Designing for the Common Good

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

DCGDesigning for the Common Good is a must-read for anyone involved with innovation in the public sector or in public spaces. The book is a superbly designed, practical follow-up to Kees Dorst’s Frame Innovation.

The book is build around concise descriptions of projects  that the Designing Out Crime Research Centre at University Technology Sydney has undertaken over the last decade and brief reflections on design principles and practices that underlie the projects.

If Frame Innovation presents Dorst’s current thinking on public sector and public space design practice for an academic audience, Designing for the Common Good, which is co-written by Dorst and many professional and student collaborators, addresses for a much broader interdisciplinary audience of designers, practitioners, and change makers.

If This is Service Design Thinking is the book that launched the practical service design movement (as evidenced in a metanalysis as the most cited text at the ServDes conference , then I see Designing for the Common Good as a positive sign that  the field of design for service and social innovation is evolving.  It compliments Lucy Kimbell’s Service Innovation Handbook, which offers a bricolage of theory, methods and cases. It bests Ben Reason, Lavrans Løvlie and Melvin Brand Flu’s Service Design for Business because it does more than share abstract advice and approaches for business professionals with scant examples. Dorst and his co-writers foreground authentic, varied case studies and back them up with evidence-based reflections and methods. Like Kimbell, Dorst and his collaborators offer newcomers to design for public innovation rich, authentic cases and methods to consider, and unlike any design for the public good text I have read yet, Dorst et. al are able to address the interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary nature  of  public design projects whereas  most of the books on design for public project still are constrained by a narrow focus on corporate and business design.

What I appreciate most about the work this work is how it offer practical pragmatic design methods that are informed by solid and intentional design research while also being written to inform practitioners. The authenticity and richness of the cases, reflections and methods distinguish this book from those that are overly theoretical and academic (for example, Making Futures), narrowly focussed on business and management lens (e.g. Service Design for Business). It complements the emerging bodies of work that address design for public sector innovation (e.g Leading Public Service Innovation) and work on design for services at the local or regional level (e.g. Design for Services or Design, where Everybody Designs). An interesting question for the future might be how might frame innovation inform or complement transition design towards particular environmental or social futures?

What I find most compelling about Design for the Common Good is that the authors explicitly address the limitations of their approach and  call for the need to augment design with substantive organizational development. Successful projects are bounded by time, space and geography. What might work at Kings Cross in Sydney will likely not work on the Granville Entertainment strip in Vancouver. Having read Frame Innovation and Design for the Common Good, I am itching to design and facilitate a frame innovation project.



On “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”

Reading time: 4 – 6 minutes

When I was floundering about in graduate school, I read “Aramis or the love of technology” cover to cover. At the time, I was obsessed by the then state-of-the-art ASRS automated materials storage system that had just been installed at the heart of the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre at UBC. Now, of course you can find automated, miniature sorting and retrieval systems at public libraries, and Amazon’s warehousing and delivery systems are Things of public legend:

My first steps into ANT were to ponder mediation, affordances, and the classic Engstrom activity theory model with Mary Bryson.

That led me to think  about the assemblage of scholars, librarians, research knowledge artefacts, research libraries, giant climate-controlled storage environments, retrieval robots, computer networks, and the software that connects them. I even delved into the military-industrial history of the development of automated storage by the RAND corporation in the glorious, Modern 50s.

Which brings me to “Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory“. The book presents Latour’s explanation of the basic premises and implications of Actor-Network Theory. Its object is social science in general, and sociology in particular. Latour presents a methodology of activity-network theory.  It is a history of ANT and a history of the Science Wars from the 1990s. Strangely, reading Latour brought be back to sitting at my parents’ kitchen table in 1996 as an English undergraduate, listening to an “As it Happens” interview about the Sokal Affair and those long-ago attacks on postmodernism.

I am struck by the sorts questions that Latour offers as a heuristic for courageous analysts to follow:

  1. What controversies? What actants? Where do they lead?
  2. “Where are the structural effects actually being produced” (p.174)
  3. “in which movie theatre, in which exhibit gallery is […The Big Picture…] shown? Through which optics is it projected? To which audience is it addressed? (p.187)
  4. “In which room? In which panorama? Through which medium? With which stage manager? How much?” (p.189)
  5. “How is the local itself being generated?” (p.192)
  6. “Where are the other vehicles that transport individuality, subjectivity, personhood, and interiority?” (p.206)
  7. What form “allows something else to be transported from on site to another?” (p.222)
  8. What happens upstream and downstream of the situation where subject and object arise? (p.237)

I doubt many people outside of academia will want to read this book but it offers a masterclass in how to question the most basic assumptions that most people take for granted, particularly society, culture, nature, science and politics.

