significance of using “Design” or “Design thinking” in relation to “wicked problem solving”, “social responsibility” and “social innovation” has been addressed by many scholars and thus, evolved over time. Putting together the definitions made by scholars until recently, it can be defined that design that leads the efforts to solve social problems and achieve innovation is a new idea that meets social needs and simultaneously create a new social relationship or collaboration. That is, design for solving social problems is a series of efforts to discover a creative solution to a wicked problem and it is a co-design process that creates with users. Also, it is a process towards achieving a social goal by identifying complex and contradictory social problems, and consequently creating services and systems for a better society. 

Korea also has recently begun to pay attention to the role and potential of design in solving social problems. For instance, in April 2017, the Korean government has specified the public service design methodology in the Administrative Procedures Act to expand citizens’ participation throughout the entire administrative process. The methodology is being used as a flagship tool to engage citizens’ participation in implementing “Open Innovation”, the new government’s visions for innovation and Urban Regeneration New Deal Project. Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) launched Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (currently Life Assurance Design) project aimed to prevent crimes by improving the environment of crime-ridden district and incorporated “Social problem-solving design” in its various policies. Also, SMG enacted 「Seoul city social problem solving design ordinance」 in 2018 and established the basic plan in 2020 to utilize Design Thinking to address complex and unstructured social problems and to establish an effective consumer-centered public design policy.

In the following, I will discuss the perspectives of integrated problem solving and co-creation in relation to the value of social problem-solving design and propose the direction  of policy evolution for social problem-solving design in the future based on the results A study that investigated around 185 projects in 21 countries including the UK, the U.S., Canada, etc. and 100 projects in Korea which were carried out from after 2005 until 2021 in relation to social problem-solving trend and analyzed the problem and the context of each project, solutions, and effects and impacts after implementing the solution of the study “Trend analysis of social problem-solving design in major countries” which I took part in as a chief researcher under Social problem-solving design basic plan (2021) by SMG. 

1. Value of social problem-solving design 1. consumer-centered public service and public innovation through integrated problem solving.  

“Social problem-solving design” starts from a view that “Design” should contribute to solving major societal problems in our society. Why is this problem-solving centered approach mainly used in formulating public policy and service design? The answer to this question may be found in the trend of research on design. In the research of design, the role of design as a problem solver has long been spotlighted and discussed by a majority of influential researchers (e.g., Archer, 1969; Simon, 1969; Cross, 1992; Gorb 2011). During the early stage, researchers stressed the role of design in problem solving in connection with the strategic and functional purpose of the organization, which was because defining design as an act to solve problem helped raise awareness of design within the organization and find some commonalities between organizational management and design. Recently, some researchers have begun to apply human experience and interactivity delivered through products, services, etc. to the organization’s design approach (Boland and Collopy, 2004; Buchanan 2004; Junginger 2008). That is, problems that need to be addressed to ensure better life for human beings are increasingly becoming more complex and harder to solve, which means that a responsive and passive approach that fails to take into account changes and possibilities for better future is not sufficient anymore, which requires a capability of design that can raise a question to organizations or systems from a human-centered perspective.  


It is fair to say that a human-centered design in the public sphere provides a method that helps assess policy success or failure from the policy consumers’ perspective. For instance, questions such as “Has the policy provided us with the desired human experience and environment?” “Does the policy help the policy implementers execute the intention and purpose of policy?” and “If not, what can be done?” can be asked in the human-centered design process to induce a change in public policy and organization, and how we think about “the problem”. 

2. Value of social problem-solving design 2. Citizen-led problem solving and co-creation 

Social problem-solving design means a paradigm shift from “a design as a styling tool” to “utilizing design thinking as a process and a tool for innovation”. This paradigm shift reflects the importance of using human-centered design methodology to solve problems in policy needs identifying and policy-making stages, which marks a shift towards a citizen-led social problem-solving approach. Social problem-solving design requires the active participation of the citizens who are the final policy consumers in two aspects. First, solving a social problem requires a change in the behaviors of the civil society. That is, a social problem can be practically solved only when behaviors different from existing practices are established in terms of service’ consumers energy use, medical service selection and use and the treatment of vulnerable people. Secondly, to solve social problems, the contextual knowledge about the realistic and substantial social problems experienced by the civil society and alternative solutions developed by users at site should be effectively utilized. To this end, the potential problems felt by uses in the context of everyday life should be elaborated into policy needs and the methods and tools to effectively express such needs and ideas become critical.

