Social Frontiers: citizen engagement
One of the sessions I enjoyed the most, at the Social Frontiers Research Conference, was about ‘How to (and why) engage citizens in social innovation’. I think one of the reasons this is an area I am particularly interested in is because when you sit down and really think about social innovation, it seems almost common sense that, in developing sustainable social innovations, the people these social innovations affect should be involved in their development.
Working as a Research Assistant at Nesta has brought me into contact with social innovations that involve service users, in co-designing or co-producing services, or both, and in the current climate of global austerity, it feels increasingly like tackling societal problems will become the task of everyone, requiring a much higher level of citizen engagement in developing social innovations. The session on citizen engagement demonstrated exactly this, providing examples from around the world of the different elements of citizen engagement taking place.
At the session, three papers where presented, ‘Design for the social ingenuity of aging: new roles of designers in democratic innovation’, ‘From engaging to empowering people: a set of co-design experiments with a service design perspective’ and ‘Seoul City’s Social Innovation Strategy: a model of multi-channel communication to strengthen governance and citizen engagement’. Each paper explored a different dimension of citizen engagement, whether it was how governments can engage citizens in social innovation, how social innovation can be scaled, or the methods which can be employed to engage and empower citizens in social innovation.
‘Design for the social ingenuity of aging: new roles of designers in democratic innovation’
A team of design researchers and a sociologist conducted a reflexive ethnographic study, begun in 2011, into the lives of 7000 retired academics at Tsinghua University in China, who are actively exploring the possibilities of their third age. The study focuses on how they are designing their lives. The aim of the on-going research is to understand how participants engage with the critical task of design and more intrinsically to see “how designers accomplish infrastructure and the mobilisation of participation in design”.
I found both the paper and presentation insightful for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it demonstrates that citizen are engaging of their own accord in social innovation, whether or not they term it that. Secondly, it looks at how citizen engagement in social innovation can be scaled to a communal or even societal level. It is also provides interesting foundations for solutions to the major global ageing shift, where by 2050 it is predicted that the number of people over 60 will hit 2 billion. This example of citizen engagement encapsulates perfectly how forward-thinking citizens could provide a means of overcoming the challenges faced by an aging population, where, at least in the UK, there are limited options for elderly care and an infrastructure insufficient for future demand.
‘From engaging to empowering people, a set of co-design experiments with a service design perspective’
Examining a different dimension of citizen engagement, this paper explores the link between citizen engagement and citizen empowerment by drawing parallels between action research, including a set of fast co-designed activities, and a ‘creative citizens framework’ housing a series of systematic co-designed sessions linked to citizen empowerment.
I enjoyed this paper because it demonstrated the links between theory and practice of methods of citizen engagement and empowerment, and two things really struck me. The first was the increasingly important role of service designers in social innovation, when collaborating with local communities, to create visions and inspire communicates. The second is that it highlights how citizen engagement is an important component of social innovation, but that a necessary condition of citizen engagement is citizen empowerment. A critical task for social innovation in understanding how to engage citizens, is, therefore, to first understand how to empower them.
‘Seoul City’s social innovation strategy: a model of multi-channel communication to strengthen governance and citizen engagement’
The paper presented by Spreadi, examines how the metropolitan government in Seoul is working with citizens to engage them directly in social innovation. The paper explores how the government has changed the system of communication so that it opens up a dialogue between citizens and the administration. The paper focuses on the way in which a new culture is being fostered by more open communication channels and the way in which it builds shared understanding and trust amongst its stakeholders. Citizens then become partners in creating socially innovative solutions.
I think the most important insight that this paper provides, is the idea that citizen engagement can be a powerful tool, when used well by governments, to rebuild the confidence and trust of citizens. Another insight the paper demonstrates, is that citizen engagement on a government level will only be successful if the government treats citizens as trusted and equal stakeholders. The Spreadi paper makes a thought-provoking point; that previous attempts at civil engagement in South Korea had failed because the government did not really view citizens as trusted, equal stakeholders. Therein lies the key difference between past attempts at civil engagement and the current attempt being led by Mayor Wonsoon Park.
A pondering I was left with from two of the papers, is the growing importance of designers and design-thinking in bringing about social innovation. This very much links with one of the emerging themes of Social Frontiers which posed the question ‘how do we integrate design thinking into social innovation?’.
 A conference held on the 14 and 15 November, which brought together a global community of experts, academics, practitioners and researchers, endeavouring to develop robust empirical and theoretical foundations, in which to understand social innovation.
 The conference understood Social Innovation as the generation, experimentation and application of new practices for addressing societal change.
 Authored by Yanki Lee, Albert Tsang and Denny Ho of DESIS Social Design Research Lab, Hong Kong Design Institute (HKDI), China.
 Authored by Daria Cantu and Daniella Selloni of Politecnico di Milano, Department of Design, POLIMI DESIS, Italy.
 Authored by Sunkjung Han, Jungwon Kim, Sojung Rim and Ah Young Park of Spreadi, South Korea.
 Lee, Y, Tsang, A, Ho, D ‘Design for the ingenuity of ageing: new roles of designers in democratic innovation’, 2013, p2.