Students of higher education will enjoy how Latour uses the example of a university professor lecturing in a lecture hall to explore how cognitive abilities assemble and are shaped by the scripts, forms, capabilities, and materials.

Despondent graduate students wrestling with theses can take solace from Latour’s perspective on academic writing. In a nutshell, write the 40,000 words and move on to the next challenge. One text does not a career make. Academics can also learn a lot from Latour about writing. Even though his text is complex, Latour is also entertaining, self-aware and humorous.

Thoughtful designers may want to consider Latour’s analysis of the relation between local, global and context in connection with the recent practical scholarship on context for post-thing design. For example, part of me wants to reconsider Andrew Hinton’s “Understanding Context“, Resmini and Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture” and Thomas Wendt’s “Design for Dasein” with Latour in mind. If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social in the context of design before designing solutions or platforms. Furthermore, reading Latour made me wonder what ANT might offer design for social innovation. social innovation should embrace concepts like cosmopolitan-localism and rely on “sociologists of the social”, as Ezio Manzini suggests.

If the aim of service and strategic design is to co-create pervasive information architectures and meaningful assemblages of digital and embodied experiences, then should one deploy, stabilize, and compose the social present the context of design before designing solutions or platforms?

On “Design, When Everybody Designs” and “Making Futures”

Reading time: 3 – 5 minutes

This fall, I have read Ezio Manzini’s “Design, When Everybody Designs” (2015) and Ehn, Nillsson, and Topgaard’s collection.  “Making Futures: Marginal Notes on Innovation, Design, and Democracy” (2014).

Manzini is a leading design researcher and theorist, particularly in the field of design for social innovation. Manzini applies many of the sociological theories about risk and the life course  that I had read with Lesley Andres at UBC  in 2003. Manzini’s answer to the risk, uncertainty individuals and communities face is designed collaborative organizations and encounters.

This most useful section of the book, I think is the chapter dedicated to “Collaborative Encounters”, which draws on Martin Buber and theories of participation and social ties to demonstrate how to map services. The last section of this book work through the practical steps of representing collaborative designs and creating the conditions for social innovations to flourish.

Another theme of the book is the relationship between professional design and co-design with publics. Unlike Dan Hill and Thomas Wendt and other design theorists, Manzini seems less critical of design thinking and more conciliatory in his view on the relationship between expert design and diffuse design.

My favourite concept in Mazini’s book is “cosmopolitan localism“, which he borrows sustainable development. Since I read “Design, When Everybody Designs”, I’ve been working through Bruno Latour’s “Introduction to Actor-Network Theory”, which will merit a future post of its own. But for now I note that Mazini is relying on many studies that would fall into the category of “the sociology of the social”, and I wonder what the notion of design for social innovation might look like through the lens of Actor-Network Theory, which resists the global-local binary and questions the existence of macro social theories and models.

Watch Manzini introduce “Design, When Everybody Designs earlier this year at the University of Malmo:

Read Cameron Tonkinwise’s review of “Design, When Everybody Designs”


“Making Futures” is a wide-ranging poly vocal collection of case studies of participatory design work undertaken by design researchers and a multiplicity of partner community groups, governments, and private sector players in Malmö, Sweden.

Two concepts that sticks with me from “Making Futures”. infrastructuring suggests designers (or other change agents) need to foster long-term working relationships with partner community organizations rather than adopting a project orientation. The other concept is  friendly hacking, which seems to also be circulating in the design for policy literature.

“Making Furtures” is much more academic than “Design, When Everybody Designs” and my favourite chapters were  Erling Björgvinsson’s study of the complexity of collaborations for grassroots journalism and Per Linde and Karen Book’s case study of  place-making by youth groups

A key consideration in both books is the issue of scale and the question of how to create the conditions for collaborative innovations to flourish in neighbourhoods, cities, regions and across countries.. “Making Futures” tackles the political and power dimensions of collaboration between academics, government, community organizations and private sector organizations head on. Both books also consider how assemblages of people working together can collaborate to design and create scapes, places and interventions in the places which people inhabit.

Both books offer designers interested in collaborating with clients,and partners to bring social and community-based social innovations to life plenty of ideas for addressing complex challenges and enabling communities to flourish. For those who are tired of reading  service design method cookbooks, either book will infuse your practice with a hearty dose of theory and critical perspective.

If you have been reading either book, let me know what you find most useful or interesting in them.