In particular, service design is the most convincing area that demonstrates the capability of the design in innovating the consumer-centered public area and that it visualizes interactions of public service, engages policy consumers and redesigns service process and system. When it comes to social problem-solving design, the value of service design is found in utilizing the approaches of “co-design”, “co-creation”, etc., that implements a project in the form of co-ownership by engaging internal managers, external experts, and citizens from the early phase of the project. Co-design can be defined as various design activities where a designer creates with various stakeholders (non-designers) for the purpose of realizing a collective creativity. This approach is important in effectively encouraging citizens’ participation in a public service design project and reflecting their opinions to improve services for citizens.

3. Proposal for evolutionary direction through a domestic and overseas trend analysis of social problem-solving design 

In this chapter, I would like to propose policy implications to explore the direction of the evolution of social problem-solving design in terms of i) Theme diversity and solution diversification, ii) Co-design tool and platform establishment and iii) Systemizing project effectiveness evaluation based on trend analysis results of a study performed under 2021 Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Social problem-solving design basic plan. 

1) Theme discovery and solution diversification that correspond to the potential needs of citizens

Conventionally, the project themes of social problem-solving areas using design have centered around traditional areas such as safety and relief or social welfare. However, recently, the project area is being expanded to include education including creating a safe school environment supporting remote learning, etc. health and welling that include mental health improvement and rehabilitation and nursing experience, climate change response including a fine dust reduction solution development and provision of consumer-centered public service and public innovation to improve service accessibility, etc. Also, since the COVID-19 outbreak, the diversity of the solution and topic related to disaster prevention and response is being expanded as evidenced by the vitalization of consumer-led disaster response platform, etc., and the need to develop policies by discovering a theme that fit multi-dimensional needs of the citizens, expanding from the conventional areas addressed in social problem-solving. 

Also, regarding the solution of social problem-solving design, approaches are being diversified to include communication related to the user experience, interaction among stakeholders, etc. That is, the solution to social problems is not limited to a single point of contact but is expanded to an integrated one that considers the holistic context and experience of citizens that use services and incorporates various tangible and intangible elements including communication, environment, interaction among stakeholders, etc. The problem-solving process is being applied not only as in terms of “hardware” of product, space, visual media where the design is physically realized but also applied by developing “software” that includes the corresponding content and platform and “human ware” solution for education and awareness improvement, and this requires increasing usability of hardware and establishing diversified points of contact for users to ensure increasing the satisfaction level of the service beneficiaries and enhancing policy consistency. Also, reflecting the characteristics of a new-normal era, an integrated service system that utilizes various physical and non-physical points of contact should be established to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of the social problem-solving policies.

2) Establishing a design governance for social problem-solving: utilizing co-design tool and platform 

Problems related to housing, healthcare, multiculturalism and addressing daily inconvenience are directly connected to the lives of citizens consist of complicatedly intertwined issues, therefore, solutions to address these problems should consider diversified viewpoints. Therefore, it is necessary that parties facing the problems engage in the problem-solving process to discover problems and discuss solutions. 

Looking at the cases of advanced countries, not only government officials but also those from academia, corporate world, civil organizations, social enterprises, etc. gather and work together to solve social problems. These countries, depending on the type of problems, choose an appropriate method from  government-led, citizen-led solutions, public-private cooperation, etc. to develop a solution that leverages the right competency and resource of innovator in the right place. Also, there are increasing number of cases where the existing public-private cooperation model that centers around cooperation between citizens and the government expands to encourage participation from social enterprises, experts, non-profit organizations, research institutes and universities, etc. which contributes to not only establishing a mutually cooperative structure but also ensuring business continuity. This means that going beyond well-designed policies, it is necessary to work with various stakeholders including consumers to try to derive concrete ideas during the execution to effectively deliver the service to the beneficiaries. 

