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Design For Social Innovation

Design for social innovation is a design approach that is emergent in nature, that aims to identify, shape, address and transform challenges that are appearing on the path of social change in an increasingly large-scale. These challenges are within (but not limited to) social, economic, industrial, political, and ecological contexts while also being connected to the barriers limiting social change. As the challenge grows and expands to a world scale, existing techniques for design research may become relatively incapable of providing enough insights into the nature of these challenges. In pursuit of identifying these challenges and formulating potential solutions, this work suggests games and game design as research tools for design research in the face of transitions. Game design, as a tool for design research for social innovation, supplies handles to explore both how the world is and how the world could be. While creating a possibility space for its players within a voluntary social circle, games have the ability to elicit information for design research, foster awareness, responsibility, creativity and participation for social innovation. Therefore, this paper presents games and game design in a discourse for social innovation with a thorough analysis of games as affirmative, critical, and speculative design spaces.

Introduction

Tools and techniques for design research range from unstructured to structured methods, all aiming to gain insight for a successful design activity. These techniques are formal or informal observational studies, in-context interviews, documentation at various levels (self or observational documentation), discussion groups or projective exercises. The design inquiry methods provide the designer with the ability to understand a problem and gain insight to inform their design for a suitable solution. However, insight is limited with the reach of the techniques that are employed. For example, a projective exercise for futures research requires preparation of probes upfront to open discussion while the exercise becomes hard to control with large groups of people, remote communities or for speculative scenarios. It is known that the difficulty of gaining insight increases with the complexity of challenges under observation. Therefore, it is common to use a combination of design research techniques to improve the depth and extent of information gathering, with addition of new methods when existing ones are not enough.

In a developing world full of unresolved problems such as governance, population growth, health-and-wellbeing, resource (un)balances, societal cultural and environmental crises etc., appropriately addressing these in an inter-connected reality, activating and spreading transformation for a moving target require extensive design research for social innovation. The role of the design/designer, in transforming or preparing the means to kick-start transitions for society, demands a further and closer understanding of the needs, pressure points, diverging tendencies and habitual barriers for the scope of design. Social innovation and transitions happen at various layers of society and in various circles. Whether in smaller communities or larger populations, whether self-organised local social practices or interconnected community hubs at a world scale, designing for social innovation requires extensive openness to the mixture of cultures and perspectives, the different types and levels of literacies, the variety of needs, expectations and tendencies, and the mixture of values and pain points. Lack of interest, awareness and participation are common challenges seen in the process of change. Unless they are overcome, social innovation—even in a very small community— has very little chance to flourish. As the complexity grows with additional parameters, the commonly used techniques for design inquiry may become limited for the unknown scale of challenges posed within these complex forms.

Innovations on social, political, cultural and technological domains have been of interest to fiction literature for a long while from both utopian and dystopian angles. Slightly different than the time before internet was born, social media and entertainment channels are now common spaces for socio-cultural commentary, somewhat saturated with groups of influence seekers and influencers in the forms of TV-shows, video channels, bloggers, podcasters etc. In this era, games are gaining more and more popularity across a wide demographic from very young ages to very old. Meanwhile, there has been a growing research into behavioural contexts, socio-cultural stance of games and play (Atkins, 2003; Salen et al., 2004; Sicart, 2014), persuasive games (Wright & Bogost, 2007), news games (Treanor, 2009), critical play (Flanagan, 2009), and games for change (Swain, 2007; Schrier, 2016; Grace, 2014). It has been discussed that games as creative artefacts have potential to promote change, suggest empathy and infuse awareness (Flanagan & Nissenbaum, 2014). Additionally, it is also suggested that not only games themselves but also the process of making them could be a suitable tool for learning, developing critical thinking skills, responsibility and behaviour change (Burke & Kafai, 2014; Schrier, 2016). Therefore, game design as a tool for design research can foster an experiential collaborative design space. In this design space, people can explore plural realities of design fiction from present to possible, probable, plausible and preferable futures (Bland &Westlake, 2013). In the light of imaginary futures with all desires and fears clinging to it, we may gain insight into potential presents and how we may drive towards or away from plausible variations to increase and/or decrease probability of some events.

Manzini (2015) suggests that making things probable relies on an enabling ecosystem that has well-constructed infrastructure and networked governance which allows autonomous actions of peer-to-peer, top-down or bottom-up initiatives; and, this participative ecosystem is necessary for social innovation. Behavioural change requires acceptance, ownership and investment by the parties in transformation. With their suggestive nature, inclusivity and inherent fan-culture, games and game design can become a catalyst for design for social innovation in the process of understanding people, and encouraging ownership and participation. Since game design carries traits of both problem creation and problem solving, it inherently proposes a space for exploration on how people think things are and how people think things could be; particularly for our purpose, how the world is and how the world could be. Moreover, games as artefacts also carry a notion of exploration urging the player to ask how things are in the game world, how things could be in the game world and who they could become. Game worlds, in this context, could be a subset of the real world, a mirror or an extension of the real world, or a complete antipodal version of the real word similar to the speculations of design fiction (Dunne & Raby, 2013). In any form, this requires the player to explore, adjust and contemplate both for their position and their purpose in the world.

In the cross-section of design for social innovation and transition design, this paper proposes games and game design as a multi-tool for social innovation with initially two different uses to be discussed here: (1) a tool for design research for social innovation, (2) a tool to help social innovation. For the first one, this paper presents an analysis and reasoning for the viability of games and game design as a design research tool that elicits insights for design—research for design rather than research on design. The second one presents an approach on how games as artefacts can be used as a tool to help social innovation and a synthesis pointing to game design as a means to create artefacts that are capable of helping social innovation.