Public and Collaborative: Exploring the Intersection of Design, Social Innovation and Public Policy

An interesting phenomenon is emerging worldwide: more and more people are organizing to solve daily problems together and are collaborating with each other to live more socially cohesive and sustainable lives. This active and collaborative attitude, driven by several social and economic factors, is also based on a technological pre-condition: the diffusion of technologies that creates the conditions for new interactions and expands people’s social networks. This connectivity enables people to establish direct links between interested peers and opens new opportunities for meaningful activism and effective collaborations. In turn, this link between active behaviors and new technologies is spurring unprecedented forms of organization in the arenas of economics, politics, and daily life. In brief, a large and deep wave of social innovations is emerging.

When they occur, these everyday social innovations are fragile and highly localized entities. To endure and diffuse beyond local communities, they must be recognized and supported. In other words, they would benefit from public actions that would facilitate peer-to-peer collaborations. The result would be a new generation of public services: collaborative services where end users become service co-producers. As a benefit, promising social innovations could then become powerful and positive drivers of public innovation.

In the face of current economic and social challenges, many agree that the relationship between people and the public sector in general and public services in particular should be radically reshaped. Of course, there is no one simple strategy to do this. But it appears clearer and clearer that to move in this direction a promising strategy could be based on the opportunities opened by these collaborations, the creative use of existing technologies, and the brand new organizations they make possible.

In short, current societal challenges are creating pressure for the public sector to increase effectiveness and deliver better services. Greater public collaboration offers two promising paths for public service improvements: The first could be called a people-centered approach—more intensive involvement of end-users in research, prototyping, testing, and implementation of services to be delivered by public agencies. The second strategy may be called people-led services—engagement of agencies and citizens in a co-production process, whereby users design and implement their own service programs, enabled and supported by public agencies.

In this context three main questions arise:

  • How can emerging social networks influence the development of public services and innovation policies?
  • How can innovation policies trigger, empower, and direct emerging social networks?
  • What can design do to make these promising connections more effective and fruitful?

These same questions provided the starting point for the “Public & Collaborative Thematic Cluster,” a design research initiative started in October 2011 and promoted by DESIS Network, the international network of design labs committed to promoting design for social innovation and sustainability.