Therefore, during the social problem-solving project, stakeholders and consumers should consistently remind themselves of the implication of participating in the project and it is important that the co-design process is designed to help project participants see the progress of the project.  When developing a co-design, it is important to support communication among various participants to maximize benefits of collective intelligence, and a facilitator that helps running the co-design process should be deployed and innovative design toolkit should be developed. Recently, participatory design tools in a new format are being developed through the adoption of ICT. In particular, when developing a co-creation tool, a service designer should develop a tool not based on an expert methodology but based on the understanding level of stakeholders, and studies should continue as to find out how the processing of such tool should be delivered to the stakeholders. Over the course of this co-creative activity, coming up with an idea, developing a concept and creating a  professional prototype might be in the realm of designers, however, to implement a decision-making process and organizational change in a long-term perspective, it can be said that the will and the role of internal managers and public managers to understand and execute human-centered design philosophy is important.  

3) Assessing project performance based on cooperation and engagement of citizens

To assess the value and objective of the social problem-solving design solution, appropriate strategy and method should be planned and organized in advance to identify not only whether the goal was achieved from the supplier’s point of view but also whether the solution to the problem was initially led and prepared by citizens’ and how effective the solution is. 

Existing guidelines on public design focus on indicators centered around “output” and therefore have limitations as they cannot  embrace the process and social impact aspects. In social problem-solving design where the citizens’ participation and cooperation is much stressed, an integrated performance evaluation on the expansion of “Process planning with citizens – Process”, “Establishing a solution based on the survey centered around the citizens – Output”, and “A good-will impact for better quality of life for citizens – Impact” is required. 

Social problem-solving design is a well-organized process that is performed by cooperation between citizens and various players and to evaluate the solution developed out of this process, it is necessary to perform a timely evaluation before, during and after the solution implementation by planning an evaluation method that fits solution type and by setting an evaluator fit for purpose. For instance, from a project supplier’s point of view, it is necessary to determine whether the implemented solution is innovative and complete overall, whether it functions as appropriate to its objective and how far the spillover effect extends. On the contrary, from a consumer’s perspective, followings should be evaluated including the level of citizens’ satisfaction during their participation in the co-design process, their level of satisfaction in experiencing the solution for problem-solving and behavioral change purposes in terms of awareness improvement of “the problem”, solution’s usability, inclusiveness, etc. To state this differently, an evaluation method that includes both suppliers and consumers in evaluating the value of the solution should be planned. Also, from a long-term perspective, measuring its social impact needs to be considered by asking whether the solution has contributed to strengthening social cohesion by forming a local-based community, whether it has contributed to improving health and quality of life of the citizens, etc. 

That is, when evaluating a project, an appropriate strategy should be devised in advance to evaluate whether a policy goal was achieved from a supplier’s point of view, whether the problem-solving efforts centered around citizens and involved cooperation among stakeholders, whether it is effective from a consumer’s perspective, etc. For an effective evaluation, it is necessary to establish a strategy to evaluate the purpose, target, subject, and period that fit each project category before the project implementation. Also, an evaluation strategy and method as appropriate to the type of the solution that was developed should be planned to measure a short-, mid- and long-term project effectiveness, measure performance categorized by project theme, and prepare a performance management system through data collection for projects in the same industry. 


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● Buchanan, R. (2004). Interaction Pathways to Organizational Life. In Boland, R. J., & Collopy, F(Eds.), Managing as designing. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press

● Cross, N. (1992). Research and Design-Thinking. Delft: Delft University Press.

● Gorb, P. (2011). Foreword in R. Cooper, S. Junginger & T. Lockwood (Eds.), The Handbook of Design Management. Oxford: Berg Press.

● Junginger, S. (2008). Product Development as a Vehicle for Organizational Change. Design Issues, 24 (1), 26-35.

● Koo, Y. (2016). A Study on the Role of Human-Centered Design in the Realms of Policymaking and Public Service Implementation. Archives of Design Research, 29(4), 167-183.

● Simon, H. A. (1969). The Sciences of the Artificial. MA: MIT Press.

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